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Mobilizing change in the retail space

by Phil McCann , 03.01.2013

Why are mobile operators failing to deliver quality customer service in their stores?

Anyone who has watched the UK version of TV series ‘The Apprentice’ could be forgiven for mistaking the British high street as an assortment of heavy-handed selling and aggressive bargaining. In reality, this isn’t how normal shops work, but it does raise a point about how the high street has changed over the last few years. In the wake of continual online retail growth, the challenge of balancing the need to deliver an attentive and compelling experience while also driving sales and delivering value has reached the traditional bricks and mortar store. In fact, as we discovered while undertaking a series of high street mystery shops, there are many situations in which achieving a mutually-beneficial combination of the two is no easy task.

The rise in online shopping has altered the retail landscape with up to 30 stores closing each day in the UK, necessitating that stores not looking to prosper through value must provide strong, individualized experiences for customers. As a result, many stores have adopted the customer journey used by high street banks, with customers greeted at the entrance and then directed to assistants who carry expertise in specific areas of the category. The retailers who utilize this method best are able to accomplish two things in the process – effectively managing expectations and personalizing the experience.

However, one category that we found often underperformed against these two indicators (stretched across different channels (in-store, online and phone)) was mobile phone and broadband operators. Despite good delivery of top-of-the-range, new handsets to customers on a price plan that suits them, there are clear areas of underperformance against the best-in-class:

1 - Managing customer flow and expectations
The general experience of operator stores was that the expectation-management side of the equation was poor, with customers either being greeted and placed into an unclear queuing system or waiting for long periods of time while assistants dealt with other customers without acknowledging their presence. Our experience reflects that the majority of customers will accept waiting for service when making higher value purchases, but only if that waiting period is acknowledged and managed properly. Otherwise stores risk losing key customers before they’ve had a chance to make a strong impression.

2 - Ability to deal with specific, difficult enquiries
When making a high-value purchase (pay-monthly contracts can run to over £1000 across the contract lifecycle) customers without a set idea of what best suits their needs want guidance they can trust. Too often we found instances of assistants either lacking knowledge on key issues (mistaking brands for one another, missing critical pieces of information that differentiated their offer) or simply being unable to answer questions. Exemplary service was demonstrated in similar scenarios in other categories, with the customer journey compartmentalized to ensure that assistants have a deeper knowledge of a more narrow set of products, rather than all assistants being broad-focussed.

3 - Creating a relaxed, unpressurized sales process
Operator stores have a specific way of carrying out the sales process with in-store staff behind a desk creating a defined ‘seller-buyer’ situation; in other words, the assistant has a screen with handsets, prices and offers that they try to project onto the customer. We found that best-in-class stores provided superior ‘soft skills’ training for their assistants, particularly in department stores and high-value electronics. Assistants were keen to engage with customers and provide them with an experience rather than moving directly into a selling environment. While this is not necessarily an effective means of generating instant revenue, a positive interpersonal experience is likely to have greater impact on future consideration and loyalty, which are invaluable when dealing in high-value purchases.

4 - Delivering an experience unique to the brand
Many operators have attempted to differentiate themselves through a series of offer schemes and loyalty rewards. However, we found that the retail experience in this category was far less unique on a brand-by-brand basis. Best-in-class stores create a distinctive atmosphere; for example, sector specialists, targeted recruitment of potential brand-ambassadors and advocator or radical overhauls of store layout to clearly differentiate from competitors. The implementation of any, or all, of these initiatives would provide consumers with strong reasons to visit a particular store over the others in a commoditized category.

Clearly these examples offer an extreme view of the issues facing operators, but the point remains that retail outlets are not simply a convenient sales location. Rather, they represent a direct projection of brands and their values. To maximize customer consideration and loyalty, operators must adapt to changing times and tailor their retailer experience to deliver a more compelling and individualized experience than that which customers can find online from the comfort of their own homes.

For more information on this study or GfK’s programme of mystery shopping immersions and workshops please contact phil.mccann@gfk.com