Training the store associate to put customer experience first
One of the buzziest phrases heard daily in the world of retail customer experience is ‘brand ambassador’ which reflects the changing role of the store associate in the quest to deliver an engaging and rewarding customer experience.
But while it’s talked about a great deal, more than a few retailers aren’t quite sure what the role is, how to help develop associates into ambassadors and how to keep those ambassadors engaged with customers so that customer loyalty grows along with revenue and sales.
Defining the ambassador role
In the traditional world, before consumers became so mobile and so expectant of faster, easier shopping and product search, the store associate typically helped direct a shopper to the right aisle or worked the register or helped stock shelves.
Today, the job description includes all that and much more — especially when it comes to engaging and interacting with the consumer, according to Gary Iles, senior vice president of marketing and channel partnership for PlayerLync. PlayerLync is a training and performance software solution that integrates mobile learning, digital forms, mobile content management and daily operational performance management.
“Customers that enter a store are looking for an experience. If they weren’t, they’d complete their purchase and delivery online,” he told Retail Customer Experience in an email interview.
“The ability for the ambassador to assess that desired experience quickly, then map responses and support to the overall brand strategy is the difference between customer satisfaction and market amplification from the client, to an unmentionable and ordinary experience,” Iles said. “Retailers are thinking about how to turn that into a mention-able and positive experience, and therein lies the difficulty.”
PlayerLync, in partnership with Harvard College Consulting Group, has conducted extensive research on the digital transformation taking place within retail. Their report delves into how employee engagement. and a retailer’s culture. play into customer experience and how training and communication are key elements to stimulate employee engagement.
“Many companies view their employees as a means for driving efficiency with ‘brand ambassador’ as a secondary role. Other retailers view the employee as the ultimate relationship builders with customers,” said Iles.
Essentially, yesterday’s store associate is no longer just someone nearby to offer assistance. The role, according to Andy Morris, vice president and head of Egremont Group’s Global Retail Practice, has been completely redefined and requires a deeper skill set.
“Retail ambassadors are the living, breathing embodiment of the brand. Their interactions with customers shape brand perceptions just as much as the products that are purchased,” he told Retail Customer Experience in an email interview. “It’s important for retailers to enable associates to be present with customers, and not weighed down by competing responsibilities that aren’t customer-facing.”
One new required for an ambassador that necessarily wasn’t required of associates is empathy, he said.
“It’s a critical skill that helps associates connect and relate to customers in an authentic way.”
First steps in creating the ambassador role
Understanding and defining the ambassador role is a critical initial step toward developing the retail front line which engages and interacts with the consumer. Then retailers must understand that the employee’s experience, as an employee and ambassador, is crucial to driving a vibrant customer experience, said Iles.
“Create confidence with your retail ambassadors — empower them with the right information, the right training and a vehicle for providing feedback. Include associates in the process and show them that they’re driving exceptional customer experience. This can be a great motivator,” he advised.
Morris said retailers must work with associates/ambassadors to identify skills and responsibilities necessary to develop a strong ambassador.
“Creating a positive customer experience is an effort that requires constant fine tuning — and there isn’t anyone who better understands what is working — and what isn’t — than the associates who are interacting with customers every day,” he said.
He also recommends establishing a pipeline for feedback from the front line as a top priority.
“Too often, retailers dictate what should happen inside the stores instead of taking a bottom-up approach. Two-way dialogue is crucial to helping associates feel informed and empowered to be successful,” he said.
Ultimately, associates need an appropriate balance of direction and flexibility to allow their unique skills, talents, and experiences to shine.
Moving the ambassador strategy forward
Given PlayerLync’s research with Harvard, and conversations with retail clients, developing the ambassador role also requires behavioral training, persistent coaching and reinforcement, according to PlayerLync’s Iles.
“Brand experience can be difficult to manage because it’s based on personal relationships that are dynamic and different from customer to customer. One way of interacting does not fit all customers, and it’s the nuances of marrying knowledge with developing a quick personal relationship that matches the brand that becomes very key to consistency,” he said.
Morris said retailers must realize that changing the way store teams engage with customers requires an end-to-end, system-wide commitment to change.
“There are three big missteps I see retailers make over and over. First — they fail to listen to, and subsequently remove, the obstacles that prevent ambassadors from being more successful. Second — they talk about change, but then fail to make it actionable for associates. Third — changes fail to reduce complexities for store associates and sometimes even add to it, making it more difficult for them to create a positive customer experience,” he said.
Morris added that enabling associates to be strong brand ambassadors isn’t just about having great systems and processes in place.
“It’s about finding a way to ignite their sense of purpose and draw out the unique talents of each associate.”
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Judy Mottl is an experienced editor, reporter and blogger who has worked for top media including AOL, InformationWeek and InternetNews. She’s written everything from breaking news to in-depth trends. She loves a great pitch so email here, follow on Twitter and connect on LinkedIn.