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The hottest CX trends for retailers are anything but trendy

Reporting from the National Retail Federation's 2021 Big Show: Amidst industry upheaval, a focus on the customer experience is a mainstay.

In 2020, tens of thousands of retail professionals descended as usual on the Javits Center in New York City for the National Retail Federation’s Big Show. Barely a year later, the annual conference was entirely virtual, your parents knew what “Zoom fatigue” was, and the Javits was a Covid-19 vaccination center.

The drastic shift over the last 12 months reminded us that nothing is permanent, including long-ingrained ideas about how retailers should do business. Doing retail well means giving CX the attention it deserves as both a competitive differentiator and a business priority. Having already taken center stage at many Big Show sessions in years past, that theme continued in this year’s conference with the all-important asterisks of the times: “...all things considered,” “the new normal,” and the like.

[Related read: 5 trends from retail’s 2020 Big Show]

We’re optimistic that there’s a lot to look forward to—in retail CX and beyond—especially if these retail trends aren’t trends at all, but pillars companies use to thrive in the new normal, the next normal, and the next normal after that.

1. Listening to customers to create better CX

Leanna Nazzisi, Senior Manager of Customer Operation and Communication at Birchbox, talked about how the pandemic has changed CX. Founded in New York in 2010, Birchbox is a “try and buy” beauty subscription service that sends a personalized box of samples to its one million customers every month. Nazzisi heads a team of 24 agents who answer questions and manage customer experiences with Zendesk. During her session, “The future of retail is about always-on, everywhere support: Fireside chat with Zendesk and Birchbox,” she shared how her team is personalizing customer service in a very human way—by chatting on the phone.

“We’ve actually found that we were spending so much more time on the phone this year because I think people are just craving human interaction,” says Nazzisi. By digging into the customer data, the team at Birchbox uncovered how many people wanted to actually speak to an agent in person. As a result, leadership adjusted staffing schedules to let agents talk to customers for as long as they needed. “That's been helpful in terms of building a really solid relationship with people, as opposed to just solving an issue, resolving a ticket, and moving onto the next one,” says Nazzisi. “It's about curating a long-lasting relationship.”

By digging into customer data, the team at Birchbox uncovered how many people wanted to actually speak to an agent in person.

Technology has changed to the point where companies can mine CX data to build tailored solutions for the customers—sometimes even before customers ask for it. In another fireside chat, Chewy CEO Sumit Singh talked about what the leading online pet retailer has done to ride out the pandemic.

Listening to customers and innovating on their ideas is one way Chewy unlocks better service. A recent success story is the company’s Connect with a Vet telehealth platform. The company realized that customers were home more than ever before because of the pandemic, so veterinarians were in higher demand. That made it hard for people to seek medical care for their pets, due to reduced clinic hours or not being able to travel due to lockdowns. It was a lightbulb moment. Now customers can log into their Chewy account, fill out details about what’s wrong with their furry friend, then get connected to a vet via chat. It benefits the company, the customers, and the veterinary community—a win-win-win in Chewy’s book.

“Live inside the details,” says Singh. “Know your customer. It's a cliche term, know your customer. Everybody says it. Everybody uses it. But very few companies out there, very few leadership teams out there, truly are able to understand and anticipate the needs of the customer. Sometimes you have to anticipate and develop products that even customers may not know they require.”

[Related read: Fast growth, fast resolution times: How Showpo is scaling support with Zendesk]

2. Consumers are more willing to try out new brands

The pandemic accelerated the growth of online shopping, and it spurred consumers to try new brands—especially if those brands deliver a good experience. The Zendesk Customer Experience Trends 2021 report found that nearly a third of customers started buying from new companies during the pandemic, and most plan to keep shopping with them in the future. And while loyalty is still important on the consumer index, recent Gartner research reveals it’s no longer in the top rank. For the first time, equality has replaced loyalty as the #1 consumer value.

All of this means brands need to work harder than ever to stay relevant. For established brands, one way to stay top of mind is to put customers first. Instead of pushing a lot of products to market and hoping they work, customer-centric companies tailor their offerings to customer demand. The real key is understanding what your customers want, and then finding a way to provide it. Lowe’s CEO Marvin Ellison shared the home-improvement company’s plan for the road ahead: “As we think about the future, we take a step back and we ask one simple question, what is in the best interest of our customers? And so, everything we try to do is not about our competition, it's not trying to replicate or predict what's going to happen in the macro environment, it's really more about being customer-centric.”

