Industry experts agree that the key to retaining and gaining customers, both in person and online, is through supplying good customer service and experience.

The Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic has driven a sharp drop in high-street footfall, as customers are reluctant to venture onto high streets and are largely shopping exclusively online. The retail industry is also struggling with falling sales in certain sectors, such as clothes and beauty products, as a lack of events due to the pandemic means that consumers are unwilling to spend money on non-essential items.

Retail Insight Network spoke with retail expert and UK-based cloud platform Natterbox co-founder and CEO Neil Hammerton to find out what customer service and customer experience entail, why they are important, and how retailers can achieve customer satisfaction.

Jessica Paige: What is the difference between ‘customer service’ and ‘customer experience’?

Neil Hammerton: Customer service focuses on singular interactions between a customer and the brand. It is a more reactionary process, normally after a purchase has been made, with the aim of providing customers with assistance in order to improve customer satisfaction. It requires brand representatives to have specific skills in order to be able to deliver it successfully and to a satisfactory level for the customer.

Customer experience (CX), on the other hand, encompasses a customer’s entire journey with the brand and is the responsibility of everyone within the business. This includes everything from the customer’s first visit to the website, right the way through to any customer service they receive post-purchase. It is about the entire lifecycle of a customer journey, including every touchpoint they come into contact with.

JP: Is one more important than the other?

NH: Neither one is more nor less important, they simply work hand in hand. But it is important for retailers to understand the differences. The front line of customer service is ultimately where businesses can gain some of the best insights about their customers. Whether it’s how they use the business and their purchasing habits, or how they feel about the brand and how regularly they return.

Businesses have to be able to understand their customers as a vital starting point before they can even begin to create the customer experience that they expect. In light of this, offering a good customer experience means incorporating customer service into a wider CX strategy.

JP: Why is it important for retailers to provide a good customer experience?

NH: Now more than ever, maintaining a healthy flow of sales is a matter of survival. Retailers must fight tooth and nail to, not only retain a loyal customer base but continue building on it.

A happy customer is a repeat customer, sometimes a life-long one and life-long customers are the vital essence that nourishes a successful company. That’s why, in a competitive digital world, it is crucial that retailers realise the potential of customer experience as a true differentiator from other brands and a key component in creating lifetime customer value. So, conducting due diligence into every possible source of value in customer experience and investing in the appropriate solutions is a must.

JP: How can retailers create a good customer experience?

NH: The retail industry has been one of the worst hit by the pandemic. But all is not lost, with many customers increasing their purchasing habits online. However, the digital world is a more competitive one, so brands should be focusing on creating the kind of personalised, streamlined experience that will differentiate them and foster customer loyalty.

Traditionally, brands have invested in chatbot systems to communicate with their customers. However, it’s important to remember that this kind of technology still has its limitations. In particular, it risks stripping customer communication of precious personalisation.

We’ve all experienced the pain of trying to call a retailer’s customer service line and having to press an infinite number of keys, only to get through to an automated voice that will make us wait on the line whilst letting us know that we’re number 20 in the queue. And now we are at the point where even the “person” we are talking to is a digital platform.

“Customer experience has to be proactive and human-led”

NH: When customer experience is measured by understanding how customers feel about a brand, creating these digital barriers and causing frustration is simply not an option. With this in mind, to get the best results, customer experience has to be a proactive, human-led business strategy with only the assistance of key technologies.

Personal, human-to-human communication is one of the most effective ways businesses can learn and understand their customer’s needs and ultimately understand how to improve their experience. It holds much more value because it also conveys context, sentiment, intent, emotion and actions, providing real intelligence and driving valuable business outcomes.

JP: How can retailers still provide a good customer experience when consumers are buying online?

NH: More consumers buying online means more will be looking to different communication channels beyond and as well as the traditional email, phone and face-to-face. For example, we already live in a world where we have several generations favouring different communication platforms. While millennials regularly use the likes of WhatsApp and Snapchat, many of the older generations still prefer to speak to someone over the phone.

In order to continue providing a good customer experience while managing all of these different communication channels, retailers need to ensure they are aligned, well manned and that data can easily pass between them. This will ensure that customers receive the same service no matter how and where they interact with a brand. This is called ‘unified communications’.

JP: How can retailers achieve unified communications’?

NH: The first step for retailers aiming to achieve unified communications is to determine the channels they will offer to customers. To do so, they must develop a customer persona and decide which platforms will address 80-90% of communication volume from their customer profile. It’s vital that businesses only implement channels across which they can deliver a consistent, high-quality service.