Richard Shapiro is a recognized thought-leader in the area of customer retention. He is the President & Founder of The Center For Client Retention. For over 30 years, his organization has provided research, consulting and training services to the Fortune 500, including fifteen of the largest market value corporations in the world. Prior to starting his own company, he held the role of VP, Client Retention & Customer Satisfaction for ADP. He has also written two best-selling books and has been interviewed by numerous news organizations regarding customer experience. Additionally, Richard is an adjunct professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City.
Richard gives us his expert view on the values of Customer Experience, the continued emergence of Artificial Intelligence (AI), and retail trends companies should consider.
Can you introduce yourself and tell us about your background?
My name is Richard Shapiro. I got my first taste of customer experience in my early teens. My dad owned a small men’s retail store and every Saturday, I worked with him. I was the cashier and observed my dad interacting with customers. It was a valuable education. My dad taught me three valuable lessons. Customers are people first, customers second. Always welcome everyone into the store as we would welcome guests into our home. The importance of, and how to, create an emotional bond with each customer from day one. My dad, who passed away when I was only in my late twenties, would be extremely proud of me today, knowing that I am carrying out his legacy by teaching people what I learned from him so many years ago.
How important is Customer Service for companies?
Customer Service is critically important to any organization if the goal is to stay in business over the long run. When we refer to Customer Service, it means different things to different people. Is it a department, a function, or how we handle a transaction? Are we referring to face-to-face, over the phone, email or omni-channel? In my world, Customer Service is a component of Customer Experience. Customer Experience should start with the first interaction a customer or prospective customer has with a company, regardless of the channel and should never end. Built into my definition of the Customer Experience is how companies create and build a relationship at each customer touchpoint.
Customers’ mindsets are wrapped around hope – they want to buy a certain product, find the perfect gift, or have a problem resolved. Their intent is to find someone who can deliver that hope, who they can trust is competent and caring, even after the transaction has been completed. Remember, customers are people. Those companies that can match their Customer Experience with a customer’s human emotion will be winners.
What Retail trends should companies be looking to adopt/consider this year?
With the continued emergence of Artificial Intelligence (AI), retailers are at-risk if AI is their only focus. Technology must never diminish the customer experience. When AI replaces the emphasis on the human-to-human experience, your company’s competitive advantage will disappear. There is an old saying in the carpentry trade, “measure twice, cut once.” Before eliminating staff to substitute with AI, think hard about the consequences. Some other important trends are as follows:
- The Circular Economy Expands, Retailers Go Sustainable, and Customers Approve
Retailers as Eileen Fisher, H&M and Patagonia have all implemented programs to encourage customers to return worn garments. These articles are resold as used, turned into other types of apparel, or used as raw materials for other products. It makes sense.
- Cashier-Less Checkout Expands Rapidly
As Amazon expands its Amazon Go chain of self-service convenience stores, dozens of startups are competing with established firms to master and lead this potentially game-changing retail model. But once again, self-service by its very nature implies limited or no human contact. While customers like to self-serve to avoid long wait times, when there is an issue, they want immediate resolutions. I think the cashless stores are appropriate for convenience items, but not for most other categories of products.
- Maximize Store Associates to Help Online Shoppers
One of my favorite trends is a service offered by a UK-based technology company, named Hero. It connects online shoppers with brick & mortar associates who are idle at the time. Too many e-commerce sites are designed to make it difficult to reach a person. (Not great for e-commerce customer service.) Clients of Hero who start their shopping experience online are encouraged to contact the company. In general, while customer service representatives within a contact center environment are well trained, it’s nearly impossible for them to be as familiar with the product as sales associates who can see and touch the materials and are also familiar with how a garment looks on customers. The sales associate can also send back videos or photos if prospective customers have a question. It’s a perfect match for our new omni-channel world.
What is the objective for The Center for Client Retention?
From the inception of The Center For Client Retention, our purpose has not changed. While customer acquisition is critically important for any organization, companies need to have a strategy in place to retain customers and continually increase market share from B2B and wallet share from B2C. We help companies implement those strategies through our research, training and consulting services. By providing tools to build stronger customer relationships, company associates can think in terms of creating emotional bonds instead of just fighting to close the next deal. As a person, I love to help other people. I mentor young people, teach at universities and established customer experience meet-up groups where people can learn from one another.
The Center For Client Retention at its core is helping companies survive and thrive in the ever-changing world of technology. Customers are fickler, especially now presented with so many option and acquisition costs are higher than ever. Customer retention made sense in 1988 when we first opened our doors and is still paving the way for the future.
According to you, what will be the key Customer Experience trends for the next 12 months?
Customer Experience trends are bigger and better. In retail, Artificial Intelligence (AI) tops the list, with a virtual army of app developers working around the clock to help us excite, entertain and educate our clients. With AI, shopping will be more highly personalized than ever, potentially quashing any lingering doubts that customer service and experience are very different animals. Again, always remember the critical importance of the human component. But in order to emphasize experience, we’ll need to better understand the customer and how s/he relates to the brand; knowing what s/he purchased on Monday won’t cut it.
- Customer Experience with a Brand Purpose
Providing a more pleasurable experience through signature scents, luxurious décor and beautiful music encourages consumers to remember us and return, but when the experience helps them make better buying decisions, it takes on purpose. One powerful way to accomplish this is to help customers physically grasp the usefulness of our merchandise for a given situation. Quality outerwear retailer Canada Goose figured this out and has been installing cold rooms in its flagship stores so customers can try on its coats in the conditions they were designed for. It’s like a walk-in freezer: cold inside, but warming the prospect up through a very cool experience. A store is no longer a place merely to display products, but to provide brand experiences that are simultaneously engaging and practical.
- Voice Chat Conveys Warmth and Personality
Text messaging is convenient: you send a text and the recipient reads and responds to the message in due course. It’s perfect in many situations, but voice chat makes any conversation come to life. It’s your voice, with your tone and inflection. It’s more personal and it helps avoid the misinterpretation that can occur with text communication. An app that’s hoping to conquer this space is Zello. Described as “the push-to-talk mobile app that redefines the walkie talkie.”
- AI Moves from Personalized to Predictive
AI lets firms use the information they collect about the buying habits of a given client to create a more personalized experience and predict future actions. Predictive consumer analytics is not new, and neither is Amazon’s use of it. As early as 2010 Jeff Bezos described “business intelligence and data analytics, machine learning and pattern recognition, neural networks and probabilistic decision making” as among the techniques and technologies the firm was already exploring to build its customer base. United Airlines, Netflix and Spotify are some other notable brands applying AI algorithms to their customer data and creating win-win outcomes.
Richard, do you have any other comments or thoughts you would like to share?
It’s easy to focus on the latest trend or fad. That being said, good customer service doesn’t change. Like my dad taught me, customers are people first. Customers do not make purchases in a vacuum; people buy with emotion and will be loyal to a company if they feel wanted and cared for. Hope is the strongest human emotion; noone calls a company, walks into a physical store, or checks out a website unless they hope to find what they need or want. Uncovering an individual’s hope and providing a personalized roadmap to deliver that hope will ensure long-term retention. Technology is a tool to assist hope; the connective tissue is between two people. Next time a staff meeting is held, talk about the concept of hope and how your company can do a better job of delivering a customer’s dream.