Is face-to-face customer service dead?

22 May 2018

There’s a price to pay for ditching long-standing core retail values in favour of faceless online trading and it could lead to a loss of expertise on the shop floor, argues Rupert Scott, membership manager, TRADA

Napoleon described the British as a nation of shopkeepers – we’ve always loved shopping.

But retail is changing. Shops are closing, fewer people are visiting them, sales are down. As a result jobs are disappearing, but most importantly, the knowledge base of the experts, the long-standing employee or the person who started the business, because they were genuinely interested in the product and could provide great, expert advice and recommendations, is ebbing away.

What’s driving this rapid transformation? The internet. The rise of online shopping means good old-fashioned customer care and knowledge no longer occupy the central part of Britain’s psyche they once did.

Call me old fashioned, but I miss wandering into a retail establishment and being served by people who were genuinely interested in me and what I was doing. I could tell them my problem or requirement, and they had the specialist knowledge to find the best solution.

Isn’t it so much more satisfying to have a face-to-face chat with a long-standing expert, who knows their industry well and understands the products they sell, rather than rely on the online advice of someone you’ve never met?

We can now access vast libraries of information on our phones, but in my opinion the internet is not making us cleverer, it’s making us lazier. How much easier is it to simply read customer reviews online, than properly research a product and make an informed decision?

The loss of this foundational layer of specialist knowledge is apparent in the timber industry, where retailers are now waking up to the fact that, in playing catch up with digitalisation, they have very few wood experts left on the shop floor. It’s a mistake that’s costing them dear, in returns and lost revenue.

Timber merchants used to trade on availability of good stock, knowledge, advice, good service and an attractive price. Is this what our strategy is still based on – or have we let one or more of these slip off the equation?

At TRADA we’re seeing signs that timber retailers are starting to worry about the consequence of having far too few people in their business that know about wood and they’re seeking to reverse this.

Many now see that it’s difficult to add value, sell, up-sell and cross-sell if they only offer an order processing service and fail to get to know customers.

As a strategy, offering the cheapest online price and the slickest operation ultimately looks like it only has one winner. Alternative strategies are needed and for some this will undoubtedly involve having specialist staff who understand their products and can use that to good commercial advantage.

At TRADA, Britain’s long tradition of shopkeeping and outstanding customer service is still alive and kicking. And we take great pride in helping our members keep new and existing staff up to date with knowledge that adds a cutting edge to their commercial operation. Is face-to-face customer service dead? I sincerely hope not.

Rupert Scott, membership manager, TRADA