It’s True – Customers Want Your Associates to be Experts

Returning the spotlight to the store associate

This post is part of a series focused on the retail industry highlighting emerging trends affecting consumer and retailer behavior.

We’ve all been there. You’re in a retail location — whether a restaurant, large store, or local shop. You browse their selection, navigate the layout and find an item to purchase. And just as you’re about to ask the associate a question and then pay, it happens…

Hang on for a minute. Before I complete that thought, let’s take a step back and look at how much retail has changed in the last decade. We’re all aware of the growth of e-commerce, which has gone from around 3.5% of sales in 2008 to just under 10% today, according to the US Department of Commerce.

The part of this story that is often overlooked is the resilience of the physical retail store. It’s something online retailers haven’t been able to fully match, no matter how slick their websites are or how adept their chat agents become. Sometimes, consumers just need to look at the products and ask, “Does this look good on me?” or “I’m looking for a gift — can you help me out?” along with the ever powerful allure of instant gratification.

The Wrong Kind of Attentive?

According to recent research, consumers aren’t always clamoring for attention from sales associates. In fact, 95% said they want to be left alone, according to a survey by HRC Retail Advisory, though 52% said they wanted a personal shopper to help them when it came to technology products. But in this same survey, 85% of consumers stated they wanted technology to provide additional information such as product prices in the store, and 76% wanted an in-store app to provide personal recommendations.

Before you replace all your associates with robots and apps, it’s important to understand the context driving consumer responses. What role are associates playing in stores and is that the best use of those resources? Consumer feedback speaks to the fact that associates have traditionally played the role of in-store salespeople, rather than helpful advisors who will help them select the right product and not simply the one with the highest commission.

Customers Are Smarter Than Ever

The modern consumer is too well-informed to be “sold” to. Get ready for this: Research by Tulip Retail found that 83% of shoppers believe they are more knowledgeable than retail store associates. Yet, 79% of them say being able to engage with knowledgeable store associates is “important” or “very important.”  Here’s how they tell the story:

“However, almost half of survey respondents said they would be encouraged to shop in-store if they could talk to knowledgeable store associates who could suggest products based on their purchase histories. About 73% said they would be interested in having a store associate text or email them about order status, including items being shipped to the store for pickup, while 72% who have dealt with a store associate who uses a mobile device to provide things like product info, credit card checkout, and inventory look-up said it resulted in a better shopping experience.”

Seems like a big chasm — 83% believe they are more knowledgeable than the store associate, yet they want a knowledgeable store associate. Ali Asaria, CEO of Tulip Retail summed it up nicely, “But there’s also some really good news for retailers that our survey uncovered – knowledgeable store associates are valued by shoppers, and those empowered with mobile technology are delivering better shopping experiences. Bottom line, investing in store associates needs to be a high priority. With the right tools, they can become beacons of knowledge, trusted advisors and drive sales.”

So, the desire to engage with store associates is there, but many shoppers would rather not be bothered by someone who knows less about the products than they do.

How to Hinder a Better Experience

At the other end of the engagement spectrum is the habit that associates have been trained and required to follow, which is where I left the start of this article hanging – it happens. The phone rings resulting in *Using associates for mundane, low-value tasks that take them away from properly serving the customers that are right in front of them. We’ve all experienced watching the lone clerk answer the phone to provide store hours or directions as we, the consumer, waste away in line as we wait to pay, leave, and possibly never return.

It’s no surprise that in the HRC Retail Advisory survey, consumers voiced that they want technology to pick up the slack of these sub-par retail experiences. Yet, they would also like the associate to be a product expert. Think of the experiences at popular retailers, not only on the high-end like Barney’s and Apple, but also at Best Buy, Sephora, and Duane Reade’s Look Boutique: These brands have made the associate a key element of the experience and established a major competitive advantage because of it.

Enable Your Associates to be the Face of Your New Experience

One of the major advantages of changing the way you prepare your associates is that it’s relatively inexpensive compared to an extensive store remodel or purchasing those armies of robots. With some training and direction, your small army of existing associates can be shifted to higher value engagement. This expectation of an “associate as an expert” can be built into new employee sourcing and training as well.

Traditionally, to achieve a more personal retail experience, you would create an additional team of “experts” and keep your existing associates to handle low-level tasks. But that is also expensive and inefficient. Technology is helping by automating away the need for humans to carry-out most of these menial tasks, and as analytics has advanced, predicting customer needs and requests has become easier as well. Here are some easy examples of how:

  • Automated IVR: When a customer calls in, your menu provides them with the most frequently requested information, satisfying basic interactions and giving associates more time with customers in store. (Example: If 60% of calls ask for store hours and 25% ask for your printing department, you can announce today’s store hours to every caller and provide that department as the first option in your menu.)
  • Workforce management: Based on recurring trends, you can staff your store to handle the influx of customers in one store and route those customers calling into stores that have additional capacity. (Example: Since different states have different back-to-school times, you can route calls away from busy locations to others that have not yet started their back-to-school shopping season or who have passed that peak time.)
  • Intelligent call routing: By connecting your stores with the rest of your organization, you can route a customer calling a store directly to the department or employee who can handle their specialized need. (Example: Instead of talking to the store associate about finding the right part for your vehicle, you talk to someone in another location who is an expert in that area and can locate the part across multiple stores.)

Yes, the retail landscape is constantly shifting. Savvy retailers aren’t bemoaning change, they are figuring out how to quickly take advantage of it. Returning the spotlight to the store associate is a key part of the current retail renaissance — one aspect of this opportunity is to make sure they are equipped with the communications capabilities that allow them to be the product expert that your customers expect them to be. (The other option is to start training all those robots on your ever-evolving product line…)

Learn more about 8x8 and our communication solutions for retail.

Russ Chadinha


Russ brings 20+ years of learning and experience to his Director of Solutions Marketing role at 8x8.  Leveraging experience that includes leadership roles in product management, product marketing, eCommerce and sales, he brings an innovative and creative approach to providing industry-specific solutions.  [...] Read More >