One of the big industry talking points this year has been the role of the store associate. It is widely accepted that bricks-and-mortar will move towards fewer but better jobs for front-line staff – if they are empowered by the right technology.
Among the tech disruptors changing the store associate’s role is Yapster, a mobile messaging app designed to enable fast, open communication between staff. Retail Connections spoke exclusively with Yapster’s co-creator, Rob Liddiard, about the increasingly important role of mobile in engaging customer facing personnel.
What’s the story behind Yapster?
I met Yapster’s co-founder, Craig McMillan, whilst I was working as a company lawyer. He’s a Cambridge educated electronic engineering and computer science graduate, and I had seen first-hand the difficulties of innovating through technology in business. We wanted to bring our two worlds together.
Our breakthrough creating a product for the retail sector came via a tip from Kingfisher plc’s Group General Counsel at the time. She said businesses like hers could really use a piece of technology that could supercharge the customer experience by mobilising their workforce…and the idea for Yapster was born.
How is your technology disrupting traditional methods of consumer engagement?
In the past few years we’ve reached a point of ubiquity in terms of smartphone ownership. However, there has been a gap between consumer mobile adoption and business mobility.
Until Yapster, there was nothing available to retailers that looked or felt like consumer technology. That’s why a lot of store teams turned to chat apps like WhatsApp to manage their communications. But this informal arrangement means conversations are happening behind closed doors that head office don’t even know about.
You piloted Yapster with The Breakfast Club – tell us more about that
When we were developing the software, we knew we’d need a customer that was excited by our vision, and could help us refine the technology. We joined forces with restaurant group The Breakfast Club, as their founder really wanted to maintain the connected, family feel of the business as it expanded.
I actually worked at The Breakfast Club’s London Bridge café for two months, cleaning tables and taking orders. Although I had previous retail and casual dining experience, going back into the field reminded me how frantic the pace of work is in a front-line customer service role.
Working for The Breakfast Club showed me that culture is really important in retail and hospitality. The team went above and beyond to give a customer great service, even there was an operational hitch, which inevitably happens in this type of business. What they needed was communications flow to know exactly what that hitch was, so that they could be transparent with the customer and look for quick resolution.
Getting grass roots buy-in is very important to Yapster. Why is that?
With traditional enterprise technology you sell to head office and impose it on the user community. You’re trying to convince a handful of people to part with thousands of pounds.
Because we’re developing the software rather than the hardware, we need to give users a reason to download it to their own, personal devices. We also want it to feel like a viral consumer product, to ensure associates are actually engaging with it.
Speaking of engagement, what techniques have you adopted to increase user uptake?
It’s all about making sure there’s a sense of excitement. We did a really interesting project with a leading stationery retailer, using gamification to increase customer average order value by pitting different stores in the same region against each other.
This created a really important change in staff mindsets, as not everyone connects what they are doing in an 8-hour shift with their store’s weekly target. By making the game real-time and setting daily challenges they felt like they could make a difference whenever they were at work. And it makes each day more fun and rewarding.
It’s also proved a secure way for new employees to engage with the rest of the team. For example, they can contact colleagues without having to provide their telephone number, to share information or swap shifts.
What’s the best way for head office to use mobile to unite the workforce?
We’ve talked about sales games, which are an example of discrete messaging to drive operational excellence, but there are so many other things that software like Yapster can do for head office.
For example, if a decision is being made regarding company branding, the senior team can poll the entire company for their opinion. This helps to secure early buy-in for big decisions, rather than the workforce feeling that new ideas and initiatives are being forced upon them.
What is the one piece of advice you would give retailers looking at mobile messaging tech?
Retail leaders are great communicators; it’s in their DNA to persuade and inspire. As front-line retail jobs become less about transactions and replenishment, and more about customer service, it’s important to give associates the tools to act as free willed individuals within the company framework.
Ultimately, if you don’t invest in your workforce then only those who don’t care will stick around. Your store associates’ enthusiasm is precious and you need to protect it, as once that flame is extinguished it is very difficult (and expensive) to reignite.