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Consumers still value personal touches
Consumers still value personal touches

Navigate the future of customer relationships by embracing technology

As online shopping increases, STEVEN VAN BELLEGHEM says that customer relationship remains an important driver of loyalty – and retailers can boost it by understanding consumers’ digital expectations.

Customer relations are in transformation and pre-sales, sales and after-sales are changing at high speed. Companies need to figure out the current customer journey, the role of self-service, their data strategy and much more.

A few years ago, this author conducted a global study on the future of customer relationships in collaboration with data- collection company SSI and translation agency No Problem!

The study investigated all aspects of a modern customer relationship and the highlights were as follows:

Adoption of new technologies

Rogers’ Adoption Curve is a concept by a communications studies professor named Everett Rogers that seeks to explain how, why and at what rate new ideas and technologies spread.

Rogers first published the concept in 1962 in his book The Diffusion of Innovations and the curve is well-known – every manager, marketer and entrepreneur refers to this body of thought from time to time. He divides adopters into five categories: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority and laggards.

People are more aware than ever before of the newest products and models as soon as they hit the market, and never has the public been so awake to the possibilities that are coming their way.

Furthermore, the intention to buy these new products is high, a position that sharply contrasts consumers’ approach to new technology a few decades ago.

In studies from the early 1990s in which respondents were asked about their intention to buy a mobile phone someday, the most popular answer was a firm ‘No!’ Some 25 years later, that sentiment has changed completely.

This is how it usually went with new concepts: the ‘average Joe’ or Rogers’ so-called ‘early majority’ failed to see the point of most new technology.

Yet reactions today are very different. For instance, 66 per cent of people say they are interested in buying a smart TV one day, one in two are actually looking forward to the introduction of smart cars, smart shoes and refrigerators are slightly lower down on the wish list but the idea of a smart thermostat is very popular.

Today, a mobile phone has become just another fast-moving consumer good (FMCG) and the average consumer replaces their smartphone every 18 months – one wouldn’t have to travel back in time too far to find a generation who had the same home phone for 18 years!

Things are moving quickly indeed. The classic Rogers’ Adoption Curve probably still exists, although its upward or downward tilt is probably slightly more pronounced than before.

Life is faster nowadays, not only in the introduction of new technologies but the obsolescence of outdated ones.

The rise of digital offline

Traditional retailers are afraid of ‘showroomers’, the shoppers who look around their stores and ask staff for expert advice only to go home and order the product online.

This fear is justified: a study has shown that 46 per cent of Americans have been known to ‘showroom’.

However, the same study also revealed that ‘reverse showrooming’ is an even bigger trend – 69 per cent of consumers research products online and then visit an offline store to order the product of their choice.

In the SSI/No Problem! study mentioned earlier, one of the aspects under investigation was how consumer expectations are changing with regard to the offline (bricks-and-mortar) shopping experience.

The results were clear: consumers expected the online and offline worlds to integrate in the near future. In many cases, that’s exactly what is happening.

The study showed that consumers expect an increasing level of interaction and digitisation in the offline sales outlets.

For example, 63 per cent expected stores to install interactive screens enabling consumers to look up details on specific products during their visit, and 64 per cent wanted the option of ordering a product online right away if it was not on stock.

The latter figure illustrates the evolution of offline toward online and back again. What’s more, 73 per cent of consumers feel it’s a plus when an online store also has an offline sales outlet.

Flexible pickup and delivery options will also become an increasingly crucial part of any retailer’s online strategy.

Know the customers

Consumers exhibit a growing aversion to repeating themselves so the key issue for consumers is to be recognised as a customer across all channels.

Currently one in three people expect sales personnel to know that they searched online and browsed a product prior to their visit; they want to hear the right answers right away without having to tell the same story over and over.

Strikingly enough, this phenomenon is roughly the same across the world.

Data benefits all

A large portion of the public is still clueless as to how companies can use their data. The SSI/No Problem! report showed very little opposition to the possible use of consumer data for specific purposes but only a limited number of consumers are in favour of such practices – most consumers are indifferent and have adopted a ‘wait and see’ attitude.

“Never underestimate the impact of real people. Human contact is crucial in most customer relationships, even in the digital world.”

If consumers had their way, retailers would primarily use their data to send them personalised information, something that 46 per cent of respondents would welcome.

It’s striking to note that the Dutch, who are traditionally frontrunners in the field
of digitisation, are the most sceptical of corporate use of personal data – just 30 per cent of Dutch consumers are okay with companies using their data.

Countries such as Belgium, Spain, Italy and also Singapore are much more open to such strategies, and more than 50 per cent of consumers in those nations expect better service through the use of consumer data.

The personal digital world

Several years ago, Peter Hinssen wrote The New Normal, where he argued that businesses would need to address a society without digital limits, where they are increasingly faced with customers and consumers who no longer tolerate limitations in terms of pricing, timing, patience, depth, privacy, convenience and intelligence.

This is now a reality. Still, it would be premature to write-off everything situated in the human and offline realm just because the digital society has become the norm.

On the contrary, consumers all over the world share the same basic concern for wanting to build a digital relationship without losing the interpersonal, human contact of face-to-face relationships.

Only a handful of companies can do without but, as always, there are exceptions to the rule – companies like Amazon and are hugely successful despite minimal human intervention.

Google is another case in point, but how many companies can do what these leading companies are doing?

The answer lies in their excellent track record when it comes to customer interaction. Consider these and it’s easy to see why they are the exceptions.

In contrast, a company like Dutch e-commerce business Coolblue has made a conscious choice to cultivate human contact.

When an online player opens offline stores and records videos of employees recommending their services, it is a well- considered and very intelligent strategy.

Closing thoughts

Never underestimate the impact of real people. Human contact is crucial in most customer relationships, even in the digital world.

Nearly three quarters of consumers like to have the option of talking to a flesh-and- blood person, even when digital channels are working perfectly.

The simple fact that this possibility exists creates peace of mind that many people still value.

The personal touch is in the little things – one in two consumers like it when a business addresses them by name, for example. Retailers must get to know their customers so they can personalise the customer experience.

Of course, the great thing about all this is that jewellery retailing is one business that still thrives on human contact, excellent advice and emotional purchasing.

Steven Van Belleghem

Steven Van Belleghem provides coaching, workshops and advice about social media and conversation management. Learn More:

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