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GUEST COMMENT How effective use of digital communication channels helps retailers support customers in a time of crisis

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The coronavirus pandemic has forced retailers to adapt to a dramatic change in consumers’ shopping behaviour. With the general population under lockdown, customers are spending more time on digital channels as they turn to online shopping, even for essential goods. This is placing a substantial burden on delivery services, with reports of grocery chains being unable to offer delivery slots for weeks and some logistics organisations suspending their service guarantees. As a result, customer service teams are also under increased pressure. 

Even if the most challenging phase of the crisis appears to be passing, information about areas such as stock availability and delivery dates can still prove difficult to get hold of and rely on. There is a pressing need for retailers to communicate with customers to keep them in the loop and help ease their concerns. Prompt communications around these areas is essential and therefore, the channels that retailers use to communicate to customers become absolutely crucial. 

Keeping customers in the loop

Effective communication with customers during a crisis plays an important role in easing their concerns. Setting the right expectations with customers while retailers grapple with extraordinary circumstances is imperative. Informing customers of limited stocks and delayed or cancelled deliveries due to staff shortages will not only be appreciated but help manage customer expectations effectively. Of course, this can only realistically happen in practice if they have the ability to send out a high volume of messages across multiple channels at short notice.

Retailers must also prepare to handle a huge influx of inbound enquiries from customers in parallel to their proactive communication efforts. Contact centres will have to be supported by alternative ways of query resolution such as call deflection to messaging channels and AI-powered chatbots that address simple queries.

Focusing on the most effective channels

The traditional avenues of communication that retailers have used so far are a good starting point but don’t go far enough in the current situation, even as lockdown measures begin to ease. Email newsletters and website banners can’t be expected to reach everybody; plans might change at short notice rendering communications out of date within a matter of hours. Instead, retailers should look to augment such communications using messaging channels like WhatsApp, Apple Business Chat and Rich Communication Services (RCS), making the most of the smartphone’s ability to offer richer, more engaging communications. These are more likely to be seen and acted upon than email communications or website banners since they enable the customer to reply, allowing for two-way, conversational interactions. At a time when many customers are actively checking their phones for updates on the crisis, or to communicate with friends and family, these capabilities can help make sure that the message gets across. 

Redirecting customer communications towards these interactive channels is a realistic prospect for most businesses. According to our research, a significant number of retail CIOs have already used messaging channels to interact with their customers, with more than three quarters already using SMS. Even if these channels were on the periphery of a retailer’s customer communications strategy before, the current crisis should push them to the centre.

Flexibility is key

The pandemic and ensuing lockdown has meant that retailers have been forced into new habits at short notice. The importance of being able to communicate with customers through digital channels is growing, meaning that retailers need to ensure their IT house is in order and they have the necessary agility to easily adopt these new channels. 

This is particularly important considering that customer demands are likely to evolve much more quickly in future. Even though it looks as if the most difficult stage of the crisis is now behind us, the effects of the lockdown will likely persist for some time. Not only will customers have questions on stock availability and delivery windows as retailers’ service levels begin to get back to normal, they may have new expectations post-lockdown, particularly where convenience is concerned. Lockdown innovations such as curbside pick-up, or Boots/No.7’s virtual appointment service won’t be forgotten once the crisis passes. Having the means to adapt quickly to these changing demands and expectations will pay dividends for retailers in the post-coronavirus environment. 

All of this adds up to an ability to reach the customer’s preferred channel – and retailers need flexibility to be able to do this in practice. Retailers must find a way to draw value from the legacy technology they rely on, while also integrating their various siloes of customer data to support more seamless customer experiences. As customers become accustomed to the real-time, more interactive experiences they’ve been offered during the lockdown, it’s important that retailers continue to use them, rather than quietly dropping them, once things get back to normal.

Trailblaze to succeed

It has taken a pandemic to highlight the criticality of modern digital infrastructure and the need for retailers to communicate in the way that consumers demand, with messaging channels at the core. Brands are now compelled to digitise and innovate or risk becoming obsolete, with a key emphasis on customer empathy and human-centered innovation, to develop more meaningful connections than ever before. The ‘new normal’ will leave the retail landscape forever changed, thus it is up to brands to adapt quickly in these ‘not so normal’ times and develop a new approach.

Jay Patel is group chief executive at IMImobile

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