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M.S. Ashok’s article on omni channel retail

Building loyalty in omni channel retail (20 September, 2016):

In an era of disruption, omni-channel as a new way of serving customers has been one of the most disruptive ideas for retailers. While superficially it may appear to be a logical extension of serving the customer through the retail channel, actually it requires a different mindset, because customer expectations and behavior are different.

I remember a chat with the HR Head of a reputed FMCG company some years back, who said how difficult it was for his front end sales team to align to the new reality, when in the light of increased competition the company decided to split its dental portfolio into individual SBUs of tooth pastes, brushes and other dental care and each were assigned its own set of sales staff, where earlier the same sales guy used to push all the three categories. It was difficult for those who were assigned to the toothbrush SBU to align to the fact that their priority was to just promote the sales of toothbrush to retailers and ensure that it occupies adequate shelf space and market share. They were not convinced that they will have adequate work and the company had to put in place specific training programs to tune their mindset to the new reality and train them to be productive the whole day. Similarly an oil company who started customer loyalty programs had to align and empower their sales staff to deal with end consumers directly whereas earlier they were handling a more manageable dealer network through whom they were serving the customers.

In the case of omni-channel, the mindset change to be inculcated in the staff is more complex than the above two cases. Suddenly the front end staff of the retailer brands, have to be capable of multi-tasking including knowing how to service the customers across visible and invisible channels, understand their behavior and expectations across each of these channels, ensure that there is a uniform customer experience across these channels and more importantly respond as per the expectations of the customer from the channel that he or she is choosing to transact. Retailers who address this new need of the customer well can hope to retain the loyalty of their customers, while those who do not address this need sufficiently are likely to see erosion of their customers’ loyalty.

Most retailers are addressing this new need of the customers through technology. While appropriate and robust technology is imperative to make the customer interactions and transactions seamless, real customer delight can be achieved only if retailers invest in defining their customer service standards across the omni-channel touch points and training their staff in understanding these service standards and empowering them to deliver as per these customer service standards. One still does not see retailers tackling the changing the mindset issue adequately and this could unravel their customer loyalty sooner than later.

A few important checks that retailers need to take care to ensure that the customer loyalty continues to be strong even in the omni-channel world:

  • Are customer service standards clearly defined across all channel touchpoints
  • Are the front end staff aware of these service standards and are they trained to respond to the customers accordingly
  • Is information of the customer transaction or interaction available to the staff at various touch points seamlessly and on a push basis apart from being available on demand
  • Are the staff empowered to take decisions required to address customer issues if any, to retain customer loyalty
  • Are the staff roles and responsibilities clearly defined for every handshake in the process and what are the rewards and punishments if they do a job well or fail to satisfy customers
  • Whose is the single neck to choke if the customer expectations are not met due to whatever dissonance that may arise in the omni-channel

After all customer experience and loyalty cannot only be left to technology. It has to have the human touch while it can be enabled by technology.


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