Martin Taylor, Deputy CEO at Content Guru

As retailers reopen their doors, online and offline must be aligned

In England, some non-essential retailers will be able to begin reopening next month. This will present a huge challenge as, although there will be an influx of physical on-site demand, only limited numbers of people will be able to get in-store at any one time. This will lead to a continued unprecedented demand for online services too, which will be a big concern for any retailer not already championing an equal online and offline presence. This is a balance-striking activity that stores will continue to struggle with for as long as COVID-19 affects the UK. The need to align offline and online operations has never been clearer. For those already successfully combining the two approaches with omnichannel customer engagement, successfully navigating this pandemic should be far more manageable.

Retailers both online – and on the high street, when we return to normalcy – can make momentous gains by adopting industry-leading omnichannel best-practice, and ‘connecting the dots’ between the many customer data-points and the consumer’s overall experience of the brand. With customer experience now the key differentiator in the retail sector, and as the situation around COVID-19 continues to put pressure on businesses, how can technology save our high street?

Merging offline and online amidst uncertainty

It is often misunderstood that the retail market comprises two independently operating businesses: an online business and an in-person business. And the current reality means the same customers must be able to exist in both scenarios. Whether the customer is on their device at home or walking around a physical retail space with a device to compare deals in store with competitors, there is an urgent need to be able to communicate effectively across all channels that the customer chooses, and whenever they choose to use them.

Online shopping holds immense power in its ability to collect, store and process data-points on individuals. It allows for complete personalisation of the shopping experience, and opens up more real-time direct and opportunistic communications with the customer. But only for those retailers who have laid the foundations of best-practice omnichannel communications with customers.

Omnichannel makes the difference when communication is key

Omnichannel should not be used to describe communications that happen across various channels but that are managed in siloed compartments. Because, while having multiple channels available in a business’s customer service model is great, excellence only comes when performance is consistent across all of them. Ideally, there should be no weak links that threaten to degrade the service customers receive, which is what makes a customer service experience omnichannel, rather than multichannel.

Implementing a cloud contact centre that offers the level of integration needed for a true omnichannel experience could be the make or break for retailers during the current situation around COVID-19. Many retailers will have different systems controlling different departments, the truly omnichannel contact centre can bring together different information systems so they work in tandem, both internally and externally. This level of omnichannel operations not only makes internal communications and processes easier and more automated, but it benefits the customer and, ultimately, strengthens their relationship with the brand.

The “new-normal” of retail customer engagement

How can the contact centre become a truly omnichannel engagement hub to support retailers through this difficult time? The contact centre industry’s implementation of the latest technology, such as AI and machine learning, is progressing at record speed, and making a monumental impact on customer experience along the way.

Customers increasingly value and expect real-time responses to support enquiries – according to research from Hubspot, 90% of consumers rate an immediate response to a customer support issue as ‘important’ or ‘very important’. This means that agents who don’t have to spend time searching for answers to customer enquiries are much better placed to meet today’s service expectations. To deliver on this requirement, it’s likely that the traditional Interactive Voice Response (IVR) systems most retailers use will be replaced by much more sophisticated and effective Natural Language Processing (NLP) systems.

The sudden increased demand for ‘as-a-service’ omnichannel offerings across all sectors is clear. However, any retailer that wants to succeed during these challenging times needs a comprehensive understanding of how to nurture happy, long-term customer relationships across all existing and future channels of engagement. Customer experience is now the key differentiator in any business, but most especially in retail. Customers now expect an attentive and efficient long-term relationship with retailers who can seamlessly navigate their interactions across every channel. In order to achieve short- and long-term success throughout COVID-19 and beyond, mastering this will prove absolutely essential.

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