A hidden gem is something which is extremely outstanding and not many people know about. The Consumer Affairs departments within major consumer product companies is one such gem. If retailers had included Consumer Affairs executives in strategy sessions to discuss how to add e-commerce to their mix, e-commerce never would have been set up as a separate business silo with no human interactions.
In the early 1970’s companies like Gerber Products recognized that new mothers needed advice about baby food around the clock. Obviously, baby care could not be restricted to just normal business hours. Other household consumer product companies followed and extended their hours beyond the typical 9 to 5, understanding that customer support was a big part of creating a positive experience. Even today, if you call the telephone number listed on packaging or a company site, the wait time is generally seconds, not minutes, and the representatives are well-trained and knowledgeable. There are mechanisms in place to compensate loyal consumers for faulty goods and the reps respond quickly to questions about ingredients, applications or expiration dates.
In the mid 1990’s when consumers began to email companies to ask questions, Consumer Affairs executives didn’t set up separate departments to respond to email requests. Representatives who were experts in the brand were trained to communicate in writing with consumers. Written communication can be tricky and should be concise and informative; some reps are obviously better at getting the message conveyed than others. Those reps with good writing skills were targeted and trained. Consumer Affairs recognized the importance of the email communication between the brand and their loyal consumers.
Continue to social media with consumers either voicing their frustrations or announcing their praise for a brand. First, consumer product companies panicked and hired outside PR and marketing firms to respond to consumers. Within a few months, not years, Consumer Affairs Executives screamed and said NO! It’s our staff who knows our consumers, our brands and is the proper advocate to respond to social media. Linda Pell, former Vice President of Kellogg’s Consumer Affairs Department who was also Chair of SOCAP International, the Society of Consumer Affairs Professionals in Business stood up at the annual conference and said, “We learned when consumers first started emailing companies, that the Consumer Affairs Department was the right one to respond. Social Media is just one more channel. Outsourcing our consumers to third party marketers doesn’t make sense.”
What lesson should retailers learn from this since E-commerce is treated as a distinct and separate function from brick & mortar stores? If retailers integrated e-commerce as another way a sales associate in the physical store could sell products to their customer base, the human-to-human personal relationship would be maintained. Good associates can develop a relationship with a customer that can be developed and sustained over years. Those relationships are the glue for customer loyalty, no matter where or how the customer shops.
There are many examples of how successful brick & mortar retailers such as Staples designed their e-commerce business to be devoid of the human touch. Staples had built up an amazing office products business. People who shopped in Staples when the chain first started in the late 1980’s were loyal customers. They depended on the advice of their local Staples store associate to purchase office supplies, computer equipment and various electronics. Once they expanded their business online, the relationships were broken; the products became commodities that could be found on Amazon, Walmart, Target and Best Buy. Retailers like Staples basically educated their loyal customers how to shop by price only.
Even e-commerce only companies should study the history of retailing and understand that the most successful retailers from their inception where the ones that had well-trained and knowledgeable associates who could build long lasting customer relationships. The human-to-human relationship is the strongest bond, keeping your customers from going elsewhere, and turning first time customers into repeat consumers. If you have a brick & mortar business, think how Consumer Affairs Executives would implement a strategy and fuse every channel, not create separate entities. If your business is e-commerce only, think about the human connection, and make sure it’s easy for a customer to speak to a person who can become the customer’s go-to-person when they have a question or need help with a buying decision.
It’s not too late to start staffing your retailing business with executives who have Consumer Affairs experience and understand that consumers who shop on two channels need to have their relationship nurtured and coordinated with one voice. A voice that is not a bot, but a person who is passionate about the brand, understands the consumer’s preferences and has a heart to create and build a human-to-human connection.