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Not all great customer experiences are convenient

In retail, creating a positive customer experience can mean a great many things, including offering bells and whistles like in-store device charging stations, mood lighting, and complimentary boxed water. But it’s also about the returns process, or how you manage the buy online, pick up in-store (BOPIS) flow. Moments of interaction like these can create lasting feelings about your brand. Lately, the power of tech-enabled convenience has dominated the dialogue: make the customer experience easy, and make it fast.

Convenience as a profitable differentiator isn’t new. We’ve long been lured by the siren song of pricey snacks in the hotel mini bar instead of walking to a machine or corner store. With the availability of rideshare and food delivery apps, and Amazon Prime, we’re better equipped and enabled to err on the side of convenience, shushing the voices in our heads compelling us to walk a little farther, wait a little longer, and save a little cash.

As solutions like these continue making life really convenient, it can become easy to conflate convenience and a positive customer experience as one in the same. Surely the line between the two is blurry—all of our experiences as customers comprise variable percentages of each. But rest assured, the line still exists.

[Read also: Would you like a boxed water with that? Retailers reenvision the customer experience]

Let’s say you’re going into a big-box home improvement store looking for light bulbs. That need is all about speed, low cost, and convenience. But within that same big-box store, your expectations around service in the paint department might be more hands on: Which color and gloss would look best at my price point? What should I consider if I have kids, pets, and so on? Each retailer needs to model and strategize around different scenarios like these within the same business, taking both convenience and experience into account, according to Scott Pearson, founder, CEO, and principal consultant at Curator Retail Consultants, who spoke on a panel about the relationship between data and the customer experience at the National Retail Foundation’s (NRF) 2019 Big Show.

Each retailer needs to model and strategize around different scenarios like these within the same business, taking both convenience and experience into account.

The sliding scale of convenience

Others agree that convenience isn’t the end all, be all of customer experience—at least right now. But it may depend on your definition of convenience, as well as what consumers are willing to do to achieve it in the long-term.

Amazon Go—Amazon’s foray into cashless, self-checkout convenience stores—was heralded by some (and derided by others) as the next disruption to convenience stores and urban corner markets. But an article in Harvard Business Review, “Why Amazon’s Grocery Store May Not Be the Future of Retail,” outlined some of the challenges ahead for the venture:

“Retail is littered with promising technologies introduced with great fanfare that didn’t become mainstream because they didn’t sufficiently benefit either the retailer or the customer...One reason is that new tools often don’t save the retailer enough or generate sufficient new revenue to cover their cost. Another is that too many customers simply don’t like them.”

In sum, we’re not running straight for the tech-savvy, cashless corner store of tomorrow. Customers’ tepid response thus far indicates that the purported convenience is perhaps not convenient enough—or that convenience, of this variety, is not what we’re after. Maybe that won’t always be the case—the article says a low-cost, automated store is “an experiment worth watching”—but for now,

Shep Hyken, author of The Convenience Revolution and frequent speaker on customer service and customer experience, says that the challenge for businesses lies in training customers to take advantage of the convenience packed in their products or services. At one time, buying airplane tickets online seemed difficult, but once people got the hang of it, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who didn’t book tickets that way. The next step in that evolution was to encourage people to check in for flights online or with an app. He used Venmo as another, similar example: sure, there’s that initial hump of downloading the app, setting up your profile, inputting your bank details, username, and connecting with friends and family… but the Elysian Fields of convenience lie just ahead.

Partnering with B2B brands to help create better experiences

The convenience vs. experience question was also featured at NRF in The Innovation Lab, which houses all of the newest technologies that aim to transform the retail industry. This year, I saw a robot that makes product recommendations after giving you a once-over—billed as the all-in-one digital companion for your customers—and another that detects messes and cleans them up, among other futuristic tools.

The 2019 Innovation Lab made a clear delineation between how it organized new technologies by customer experience and customer convenience, a telling division that speaks to the problems these eye-catching solutions aim to solve, and for whom. Guidelines for exhibitors, according to NRF spokesman Thomas Jordan, were defined this way:

  • Customer experience showcases the latest technology tools helping retailers deliver a unique and thoughtful omnichannel experience
  • Customer convenience demonstrates technologies making it easier for consumers to interact with brands and retailers

[Read also: How to choose the right partner. Technology partner, that is.]

Though the concepts overlap on a Venn diagram that could be called “How we do good things for customers,” the two aren’t the same. Here, experience depends heavily on the sophistication of a company’s omnichannel capabilities, from point of purchase or BOPIS to returns and customer support, whereas convenience is more about the ease with which customers can get in touch; for example, by providing feedback on products or services via text. The good news is that wherever a retailer prefers to sit on this Venn diagram, retailers aren’t on the hook to come up with solutions on their own. Trusted partners, like those in The Innovation Lab and beyond, bring them to life.

Here, experience depends heavily on the sophistication of a company's omnichannel capabilities, from point of purchase or BOPIS to returns and customer support, whereas convenience is more about the ease with which customers can get in touch.

The secret may also lie in making things convenient for your own employees, Hyken says, some of whom may be handcuffed to legacy processes that can be simplified. He advises revisiting internal processes and tools as business strategies, technology, customer expectations, and service providers evolve, too. “Look at every interaction point your customer has with your company. Ask yourself: Is there a point where we can make this a more pleasant, convenient, time-saving, or simple experience?” Hyken says.

[Read also: Want to provide great retail CX? Start with your employees]

‘Customers’ perception is their reality’

Sometimes, the right experience is definitely an easy one. Light bulbs and over-the-counter cough medicine certainly fall under the convenience-first category. Other times, white-glove service from a knowledgeable associate, while time-consuming,

In another example Hyken gave me: the notion of planning a vacation half the world away isn't convenient, but if your perception is that the effort will be worth the experience that awaits, then making those travel arrangements is a no-brainer.

“I think all customers’ perceptions are their reality,” Hyken says, “Our goal is to create an experience for them. That includes helping the customer help themselves to get the right experience from us.”

Sometimes that means building in more convenience, and other times, it means going the extra mile or setting customer expectations about what lies ahead once they make the effort to meet you there.

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