I predict that within 10 years many large brick-and-mortar retail brands like Best Buy will disappear, and the main reason why is that most retailers all but ignore their best weapon when competing with purely online retailers: Customer service as part of an overall experience. The same problem exists in other industries and markets, especially (and not without perfect irony) in purely service industries like automobile insurance.
The sad reality is that in-person customer service is almost universally bad everywhere we turn. What’s worse—this is occurring in the context of an American economy which, as of this writing, features 9.2% unemployment. If people are lining up to apply for jobs, are we to believe that the “associates” that regularly disappoint us at the store are the best an employer could find? If so, then the situation is more dire and perhaps indicative of even larger problems in the fabric of our society. But, I am persuaded that with true leadership and innovation in this area, better customer service is still possible. Without it, many traditional retailers will fade away.
Let me describe just one. My recent experience purchasing a computer from Best Buy confirmed my conviction that Best Buy’s demise is virtually unavoidable. Finding the right computer for my needs was pretty easy. I did a lot of Internet searching including reading forums and reviews, etc. Once I knew what I wanted, I moved to the purchasing phase where price is seemed to matter most. I wanted a good deal. I could purchase the computer online, which I have done several times. But, I was near a Best Buy store doing other shopping and thought I would check models and prices there while asking a few more questions to see if I had overlooked anything in my selection process. Staff at the store were a mixture of scarce, disinterested, uninformed, and even visibly annoyed by having to wait on customers. I left the store concluding that my experience there added no value to my purchasing effort. In fact, it was a detraction—a major turn-off that turned me back online.
Another example occurred recently while at Dick’s Sporting Goods. Several of us were waiting in line to purchase items. One young woman was handling a return item at the customer service desk while two other employees were 15 feet away folding clothes near two displays. They gaily discussed their weekend plans while the other worker became tense as she saw the line growing longer. I finally asked the other two workers if one of them could help us at another register. One responded, “Uh…Sure.” She then came to the register. I was shocked that I had to prompt this to occur. But, I knew very well that if I had not done so we would have all just continued waiting. Unfortunately, this kind of scenario is becoming the norm.
We all have had similar experiences in our travels as consumers. With greater frequency I have come to expect sales “associates” to be apathetic and disengaged—barely present. And, they are often rude when a sincere customer asks for extra assistance or make requests that do not fit a very short script.
This is not to say that customer service with online retailers is flawless. I am keenly aware that with an online purchase I am forced to rely on email or other virtual means to get any help, and the personal touch is absent. But, that is what I expect from a Web site. It’s essentially the modern version of a catalog with an order form. In much younger years I never expected the Sears catalog to do much more than help me find things and give me a means for ordering it so it could be shipped to the house. Most Web sites are refined versions of this experience, and many now feature live chat assistance and other helps that do augment the experience quite well. In one of my recent online purchases the live chat feature added a lot of value to my experience. I’ve never endured rude, apathetic, half-hearted, or misinformed customer service representatives in an online retail experience. It’s biggest weaknesses are its messaging latency and the inherent feeling of detachment that comes from interaction through screens and keyboards. But, these are improving every day.
The sad fact for non-virtual retailers is that they are providing less and less value to, and are even interrupting or obstructing, a customer’s experience. Because of worsening customer service consumers will continue the trend of going online for things they used to purchase at a store. What’s lacking with most retailers is the leadership to innovatively invest in customer service as a key part of the experience at a store. I see no evidence that Best Buy, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Eddie Bauer, JC Penney, and so many others are investing in the experience at their stores and the key role that customer service plays in that experience. Meanwhile Amazon.com is very quietly looking better all the time.
© John R. Durant 2011