You may have been enjoying the recent TV drama, Mr Selfridge, which has just come to an end. The eponymous hero had some timeless lessons for us in customer service. However, in a recent episode he announced that, rather than ladies and gentlemen choosing a fashion design and having it made for them by staff, the store would stock lots of different sizes for people to try on and buy then and there.
This was seen as a hugely radical idea and met with shock by the staff. Indeed, it may have been radical in 1909 when the show is set, but it’s hard to imagine life these days without being able to serve ourselves. Things have moved on so much now that we hardly even need to see what we’re buying before committing to a purchase. The internet makes it possible for us to endlessly browse goods from the comfort of our armchairs before a few clicks sends the items directly to us.
The monetary savings to be had by cutting out the need for bricks-and-mortar stores has made self-service very popular with consumer brands. Customers love it, too; it is often cheaper, they can read reviews by other buyers of the product, and have a much larger selection to choose from.
The problem comes when a potential customer cannot find certain information about a product and gets in touch with the company to find out more. This is a challenge for many brands because the customer will often know more about the product than the employee they are talking to. These days when a customer requires service on making a purchase, they are looking for advice and in-depth knowledge.
This means it is no longer enough to have warm bodies on the shop floor or in the contact centre who are there simply to take money and answer the simplest of queries. Front-line staff now have to know the products they are selling inside out and have expert knowledge at their fingertips.
Operations managers need to invest in training staff on all products and services – and ensure that this training is kept up to date. The different skill-set required has an impact on recruitment, too. It’s more important than ever to make sure candidates have excellent listening and reasoning skills – something managers should test for at interview stage.
Self-service is without doubt having a profound impact on traditional shopping methods, but I believe there will always be a need for brands to demonstrate knowledge and expertise. Perhaps the recent demise of high street stores HMV and Jessops could have been avoided if they had focused on providing information and service (just as you see in Apple stores), rather than trying to compete with online retailers on price.
Retail visionary Harry Gordon Selfridge may have foreseen self-service as the future of shopping and he no doubt would have fully embraced the digital shopping basket, but he also would have understood that when customers do require service, it has to be of the highest quality.