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Chairman of Marks & Spencer plc

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Human Contact - the missing ingredient in the service proposition?

What’s it like to be a 21st  century shopper in Omni-channel space?

I don’t know if anyone read Alice Thomson’s article, “The human touch beats the click of the mouse”, (The Times, 7th May) but the theme of the article was pretty clear.  It seems that we live in a world where retailers are wedded to the notion of “self checkout” in the stores where they used to serve us whilst respected survey results tell us that 84% of customers prefer to be served by a person. Being served by staff is faster, error free and makes an all round, a better experience.

At the same time, the shakeout in employment in the service industries exposes all consumers to a world where shopping in face to face space becomes a three dimensional version of web shopping, just me and a series of screens in multiple locations – why would I bother?

It’s pretty clear that amongst the organisations that serve us, competitive pressure to drive down costs creates the motive for reducing staff numbers.  Technological innovation provides the means to bring this about.  What is the opportunity? Quite simply, our willingness as consumers to embrace digital channels as our chosen method of fulfilment.

But the behavioural psychologists tell us that in managing a brand’s reputation, the consumer’s last experience, i.e. the one just before they buy, has the biggest impact. Given that empirical research shows that in excess of three quarters of all purchase decisions continue to be made in face to face space, the brands that serve us need to think carefully about the quality of service they deliver in store and the ways in which this can be connected seamlessly to the on line experience. Only by delivering a true “on brand experience across all channels” with the customer feeling the love in every touch point, including face to face, can they consistently win consumer preference.

The store remains the poor relation of the multi-channel world and for this we all lose out. As consumers, we experience unnecessary delays and avoidable frustrations whilst brands see their hard-won reputations damaged whilst remaining seemingly indifferent.

Time and again I see the same issues occurring amongst the brands that serve us. It starts at the top. Why can’t CEOs recognise that allowing their  companies to run as a series of hermetically sealed functional silos where, far too often, the digital team are given their head at the expense of the more traditional (and the obviously more staid?! ) retail team is just wrong. It’s great to have the new kids on the block but best practice in innovation means marrying the best of new ideas with the experience available to you. By combining these twin gods great things can be achieved.

Without the right corporate and organisational framework, individuals are too focussed on their own career track and being seen to achieve within the micro world of their own bonus structure. Their only long term goal amounts to the shaping of their CV to fit their next challenge. 

So how do we achieve success in this challenging environment? Leadership is key. The boss must lead from the front and establish scenarios where it’s ok to be a champion for the whole organisation not just your department. Genuine four way communication is a prerequisite in creating a customer focussed organisation. Too many truisms and insufficient common sense destroys real initiatives – think “usability” but across the whole organisation not just your web site.

It is truly possible to improve customer experience and take cost out of an organisation as long as you stay focussed on the right things.

At the end of the day we only earn a living if our customers are satisfied, today and everyday and that is the benchmark by which we must judge our actions.