Digital Customer Engagement Comes of Age

The dramatic changes in consumer habits and shopping behaviors wrought by the pandemic are still evolving. But one thing is certain, and that is the reality that many of these changes are permanent. Enlightened retailers and brands recognize that traditional routes to successful sales, customer service, and customer retention are no longer satisfactory. And they are embracing these behavioral shifts with great gusto. 

In a recent survey, 50% of consumers agreed with the statement that “The pandemic made me totally revise my personal purpose and what is important for me in life.

This shift led consumers to quickly adopt remote digital browsing, buying, working, and learning. 

Still, by no means have brick-and-mortar stores lost their luster. People are craving the high-touch, one-on-one, individualized experience that only in-store shopping can provide. Consulting firm Forrester found that 72% of consumers prefer to use retail stores as all or part of their primary purchase method. And, just prior to the 2021 Christmas shopping season, a Chain Store Age survey discovered that 41% of consumers ranked in-person interactions with sales associates as most important.

The Phygital Shopping Era

The merging of shoppers’ physical and digital habits into “phygital” retailing was almost inevitable. At one time, only ‘digital natives” were thought to be most comfortable using digital devices such as smartphone for shopping. This is no longer the case. New research shows that mobile shopping accounts for more than 67.2% of all e-commerce, with the mobile wallet market expected to reach $3.5 trillion in 2023. However, it should be noted that many surveys reveal that shoppers feel the experience could be improved. 

What it comes down to is that in their minds, customers no longer differentiate channels. Digital and mobile-first shopping habits are so routine that they are integrated into the physical shopping experience. To customers, it’s all just shopping. With 38 percent of consumers planning to use a blend of online and in-person shopping in the future, retailers have an opportunity to maximize buyer experiences into a seamless mix. 

Customers no longer differentiate between channels. To them, it’s all just shopping.

When they head to the store, phygital shoppers expect more from their in-person interactions than ever before: more personalization, more helpful information, more engagement. Retailers are realizing that effective, consistent, and optimally aligned communication has become an essential component of satisfying customer experiences, and it will likely be even more important in the future. This new reality has forced retail brands and companies to focus on how well they deliver on these three strategies:  

Communication that instills trust and builds confidence
Ease and convenience of the buying process
Customer service that demonstrates concern for the individual

Virtual tools and techniques, which are more holistic and customizable than some retail sales leaders may think, can move the needle on all of these. Retailers and brands that successfully adapt to the virtual world will emerge into a new age of sales, stronger and better positioned than ever. 

Brand Loyalty is at Risk

Many brands have recognized the importance of providing a strong and seamless experience throughout the entire sales journey. But now, consumers have the upper hand. 

That’s because the new behaviors and concerns emerging throughout the marketplace are upending traditional retail business strategies that were once proven effective. These new behaviors, circumstances, and attitudes include: 

Greater frequency of switching brands
Pervasive uncertainty about the future, exacerbated by anxiety regarding COVID-19
Rising reliance on virtual messaging before, during, and after purchase

Although no one anticipated the pandemic, the reality is that the strategic shifts toward virtual selling strategies were already underway and were vastly accelerated by the pandemic’s impact. Some researchers estimate that the e-commerce boom was accelerated by as much as five years. 

Before the popularization of e-commerce, no retailer or brand could have imagined someone buying a dress or a luxury handbag online without touching it or trying it on.  

Looking ahead, consumers can be counted on to demand that sellers support online transactions through a 360-degree digital customer engagement strategy. 

Retailers must respond appropriately to these new expectations. Experts recognize that if they don’t, they risk significant brand loyalty erosion. 

If retailers don’t respond to customer expectations, they risk brand loyalty erosion.

An Opportunity to Innovate

The lines between in-person and virtual shopping are blurring. Strategic consulting firm McKinsey finds that 60% to 70% of consumers are shopping in an omnichannel way. The lines between in-person and virtual shopping are blurring. Brands that keep pace with this permanent trend by modernizing their customer engagement, customer service, and sales tactics will have more opportunities to sustain their customer base, stir up and win new customers, and retain them. 

Of course, this isn’t the first time in history that retail companies have had to reinvent themselves. In the 1800s, small, family-operated shops filled the landscape. The industry expanded in the following century with the advent of department stores, which eventually moved from American downtowns to air-conditioned, standalone shopping malls. 

Retail companies and brands have never looked back. Just slightly over a decade ago, Facebook and other social media providers started offering advertising opportunities and sales platforms. Now, the U.S. Census Bureau has reported that in the third quarter of 2021, e-commerce sales accounted for 13% percent of total retail sales. And Mastercard reports that online sales made up 20.9% of all sales in 2021. 