[Related read: Reimagining the future of retail]

3. Services are the new experience

So says Mitch Joel, founder of Six Pixels Group. The session he spoke in, called “The Great Compression,” references the forced transformation that retailers are still working through—masks on, social-distancing circles in place. Online and offline, shopping became more transactional and less touchy and free-form. It was a year of considering safety-first, but Joel reminds us that people buy experiences as much as they purchase a product. The experience remains important; it just has to take a different shape.

One approach is adding more services to products or adding more services on top of services. Retailers got really good at curbside pickup over the last year, but there’s much more innovation to be had. Walmart, for example, is offering pet insurance. Levi’s started reselling gently used jeans, a brand-right companion to the company’s messages of sustainability and longevity. Reimagining the experience at a nearby sushi restaurant, Joel suggests adding a “sashimi Sunday” subscription to their takeout offerings, where you can hop on Zoom and hear the chef talk about that week’s offerings while tucking into your meal.

These shouldn’t be temporary shifts that merely sustain businesses until we get back to normal. If distributed workforces have taught us anything, it’s that some pandemic shifts are here to stay.

Joel says service offerings like these shouldn’t be temporary shifts that merely sustain businesses until we get back to normal. If distributed workforces have taught us anything, it’s that some pandemic shifts are here to stay. In order to maintain relationships with customers who are seeking out these experiences, Joel says retailers should continue to offer them and get creative about how to offer new ones.

[Related read: Meeting the advanced challenges of modern retail CX]

4. A great employee experience leads to great customer experience

During Big Shows past, retailers were already talking about the importance of delivering a great employee experience so those employees could, in turn, provide a great customer experience. That meant providing front-line associates with the technology that would give them context to provide the best service: such as learning, with a few strokes of the keyboard, if someone was a brand-new customer or a longstanding one. It also meant providing associates with business context, such as the brand promise and company values, to ensure they’re delivering an experience in person that might have started with the e-commerce website, a marketing email, or in another location.

In addition to ensuring employees are prepared for a flood of customer requests or tensions running unusually high, leaders also became responsible for providing a safe and stable experience for frontline workers in high-risk positions.

Providing a great employee experience amid a global pandemic means something a little different. In addition to ensuring employees are prepared for a flood of customer requests or tensions running unusually high, leaders also became responsible for providing a safe and stable experience for frontline workers in high-risk positions.

Ellison, from Lowe’s, says that the company’s employee experience includes free telemedicine benefits, even for seasonal workers, and millions in bonuses to hourly associates.

“We're proud of that because we believe that in the midst of enormous need for associates, customers, and communities, big companies have the ability to step in and help out where they can,” Ellison said in the same conversation above. “We definitely didn't solve all the problems, but I'm proud that we took enormous steps to make sure that we played a role in trying to make this very difficult year, a much better one for people who needed it most.”

Pandemic or no pandemic, we hope it will always be trendy for leaders to show up for their workforce.

[Related read: Stanley Black and Decker + Zendesk: Unified Support]

5. Front-end simplicity

The CX mullet remains one of the best metaphors to come out of the Big Show. It refers to a simple, customer-facing experience supported by a sophisticated, context- and data-rich back end, as told by then-President of Levi’s James “JC” Curleigh.

Its chuckle-inducing qualities aside, the metaphor is so good because it continues to be 100-percent relevant. In a year of forced change, customer-facing experiences like e-commerce browsing, point of sale, ordering, and curbside pickup had to be simpler than ever. Companies had to deliver on the back end with infrastructure that supports those experiences. That simple button from the confirmation email that says “I’m here!” when you arrive to pick up an item is probably more sophisticated than we give it credit for. And it became a lot more important when shoppers require their own infrastructure of masks and hand-sanitizer.

In a year of forced change, customer-facing experiences like e-commerce browsing, point of sale, ordering, and curbside pickup had to be simpler than ever.

Ellison acknowledges that Lowe’s lacked back-end sophistication as recently as two years ago. Scheduling platforms weren’t nimble enough to meet different customer shopping or demand patterns from store to store. The e-commerce platform was a decade old, and they couldn’t provide customers with e-receipts. Changing all this was a key priority for him.

“I felt it was just critically important that we come in and we focus on what we call core retail elements of the business and get those operational underpinnings in place,” Ellison said. “Because once we were able to do that, like building a home, once the foundation is in place, the structure goes up relatively quickly. But without a solid foundation, the structure is very unstable. And so when I think about operational excellence in retail, I think about it within that framework.”

A lot of retailers, not just those in the home-building biz, may find their foundations unstable if they ignore changes in their environment. Here’s to stability, not just pivoting or trend-chasing, in retail CX.

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