The pandemic’s onset forced brands, particularly retailers, to rapidly adopt new digital and e-commerce solutions to help them both survive and adapt to changing consumer behavior.
However, as the effects of the pandemic recede and workers start to head back into the office, that is going to pose new challenges for retailers.
I sat down with Megan Stillerman, Senior VP of Customer Experience at Miva, the e-commerce software and service provider for mid-size and enterprise merchants, to better understand what that means for retailers, their customers and the customer experience they want to deliver.
Adrian Swinscoe: Today’s consumers are undergoing dramatic lifestyle shifts transitioning back to the office and into the world again. You actively advocate for retailers to create a more humanized customer experience. Can you explain what you mean by that and why it’s so important for retailers to do that? Can it lead to higher customer retention?
Megan Stillerman: In our modern digital retail environment, consumers are finding speed, convenience and their pick of merchants competing for their attention, especially on large marketplaces like Amazon. What can often be missing from this scenario is a humanized experience that blends what brick-and-mortar locations do best and are doing more of (personalized browsing, one-on-one assistance, highly curated local merchandise) with the benefits of a digital platform. Amazon is an amazing place to find what you need, but to me, an element that is lacking and that I think people are craving is “surprise and delight”.
With the stress, disruption, and drudgery of this past year, consumers are starved for experiences that stand out, experiences that make them want to come back for more, and they are hungry for them.
The absolute best way to evoke this sentiment is by understanding customers better and giving them what will make them happy across every channel where you touch them.
If customers aren’t observing your brand on their preferred social media channel in a way that is meaningful to their life and their desires, arriving on your site and seeing the solution front and center and then being actively re-engaged throughout their journey, you risk losing them to a commoditized but convenient experience.
Swinscoe: What important considerations should retailers make when it comes to the modern customer experience? Can you share any tactical best practices for creating a more human-centric customer experience?
Stillerman: Ultimately, the best human-centric customer experience boils down to four best practices:
The first best practice (avoiding getting caught up in systems-first thinking) reflects how it’s not enough to have a simple understanding of your customers’ emotions from a data analysis standpoint. The best customer experience is created by people who genuinely care about customers and make an effort to understand them as people. These people are able to look at customer needs from the human level that you don’t get when approaching customer experience from a systems and revenue perspective. Best practices in customer experience are best practices for being a human who cares about other humans—empathy, communication, and sincerity. Find out what your customers need out of their interactions with you, then build your systems to meet that need every time.
The wants and needs of the modern customer became even more complicated with the emergence of “pandemic purchasing”, which could be characterized by making purchases in a more heightened emotional state. While convenience is still top of mind, understanding what people need and desire and then tailoring communications and shopping is even more important than before.
Data is essential to understanding things at a macro level. Similarly, talking one-on-one to customers is essential to learning what they’re thinking and feeling. Data will tell you what customers are doing, customers will tell you why. This is why retailers should prioritize making personal contact with customers several times each week, paying attention to the words they use to characterize their experience. Customers are the ones you’re designing your experience for—when they tell you what they need, believe them!
Impactful customer engagement goes beyond formulaic interactions like ticket resolution and automated surveys. Retailers who aptly use a mix of social, email, SMS, and website content to speak to potential (and existing) customers in their preferred medium, in their preferred tone, and then continue that dialogue throughout and after their buying journey will find success in a commoditized, convenience-driven online world.
Finally, retailers shouldn’t take anything for granted. Customer needs and expectations change at the drop of a dime, so your customer experience systems need to be able to change and evolve alongside them. Customer experience practices need to be constantly assessed, reevaluated, and updated. Investigate the lead-ups to escalations and lost sales to identify specific triggers that result in a negative experience. Compare your expectations for the customer experience to your customer’s perspective of the experience. Overlay those perspectives to find the deltas and make those a priority for evaluation.
A human-centric approach involves collecting the right data and using it to surface the right content and products. Retailers need to double down on personalization to show each and every customer that their needs are heard and understood and that, to some degree, that retailer is working to anticipate their next set of needs—it’s almost as deep as a personal relationship being developed. Everything from accessible influencers, tailored promotions, localized/personalized product offering and multiple avenues to stay in touch post purchase all help retailers support the priorities revealed by your customer data.
Translated to tactics, this human-centric approach will involve the creation of detailed and data-informed buyer personas, expansion of multichannel support and sales, and content tailored to shoppers with specific needs at specific points of the buying lifecycle. Digital-first, digital-only, and hybrid “bricks-and-clicks” retailers alike can benefit from this approach, offering online shopping alongside personal consultation and curation.
Swinscoe: What might the potential negative impact be on ecommerce businesses who do not prioritize customers throughout the entire buying lifecycle?
Stillerman: E-commerce businesses that fail to prioritize customers throughout the entire buying lifecycle will lose those customers. Shoppers who feel that they’re being neglected may as well go be neglected with free 2-day shipping on Amazon, or they will buy from a niche, often digital-only, brand who has mastered the art of surprise and delight across the entire buying journey.
In e-commerce specifically, prioritizing customer experience is easier at some stages of the buying lifecycle than at others. Some retailers do a great job of showing the customer they care right up until the post-purchase process, when the customer is suddenly left without direction and has to contend with the uncertainty of not knowing where their purchase is or when it will arrive. Some sellers have automated the process of moving customers from intent to purchase so thoroughly that they have failed to establish a solid safety net of real support personnel who can answer customer questions when they inevitably arise. Any amount of customer uncertainty or discomfort can sour an otherwise positive purchase experience, prompting customers who could have become loyal lifetime brand ambassadors to take their business elsewhere next time.
Swinscoe: From a high-level industry perspective, how are you seeing e-commerce platforms and retailers evolving their strategies and features with improved customer experience in mind?
Stillerman: E-commerce platforms are evolving to collect better data and give sellers the ability to translate that data into personalized shopping experiences that surprise and delight customers. Platforms are investing in the features that keep customers invested and coming back—personalized product recommendations, access to human-curated wishlists and shopping carts, tailored promotions, and vast volumes of video and blog content to showcase how aspirational and everyday products can fit into real, everyday life.
Retailers are evolving their strategies to connect with their customers on a human level throughout the buying lifecycle. Savvy sellers are making sure that each customer’s experience is personal, genuine, and human—they’re curating content and products, responding to the rapidly-changing wants and needs of their audience, and adapting to keep their onsite experience fresh, unique, and delightful.
This post was originally published on Forbes.com.