The Future of Customer Service: What Does it Look Like?

Predictions about the future of customer service paint a bleak picture for the human race:

  • 85% of customer service interactions will take place using technology.
  • 80% of companies already use or want to use chatbots by 2020.
  • 60% of consumers are likely to abandon brands that can’t meet their digital expectations.

The rise of the robots is inevitable.

But at this year’s WFM Forum, hosted by REPL and ReThink, an expert panel agreed that we’re far from doomed.

Instead, living, breathing retailers can work alongside their AI-powered counterparts to deliver the levels of exceptional customer service that their fellow humans demand.

Here we share their insight about how, hand-in-hand, people and technology have to join forces to face the future with confidence.

The Panel

Chaired by Simon Hedaux, founder of ReThink, the panel consisted of:

  1. Diane Wehrle, founder and director at retail intelligence specialists Springboard
  2. Pauline Bennett, retail labour and planning manager at Sainsbury’s
  3. Phil Whittle, retail director at Schuh
  4. Nicola Raynor, senior workload and planning manager at Wilko.

Together with delegates, they explored topics including the rise of AI in retail, how technology can free up time for colleagues and how they should be spending it, plus how streamlining the omnichannel experience is vital.

What Does the Future of Customer Service Look Like?

“We’ve seen all this stuff about walking into a shop with no sales staff, choosing products on a screen and them being delivered to the shop floor by a robot, or in our case a shoe-bot.

“I’m not convinced the industry will ever go that far. Shoppers want human interaction, especially in fashion when a visit to a store is a bit of fun and escapism. The service just needs to be as slick and efficient as possible.

“The biggest frustration in the shoe sector is when customers ask to try on a pair of shoes, the sales assistant disappear backstage and comes back either empty-handed or with something completely different.

“This is where tech is already making a difference. Our investment has been in giving customers immediacy in terms of knowledge of the inventory. We’re honest about this and won’t waste their time. Offering this kind of service will become increasingly important.”

Phil Whittle, Schuh

“At Sainsbury’s, the key for us is maintaining our heritage and protecting the foundations of our business. We have to move with the times but keep our vision intact.

“Saying that, the customer experience will feel completely different. Already, customers want their transaction to start as soon as they walk through the door. They want to cut down on the number of steps it takes to shop for food – finding what they want, checking prices, queueing at a check-out, taking it all out of the trolley and putting into bags.

“Technology is the only way to do that.”

Pauline Bennett, Sainsbury’s

“I believe that check-outs staffed by store assistants will disappear completely. Instead, we’ll see self-service everywhere.

“Customers will have hand-held scanners or use a smartphone app while sales staff will be on the floor focused on encouraging them to linger in-store for longer. Achieving this through experience and conversation is the key to exploiting those customers who do come into your store rather than the one next door.

“While the tech looks after the transactional side, retailers will have the opportunity to increase transactional value through differentiation. Whether that’s from in-store experiences or collaborating with other brands to diversify their offer, their efforts will start to add that 1% and the next 1% to profits.”

Diane Wehrle, Springboard

“At Wilko, our focus will be on shifting towards an experience and service model. Our heritage is based on hardware so the opportunity for us is to have knowledgeable staff in store who can, for instance, teach you how to hang wallpaper.

“This personal, conversational approach is vital.”

Nicola Raynor, Wilko

How Will Sales Assistants’ Jobs Change in the Future?

“AI will continue to simplify tasks which frees up time for colleagues. This extra time can become a dilemma for retailers: do they see it as a cost saving opportunity or a chance to invest in service?

“The service-driven model is moving forward and this means that retail recruitment will change, alongside the traditional role of the sales assistant.”

Simon Hedaux, ReThink

“This shift towards service means that recruiting multi-skilled people is essential. Do they know what great customer service looks like? Can they deliver it?

“For us, it’s about colleagues being themselves, having the kind of personality that will create magical moments for customers.

“Finding and retaining these people is what will make any retailer fit for the future.”

Pauline Bennett, Sainsbury’s

“In the future, our employees will have more tech and the right answers at their fingertips even quicker than they do now.

“Increasingly, they’ll have to put themselves in the customers’ shoes to understand their needs precisely. Getting the right people on board to do that well is absolutely crucial.

“Customer service will always need human interaction. And because humans aren’t robots, we all have a bad day every now and then, we’ll always reinvest any costs savings into improving service. It’s just too important not to.“

Phil Whittle, Schuh

“I believe that the time freed up by automation is a great opportunity for retail employees to become more rounded sales professionals.

“One way to do this is by integrating online with in-store more carefully. For example, there’s a real disparity between online and in-store service when it comes to ordering and stock levels. This can be frustrating for store staff, especially if they lose the sale, and reflects badly on the brand.

“Concentrating on improving is an obvious way to elevate the status of store assistants, along with helping with morale and job satisfaction.”

Diane Wehrle, Springboard

“At Wilko, the focus is on looking after loyal team members and freeing them up from the more mundane tasks.

“Value-added, customer-facing jobs will foster that loyalty as well as appeal to millennials who want variety and flexibility.”

Nicola Raynor, Wilko

How Can Physical Retail Compete with Online?

“Amazon is the ogre in the room. The race to the bottom on price is a war I don’t think any other retailer can win. The big players will just continue to reduce their prices.

“What we have to realise is that it’s not just about price. It’s about experience, customer service and the shopping environment. We’re social beings. Most spend is still in-store. Yes, online spending is increasing but it’s coming from a low base.

“The physical experience of visiting a store needs to be about theatre underpinned with great stock levels, amazing customer service, a clean, welcoming and dynamic environment, and helpful, friendly staff.”

Diane Wehrle, Springboard

“Aside from price, the key to competing is to have a single pool of stock, with both stores and online dipping into it.

“Buying online and picking up in store is the fastest growing piece of our business. It’s absolutely crucial to integrate these, with real-time stock information on the shop floor that doesn’t conflict with what the website is telling you.

“That not only ensures a smoother customer experience but also benefits store employees who are less likely to lose sales to online orders.”

Phil Whittle, Schuh

There’s no denying it: people are service. And they will continue to be so. While the tech takes care of the transactional, humans will remain at the heart of customer service in the future.