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All that glitters: retail customer experiences are getting flashy—but are they useful?

I remember my mother telling me stories about her mother shopping at Neiman Marcus in the 1930s and ‘40s. The minute she walked in, she was greeted by name and waited on hand and foot. Two generations later, Neiman Marcus is still working on providing a customer experience that goes above and beyond. In a new store in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, the company has jazzed up the baby changing room with two original paintings by Henri Matisse, there are complimentary spa services (provided by partner vendors), and an interactive fragrance room where you can sample scents by category: Warm and Spicy, Woody, Rose, Floral, Citrus, Gourmand, Green, and Men’s. As distinctly sensual as these additions are, a lot of the company’s special treatment today is digital or tech-enabled.

In the fitting rooms, you can choose your own mood music and the “Memory Mirrors” can record (not just reflect) how you look from all angles as you try on clothes. Same in the cosmetics area, where you can test pricey makeup while the mirror takes pictures of your transformation for your social media networks. You’ll also receive a link to the video via email, so you can remember exactly what makeup you used and how it was applied.

This kind of digital-meets-physical experience is prevalent with less fancy retailers, too. Zara and Macy's also have mobile pads in dressing rooms so that customers can ask store associates to bring them additional garments to try on. Nordstrom has an app that lets customers order items on their phones to be delivered in the dressing room. And if you see something awesome in a magazine, the app can check Nordstrom’s inventory for a matching item.

Novelty or necessity?

This is the age of the customer experience, and apparel retailers aren’t the only ones striving to go over-the-top (OTT). Grocery stores are introducing self-driving carts that steer you to the items on your list. Kroger is testing Kroger Edge, a software that will read your grocery list and light up the shelf under a product you’re seeking, or under products that meet your dietary restrictions or preferences. France’s Carrefour has introduced Le Marche, a market that works like Amazon Go except that it also has a service in which you pick out food and someone cooks it for you right there.

In other words, it’s a posh time to be a consumer.

The question always is, though, what do these OTT experiences accomplish? Are these the experiences customers really want, or are they just a bunch of frou frou bells and whistles that won't actually make a difference?

The question always is, though, what do these OTT experiences accomplish? Are these the experiences customers really want, or are they just a bunch of frou frou bells and whistles that won’t actually make a difference either to the customer or the company’s bottom line?

“I think many brands are realizing that the best way to avoid being a commodity is to provide extraordinary service,” said Micah Solomon, a consultant, trainer, author, and Forbes contributor in the customer experience space.

"Wow customer service is an attempt by a brand to create an emotional connection with a customer by doing something out of the ordinary that will be memorable to the customer,” he said. “This can be a wonderful thing if the impetus to do so comes from an existing knowledge of or sense for the situation, style, tempo (are they in a hurry or not is a particularly important thing to gauge here), and the customer's existing level of engagement with and interest in being engaged with the brand. These are delicate, nuanced issues. When all goes right with a "wow" customer experience it truly can build not just one engaged customer but many, due to the power of word of mouth (or what I call "word of thumb") in our digital age.”

But it depends on the circumstances.

The fact that a home improvement store has VR headsets to let you see what your new kitchen will look like is awesome to a Do-It-Yourselfer homeowner trying to plan a remodel. A contractor, however, probably has no interest. The magic mirrors that let you share your facial transformation on social media have all the appeal—for me—of having my photo on the cover of the National Enquirer, in a bikini, eating shawarma. But I have seen friends use them to take a real-time poll about which dress to buy for a special occasion.

The magic mirrors that let you share your facial transformation on social media have all the appeal—for me—of having my photo on the cover of the National Enquirer, in a bikini, eating shawarma.

“When it can backfire is when customer service is not sensitive to the customer’s need,” said Solomon. If a customer is in a hurry and is exuding a ‘just the facts, please’ attitude (or affect, to use the psychological term), then it will feel glaringly wrong to them if the service provider tries to extend the encounter for the sake of what will feel like a ‘branding moment.’ Likewise, if the intended wow is ‘one size fits all’ rather than something geared specifically to this one customer.”

But Solomon thinks some brands are getting it right: “For example, in Nordstrom's new men's store in Manhattan, yes you can come in and do your return (even if the item was purchased online) personally with a fabulous employee (who will strive to provide a wow experience if appropriate). However, in understanding of some customers just wanting to get in and out with their return, they have digitally informed kiosks by the store entrance where you can drop off your return, get a barcoded receipt, and leave.”

