How to revive the American retail sector: High-value customer service and advocacy

We are moving quickly to a self-serve retail culture.

Grocery stores are adding more and more self-check-out lines. Vending machines now sell iPods, bathing suits, gold coins, sunglasses and razors. Flight attendants no longer ask for your drink order--you just press a touch-screen display to ask for a Coke. Online retail is growing and growing. And, of course, ATM's changed the way we do banking.

It is a seismic shift with an inevidable outcome.

If a job can be handled strictly as a "transaction" (i.e. product selection and delivery), automated retail is an effective and growingly accepted interaction for both retailer and customer.

However, if the translation needs a personal touch--solicited advice, a comforting voice that you're making the right buying decision, or customization of an order or return--live customer service may be required, and embraced by consumers.

The consumer is becoming more in control of his/her brand interaction. And those retailers who embrace the concept of consumer advocacy, and return to the concept of "the customer is always right" may be the only one's left standing in the shopping mall.

Yes, that's right. I believe that retail shop clerks, bank tellers and even gas station attendants will need to be re-trained as customer service advocates in order to compete in the 21st century. Clerks jobs will no longer be to handle the transaction, but to handle the customer.

For decades, American retailers have slacked in hiring clerks as customer service agents. We have all been frustrated by the clerk who "didn't seem to give a darn" about who we were. My favorite response from a clerk when I say "thank you" after a transaction is "not a problem."

OF COURSE it's not a problem--it is your job.

Southwest Airlines is a shining example of training their flight attendants to be customer-service focused. They've reaped the rewards for decades. The fast food chain "In N Out Burger" is another example. Their employees are trained and encouraged to ensure customers are happy. I worked at Disneyland all through college. 15 minutes out of every hour on my shift was spent (as a requirement) to go around and answer guest questions, and give directions. Zappos built a Billion-dollar business around high-value customer service.

The retail sector employs nearly 1 in 10 Americans. With shipping and warehousing workers being replaced by robots that can process packages more efficiently than humans, and kiosks and self-service machines reducing the need for checkout clerks--it is time for American workers to re-train themselves as customer-service gurus, and American businesses to embrace this new function in their workforce.

Automation expert Martin Ford, who notes that low-skill retail jobs have become the employment of last resort for many Americans. Now it appears that even those positions could become less plentiful. "We have a service economy, and the service sector is starting to automate," Ford said. "We've seen that technology does destroy jobs in those sectors."

Helpful, knowledgeable, VALUABLE retail clerks may be the savior to stagnant unemployment if more and more companies believe that their brand's differentiator--and their ultimate survival, relies on well-trained customer service advocates (and agents) in their ranks.

The days of the "transactional" clerk is dead. Long-live the customer-advocate clerk.

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