Online Customer Service is the New Storefront

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The face of retail is fundamentally different today than it was last January. Fewer shoppers entering brick-and-mortar stores and interacting with sales associates in person means retailers have had to rethink how they handle customer service. Retailers are now looking at ways to equip service teams to fill that new void.

“E-commerce now represents a third of all retail sales. That’s a staggering statistic,” says Joseph Ansanelli, CEO of Gladly, a company that works with brands to improve customer service by getting to know their customers on a personal level.

Gladly’s client roster includes heavy hitters like Crate & Barrel, Ulta, and Godiva, as well as direct-to-consumer brands like AllBirds and Rothy’s. With the state of retail changing across the board, there’s almost no vertical that’s been spared by the pandemic. Roughly 60% of retail square footage temporarily closed in 2020, and retailers saw a 70% decrease in consumer spend on “non-essential” items, compared to 2019.

Taken in a vacuum, those can look like pretty dire figures. But Ansanelli says the impact of Covid-19 didn’t hit all retailers equally. Those businesses that were able to adapt by integrating their online and offline experience saw much less severe drops in sales. According to Deloitte, e-commerce sales were up 68% in year-over-year growth in 2020.

Some retailers are doubling down on product education and encouraging representatives to walk customers through the nuanced differences between products in virtual environments. Ansanelli says Crate & Barrel, a Gladly client, has set up a store in its call center, giving representatives the opportunity to describe first-hand how products look and feel. Reps have even started Zooming with customers during their interactions, so they can engage and connect on a more personal level.

“Crate & Barrel is moving away from average handle time as a meaningful way to measure service,” he says. “They’re encouraging team members to engage in conversations with customers, really get to know them, even if that means spending 15 or 20 minutes with them.”

The shift in retail that occurred in 2020 can’t entirely be blamed on the pandemic, though that likely sped up the changes already taking place. Ansanelli says consumers have steadily been moving from in-store to online over the last decade. Innovative companies were already beginning to rethink the role of service in the customer journey long before Covid-19 took hold.

As we head into 2021, some experts are predicting a recovery in brick-and-mortar. Foot traffic to stores increased by 50% in recent months, signaling a potential light at the end of the tunnel. But Ansanelli and other experts warn that a return to pre-pandemic shopping is unlikely, even once the rest of American life goes back to normal.

Consumer behavior has fundamentally changed, and many will never go back to in-store shopping. In this new world, Ansanelli says the role of service is not just to handle post-sale issues – it’s to consult buyers at every stage of the journey, recommend products and services, and drive sales. The line between sales and service has vanished.

“With Covid driving so many more consumers online, this is now a reality for all commerce businesses,” he says. “The service center must become a revenue driver.”

Ansanelli predicts the biggest stories around retail customer service in 2021 will revolve around companies seeking to turn service interactions into human interactions.

“Success will no longer be measured by dated metrics like average handle time or number of tickets resolved. These will be replaced by things like conversations handled, revenue driven, and impact of service conversations on loyalty and repeat purchase rate,” he says. “And companies will invest even more in making service teams product experts who can advise their customers on which products are a best match – and importantly, close the sale.”

Stephanie Miles is a senior editor at Street Fight.Rainbow over Montclair

Stephanie Miles is a journalist who covers personal finance, technology, and real estate. As Street Fight’s senior editor, she is particularly interested in how local merchants and national brands are utilizing hyperlocal technology to reach consumers. She has written for FHM, the Daily News, Working World, Gawker, Cityfile, and Recessionwire.
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