I was thumbing through The Economist recently and saw an intriguing article highlighting the issues around retailers downloading more and more tasks to their customers which used to be done by hired staff: everything from online ordering, to self-serve troubleshooting, check-in and checkout.

The article raises a very relevant concern that tasks traditionally done by retail staff are now the responsibility of the customer and while this trend doesn’t show signs of stopping there are some important implications for retailers that many have not realized. Up to 1/3 of all customer complaints and problems are a result of “customer failure” to successfully complete one or more of the tasks that the retailer has now downloaded to him/her.  We have all seen or been the airline passenger desperately trying to untangle the sticky self print luggage tag.  The bottom line is that the customer is still not satisfied and has had a negative experience meaning that he/she may choose to take business elsewhere in the future.  There are 3 problems that retailers need to solve in order to prevent dissatisfaction or worse defection.

  1. It doesn’t matter how the problem occurred, retailer or customer error, the retailer still needs to solve it on order to keep that customer satisfied.  IKEA replaced all of the parts necessary and did it with a smile and no judgement, for a desk with drawers when the customer made a catastrophic error in assembly.  The staff member at help desk was quick to say, “We know things can go wrong during assembly and we are here to help fix it”.  Restoration Hardware tracked down a package destined for no man’s land when the customer made a typo on the mailing address. The retailer contacted the customer and apologized for the delay in delivery after explaining the error.
  1. Retail staff now need new problem solving skills.  No longer can retailers rely on quick training because the demands on the staff once a problem has occurred are far greater than simply doing the tasks themselves in the first place.  After a customer accidentally locked themselves out of their online retail account, the person on the help desk was unable to fix the problem telling the customer that it was not possible to restore the account once it had been locked down for security purposes.  The helpful staff member suggested that the customer open a new account instead.   I will not embarrass the company in question as they no longer have my business.
  1. Processes and systems are designed for retail staff who are trained to use them not your average customer.  Retailers need to redesign these processes for customer success. The smart retailer has already taken responsibility for customer satisfaction and is working to prevent future customer errors by tracking where and when they occur.  Amazon is very clear that the customer must click on the “Place your Order” button even though all of the payment information is entered which was a signal for many customers that the transaction was over. The result was complaints about missed deliveries for which no order even existed.  Using cues, colours and language that prompt the customer result in fewer customer errors and higher satisfaction.

The opportunity for retailers who choose to invest in this area is loyalty—true loyalty.

The customer understands that things can and often will go wrong. When they trust a retailer enough to solve that problem and the retailer delivers, the customer thinks of that retailer first when considering another purchase or making a recommendation to a friend.

How much are you asking of your customers? And are you delivering excellent service or just making your problems theirs?