Innovation, OTT and, sometimes, failure go hand in hand

When it comes to creating customer service experiences, companies can’t just focus on what customers know they want. Innovative companies tend to create a desire, then fill it. That’s how Amazon became such a juggernaut, driving relentlessly toward new customer experiences, fueled by their organizational “customer obsession.” Amazon partnered with EatLove to provide grocery shoppers a service that creates custom menus with food items they already have, then puts missing ingredients on their grocery shopping lists. This was responding to a customer need: I have some food, but I need other things to create a healthy menu, and this helps me do it. But when the company created Amazon Go, that was about designing a new experience that customers might or might not like. Amazon Go is the store where shoppers walk in, get their groceries, and walk out without going through a checkout line. At first, experts really questioned its potential. What if things ring up incorrectly? What if people want help? The grocery industry has been experimenting with a lot of things in recent years that haven’t always been a smash hit. For example, though some people love home grocery delivery, most people still do a lot of their own shopping; and while meal kits are still around, they’ve run into some snags.

That’s how Amazon became such a juggernaut, driving relentlessly toward new customer experiences, fueled by their organizational “customer obsession.”

But after Amazon Go debuted in Seattle, it began to get rave reviews. Amazon, has a strong “fail forward” approach. As CEO and founder Jeff Bezos once told WIRED magazine, “I’ve made billions of dollars of failures at amazon.com, literally.”

In response to Amazon’s success, and knowing that innovation is as important, if not more so, than quality to many of today’s consumers, many organizations have created innovation labs where they can invent and test new ideas. Even 300-year-old British insurance company Aviva, has an innovation lab. And some, like Target, have showrooms where customers can play with items they’re thinking of stocking, and have even begun startup incubators to create their own disruptive retail tech.

Innovation labs are good places to test out an OTT product or service experience, and an innovation program allows brands to roll out, in a few stores, things like a digital system that lets people order items to be delivered in the dressing room. The hope is to create a deluxe experience, saving customers the trouble of getting re-dressed and schlepping out to the showroom over and over out to look for something else to try on. The reality might be they’re causing customers to stand in their underwear for 20 minutes, waiting for someone to bring them a different color shirt, but these innovation labs let companies see where the gaps are.

Translating an OTT in-store experience to the call center

While it’s easy to imagine an OTT experience in a retail store where you can replicate the “Be Our Guest” scene from Beauty and the Beast, how does it carry through to a remote call center? After all, so much of the customer/company relationship happens at contact centers, particularly for help with online orders and returns. The focus for so many companies right now is omnichannel—creating a seamless and consistent experience across all customer interactions.

“True omnichannel remains an unachieved holy grail in much of the world of commerce today,” Solomon said. “So moving toward that is important, because it's already what customers expect (and customers have no idea of, nor interest in finding out about, the challenges of achieving omnichannel: challenges like real-time inventory updating, real-time records updates, etc.).

“For going beyond omnichannel, I like to quote the wording of Chris Shaw of Manhattan Associates: Beyond omnichannel would mean working on providing a ‘me experience’ rather than a one-size-fits-all ‘great experience’ as defined by some marketer sitting off in a brainstorming session.”

Actually, some people are working on that. For example, Mattersight, recently purchased by NICE, claims to match callers to agents on the basis of personality type.

The software uses the content and language of previous calls to determine a client’s basic personality type, according to a proprietary algorithm. The categories Mattersight uses are:

  • Emotions-based
  • Thoughts-based
  • Opinions-based
  • Reactions-based

Then, the software analyzes which personality types each customer care representative communicates most successfully with. The company said it greatly reduces average talk time and increases customer retention by 30-to-50 percent. That’s a clear ‘me’ experience. Other options for up-leveling the contact center experience include:

  • Giving customers a special “hotline” to call if the channel they’ve used has failed, so that there’s a kind of SWAT team ready to solve their problem
  • Offering service in multiple languages and instantly routing customers to an agent who can speak the customer’s language
  • Routing calls about a particular product or promotion directly to an agent who is an expert on that product or promotion, rather than having to have customers make a selection or be rerouted.

It’s likely that OTT experiences are going to become more and more prevalent, and possibly more and more over the top—holographic call center agents, anyone? Now companies just need to leverage the data they have about customers, competitors, and “wow” experiences happening around the world to determine where to be creative, and whether the experience creates an emotional connection and makes the experience better, not just different.

For decades after my grandmother got the royal treatment at Neiman Marcus, the world replaced fabulous service with impersonal speed and efficiency. It looks like today we’re heading for a beautiful mashup of both.

Susan Lahey is a journalist who lives in Austin and writes about everything that piques her curiosity including travel, technology, work, business, art, sustainability, and cultivating deep, messy, exquisite humanness in the digital age.