The Art of the Store Associate: Why Person-to-Person Interaction Matters in a Digital Age

The world of retail is being pulled between two consumer urges.

No, it’s not love and fear, or anything to do with the current political climate. The retail industry is grappling with two consumer desires that are inexplicably opposites: a demand for what’s new and next, and a yearning for the simplicity of the past.

Consumers expect a certain level of modernity in the stores they frequent, from technology that generates personalization to an aesthetic that is designed around the user experience. Most stores today have implemented that kind of technology, and it’s become a baseline consumer need throughout the retail industry.

Now, the pendulum is swinging back. Customers are craving an aspect of traditional retail that no longer exists in most stores. They want to feel a person-to-person connection with your employees.

In this post, we’ll make an argument for investing in your employees’ ability to bond with your customers, and why those relationships will be the defining feature of your brand in the years to come.

 

The Shift in Shopping

Let’s rewind to when the game changed for retailers across the world.

In the early aughts, retail was still largely a brick-and-mortar game. If you wanted to purchase something, you’d head to a store or to the mall, and you’d be greeted by an employee as you walked through the door. During your shopping experience, you’d possibly speak with a salesperson about what you were looking for, and you’d make your purchase with the assistance of an employee working the till. It was common to have multiple touchpoints with retail employees as you worked through your buyer journey.

With the advent of the internet, and advanced data-tracking, as well as loyalty programs and newer technologies like AI, retail has become much more measured. Retailers are focused on being the best-in-class, the first to test out a new technological strategy, and the first to send out a PR blitz about how they’re ahead of the curve.

Meanwhile, customers have come to expect these tactics. They’re unsurprised by the “just for them” deals that end up in their inbox, and unimpressed with the lack of spontaneity and human connection in the average shopping experience.

In an industry where most of the focus has been placed on technology and innovation, it seems that the basics of a great retail experience have been left in the dust in pursuit of profits.

According to American Express, more than half of Americans have scrapped a planned purchase or transaction because of bad customer service.

Retailers’ neglect of proper training for customer service adds up on the bottom line. New Voice Media says that U.S. companies lose more than $62 billion annually due to poor customer service.

Lauren Freedman, President of the E-Tailing Group, put it best when she said, “Stellar service should be non-negotiable and merchants shouldn’t hide behind self-service tools and technology when it comes to knowing their products and taking care of their customers.”

It’s time to take a closer look at your current customer service strategies and re-evaluate your stance on person-to-person interaction. Your customers are asking for the chance to develop a relationship with your brand and with your employees. If you implement proper training and corporate initiatives that encourage and reward staff members who make a concerted effort to build a rapport with your customers, you’ll set yourself apart from your peers in the retail industry, and give yourself an opportunity to pull ahead of the pack.

 

3 Employee Training Tips to Foster Connection

Make your employees your experts

You need to build trust between your employees and your customers in order for them to foster genuine relationships. The best way to do this is to give your employees all of the information that they need to be your in-store experts.

Through extensive training, and an easy way to access detailed information, perhaps through a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policy, you can give your employees the know-how they need to have positive interactions with your customers on a daily basis.

If a customer asks one of your employees a question, they should be able to use their resources to provide an answer with confidence. That consistently positive customer experience will result in the accumulation of trust from your customers, and encourage them to shop at your store over others.

 

Let employees go above and beyond

Many corporate policies are created with the express interest of keeping employees on-task and productive. While this is great for the company’s bottom line from an efficiency perspective, it’s not always so great for the customer.

If you want to focus on person-to-person interaction within your stores, and building real relationships between your customers and your employees, you’ll need to relax a few of your current protocols, and take on a new mantra: no matter an employee’s position, their focus should be on serving your customers, no matter the amount of time that it takes them.

On a recent episode of the podcast Freakonomics, a Trader Joe’s employee said, “It really didn’t matter if it was a little old lady that was looking for one $5 bottle of wine, and if the wine shipment had just come in the back, I would go and look through 100 different cases and see if I could find the one that she wanted, and get her that one bottle of wine. If I spent 15 minutes doing that, and that made that customer really happy, then the managers were happy, and the store was happy.”

That’s the kind of commitment to customer experience that makes good grocers, great. Customers know that they aren’t bothering employees by asking them for assistance, and employees can gain a sense of satisfaction knowing that they were able to help someone during their shift.

 

Encourage relationship-building

Finally, every great company initiative needs to come with an incentive. Make it clear to your employees why it’s important for them to build relationships with your customers: how it affects the business, how it affects the community, and how it will positively impact their time at work.

Provide your employees with conversation starters, and role play during regular trainings to ingrain this skill in your staff. Reward employees who show a concerted interested in getting to know repeat customers by instituting a new company-wide award, or offering a prize to the employee who receives the most positive mentions in your store’s customer surveys.

By prioritizing customer experience and person-to-person interaction in your stores, you’ll be ahead of the rest of the retail industry is focusing on what technological innovation they can integrate into their stores in order to make a minute impact on their bottom line. The consumer pendulum is swinging back toward a need for genuine connection, and by implementing the three strategies mentioned above, you’ll be one of the first to provide this not-so-new (but increasingly important) amenity.