Will we still need “human” customer service?

With the growth of Amazon and other online retail innovators, do we really still want, or need, “human” customer service? We read about the explosive growth of e-commerce and its impact on brick and mortar retail. The numbers are staggering: more than 8,600 retail locations closed in 2017, and according to Credit Suisse, between 15 to 20% of the nation’s shopping malls are expected to close in the next five years.

Conversely, online apparel sales are expected to double their proportion of all e-commerce sales by 2030—up to 35%, from 17% today. The NRF is forecasting that retail sales overall will grow 4% in 2018, with GDP growing 2.5% to 3%. So where does that leave today’s retailers?

The consequences of these tectonic changes in the physical retail landscape are profound, but one thing that remains constant is the importance of the client’s in-store experience. Customer service with individualized human interaction is more important now than ever before. Being able to provide value-added service that exceeds expectations is an art, not a science, and is what sets physical stores apart from their virtual counterparts.

In the book industry, for example, independent bookstores have come to rely on their ability to provide personalized, knowledgeable customer service in order to stand out from their online competitors. A book suggestion generated by a computer algorithm is never going to equal the care and passion with which a well-informed bookstore salesperson will hand-sell their favorite novel. In this case, as with so many other brick and mortar businesses, customer service is the way not only to survive, but to thrive.

In fact, in a study conducted by retail strategy firm WD Partners, nearly 80% of respondents said instant gratification was the key benefit to buying in person; 75% said the experience of human connection was the reason they bought in store. And, in a recent PWC/SAP retailer study, studies showed that 78% of those surveyed felt it was “important” that sales associates have a deep knowledge of the product range, while only 63% were “satisfied” with current sales associate knowledge.

What this means is that retailers must focus on sales leadership, product knowledge, and personal engagement that differentiates. After all, what artificial intelligence and personalization online really comes down to is a re-creation of the human experience. With the vast majority of retail still being transacted in brick and mortar environments, it’s now more important than ever for thriving retailers to put their best foot forward and hire the best sales talent while cultivating an overall multi-channel strategy. The transformation of technology is critical for the future of experiential shopping, but so also is the transformation of its sales team to learn this technology without losing their personal touch.