Blog | Dec 20, 2021

Look After Your Employees and They Will Look After Your Customers

Look After Your Employees and They Will Look After Your Customers

It’s long been recognized that the retail brands treating their employees well are the ones delivering the best services to customers. And that’s the case whether employees are on the shop floor or working in a customer center. Going the extra mile can make the difference between making a sale and losing a customer for life.

The new lockdown-induced retail models, as well as the technology that exists to automate and improve business processes, have made the situation more complex. Not only did store and call center staff have to change the way they worked, but many skilled retail employees were furloughed because of the pandemic and are now reassessing their careers, as they are also in higher demand.

Dealing with change

How can retailers bring all three elements together as retail trends return to something like normal?

First, embrace that online shopping, already growing before the pandemic, will remain a popular and efficient option. Curbside or store pickup options are also popular with customers, especially for electrical items or groceries. Online sales advice and demos delivered remotely by in-store staff could also be here to stay.

However, retailers have had to redesign job roles for employees, requiring them to take on new responsibilities with resiliency and flexibility. To retain the best people in a competitive marketplace, retailers need to provide more than good salaries and benefits; they also need to run a digital operation that empowers their workforce with relevant tools, as well as data and insights that help them engage with customers and exceed their expectations.

It means retailers need to make working in their stores as friction-free an experience as possible, and one that improves productivity. This could encompass providing real-time, AI-enabled applications, such as mobile scheduling, shift swapping/bidding, task management, and real-time communication tools and applications.

Improving working conditions through smarter algorithmic merchandising so warehouses and stores are optimized instead of being crammed full and difficult to search or replenish is another area that could help retain talented employees.

At the same time, retailers are under cost pressure because of rising prices, staff shortages and precarious supply chains. Somehow, they need to achieve all of the above without having to invest in a wholesale replacement of core IT systems.

Adopting digital workplaces

The pandemic showed how reliant retailers and consumers were on the work that store and contact center staff do, and how important they continue to be in servicing customers safely and effectively. It also demonstrated how retailers that had already invested in digital transformation were in a much better position to pivot their operations than those that had not.

After years of underinvestment, many retailers are now playing catch-up to equip employees to provide high-quality commerce experiences, placing efficiency and enablement at the top of retail strategies. A third of retail respondents to Gartner’s 2021 CIO Survey indicate plans to increase spending on digital workplaces.

Investments in retail digital workplaces, particularly those in physical-store environments, have been proven to grow sales and increase profits, creating a virtuous cycle of investment and creating significant competitive advantage. In order for retailers to build the ability of store personnel required for meeting customer expectations safely and effectively, frontline workers must become one of a retailer’s most significant investments.

Reaping the rewards of investment

One example of a retailer that has taken a lead in this area is Lowe’s Home Improvement in the US. It has significantly stepped up investment to ensure frontline workers have the tools and support needed to do their jobs in a challenging environment.

As the pandemic began to unfold, Lowe’s made the decision to fast-track a nationwide rollout of curbside pickup. It had just completed an e-commerce platform to facilitate this, rolling out mobile devices to a third of its store staff. The retailer also intensified its focus on taking care of employees. Lowe’s committed millions to store staff during the pandemic, and extended hourly pay increases, profit-sharing bonuses and telemedicine to frontline associates.

As a result, Lowe’s sales performance has been on the rise over the past several quarters, and its customer satisfaction scores have also risen significantly. The company’s senior leaders could see that, if bonuses and incentives were cut, it would be even harder to secure the best people.

Moving forward, part of prioritizing the frontline workforce and scaling digital workplace investments will also include making closer and ongoing assessments of the human-machine labor portfolio. Using technology to offload back-office and routine work, and allowing staff to take on more meaningful customer-facing responsibilities, is key to building digital empowerment in the workplace.

However, retailers must find an optimal balance in order to gain the most business value, meet customer expectations, and grow and maintain employee trust. This will include considering the applicability of new and emerging technologies, such as micro-fulfilment, smart check-out and smart robots.

First steps toward employee investment

In our experience with retailers, the best way to start is by identifying and investing in functions that have the greatest potential impact on store managers and staff experiences—intelligent automation, for example—to increase scheduling productivity and accuracy.

Another way to build on this is to use real-time communication tools to enable collaboration and knowledge-sharing among employees to build a support structure across store teams.

Finally, it helps to work closely with the business and store operational leads to evaluate the connectivity of task management with end-to-end retail business processes, including merchandising, channel operations and fulfilment.

Ultimately, it will be a combination of smart digital technologies and empowered employees that will enable retailers to gain a competitive edge in the post-pandemic era of recovery and regrowth.

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