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GUEST COMMENT The augmented sales person is coming

Robot wars: time for a mix of people and machines?

Recent advances in e-commerce have accelerated the convergence of physical and digital sales channels. As a result, managing these sales channels separately has become obsolete. Even pure web players seeking to increase their brand awareness are opening showrooms, concept stores and pop-ups.

Retail chains are also adopting the omnichannel approach – sharing information to satisfy consumers’ cross-channel shopping habits. Despite this, the human presence remains central –especially in stores.

Phygitalisation, the superpower of the salesperson

Over the past couple of years, stores have also transformed how they deliver the customer experience. Mobile payments are gradually eradicating the long and tedious process of queuing to pay for goods – they also mean the end of the cash register and the cashier.

A recent study of critical factors in creating the perfect in-store experience ranks ‘simplicity and speed of execution’ in second place, with a UK score of 48%, just behind product availability at 60%.

The end of the cashier also means the salesperson is devoted solely to the customer experience. They can concentrate on advising the customer to enhance and personalise their experience, and can use digital tools to help them. Tablets, for example, give new powers to sales staff, offering a 360° view of each customer. 

Technologies like geolocation or facial recognition are now taking this a step further, automatically providing relevant offers and advice to shoppers as they move around a store. Alternatively, a salesperson can initiate the process through their conversations with a customer, based on these automated suggestions. Either way, ’phygitalization’ – a physical presence enhanced with digital applications – provides an intimate knowledge of customers and their buying preferences.

It’s this knowledge, this vast amount of data pooled from online purchasing history, comments on social media, and previous interactions with the customer care teams that offers an avenue to new levels of personalisation in the customer experience. As we’re just at the start of the data revolution, in many ways, the potential of phygitalization remains untapped.

At the same time, customers themselves have become consumer experts; often trusting their friends and other consumers’ opinions above brand marketers. The result? Sales staff are no longer the only ones with ‘knowledge’ at their fingertips.

So where does that leave the role of the sales assistant? They must be important otherwise consumers would not bother to make the trip to the store.

The importance of context

I think the answer lies in context. The importance of a diagnosis, an assessment of what the shopper needs, cannot be underestimated. Consumers want reassurance, of course, but the contextual analysis is still the sales person’s area of expertise.

What gives them an added advantage in this area is that, in addition to all the customer data they can access, sales associates are also equipped with real-time communication tools. Using apps on their tablets, and via unified and collaborative communication solutions, they have access to other experts in their network(s).

For example, a salesperson who wants to create a unique experience for a hiking customer could initiate a chat thread to find out whether a specialised sales person is available in another store; or start a video conversation between the expert and the customer via an app, photos, maps, good deals, etc. On top of hyper-personalisation is contextualisation. The salesperson can respond in real time and ensure a continuous and coherent customer conversation across several channels.

To me, this enhanced version of the traditional omnichannel strategy allows all company information to be merged with information about the customer and results in hugely improved customer experience.

I’m not alone in this analysis. According to the consultancy firm, Mordor: unified and collaborative communications serving both the customer experience and the salesperson user experience are increasingly widespread. In the UK, for example, the firm predicts a 25% annual growth rate for Unified Communications as a Service (UCaas) in the retail market between 2016 and 2022, with other European markets following a similar trend. 

The role of sales associates in-store is being re-invented. Stores are buzzy, energised places, where sales staff offer emotion-filled experiences to customers – and I don’t believe Amazon’s vision for humanless stores will take off any time soon.

Author: Jean-Denis Garo, director of marketing at Mitel

Image credit: Fotolia

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