“The hey-day of the High Street” – Remembering the Analogue Customer can Improve Digital Customer Service

I’m the wrong side of 40. So, I remember the traditional suburban town with the stretches of independent retailers clustered around household name department stores – C&A, Allders, Debenhams, Woolworths, BHS and the jewel in the crown and supplier of 99.8% of every man’s pants drawer – Marks & Spencer’s. These landmarks not only acted as navigation / meeting points – they were destinations for hordes of parents getting out of the house for some sanctuary on a Saturday.

We loved the adventure of the afternoon out ‘window shopping’. I bet that 9 times out of 10, we didn’t have a clue why we had blanked out an afternoon visit to the mecca of the local high street. It was a trip of discovery – we didn’t have internet, review sites, social media, targeted & personalised adverts etc.

This was the hey-day of the high street. Shop fits were pretty hopeless – shelves were stacked like a warehouse; window dressings were full of sun-bleached garments and hand written Day-Glo signage – and on a Saturday, you had scruffy kids like me earning their pocket money greeting you at the door.

High streets were a way of learning what was happening in the world around us – from fashion trends to the latest kitchen utensil (microwaves were received with the same awe as the first caveman experienced showing off what rubbing two sticks together probably achieved).

The first rule of customer service club…

So, why am I harping on about this Gen Y equivalent of “During the War” and what relevance does it have today? To answer, because so much has evolved – but some important rules have been forgotten. Today, we can lounge on the sofa and with the mildest of curiosities, get our smart phone out, research what the latest trends are in anything from fidget spinners (if you don’t know what a fidget spinner is by now 1) well done and 2) try to keep it that way) to the latest flip flops, get user opinions and complete our purchase in a matter of minutes – BUT the more likely scenario is we’ll spend hours as we need to know we are making a well-researched decision.

So once I am assured I will look as cool as Harry Styles (more like Harry Hill in reality) in my open toes, I will flip between a few sites to find my prizes. I’ll be looking at prices, pictures, returns policies, sizing guides, buyer reviews – all the while doing my best to find out if they will fit my feet shaped like Frodo Baggins with toes like individual Flumps.

Now that’s cool if the retailer has thought about no one else but me – but in the absence of physically being in store, I don’t have a helpful shop assistant bringing me out 3 sizes to see if the fit is too tight to get my heel in or pressing down on my big toe to see if there is room for growth (doesn’t quite work with open toe sandals – but humour me). So as much as their product page looks sparkly with 3 different shots of the shoe in different angels and worn by a Harry Styles millennial looky-likey; I need help…

Now in those good old days – I would normally be hounded by wannabe stalkers that would permanently be asking – “Can I help you?”. In response, we learnt that trait of walking in head down and moving around the store like Pacman avoiding the retail assistant ghouls. But damn, when we needed them, we needed them – and they were there….

… don’t talk about digital customer service?

No Digital Customer Service Looking in your fluffy dice accessorised rear view mirror to the glory days of High Street – could you imagine if, overnight, retail assistants stopped assisting? Rather than triangulating you and telling you how good you looked in those new creepers as you put your hands on your hips and did that walk in front of the mirror that you would get sectioned for if conducted outside the shop; what if it changed to “if you have a question, you need to leave the shop, go 200 metres down the road, queue up at the customer services counter and wait for a ‘tapioca meant for all’ response” – with the expectation that you would be thankful and trot back up the street again to finish your purchase? You would likely hang yourself from the bus stop by your kipper tie or oversized hair scrunchie.

But pretty much every online retailer is doing this through their FAQs and support pages (or lack thereof). They are so concerned about how many clicks a perfect customer journey takes – they forget the world is not perfect. If I am an example of a typical consumer – consumers are far from perfect! Not only that, they forget that unlike the rainy summer days of 1980s high street Britain, with just a couple of clicks and swipes I can try another option, and another, and another…

Why am I bothered about same day / next day / timed delivery / membership sign ups etc. if trying to make that ultimate purchasing decision means I must wait for an email response that takes 72 hours or live in hope that 10 generic FAQs accessed through a text link hidden in the footer is going to be all the help I should be thankful for? And what about support at weekends – you are joking – “you think we are a 24/7 business?”

Digital customer service is broken. I have worked in providing Customer Experience for over 15 years and can remember when every e-retailer had phone numbers above the fold, only to completely drop them around 2008 when the banks had a wobble and belts needed tightening. But suddenly now the same e-tailers find that the support journey is being led by digital savvy consumers who want a world of multi-channel / omni-channel / social media support. Digital customers want more choice and quicker response but providers are tasked to cut customer service costs. Damn, Rumbelows never had to deal with this!

Technology restores the human touch in digital customer service

Thankfully there are some developments making life easier – not harder for the digital customer – and for retailers too. Digital self-service / virtual assistants / intelligent assistants – there are many monikers for this new technology and it is this which is helping the evolution of  digital customer service in playing catch-up with the rocketing evolution of ecommerce. So no longer does the digital customer have to let go of the product in their virtual hands or abandon the buy now button just to ask a question. No longer do they need to wait 2 days to get some attention, no longer are they only privy to a handful of published questions that have no personal relevance or don’t help them make their purchase.

AI driven Intelligent Assistance is restoring the fun of discovery which we have missed from high street shopping; bringing the experience back in line with those days where your mum, looked at the label on the hanger to see if it was machine washable, before giving you the seal of approval. It may just be a clever machine providing the digital customer service that is conversing with you – but it probably has less acne, is more approachable and knows more about which engine oil your car needs than I did as your single source of truth, if you shopped in Halfords of Bromley in 1988. Vive la Digital Révolution!

Mark Kirby

Mark Kirby, founder of Cart Assist and Director of Yonder Digital Group has over 20 years experience of building successful Customer Experience based businesses from traditional call centres through to providing leading AI driven digital-self service and chat bot technologies.