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Why Technology Isn’t Everything: Creating Meaningful Customer Relationships

Valeer Vandenbosch

In an omnichannel world, engaging with customers in a genuine way matters more than ever

Despite the rapid advancements in retail technology over the past several years, it might be easy to overlook the simple, tried-and-true fact that customers are people, and relationships with them matter––sometimes even more than the technology.


Today’s retailers are intensely focused on the omnichannel experience, the multiple channels of the shopping experience, and the technological details of completing a transaction. These are important things, no question, but Pareto’s rule of 80/20 is most certainly still relevant to the retail market: 20 percent of customer relationships drive 80 percent of the profit. Why? Because positive customer relationships breed brand loyalty and repeat business. In other words, if they can count on you, you can count on them.


The omnichannel model is arguably focused on numbers, not people. After all, with the “shop anywhere” mentality of most of today’s consumers, every sale counts, which is why so many retailers are looking to automate sales transaction and streamline other interactions with customers. But there’s a difference between consumers and customers. The former simply makes purchases and doesn’t contribute meaningful to a retailer. The latter, however, is an integral piece to instilling long-term value, romance and profitability to a brand.


In his book, “The Endangered Customer,” Richard Shapiro outlines eight essential “checklist” steps for attracting customers. They are:


1. Make me feel welcome (hope)

2. Give me your full attention (control)

3. Answer more than my question (connect)

4. Know your stuff (trust)

5. Don’t tell me no (frustration)

6. Invite me to return (feel wanted)

7. Show me I matter (caring)

8. Surprise me in good ways (feel special)


These principles start with employees on the floor. Apple is a good example. Associates are trained on the technology, of course, but there’s also a focus on creating relationships with customers. Talent is important, but engagement matters too. In fact, it’s largely what builds the “soul” of brands––the emotions that customers associate with the brands themselves.


Back when mass marketing and big-box stores were at their prime, the goal was to constantly maintain prices that were lower than competitors. This led retailers (Walmart, for example) to streamline everything from logistics to store operations, resulting in a lean staff––and less people on the floor to connect with customers.


The modern equivalent of that scenario is brick-and-mortar brands competing with the ecommerce giants. One way they’ve tried to stay ahead is the “buy online, pickup in store” strategy, in which customers have the online advantage of fast purchase and same-day receipt combined with the physical store advantage of seeing the product in person.


The idea is great, in theory. But the technology required to enable a fully reliable “buy online, pickup in store” model requires enormous investment––one that most retailers haven’t made (and aren’t ready to make). This past holiday season, faulty systems left many “buy online, pickup in store” customers frustrated, standing in line, with no associate who knew where their items were (or if they were in the store at all). This is a good example of how rushing to implement technology as a solution can actually work to sabotage the brand.


In the end, customers are people who want help when they need it and who want meaningful interactions with a brand––through every step of the purchasing process.

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