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Who Owns The Customer Experience? The Retail Store Edition


I have posed the question in the past: who owns the customer experience? In exploring that question, the discussion usually focuses on the conflict between marketing and merchandising. Merchandising believes it “knows” the customer best, and that product assortment and how it is merchandised online and in store is the best way to service customers. Marketing believes it owns customer data, and is more closely aligned with customer (rather than product), and that how the retailer communicates its brand through media and social channels (and through store signage) are the best ways to service customers.

But who owns the in-store experience? I feel like this question has been a long time coming. The most natural answer would be “store operations”, but every retailer who is being honest with themselves will pause at that point. Because while store operations may be responsible for making sure that the store is staffed and product is on shelves, and the bathrooms are clean, etc. etc., there are few companies where the store operations team is actually responsible for “a customer experience”. The conflict is right there in the name of the team – they’re there to keep stores operational, not to deliver fantastic customer service.

Some people will immediately take issue with that, but you just have to look at the workload of store associates to quickly understand that selling may be one of their jobs, but they have many, many jobs – from stocking shelves to, yes, cleaning bathrooms sometimes, to receiving shipments, to now also picking orders for store ship or in-store pickup, to customer service functions like returns or exchanges, or taking payments for store credit cards… All of these things are important, but they’re not focused on engaging customers early in their shopping journeys. And I say it that way specifically: because when the industry talks about “engaging customers” that’s pretty much what they’re talking about: helping shoppers get to product selection and purchase, during the first half of the shopper journey.

Brian this week is tackling the training problem – that store associates get very little of it, which is crazy when you think about all they’re asked to do. But there’s a bigger problem at play here, too. Train store associates to do what, exactly? If the focus is on operating the cash register or how to process a return, I would argue that even in the tiny amount of training that store associates receive today, very little of it is focused on training them how to help customers. How to sell to them. How to build “engaging customer experiences”.

Part of the reason why this doesn’t happen is because there is no one at the executive level who is focused on building those engaging customer experiences in the store. The store ops exec is focused on managing the thousands of people who work in the store organization and making sure that stores are efficient and stocked and not going over budget on labor hours. The marketing exec is making sure that stores get the traffic they need to survive (hopefully). The merchandising exec makes sure the right product gets to the right stores.

So who makes sure the shopper gets what she needs? Voice of the customer organizations measure whether customers are happy or unhappy. Social media teams within digital marketing can surface complaints about specific stores. But who makes sure each store responds?

If your answer is “store operations”, you’re not wrong. But I have to ask: with everything else that store ops has to do – and most of that is easy to monitor, like labor budget, because it impacts costs directly – are they really able to focus as much as they should?

And if the answer the THAT question is no, then it begs the next one: what should we do about it?

One immediate answer is to take another look at the role that stores play overall in the customer experience – from a strategy perspective. What is the brand strategy? How do stores support that strategy? How is that strategy expressed as part of the customer experience?

In the past few months, as RSR has benchmarked retailers’ strategic approach to stores, we learned very quickly that many retailers do not have a good answer to any of these questions. Part of the reason why? Because there is no one driving that discussion internally. Unless the corporation is already so aligned that everyone is focused on the customer, that gap must be addressed for stores to be successful in the future.

Learn more about our study of retailers’ store health.

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Articles & Opinions June 6, 2017
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