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Starting with the individual: Steve Dennis on improving customer experiences

Starting with the individual: Steve Dennis on improving customer experiences

Understanding customers – every one of them – and their shopping journeys helps retailers identify and remove friction from retail experiences

BY Sean C. Tarry

Steve Dennis photo
Steve Dennis, President & Founder, SageBerry Consulting and Forbes Contributor

Everyone experiences friction at some point during their day. It could manifest as a result of traffic congestion on your way home from a long day at the office, holding you back from where you want to go. It could be caused by poor or slow service at your favourite restaurant, keeping you from what you want. Or, the source could be an unwanted visit at your door by a solicitor who’s trying to sell you something or provide you with information that you didn’t ask for or want. In each of these cases, the friction is caused by something different. And, in each case, the friction itself is reflecting a different pain point. However, each example is very real, negatively impacting those who experience the friction in different ways and to varying degrees.

Considering these examples, it isn’t difficult to understand the monumental task that retailers face in eliminating or reducing friction from the retail experience for their customers. If every person is different, seeking different experiences, valuing elements of their experiences differently than the next person, how can retailers possibly make the right decisions when structuring their store experiences? According to Steve Dennis, President & Founder, SageBerry Consulting and Forbes Contributor, retailers must start by understanding each individual customer and what friction means to them.

Q: Considering all the different elements of retail where friction could occur, how do retailers go about removing it from the customer’s shopping journey to create a more enjoyable, favourable experience for them?

Steve Dennis: The way you get the answer is by identifying who your most important customers are – the ones you want to grow your business with. By diving deep into each of their individual journeys you can dissect their interaction with you, developing a keen understanding of their needs and desires and the reasons they’ve visited you, either online or in-store. Doing this, you’ll be able to then focus on the things that matter most to those customers, uncovering exactly where their individual pain points are when it comes to friction in their journey as well as where the opportunities are to create a ‘wow’ experience for them. In each case, the element of friction will depend on the customer journey. Ensuring speed and convenience is one area where a lot of retailers are focussing their time and effort. But you’ve got to make sure that you don’t sacrifice effectiveness for speed. What represents friction and fatigue for some may not be the case for others. It’s critically important for retailers to take the time to map out their customers’ journeys to understand exactly where the friction is and avoid misplacing their time, effort and resources.

Q: How can retailers use the physical retail space to create differentiation from online competitors, particularly Amazon?

SD: In certain categories where the consumer wants to touch and feel the product, retailers have an automatic advantage over Amazon. It’s really about focusing on the things that the physical retail store is already good at – providing a community and human experience, meaningful advice offered from helpful, knowledgeable salespeople, providing immediate gratification by offering pick-up in-store or return to the store options for customers. Those are all things that Amazon can’t offer in most cases. Another big neutralizer when competing against Amazon is offering products that are exclusive in some way, shape or form. If you’re able to develop private brands, you’re not as open to competition from Amazon because people can’t make direct comparisons on product quality or price. It’s also about creating a more harmonized experience for the customer, which essentially means not getting caught up in the channel discussion but thinking of the customer as the channel. You can then find ways to root out friction in their shopping experience and identify the elements of your offering that the customer cares about most, and then amplify those elements.

Q: How big of a role can customer service play with respect to finding differentiation and carving out competitive advantage over a company like Amazon?

SD: Retailers have got to start doing a much better job at being really committed to treating different customers differently and to treat different shopping occasions differently. The challenge is, there’s no one-size-fits-all silver bullet. But if you really understand each of your customers deeply, and you understand their journeys and how they vary depending on what they buy, you begin to understand where injecting the human element adds value. There are plenty of situations where customers don’t want any human interaction. If someone wants to get in and out of a store and they know exactly what they want and they’re focused on speed, then something like Amazon Go may work extremely well for them. But in other cases, where the customer is looking for a human connection and really need some expert advice and want to be able to look the salesperson in the eye, then opportunities are created for the physical store that an online-only retailer can’t capitalize on. People seek human connections. But the key for every retailer with a physical presence is to dive down deep into the customer journey to understand their experience and determine the ‘wow’ factor that differentiates you and that you can amplify.


Steve Dennis appeared onstage at STORE 2019 on Tuesday, May 28 discussing ways retailers can transform the customer experience. 

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