As a little boy growing up in Mumbai, India, I remember the joys of going to visit uncles and aunts who had recently returned from one of their frequent trips to the US. I used to spend hours with them upon their return not only eager to see what gifts they brought back for us . . . consumers partly deprived by a highly protected economy . . . but to listen, with wide-eyed amazement, at the stories they narrated about the wonders of the US.
Stories which made everything seem larger than life, about an evolved society, and about the pleasures of shopping. Many stories were told about shopping, about the range of choices, incredibly attractive in-store displays, surprise freebies, and more so about the overall Customer Experience. Stories of Customer Experience were marked with anecdotes of how friendly everyone was, how they cared about the Customer, how they went out of their way to understand Customer preferences and satisfy them, and how they would quickly correct themselves with profuse apologies, additionally compensating the Customer if they messed up.
Many years later, when I got here, things had changed. Airline personnel were not friendly any more. Representatives in stores smiled as if it were a chore for them. Resistance encountered while returning defective items. Adequate help was not easily available to answer questions about products. There was hardly a local flavor to anything, from food to merchandise, and no personal touch whatsoever. Commoditization was everywhere . . . including in the experience. A heavy price was paid due to changes in the socio-economic fabric of the Country. In my head, diamonds had ceased to sparkle, and gold had lost its luster.
Recently, a friend who has lived all his life in the US visited India some 5 years after his last visit. When he got back, he put up a note on Facebook with a list of 10 points titled “Findings/observations/facts from my trip to India”, and the most striking point that I read was:
“You find out what real customer service is when in India!”
Astonishing for most I’m sure! However, there are lots of reasons why India seems to take Customer Service so seriously and I would love to hear my readers’ thoughts on what they think contributes to great Customer Service, some of their experiences and their thoughts on why India seems way up there in this respect. In my humble opinion, the roots are around principles of social and community engagement that Indians demonstrate in their day-to-day lives that have only been exemplified by local Retail and Hospitality Industries. A case in point is Ashni Biyani, Director, Future Ideas at Future Group, India’s largest Retailer who envisions Big Bazaar (Future Group’s chain of Hypermarkets) as the community center of tomorrow.
Obviously, there exist tremendous differences between cultures and countries. Nevertheless, when you look beyond these differences and zero in on the atomic unit of it all, the human being, a single truth remains . . . we all want to belong!
It is this sense of belonging that has brought so much success in such little time to communities through Social Networking. Most Retailers have jumped the Social Media bandwagon trying to grow and harvest these online communities. We see Retailers spending more on Social Networks year-on-year despite being unable to see much of a tangible ROI being realized from them. An interesting report by Sucharita Mulpuru, Vice President and Principal Analyst at Forrester, highlights this well through her research. If this trend is to continue, Retailers may begin to feel jaded by Social Media, dismissing it soon as one of many other fads. The problem here is that Retailers seem to demonstrate a virus-like behavior, analogized and immortalized by the words of Agent Smith played by Hugo Weaving in The Matrix:
Trying to leverage these social networking communities in an attempt to directly sell to more consumers, more often just like opening stores in newer geographies, through telephones, on the web, through mobile devices, will prove counter-productive in the long run as Consumers will feel invaded in the one space that they felt they had where products would not be pushed down their throats. A space where they could freely express their likes and dislikes about their favorite brands, choose to stay updated about what they feel is relevant to them and be a voice that they know would be heard without the ambient noise of Retailers trying to peddle their wares. This space should not be vandalized. If so, just like they have learnt with other channels, Consumers will quickly adapt themselves to successfully dodge any attempts by Retailers trying to sell to them under the guise of Social Networks, thereby making shares of their wallets even more elusive than they are today.
Now that I have shared my thoughts on what not to do with Social Networks, here are some alternatives on how they can actually be used towards generating tangible ROI for Retailers. Since Social Networks are virtual spaces, they have mostly been linked with virtual stores, aka e-commerce. The moment we mentally dissociate the two, we will see that Social Networks can play a major role in enhancing the overall Customer Experience.
This is different from Social Media Marketing which has now started to see a blend of online and offline. We see a lot of examples of such campaigns in the US today. Starbucks, Domino’s Pizza and Harris Teeter are just a few of them. I am not too sure on how the ROI for these are panning out, but I would love to hear from you, my readers, if you have any insights on the same.
