Technology vs the human touch

As technology becomes the catalyst for creating meaningful in-store experiences, is our bricks and mortar scene in danger of losing the all-important human touch that differentiates it from online retail?

True, technology is vital for providing customers with necessary information about a product, but without a human touch to bring that experience to life, there’s nothing differentiating you from your competitors. The bottom line is this: if you give your customers an experience, they will want to buy from you.

Yet how do we strike the balance between an informed employee looking to help a customer, and the digital asset at their fingertips?

Technology is the servant to your employees 

Picture the scene. A consumer is browsing one of your bricks and mortar stores and is displaying all the physical signs they’re ready to buy. However, the store assistant isn’t picking up on these indicators and instead refers the customer to a store computer for product information and whether it’s in stock. Ultimately, the customer can’t locate the product in-store and leaves without purchasing. The technology has achieved the opposite of its intended outcome and has actually resulted in a deskilled employee.

Arming staff with the right technology is key to driving more meaningful experiences. That doesn’t mean kitting out your store with a couple of information stations and making it best practice for employees to direct customers to look up product information themselves, like in the aforementioned scenario.

It means employees should be equipped with tech that allows them to remain agile and able to respond to customer concerns – whether that’s through mobile payment solutions to streamline the sales process or beacon technology to customise a shopper’s experience.

Yet herein lies the challenge. With the proliferation of all this cutting-edge technology, there’s a real danger employees will spend all their time glued to their devices, and risk alienating potential customers.

But if your employees are truly passionate about your brand, technology has the power to make the difference. For too long, there’s been a misconception that technology, or more specifically ecommerce, can save a retail business. But we all know this is not necessarily true. Ultimately, a brand that respects true customer values will always succeed.

Bring the CIO into the fold

Technology is meant to solve problems, but it’s being carried out in isolation of some of the more important human considerations, which is why HR and IT need to work much more closely with each other to define exactly the skills and qualities required by those employees on the frontline.

In some retail scenarios, technology has created a recognisable gap between the CIO and functional heads, rather than bringing them together. Technology does not replace business knowledge, and there’s often not enough collaboration or merging of resources at a leadership level to make sure retailers are delivering the right outcomes for store operations and their people on the frontline.

This lack of cohesion often stretches across multiple departments, namely between the call-centre, the e-commerce arm, and the bricks and mortar division. Marrying these components together to provide a true omnichannel experience requires both technological and organisational change. The measurement of this cohesion is directly proportional to customer satisfaction and retention levels: areas retailers should constantly be looking to improve.

Go back to basics 

The hard truth is that technology is evolving faster than we can keep up with, meaning the disconnect between a retailer’s digital offering and its in-store functions is increasing. In the quest for constant innovation, brands have lost sight of what makes them different. They purchase new technologies with no consideration for the eventual business outcome, and it’s their people and customers that end up suffering the most.

Instead, retailers should seriously consider refocusing their core values, ensuring these are then maximised with the appropriate support of technology. People first, technology second.

Ultimately, brands also need to go back to the ‘why’ – or in other words, their purpose. What is your point of difference? Holiday sales and special deals are no longer differentiators. We’ve lost sight of the principles of delighting customers. And this needs to change.

Mike Greenwood, Global Principal Architect and retail expert at Dimension Data

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