A website alone is no longer nearly enough to meet the new omnichannel, “phygital” consumer’s expectations. Shopping patterns have shifted so dramatically that retail companies must rethink their delivery methods for products and services — as well as how they orchestrate the entire end-to-end customer experience. 

Virtual Customer Engagement is Not Simply ‘Online’

Digital engagement is applied by all kinds of businesses in just about every industry sector. The term encompasses the creation of customer experiences via a variety of online platforms that allow user access on a range of devices, such as smartphones, iPads, laptops, desktop computers, and tablets. In a mobile society, digital engagement can happen anywhere, anytime. It is by no means limited to the virtual marketplace, and definitely includes in-store touchpoints.  

Digital engagement isn’t the same as e-commerce. If a person tries to purchase an item online but has trouble reaching someone who can answer their question, the downfall of a singular focus on e-commerce sales is clear. Online transactions may be convenient, but they can fail spectacularly in customer service. When you don’t have the benefit of individualized, one-to-one interactions with trained sales professionals, communication—and ultimately the sale—naturally falters. 

That’s the difference between simple e-commerce and a robust digital customer experience. Virtual engagement is necessary for building that emotional bridge that consumers expect when buying in-store or online. Implemented correctly, virtual engagement is fully integrated with physical activities, and can eliminate the frustration factor hybrid shoppers so often experience. 

For instance, technologies are now available that give shoppers a real-time connection to a knowledgeable associate, who can be working in-store or remotely, via text, chat, or video. The associate can share comprehensive and comparative product details to help the customer make a buying decision on the spot. 

Hybrid Selling is Modern Selling

Digital innovations should involve more than just allowing consumers to purchase products online and pick them up at the store or curbside. They should offer more than buying a product with an app while in the store. They should even be more than offering interactive opportunities, such as virtual dressing rooms or sampling. 

At their core, these virtual services reflect a convergence of online and in-store customer engagement experience that creates a hybrid branding approach. This approach combines technological capabilities, customer service methodologies, and retail selling methods to provide a unified experience for the consumer, whether they are interacting in person, on social media, or even through a chat window with a customer service agent. 

Mark Matthews, a National Retail Federation researcher, has said, “While many surveyed consumers still place high value on the traditional in-store shopping experience, they also now expect the flexibility to build their own shopping journey–according to the behaviors prevalent to their age range, available tools and the product category they are looking to purchase. This hybrid approach is a fundamental shift in consumer behavior.” 

A holistic, hybrid approach to sales that resonates with consumers fundamentally recognizes the necessity to provide communication in whatever format is convenient and best serves customers at any point in their buying journey. Particularly in an era dominated by pandemic uncertainties, digital engagement must be as warm and welcoming as in-person interactions.  

The Personalized Customer Experience

There was a time when personalization was limited to adding someone’s name to the top of a targeted direct mail piece. Today, just knowing the customer’s name is table stakes. Consumers expect the companies with which they do business to know them as individuals, to understand their preferences, and to anticipate their needs throughout the customer journey.  

The introduction of advanced data collection and analysis technologies has enabled brands to personalize interactions with prospects and customers. In fact, using predictive data analytics can help build a necessary bridge between virtual and in-person shopping. 

Brands must understand their customers well enough to propose products, offers, and topics that are uniquely relevant to the individual and to customize the experience at every touchpoint. Amazon, for instance, does this well, by constantly making product recommendations based on customers’ past purchases. 

Meeting Consumers Where They Are

One thing is certain—if customers are not within the proximity of a store, business owners must find them elsewhere. How can you create a relationship with someone who isn’t even nearby? That is where digital engagement shines. 

Figure out where the target audience is spending time online and strategize. Depending on the brand, consumers may be found on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, TikTok, or other platforms. Develop an interactive, robust online experience filled with useful information combined with entertainment. This strategy could include publishing expert blogs, how-to videos for using specific products, or creating digital experiences that mimic a service. 

Then, integrate a customer care communication protocol for all the channels. Recognize that some consumers will prefer to talk on the phone, live chat, or video chat online, or get questions answered through social media. Be flexible and open in your communication. 

Improving Technology

Innovation is the key to success in retail. Despite the pandemic’s devastating impacts and its adverse effects on the economy, many retailers are not only staying afloat but have managed to gain marketing traction by using technology designed to meet customer’s demands for faster, more responsive, and more personalized customer service experiences.

Collecting and analyzing data with the help of artificial intelligence can give retailers insights into individual customer behaviors that lead to more personalized interactions. And this can result in greater customer loyalty and trust. An increasing number of brands are experimenting with virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) to create immersive experiences and simulate live shopping activities, and retailers can use drones to speed and ease order fulfillment and delivery. 

