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Why smartphones can't replace store employees

Why smartphones can't replace store employees

Retailers: Shoppers like their smartphones better than they like your employees, says a new survey by Accenture, a global research company. According to the study, 73 percent of consumers prefer to use their smartphone to handle simple tasks in stores rather than speaking with an employee.

Key words: simple tasks.

Sure, phone apps are just the trick to find out if a product is in stock and its price, as well as to download coupons and recipes and to make grocery lists. Savvy retailers should tune into these technologies to boost customer service.

But can a smartphone app replace the vital role of a trusted employee who can solve a customer's problem through an interactive dialog?

I don't think so.

Let's compare my experiences at two hardware stores. My aim: to get a spring hinge that automatically closes a door. I had read about them online and thought this would be the perfect solution for a bathroom door in our home.

First stop: a chain retailer that shall remain nameless. Down the aisle from me, I saw an employee. Great! Just as I was about to wave him down, he saw me, turned tail and was off before I could get my hand out of my pocket. No problem for an avid runner. I chased him down. Although he then led me to the door hinge aisle, he immediately abandoned me before distinguishing the spring hinges from the others and before describing the differences between spring-hinge types. As a result, I fumbled through the section not able to confidently settle on a product. Do I need to replace all hinges or just one? Did I need three screws or five? I gave up after 15 minutes and left empty handed.

By comparison, when I entered another local hardware store, I found a line of employees standing at attention at the end of each aisle. They eagerly asked if I needed help, answered my questions and escorted me to the exact product that fit my needs. Maybe the product cost more than at the chain store, but I made my purchase in less than 15 minutes, and, well, they say time is money.

The bottom line: Live, in-person customer service still has its place and pays off. To be sure, your customers likely will have read about the products you carry online and, through their research (perhaps on a smartphone), they will have an idea of what they want. Your job is to build on this base of information. Be available—and that means visible—to answer questions, dig deeper into what their particular needs are and make product recommendations. In other words, foster a relationship that keeps them coming back.

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