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Balancing tech with the human touch in retail

Balancing tech with the human touch in retail
(Image credit: Image Credit: Free-Photos / Pixabay)
About the author

Shameem Smillie is the Mitel Contact Centre Sales leader for the United Kingdom, Ireland and South Africa.

Something strange is happening to our shops: the cashiers are disappearing. First it was the rise of self-service checkouts, training a new generation of shoppers to scan and bag their own produce. Now even the checkouts have gone: in the UK, Sainsbury’s has been trialling a cashier-less store, hot on the heels of Amazon’s own experiments in the US. 

The customer experience is changing – and fast. Technology is opening up new possibilities for how brands and retailers can interact with customers, and there’s a world of opportunities out there to innovate. However, caution is also needed: there’s nothing more frustrating for a customer than dealing with a malfunctioning AI chatbot when speaking to a human would solve the problem in a flash. 

Bricks and mortar retail is far from over: according to Euromonitor, 83% of goods purchased globally in 2022 will still be bought in-store, and so the question becomes how technology is best integrated into a more mixed environment.

You need to find the right blend of technology and the human touch. In an age of AI, automation and IoT, it can be difficult for businesses to find the right balance between cutting-edge communications channels and more traditional ones. In many cases, customers will welcome either, but you have to get the context right.

Do your research

The key is to take a research-based approach at first. Adopt a birds-eye view, asking yourself who your customers are, what their expectations from customer service are, and what channels they use to communicate on a day-to-day basis. Today, there are myriad ways of finding out this information: you can poll your customers online or in store, commission an analyst house to do the research for you, or use existing reports to make decisions.

Research commissioned by Mitel has shown that three out of every five consumers believe high street retail stores are struggling because of the customer experience they offer, more than the products they sell. The same research revealed that consumers are increasingly comfortable with machine-to-people interactions, with 52% saying that it would be a good thing if they were able to make a purchase without speaking to a person. 

These kinds of insights can really change the argument for a business: they need to be part of the conversation. The retail industry is at the cutting edge of these changes, but good customer experience is now relevant for businesses across the B2C and B2B spectrum.

When (and when not) to use technology

Clearly, it’s a mixed picture: some customers want technology to be a critical part, whereas other customers just aren’t ready. This can depend on a huge number of factors, including country, age, comfort level with new or unfamiliar technologies, and context: for in a retail setting for example, customers will have very different expectations depending on whether they are shopping in-store or online

There is no one-size-fits-all approach that businesses can take: it’s a hard process of customer research paired with a slow, cautious introduction of new technologies in a way that doesn’t risk alienating existing customers.

This can be hard, as bold and exciting new technologies can offer a step-change in how customers interact with brands. For example, robotics, AI, high-tech customer service desks and augmented reality (AR) technology can be used in settings such as the shop-floor of a retail space or product demos to create appealing new experiences for consumers, transforming the shop into an experiential destination rather than simply a place where transactions happen.

Apple is often held up as the gold standard when it comes to customer experience. In their retail stores, customers are presented with a choice: they can interact with the technology directly, or they can choose to engage a staff member and learn more about the product through person-to-person interactions. The key is that customers aren’t forced into one format or the other, they can choose whatever they are most comfortable with. 

How customer experience becomes a profit centre

In business we’re used to thinking of marketing, customer experience and related fields as a cost center, however through these new technologies, especially AI, it’s becoming easier to see customer experience as a profit center. You’ve probably heard before that it costs much more to acquire a new customer than it does to keep selling to an existing customer: creating an innovative, omnichannel approach to customer experience is key to take full advantage of this dynamic.

The technology underlying the omnichannel experience isn’t as exciting as AR or transformative shop-floor experiences, but it may well be the most profitable technology businesses can invest in. Back-end database management and omnichannel communication strategy enable brands to offer a consistent experience across the variety of channels that consumers use to interact with them. This in turn means it's an easier sell to offer customers additional products and services based on their past habits. 

We’re used to thinking of technologies like AI as replacements for human job roles. But the reality is far from this straightforward. In fact, the real value from these technologies comes not from using them in isolation, but by combining them with more traditional, human conversations, and providing a seamless experience across communications channels. The businesses that do this will be well prepared for a future that is bound to throw up even more unpredictable innovations.

 

Shameem Smillie is the Mitel Contact Centre Sales leader for the United Kingdom, Ireland and South Africa.