Want to create an online version of your brick-and-mortar store? Is there a way to let shoppers virtually try on or try out items before they buy? Do you have an online scheduling platform, where customers can arrange a one-on-one experience within a retail store’s boutique? Are you collecting data from both online and in-store activities, measuring it, and then applying insights to your merchandising and marketing strategies? Can customers receive real-time feature and price comparisons of competing products and brands by requesting them from a virtual assistant? 

All these things are possible. In fact, the potential capabilities of technology may only be limited by the imagination. However, technology is meaningless without the right leadership, activation, and sales teams to support it.

Training Store Associates and Staff

Digital improvements won’t be as effective without the support of a well-trained and prepared staff. To that end, managers need to ensure that all online and in-store staff can assist with digital technology in all forms. 

On a basic level, as long as pandemic-related safety concerns remain top of mind with consumers, staff should be able assist with cashless checkout, contactless payment systems, and curbside deliveries.  

Most customers want the opportunity to talk to a living, breathing person in real time when they have a question or a concern with a brand. But as staffing shortages continue to plague retailers, it may be a strain to keep enough staff in the store to assure customers can speak with a real person when and where they desire that communication. And that can turn customers away, slicing into potential sales and revenues. 

This is where mobile apps, touchless self-serve kiosks, and remote brand ambassadors (to name a few solutions) can play a significant role.

The challenge is to onboard and train staff so they can understand and can use mobile apps alongside customers and be effective, whether in store or working remotely. This calls for expanding the typical associate’s responsibilities and giving them access to critical data, such as historical customer buying and browsing habits and current store inventory, that allows them to more fully and directly assist customers. A phased training plan that includes cross-training of associates and customer service staff can stave off information overload. The inclusion of gaming in online training can help maintain new recruits’ interest as they gain additional know-how and understanding of your brand.  

Just as customers are in control of the shopping process now, employees are in control of the recruiting process. As such, they are also demanding more flexible scheduling and seek a greater sense of purpose in their day-to-day roles. Ultimately, a happy employee makes a happy customer! 

But this new view of the role of store associates and customer service personnel requires an examination of existing weaknesses within the organization. Brand leaders should meet with management teams at all levels of the company to identify gaps in omnichannel marketing and messaging and missed opportunities for improving customer service. Use that information to implement a practical staffing strategy that fills these gaps and fits your brand’s culture. 

Simple enhancements can make a big difference. For instance, consider adding a pop-up to your website that invites online chat and lets consumers know of other omnichannel communication opportunities available to them. Ensure in-store representatives are professional and ready to assist, just like the digital team. Training helps make their interactions warm and welcoming. And virtual brand ambassadors, available by phone, web, video chat, and text, can assist in-store sales reps in delivering a high level of brand knowledge and the one-on-one support customers have come to expect.  

A well-trained in-store associate that can easily establish a friendly relationship with customers goes a long way toward maintaining loyalty. 

Creating Community

Retailers and brands now have an opportunity to meet a deep, powerful need for social interaction. Creating a community—even a digital one—is worth the effort. 

To do this, focus on providing value across social media platforms. Partner with brand ambassadors and influencers… go “live” online… and offer both entertainment and expert advice that make people feel like they are part of something bigger.  

Videos can enhance confidence among prospective purchasers to invest in your brand. Consider producing an array of explainer videos, product demos, corporate culture videos, and customer testimonials that are easily accessible and pertinent to the customer when and where they want it.  

This is also the time to enhance loyalty reward programs. Let customers know that they are valued through incentives such as coupons or free gifts. Personalize rewards to coincide with particular customer interactions and transactions. Remember to always integrate human emotions when going digital. No one wants to do business with a robot. 

Best Practices: Meeting the Customer’s Need Today

Virtual engagement can feel overwhelming. As you begin to establish your brand’s virtual strategy, here are some best practices that will help you meet customers’ needs today, tomorrow, and beyond:

 Focus on communication as the foundation for growth. Be sure to stay mindful of the language you present, both internally and externally, to consumers.

Proudly convey your corporate values and brand stance on purposeful social issues. Consumers and employees alike are attracted to doing business for and with organizations that share their views and beliefs on changing the world for the better.

Integrate your digital efforts into your comprehensive marketing plan, and be prepared for a potential need to bump your marketing budget.

Be resilient and willing to re-invent your omnichannel, or hybrid, interaction and transaction methods to stay relevant to your social followers and customers.

Be creative and keep the fun factor in mind when developing virtual solutions.

Create measurable objectives that can be compared with your own baseline numbers. In this way, you can tweak strategies for constant improvement over time.

You can take notes from companies that are already making successful headway in virtual engagement. Those brands are hip to constant innovation and strong, data-driven marketing campaigns, which are the foundations for staying competitive. As you plan for growth, be aware that while your virtual activities are day-to-day, you are preparing for long-term relationships with customers that solidify a strong market position.

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