The Great Customer Reset

Sean Claessen

Why the human interface of your brand needs to come first right now

Every year, on the first Tuesday in October, customer experience professionals globally celebrate great CX and the people who make it happen. In years past, we’ve joined in and shared the fundamentals that are key for retail brands to deliver CX transformation success. That was the ultimate goal for many brands, as they plotted how to make the most of every moment along the journey in pursuit of a utopian customer experience. When the transformation was complete, the customer would feel like an awestruck Cinderella in a blue ball gown, walking through the world; birds and butterflies flitting about, manifesting the world as it *could* be—every single aspect of their experience amazing.

Pre-pandemic, this was a fair and noble pursuit for brands. And don’t get me wrong: all that deep work—CX transformation, digital acceleration, five-year strategy, and so on—is still important work that needs to be done. But, as we mark CX Day 2021, things are looking a little different.

There is a fire going on right now.
In the U.S., retail is experiencing the largest increase in employee resignations of any industry. According to the Washington Post, 649,000 retail employees quit their jobs in April 2021, the industry’s largest one-month exodus since the Labor Department began tracking this data more than 20 years ago. While some workers were forced to quit during the pandemic because family responsibilities made their jobs untenable, many are quitting because they believe they can find better opportunities elsewhere.
customer service cx retail
Meanwhile, Joblist’s Job Market Report Q2 2021 found that 38% of former hospitality workers are not even considering a hospitality job for their next position. These workers are leaving the industry in search of a different work setting (52%), higher pay (45%), better benefits (29%), and more schedule flexibility (19%).

Across sectors, the massive employee exodus—dubbed The Great Resignation—is only starting to demonstrate devastating business impacts, from the hard costs of replacing employees to more intangible costs like reduced morale and engagement for those employees who have decided to stick it out. I think the exodus has also taken a lot of retail and hospitality organizations by surprise. When the pandemic hit, employers thought they were hitting pause and just had to restart the engine when they were allowed to be fully back in business. However, what was happening behind the scenes was a profound erosion of the employee experience.

Read our latest on the resignation topic: A Silver Lining to the Great Resignation

With organizations trying to figure out how to survive the pandemic, the fundamentals of the employee experience—purpose, engagement, trust, belonging, and so on—weren’t being tended to. Now, cracks in the foundation have formed, threatening to bring down the whole house.

Picture it this way: the customer experience is predicated on a foundational layer of customer service, but the customer service layer is falling apart because the employee experience that underpins it is turbo-strained. Adding to the potential disaster is that the employees who have stayed are left to do what they can just to keep their employers’ doors open—covering expanded responsibilities, stretched thin all over.

I was in a Home Depot store recently, on a DIY mission to get custom blinds. After flagging down several employees, paging several others over the PA system—there was not a single employee in the store who knew how to use the machine to cut the blinds. This poor young employee had to come over and tell me there was in fact no one in the store who could help—they were barely adequately staffed to be open in the first place. He explained that if he tried using the machine, it would be a liability and he’d probably get fired. That’s when I silently gave the company a slogan makeover: “You can do it. We can’t help.”

serviceThis isn’t just a single #customerservicefail example. What’s happening is a customer service fail at scale. The reality on the ground is a mishmash of poor customer service, lack of trained and engaged employees, and of course, the lack of staff. It’s all made apparent when customers can only find three people on the floor of a home-improvement retailer, hotels have done away with previous levels of housekeeping during guest stays, and some restaurants can only open four days a week to control labor and unavoidable waste costs.

Failing to deliver on expectations and the brand’s purpose and promise doesn’t just impact the intangible customer experience—it also puts customer loyalty at risk—frequency, baskets, and retention suffer. And that’s the lifeblood of many retailers by which more aspirational endeavors are paid for. The Loyalty Report 2021 shows that there’s a 4.8× lift in program loyalty when frontline employees make members feel special and recognized; a 4.2× lift when program representatives proactively address their needs; and a 3.9× lift in program loyalty when customer support representatives answer members’ questions or solve their problems.

Right now, there is a huge opportunity for brands to drastically differentiate from their competitors just by taking care of their employees, which will, in turn, give customer service the great reboot it needs. The work starts with asking: What good reason do you have for employees to work for you? Without a doubt, people need a decent wage and safe working conditions. But beyond that, there’s a host of reasons we as human beings decide to show up and do our jobs well each day: we believe in our employer’s purpose, we’ve got a sense of belonging with other like-minded people, emotional and physical safety with that group to try new things, reciprocal flexibility and understanding with each other, a career path more than a gig, and a belief that our work matters to those we do it for and with.

Remember, there is NO customer experience without employee experience. The risk I see is that if brands don’t focus on employee experience as the burning problem, then all the other elements of CX that are predicated on employees will fall like a house of cards. Don’t mishear me: In 2021, digital experience matters—100%—but the human interface needs to come first right now. This is where the real retail apocalypse is.

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