While successive lockdowns have demonstrated retailers' resilience, they have also removed one of the essential components of buying journeys: human interaction and the role of in-store sales staff. Creating additional value and putting the charm back into the buying experience will only be possible by bringing the human touch and the digital buying journey back together.
A sense of history
While e-commerce is a practical response (and the only response in certain situations, such as when buying "non-essential" products in France) to COVID-19 restrictions, and everybody is being encouraged to switch to digital, brands and shops need to think carefully about the experience they want to offer consumers. In order to rekindle or strengthen the emotional or symbolic relationships that customers have with brands, and introduce more personalisation in their customer experience, brands need to make the best use of technology to (re)integrate the human dimension, which is inseparable from a digital buying journey. With the exception of impulse and repetitive buying, customers do not only want to buy in order to consume, but to have a buying experience, sometimes including discoveries that delight the senses.
With this in mind, the RoPo (research online, purchase offline) trend shows the limits of e-commerce in its mono channel dimension: while digital offers access to catalogues and product information, the act of buying itself is often better done in a brick-and-mortar store. Behavioural studies carried out in the first half of 2020 show that, with digital uses becoming more widespread (among senior and rural population segments), the need for advice and assistance has never been greater. The closing of shops has deprived us of human interaction, so how can we bring it back to life behind our screens?
The human dimension in the digital buying journey: how, why and, above all, when?
To understand the value of the human dimension in the digital buying journey, we simply need to look at the added value that an efficient customer relationship approach generates for brands and shops. Everywhere, this relationship is a vehicle for customer satisfaction and loyalty and is an integral part of business strategy. The challenge is to know when and through which touchpoint human interaction is meaningful and value-creating in the buying journey. Downstream of this journey, customer service centres, which are already positioned as the cornerstone of the customer relationship strategy, are seeing a transformation of the way they work.
Traditionally present for customers in the event of a complaint, service centre staff are increasingly playing the role of advisor and assisting customers in the buying process. Assisted by various modules and storefronts integrated in omnichannel solutions, they manage product recommendations according to individual customer profiles, assistance with placing orders and the setting up of personalised offers.
Upstream of the buying journey, the work of sales staff is also undergoing a transformation in the era of unified commerce. An approach based on the idea of "clienteling", or the "augmented salesperson", is used to build a continuous customer relationship, by giving salespeople back their role of advisor. Many retail brands have created various online systems to book sessions where salespeople located at the point of sale provide a remote product discovery experience. Soulless chatbots are being replaced by sales advisors available via video chat, who are helping create a shopping experience in customers' homes or kitchens.
Creating a new contract of trust with customers
In order to further integrate customer-salesperson exchanges in the digital buying journey, brands have an opportunity to embrace this new paradigm and strengthen the digital, but no less real, presence of sales advisors. These "remote advisors", who must be highly accessible in order to be able to adopt the immediacy of digital journeys, will be at the heart of this ultra-personalized relationship. This can be achieved, for example, by enabling customers to chat with a salesperson very rapidly. Sales staff will also be able to handle tasks such as subscriptions, and adding to the basket or wish list Lastly, they will be able to manage product returns, instead of using forms or impersonal systems.
It will only be possible to achieve the ideal of "re-humanised e-commerce" by exploiting the fundamentals of unified commerce. It is essential for the salesperson, who can maintain contact with customers via all communication channels, to be able to rely on solutions designed for consulting, assisting and advising. This means that the remote advisor will be properly equipped to have a 360-degree view of both their customers (buying history, wish lists, etc.) and products (the entire brand catalogue; not just the one that is available at their point of sale).
Faced with customer experience challenges and digital transformations that have been accelerated by the current health crisis, brands have much to gain from bringing meaning back to the act of buying. Those that take heed of the need to draw on their human resources to put the charm back into the digital buying journey will stand out from the rest.