Understanding the Current Retail Customer Service Landscape

Retailers striving to remain competitive in the fast-paced world of ecommerce see heavy demands placed on their IT infrastructures 24/7, as consumers want online channels to be constantly available for business. But while many inventory management and shipment processes can be easily automated, the human element remains a key factor in ecommerce service strategies as live representatives are also expected to be at the ready with tailored responses and a friendly disposition. Because many online retail websites are nearly identical in their layouts and user experience, quality support in the digital age can be a strong differentiating factor, giving firms that implement innovative customer service strategies and technologies a leg up on competitors. 

Traditional channels are not enough
Although today's consumers are becoming more comfortable with answering their own support questions online through user forums, review sites and resources provided on brand websites, expectations remain high for what the digital age can bring to the table with regard to more conventional forms of customer service. According to a blog from Forrester analyst Kate Leggett, these heightened consumer demands are pushing retailers to think beyond the call center and consolidate a range of powerful live help technology solutions in one place rather than keeping them siloed across their IT environments. Service representatives must have quick access to information from sales and marketing departments to deliver the fastest and most effective answers to callers.

Of course, a merchant cannot integrate its channels to any useful effect without having a core set of customer service tools at its disposal. Leggett acknowledged the importance of laying down a strong foundation for call center managers to easily note common inquiries, track calls and allocate work flow in a time- and cost-effective way. Decision makers should not forget to look beyond call handling and explore alternative service technologies that are catching on with consumers everywhere, including co-browsing, click to call, live chat and new mobile-centric channels. Leggett explained that social media channels are in a league of their own, requiring businesses to devote extra attention to cultivating an active online presence and interacting directly with customers to improve engagement and loyalty.

The power of simplicity
Leggett's account of the customer service technology landscape provides a complex and nuanced look at the way businesses are implementing the latest solutions, but Micah Solomon, a contributor to Forbes, recently took a more human angle on the topic. While the latest IT innovations are key to offering comparable service on a technical level, he suggested that representative autonomy and high standards are the two factors that truly mark the difference between successful support strategies and flops. Soloman pointed to Nordstrom's famed one-line employee handbook as a powerful example of autonomy. "Use your best judgment in all situations," the company reportedly tells its staff. "There will be no additional rules."

While this approach may seem outlandish to many business leaders, holding high standards for workers naturally balances out the empowerment the philosophy grants, Soloman explained. The single sentence found in the Nordstrom handbook is made possible only by a deeply embedded set of values that each employee takes to heart through training and years of experience on the job. By accumulating reference points over time and keeping in mind the emotional responses of their customers, representatives at the department store are equipped to keep their cool under pressure and handle difficult situations based on their own judgment, not a set of rules forced upon them by their superiors.

So, how do these concepts apply to a retail call center? If customer service technology sets the operational standards with metrics and clearly defined goals, managers can take a page out of Nordstrom's book and allow representatives to do what they think is best when faced with unpredictable situations and armed with the tools they need to help customers quickly, accurately and while providing a positive all-around experience. 

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