Central to giving customers an excellent service in-store and online is empathy, a human skill that may have been overshadowed by the drive to automate so many aspects of staff roles and digital customer-brand relationships, says Jason Smith, VP at MoEngage. Can retailers bring back the softer side of service that customers crave across their omnichannel trading channels?
Connecting with customers in a meaningful way that gets to what they are looking for in-store and online depends on understanding how they feel. And that requires empathy, a willingness to put yourself in their place, even to see things as they see them. In this way, customers feel that they are seen, heard and then supported.
In-store, it is typical for staff to ask a customer, “Can I help you?”. It is equally typical for the response, “No thanks, I am just looking.” It is at exactly this point that empathy is needed because, of course, the customer wants help, but they do not want to be rushed into looking at the first thing the staff member takes them to and may want to control when and how that help is served within their buying journey. Online, it is easy to think that making this connection is not required or impossible to do, when in fact it is more important than ever given that the remote customer may actually need more help and support than in-store because they are not able to touch and feel the goods.
It is also more important than ever because the customer is increasingly shopping across multiple channels so failing to connect empathically may be both the beginning and the end of the relationship the retailer is hoping to build. If they do persist, they may be highly sensitised to the fact that they have yet to find a solution so far and are not really expecting to find the solution.
Experienced and senior sales staff know this. They have empathy. Whether they learned it or whether they were born with it, they use it all the way through the customer’s journey, which is why so many high-end shoppers will follow their favourite store assistants even when they move to another retailer. A relationship based on trust has been established, and it is invaluable to the customer as well as highly profitable to the retailer, whether it is created in-store or online.
It has never been more important for retailers and brands to show empathy for both customers and for their colleagues. The store continues to fight to defend its uniqueness in the face of digital shopping, and service is a large part of this, one that goes way beyond stock availability or touch and feel. People give service, and it is this that customers will remember long after they have left the store.
Online, staff trained to be more empathic can be supported by technology that can tune into social media, using customer data that will provide insight into what they may be looking for individually to drive up personalisation and engagement or what the future buying trends may be via social listening.
But can these skills be learned and taught in order to create a culture of empathy across the organisation? The answer is yes, but it is of course much harder for a large organisation, evidenced by the fact that service can vary dramatically from one outlet to another.
First of all, the inspiration and the drive has to come from the very top and then everyone has to play. This in turn will create a clear purpose that can be turned into actions with defined outcomes. Simply telling staff to be more sensitive to customer needs won’t cut it; the process starts with micro-actions, small changes that everyone can adopt and which provide immediate evidence.
One example of this comes from online florist Bloom & Wild. Based on customer feedback, the letterbox flower retailer started asking customers whether they wanted to opt out of certain gifting occasions, such as Mother’s Day, if they found the day difficult. This allowed Bloom & Wild to communicate personally with its customers, delivering more thoughtful marketing that was sensitive to shoppers’ feelings.
Mairead Masterson, Bloom & Wild’s Director of Business Intelligence, said “this absolutely has to be a two-way communication between a brand and its customers – and customer feedback is crucial. That’s why we make sure customer feedback is embedded in everything we do, which allows us to create tangible relationships with our shoppers. Sometimes that’s about knowing when to communicate and when to leave customers alone too.”
Empathy is not just the responsibility of the individual member of staff, but the enterprise as a whole where almost synonymous with empathy must be authenticity; there is an essential truth to how customers feel about a brand. Companies clearly recognise the importance of authenticity as there are now over 1,100 of them that have attained B Corp certification, which records hard measures of a company’s entire social and environmental impact.