When you think of “customer service” today, what image does it conjure up? For today’s shopper it’s an experience increasingly enabled by technology – scanning a mobile loyalty card, receiving a quick response to that complaint you tweeted or getting instant online assistance when you’re having trouble navigating a website.

As retail evolves, digital technologies are increasingly replacing humans for the delivery of all manner of customer services. While these developments may support more efficient and cost effective service delivery, there is a danger that the essence of the relationship with the customer is being overlooked. Central to this is the risk that a key asset in the battle for happy customers, namely front line staff, are being marginalised due to a lack of investment in digital skills, such as how to use mobile computing to support product searches, or how to create digital content to engage with customers. These are capabilities that could empower them to deliver better customer service.

Ahead of a more in-depth paper on customer service in the digital era, this blog briefly explores how service has evolved over time in a retail context, and positions the challenge for retailers as we look forward.

Victorian theatre and Edwardian splendour

In the early 19th Century, shopping typically involved a visit to market to buy locally sourced food or trading with street vendors. Shopping was less a social activity, and more a job to be done on behalf of the household. In the few established shops that did exist, goods were often kept behind counters and out of reach of shoppers. Products often lacked pricing, so haggling was an accepted part of the shopping experience. Loyalty to a shopkeeper was established based on whether or not you trusted them not to scam you. This was an era where fraud and mis-selling was rife.

As shopping evolved in the Victorian era, shops became a permanent high street fixture. Retail theatre was established as a core part of the service offering as shopkeepers took to showcasing their trades, with live butchery and bakery for example, in the hope that they would entice new customers in. However, it was in the Edwardian era where service flourished as a truly personal affair. Many shops were still family-owned businesses. Their owners knew that service was key to customer retention. Shopkeepers often knew your name, who your family were, where you lived and how long you’d been there. They knew what items you regularly bought. There’s a good chance they knew if you’d be interested in a new offer or product before you did. They started to offer value-added services – assembling your items before you got to the store, or delivering shopping to your front door. The people who worked in shops knew their customers and what they liked, so they were able to tailor the service they provided accordingly.

Then in 1909, Selfridges happened. It opened its doors to the world and introduced a step change in store service. The new department store concept aimed to deliver “extraordinary customer experiences” under the mantra “Everyone is welcome”. Customers were treated to well-dressed and well-mannered staff, observing Downtown Abbey etiquette as ladies were offered seats and tea while they waited for their purchases to be wrapped. Over 100 years later Selfridges is still going strong, and was recently named the best department store in the world for the second year running.

Losing the personal touch

As retailing evolved in the post-war era, shops changed to become bigger and more efficient. Early pioneers – Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Woolworths – introduced self-service, meaning shopping was more efficient. Shops started stocking more products, in larger volumes. They began to move out of town centres, opening up where there was room for more parking, and where they could serve a larger catchment area. Brand became more important, with different stores catering for different socio-economic groups, and stores themselves introduced their own sub-brands to cater for different types of shopper.

Retail systems were also introduced to capture and store transactional sales data, giving brands greater insight into shopper behaviour. Developments in computing power meant that pricing and promotions had become important tools for generating demand and increasing sales. Decisions around location, range, promotion and price could be based on analysis of what items were in your basket, how much you spent and how frequently and recently you had visited a store.

While process and technology was evolving, service became less personable. As stores grew in size and moved away from local areas, relationships previously built on community were slowly replaced by relationships based on perceptions of value, convenience and other brand promises. Customer service became less reliant on personal insight gathered from staff and as operational measures became more important, the historical model of personalised service was diluted. Service became more focused on efficiency, with point-of-sale systems and bar code scanners replacing cash registers, and store assistants spending less time building relationships with customers and more time on store operations.

The convenience era

In the mid-1990s, Amazon arrived and Tesco brought online shopping to the masses in the UK. Ranges exploded as the physical constraints of the store stock room no longer applied and shoppers could buy items to be delivered to their door at any time of day. As a result, you no longer needed to travel to a physical store, and had less reason to engage with in-store assistants. In parallel, a trend for more conveniently located, smaller format stores was emerging, where shoppers could pick up ingredients for an evening meal, or top up on essential items on the way home from work. Service was becoming synonymous with the delivery of the anytime, anywhere proposition. Self-service tills and contactless payment further reduced the need to interact with store staff.

The role of the store assistant was gradually becoming more marginalised, increasingly limited to tasks such as maintaining stock levels and store standards. The few that recognised the power of service were truly able to leverage it. John Lewis’s differentiating approach was even famously aped by a Dixons advert which advised customers to stroll through to John Lewis’ audio visual department, “where an awfully well brought up young man will bend over backwards to find the right TV for you… and then go to dixons.co.uk and buy it”.

Mobile assistance

The arrival of the smartphone has meant that shoppers paradoxically now have access to more knowledge about products than sales assistants. Want to check stock levels? Check the mobile website. Want to compare prices? Check Amazon by scanning the barcode. Need to see what your friends think? Post an image on social media. As a result, self-service has flourished, and almost all the traditional service-orientated interactions that used to take place with retail staff are at risk of being replaced by technology enabled self-service.

Digital empowerment

Whilst it’s clear that digital technologies have the power to facilitate better engagement with customers, many retailers are failing to put these technologies in the hands of their front line staff, and then to back this up with the skills training to support effective delivery. Human interactions are the engagements that give retailers the opportunity to differentiate themselves, to form a better connection with customers and to establish rapport by showcasing knowledge, personality and care.

This is more than simply developing a mobile app or rolling out tablets across the store estate. It calls for front line staff to have a greater understanding of how customers interact with the digital retail environment. Customers are more likely to have done their research before they enter a store or browse a website, so front line staff must have also done their research to understand the competitive landscape for the products and services they sell.

Customers may want to explore features of the products on sale, so front line staff need to have access to detailed product specifications, demonstration videos and expert advice, all in the moment. Customers may be visiting a store or website for the first or the fortieth time, so front line staff need to know the customer’s sales history, potential preferences and previous experience of the brand in order to position their engagement appropriately.

The customer services assistant is still an important component of the digital retail proposition. Enabling staff with digital technologies and supporting skills must be priorities for retailers who are serious about customer service in the digital era.

Look out for our upcoming paper where we will explore this topic in more detail.