High Streets Initiative 1 August 2018

Upskilling the digital high street: How retail jobs can match technological innovation

upskilling digital high street
While technology is important, people still matter

Kareena Uttamchandani, senior solutions consulting manager at Medallia, explains how the retail industry can prepare for technological changes and protect the high street customer experience.

Technology is changing the way we work, live and play. From processes being automated to experiences being personalised and preferences predicted, our overall lives are being made more convenient.

Technology is also changing the retail sector in particular, and especially the roles of those that work in it. Headlines abound about the high street being disrupted due to the rise of online shopping, but also the impact on those that work at the frontline of the industry.

A staggering 21,000 retail jobs have been made redundant in 2018 alone. How can we better prepare for these changes as technology continues to pervade every corner of our society?

Some retailers are already taking steps to prepare for this “new normal”, whereby data and technology sit at the heart of all operations – front and back office – by upskilling their staff in data analytics with specialist training. However, while technology is important, we believe that people still matter, but they must be equipped with the right tools.

Human connections

Frontline staff are still needed and are actually more important now than ever before. They are the ones closest to our customers and have first-hand experience of what consumers like or don’t like in a retail environment.

We carried out research across 1,000 customer-facing employees and found that 51 per cent of frontline employees said they had suggestions for improving customer satisfaction at least quarterly, and 22 per cent said they had feedback to share weekly or even daily. Despite this, nearly 60 per cent said they believe that their ideas for improving that experience often go unheard.

This is especially important to consider when you consider recent research with Ipsos Mori into consumer attitudes to brand loyalty across 8,000 consumers highlighting that 83% of consumers in the UK, France and Germany claimed that improvements in their customer service experiences had stagnated over the past year.

Read more on the current state of UK high streets:

With the rise of technology reducing the opportunity for human interaction, whether check-out assistants being replaced by self-service tills, or customers buying directly from a website, how can brands ensure that the customer experience doesn’t suffer due to this automation and emphasis on efficiency savings?

The answer lies in understanding customer needs, which are ever changing, and enabling frontline staff to deliver against these expectations.

Create experiences that resonate

Let’s take a closer look at the opportunities available to encourage a new era of retail employment, starting with one trend that is blooming, despite all the closures of major brands on the high street and the rise of online shopping – “showrooming”.

The role of the retail store is ultimately changing, becoming a browsing experience, with the Apple Store held up as the ultimate experience. This is where well-informed consumers come for additional information from experts they cannot find online as well as for inspiration.

Could check-out assistants or store managers therefore change their job role and description to “customer experience advisor”, offering advice in a premium environment to foster stronger customer loyalty via an outstanding experience.

Other examples of retailers adapting to the consumer’s changing behaviour include John Lewis, which recently announced plans to increase its number of in-store customer specialists alongside wider innovation plans – a tactical strategy to ensure a longstanding and differentiated brand identity, one that builds on the promises of new retail technology but also offers a premium service and customer experience with people.

Harness technology to instil a customer experience culture

It isn’t enough to just change the job description. What is needed is a culture change whereby employees feel empowered and equipped to adapt to the ever-changing nature of the industry. The first step is understanding where to focus efforts.

Embedding customer feedback into the daily operating rhythms of frontline staff is critical here, as it enables teams to react to and adapt behaviours appropriately. This gives them the skills, processes and tools to ensure they can be successful in their (new) roles.

Using customer feedback as a compass to guide behaviours flips the conversation from what we need to focus on to how we deliver on these new customer needs.

The companies that do this well incorporate customer feedback in one-to-one coaching sessions as well as in team huddles where they problem solve and collectively address issues.

This also involves equipping staff with a structured communication channel where they can flag any issues they hear about to suggest ideas for improvement. Whether product limitations or gaps, broken delivery or cross channel processes, employees can highlight these issues on a large scale to then direct them to the appropriate parts of the organisation to fix and resolve.

Happy employees create happy employers

Not only does this underpin the retailer’s commitment to ensuring a good customer experience, it also fosters stronger employee engagement. Staff are more likely to stay with the retailer for longer, be more productive, are more likely to refer and sell more. What’s more, they are also more likely to remain employable to the employer, demonstrating customer experience services that existing retail job descriptions don’t always include or even demand.

All technological innovation brings disruption with it and the changes in the retail landscape are unlikely to be reversed any time soon.

However, expectations are also changing, meaning that this disruption can be harnessed for good, to better prepare for a new normal. Over a third of UK consumers now expect a personalised service when shopping and employees increasingly want to be empowered to deliver that outstanding customer experience.

Investing in nurturing the relationship between staff and new technologies is vital to ensure the seamless running of both digital and physical retail presences, as well as ensuring that retail skills are not dismissed out of hand, but rather evolved from check-out to value-add.

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