Rethinking customer service skills for the new era of retail

Customer experience is a front-and-center variable in the retail industry’s ongoing evolution. While experience-focused leadership positions can funnel resources toward that evolution, there’s more work to do on the talent front to ensure retail professionals in ascending ranks are thinking and working with the times.

That means re-envisioning what retail training looks like across the board—which includes redefining outdated definitions of what “customer-facing employees” means. (Spoiler alert: It’s way more people than it used to be.)

The headlines are alarming at best. Robots are now distressing jeans, merchandising functions are increasingly supported by artificial intelligence, and legacy retailers are shuttering brick-and-mortar locations. But while it may seem like retail companies are tightening belts and reducing headcount, the types of skills and roles available in the industry are expanding, according to Ana Smith, spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation. Within the last year, Smith says, Walmart, Target, Macy’s, Best Buy, and Hobby Lobby all announced programs that have enhanced the employee journey from onboarding to continuing education.

Here’s what retail pros should keep top of mind to hone must-needed skills in the continuing evolution.

Technology works with, not instead of with humans

What it means to work in retail today means thinking beyond front-line sales associates. Jobs and functions that didn’t exist a decade or two ago—such as customer support for online and social media queries, shipping, and building the tech allowing seamless movement between online and in-person interactions—means a lot more people are in the business of customer service.

ecommerce 3This means everyone must be trained to think bigger than what’s in their store, at that moment. For example, people will walk into a store expecting to return something they bought online, and vice-versa; how prepared are employees at providing service that gets wanted items in hand? Or, customers may pop in with something in mind that isn’t available at that store; are frontline associates trained on how to check inventory in other stores, or on guiding the customer through in-store pickup and shipping?

“Physical retail will remain essential to any successful, future-focused strategy because of the uniquely human emotions and actions these experiences inspire,” says author Warwick Heathwood in a 2018 AdWeek piece.

Honing these skills can mean the difference between making a sale, as well as a connection, and a situation in which nobody gets what they wanted.

“Human interaction that results in a positive brand experience is still critical to the majority of consumers, and therefore of paramount importance to retailers,” says Ellen Davis, SVP of Research and Strategic Initiatives at the National Retail Federation, whose role includes providing industry thought leadership around training, education, and talent acquisition. “Retail workers who are knowledgeable about products are highly valued by both customers and their employers.

Employees who also recognize and enhance the entire retail experience for customers are pivotal to driving up customer service standards. Which means retailers should take care not to overcorrect to zero staff by leaning on their technical self-serve portals, for example. Those who have overcorrected have seen the negative impact of that approach. The Wall Street Journal reported that many of the biggest retailers in the United States, including Macy’s and J.C. Penney, slashed onsite staff too much. At the latter, workers disappeared twice as fast as the stores themselves, according to the WSJ, resulting in longer lines and greater frustrations among customers in remaining locations.

It’s science (specifically data)

If fashion, merchandising, design, or supply chain management isn’t really your thing, it increasingly doesn’t have to be.

ecommerce 1Retailers are hiring data scientists and analytics professionals at an incredible rate, says Davis. These roles enable retailers to improve customer service and user experience by tailoring products, prices, and promotions to meet the needs of consumers however they shop. Using analytics and embedding teams and individuals who can translate consumer data into actionable business decisions is now a key part of talent strategies for many retailers. For example, earlier this year, Davis noted The Home Depot’s announcement that it would hire 1,000 new tech professionals to help customers shop whenever, wherever and however they want.

The impact of community concepts beyond retail’s nuts and bolts

Retailers are re-envisioning the entire customer experience, which, as a surprise to many, includes boxed water and other “community concepts,” according to Davis. You might have seen amenities such as nail salons, wine tastings, on-site alterations, parcel pick-ups, or even coffee and lemonade stands, for example. In these cases, skilled employees must be ready to meet the needs of a shopper who may want to browse with a coffee in hand, or design an experience that doesn’t require diving immediately into the items they’re shopping for, be it a TV or a pair of shoes.

Meet your customers everywhere they are, whenever they’re shopping

We’ve seen retailers across the board continue to make investments in training to ensure their workforce can support customers who want to access products and to engage with the brand 24/7.

“As retail continues to be reimagined, we also see more and more retailers expanding their college hiring programs to include graduates from an increasingly diverse range of majors, increasing the diversity of skill sets in the new workforce,” Davis says. “Retailers are hiring young people from universities and community colleges who have the precise skill sets they need to meet the needs of today’s consumers.”