Let us first look at how this dissociation seems to work for some of the well-known names in the game. The forerunners in this game such as Foursquare and Facebook Places have come to be known as “location-based services”. By allowing users to “check-in” (aka Geo-tagging) to places their members visit often, location-based services tried to get their members’ friends to join them for some real-world socializing. It was also meant to be a
great way for people to discover new places to hang out. While the first claim is still to see some sizeable numbers, the second claim gets easily debunked when we look at the Top 10 Social Networking venues as per this article on TechNewsWorld, a small part of which I have cited here:
“The top 10 locations could muster only 926,000 check-ins for an entire week? Twitter records more than 65 million tweets every single day.
A quick look at the top 10 Foursqaure venues also blows holes in the theory that location-based services will help people find exciting new places to visit. Every venue on the list is a national chain — starting with Starbucks (Nasdaq: SBUX), which recorded 146,865 check-ins for the week.
Barnes & Noble (NYSE: BKS) attracted 10,416 Foursquare enthusiasts to earn the 10th spot on the list. Sprinkled in between were Target, Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT), McDonald’s (NYSE: MCD), the Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL) Store, Best Buy (NYSE: BBY), Burger King, Costco (Nasdaq: COST) and Ikea.
It’s easy to see why people aren’t tossing aside their keyboards and rushing out to meet their friends at these places. It’s also easy to see why even some people who describe themselves as avid social media users are questioning the value of location-based services.”
Facebook has not yet released its Places check-in numbers.
However, looking at this information, we see that most of the users of location-based services seem to want to check-in at Retail destinations. While this might be due to the loyalty incentives promised by the location-based services, Retailers should be able to see local communities forming right here.
These communities can then be harvested by further incentivizing their customers with a heightened experience based on the contexts of being in-store, local and mobile provided each store maintains a Social identity of its own which their Customers are made aware of. Below, I highlight 5 thoughts on how this can be done.
- If a customer has checked into a store and needs help with one of the products, a simple ‘Help’ button on an app with some short text can be the answer. These requests for assistance are usually questions about product attributes, availability or location within the store. If this is done via say Twitter, the associate who gets the tweet not only knows what the Customer wants help with, but can also address the Customer by his identity. He can check up the answer to the Customer’s query can then decide whether to respond via Twitter itself, which gets beamed in real-time to the Customer’s phone or to approach the Customer physically, thus creating an on-demand, knowledge-based, personalized assisted shopping experience without incurring costs on beefing up in-store personnel or relying purely on a small segment of well-trained and experienced associates.
- Customer can’t decide on what choice to make? The Customer can now interact with others present in the store who may then choose whether to meet face-to-face or simply use the app. Encouraging these conversations not only helps strengthening the community, but also gets Customers to do what might otherwise have required an associate’s involvement. Besides, we all know how customers trust feedback from their peers compared to someone incentivized to sell.
- Local events organized by stores are often announced in a low-tech way either on a bulletin board or poster in a corner of the store. We often look at these and then forget about them. Yes, some Retailers do post them on Social Networking sites as well, but that would reach out to Customers who may very well be in another State, and therefore irrelevant to them. However, they now have the opportunity to reach out to Customers while they are in their store or Community, thus increasing their local outreach to a bunch of people who are more likely to attend than others. Customers that are in-store should be able to view events through digital signage (or public address systems for a low-cost option) and register for them either through mobile apps, or through Tablets kept in near to such signage.
- Customers often seem to give more negative feedback as they seem to take the positives for granted. Social communication channels currently used do allow for Customers to rant about their difficult experience from within the store itself. However, they do not allow for these problems to be addressed immediately because usually these Social Feeds are being manned by a bunch of people sitting elsewhere. Setting up a local feed, through, say a Twitter Handle for a specific store and empowering someone to check the feed within the store can result in immediate action converting an irate Customer into a satisfied one before leaving the store.
- With each store having its localized Social presence tied to a local Customer base, stores can now co-create community service initiatives along with their Customers. Helping a local school raise funds by recruiting fund-raising champions from within the community, provide design inputs for a local park, promote a social cause that is near and dear to the community, these can now be facilitated through the localized social channel that is the store. Customers now have a combined voice. The voice of a community, and the store helped create that voice and gave the community what it wanted . . . being heard!
Very soon, Retailers will realize that they may not need to bribe consumers to their stores with discounts for their loyalty. The heightened and differentiated experience will prove to be enough of an incentive for people to “check-in” to their stores.
Measuring the outcomes of these initiatives should not be too difficult. I leave it to you, my readers to think of how this can be done and also invite you all to share some more ideas on how localized Social Networks can help improve Customer Experience.