“It’s shocking. You actually stand there, waiting for them to bag your shopping and they stare at you like you have an unidentified tropical disease.”

…And so began another anecdote on the state of customer service ‘these days’. Apparently it’s now a bonus when someone does actually bag your shopping for you.

Most of us have worked in a service job at some point in our lives. Whether it was the pushy sales policy you never quite agreed with or the fact that you never actually offlinewanted to be there in the first place, there’s two sides to the story. Fact is many of the less helpful counter staff you come into contact with in your local coffee place are students; their motivation based around their demand for cash more than your need for service. And if you actually want the job? You still can’t provide great service because of the limitations of the job, whether that’s not enough support, resources or a misguided sales policy.

When I had my stop gap job in a bank, I knew I wasn’t going to be there forever but I tried to genuinely engage and help customers when they walked through the door. That was made a lot harder by the sales approach that required asking every customer whether they had a mortgage and did they want one with us.  Regardless of length of transaction or apparent suitability, the implication was that the very small amount of positive leads uncovered this way justified the means… No wonder most of us dread going to the bank; we know they don’t see us as a real person, but just the series of digits that make up our account number and a sales opportunity.

It’s just another example of a human representative of a company, effectively being reduced to a machine in the way they are required to interact with customers.

 

Removing the human element.

We know how it goes: rising staff costs mean fewer people are hired so service levels go down. Revenue then has to be recouped through higher sales targets.

The WPP report ‘Service with a Snarl’ identified this downward trend over 10 years ago now. A key recommendation of the report was to implement more technological solutions to service problems and at times, cut staff out of customer transactions all together.

Question is, has technology really revolutionised the way we carry out our service and retail transactions in the last decade?

A growing number of offline retailers now find it hard to justify their existence alongside their online counterparts. Do you remember this Dixon’s ad from a few years back?

It perfectly captured the offline/online retail dilemma.

dixons1_0

 

Indeed, when online shopping can offer a targeted service, convenience, and the speed that it does, why would you ever set foot inside a store?

 

Return of the High Street.

Interesting then, that Dixons decided it wasn’t enough for customers to just go into other stores for the best offline experience retail has to offer and then wander home to their website.

Having decided they were missing a slice of the in-store pie they have since focussed on improving their own in-store experience and customer service over that of competitors. Judging by the profits revealed for the last year (which they’re crediting to this new approach), it’s working.

It’s a perfect example of not how, contrary to opinion, offline and online retail are doomed to work against each other with the physical high street becoming the obvious loser, but that offline and online must work together for both to succeed. Dixons recognised that the highly sensory, tailored and expert-service driven examples of its competitors (John Lewis, for example) was the ultimate in-store experience and perhaps the only thing that could reverse the decline of the high street.

 

A personal touch.

We’re more exposed to technology than ever in every area of our lives, and don’t doubt it, there are some big innovations on their way to the high street which will change the way we shop forever. Apple is championing the iBeacon, in the hopes of disrupting the in-store experience and there are finally several retail tech firms who seem to understand the balance between big data and consumer acceptance.  None of this technology will succeed however; not without a human touch.

Sure, we’re more immune to technology, accepting of it, but do we really trust it? I’d argue we crave the human element in a transaction just as much, if not more than we used to, because it’s so sorely lacking much of the time. Dull, disengaged service staff can be a nightmare, but impersonal and unrefined technology can be just as frustrating. It’s easy to steal from too, according to the £1.6 billion worth of items stolen  from self-service tills in supermarkets every year.

It could also be why a Nielson consumer survey in 2009 -a time when online transactions were rapidly rising- showed that trust in word of mouth marketing saw the largest increase in a 2 year period over any other marketing method, an extraordinary 12% (rising to 90%). Yes, word-of-mouth is always going to be highly effective, but why the increase at that time?

Then there’s the new YouGov survey released this week, highlighting that customers trust brands far less on social media than they do traditional media. Not forgetting results from the recent Data Privacy Day survey, which revealed that an average of 56% of online users are worried about what happens with their personal data online. While some marketers may consider that catastrophic, it’s really more a warning that we have to use technology in the right way. It serves as a key reminder that you can’t take the human out of the transaction, as the wittier, more personable brands on social platforms recognise.

This is not a simple case of brands plugging into social media or leading the way with the latest technological innovation to win over customers; the person behind the platform and their behaviour matters a great deal. As consumers we care about technology when it’s designed to help us, not marketers, and service when it’s exceptionally good or bad; we don’t even register the rest.

Yes we bang on about this a lot, but we think it’s often the missing ingredient. Advertising is about people; creating moments and genuine connections. Why would customers want anything else?

We’re only human after all.