How personal can Target’s customer service get?

Bill Smith, Brian Cornell and Oliver Chen – Photo: James Tenser
Mar 21, 2018
Matthew Stern

Target has been making big investments in its team — a strategic shift that Target CEO Brian Cornell, speaking at a keynote session at ShopTalk in Las Vegas, called one of the single biggest changes the chain has made. Mr. Cornell was joined on stage by Bill Smith, CEO of Shipt. The men were interviewed by Oliver Chen, managing director at Cowen and Company.

“We’re investing a lot in hours, staffing, training and development and creating experts within our stores,” Mr. Cornell said. “Because we know as we listen to our guests in certain categories, they want someone there who is an expert. When they shop Target for beauty, they want a beauty expert that they’re coming to. In apparel, they want someone who [will help them] put the whole outfit together. When they’re in a department like food and beverage, they want a food and beverage expert to interact with, let alone when they’re shopping for technology.”

Mr. Cornell indicated that the chain was investing in expertise in core departments in which the customer expectation is for an interaction with a knowledgeable employee.

Mr. Smith described a customer-first service experience as the most “special part of Shipt.”

“The same person who is picking your avocados and selecting your eggs is the person who shows up at your door,” said Mr. Smith. “The person who’s picking items is the same person who shows up to the kitchen. That’s what we hear from our members all the time that they love about Shipt.”

Messrs. Cornell and Smith characterized the relationship with Shipt as embodying this new customer service paradigm with thousands of Target brand loyalists shopping for other people who love the retailer.

“That’s what’s going to separate us from some of the competitors,” said Mr. Cornell, “that philosophy of making sure it’s a good experience.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Is Target wise to invest heavily in its customer services teams? Will Target be able to attract the skilled talent to actualize Brian Cornell’s vision of true experts supporting customers in core categories? Do you agree that Shipt will be an embodiment of Target’s new customer service paradigm?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"Target, given its low key vibe, could shift the paradigm ushering in friendly experts. Sort of like social shopping with a friend."
"How many years has it taken for this obvious lightbulb to go off? Too many."
"Smart move. Using technology to improve the experience and deepen human connection is where it matters."

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23 Comments on "How personal can Target’s customer service get?"

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Mark Ryski

Target is wise to invest in customer service. Over the years, it seems that retailers have prioritized investments in technology over people. In my experience, retails’ front-line is still under-resourced and under-supported, and I believe the investments Target is making in their front-line employees will pay off in several ways including recruiting and retention, customer experience and in-store conversion rates.

Art Suriano

Target is spot on with the what the customers want and I commend them for taking the right action. So many CEOs talk a good game about customer service and how important it is, but when it comes time to invest in it, they find ways of cutting staff and training to save money. Target has been successful and will continue to be because of their leadership. Both Brian Cornell and Bill Smith are wise to understand that what sets any company aside today is the service and experience delivered by human interaction and that interaction MUST take place through courteous and well-trained associates.

As Target and Shipt continue to expand their programs, watch how their sales will continue to increase and how other retailers will be scratching their heads with awe.

Charles Dimov

Yes. If anything, a strong theme emerging with most retailers this year is a focus on customer experience. To give Target an excellent customer experience to entice shoppers to return to the store, enhancing customer support will be key. This paradigm might be the key to gaining more of the dwindling middle class customer — and even more importantly — convincing them to come back.

Paula Rosenblum

Actually, this is a big deal (the Shipt pickers also being the deliverers). That’s one thing I don’t like about Instacart … they are separate and the pickers are not well-trained. So they don’t see me just hand bad substitutes back to the deliverers and say “How many ways do I have to say no substitutes?”

It’s always a good idea to invest in your employees … particularly those in customer-facing roles. It’s even better if you can provide some career pathing, retention plans and a reasonable wage.

I like seeing Target back as an industry leader. And … I might even try Shipt home delivery when it comes to Miami with Target. I am really frustrated with Instacart.

Tom Erskine
2 years 3 months ago

Go Target! The investment in store “experts” is sensible, since the products consumers want help with are higher $ and margin goods (health&beauty, electronics, clothing) that can help store sales/sq. ft. performance. Also, given that they serve a younger, more affluent customer than their discount peers, they have the most to lose to Amazon, and therefore differentiating on in-store experience is critical.

Dr. Stephen Needel

While I would never downplay the need for good customer service, good prices and good selection will always beat good customer service. That’s what Target should be worrying about — less about making brand loyalists happy and more about increasing penetration. Everybody shops at Walmart. Not everybody shops at Target.

Ken Lonyai

How many years has it taken for this obvious lightbulb to go off? Too many. I can’t be too harsh though, most retailers still haven’t had the revelation.

Now that they’ve been beaten down, it’s a good thing that Target says it is moving in this direction, but the proof will be in what an “expert” is. I can’t think of a store where I expect that I will encounter a subject matter expert, but I was pleasantly surprised recently while shopping with my wife for window treatments — something I know little about.

So it’s possible, but experts cost money and want a career. Unless Target is able to deliver that for their team, they will ultimately be investing in training for the next competitor that offers a dollar more per hour.

Lee Peterson

I’m with you on this, Ken — the old Sam Walton phrase comes to mind, “it’s easy to compete with us, just do what we don’t do” — so having associates be helpful, smart and knowledgeable (people people) at every turn should’ve been a priority in 2002. Having said that, at least the light bulb went off: “warehouse stores are over, dude!” Amazon is a massive warehouse that is so convenient, you just cannot do what they do so, do what they don’t do! (Thanks, Sam.)

Shep Hyken

Any time you can create a better customer service and customer experience, it is a benefit to the customer. Target has always been customer focused. The issue is that they also compete with price. It’s hard to do both. Customer service and CX are part of the value proposition that a retailer can offer its customers, but it comes with a cost.

The advantage Target has is its size. It can scale the experience across a bigger footprint than other retailers. Shipt will cost, and it will take good management to be able to balance low prices with cost of the higher level of service. One advantage that Target has is a large number of repeat and loyal shoppers. Delivering a better service experience is one way of offering value that will keep those customers coming back.

Harley Feldman

The real opportunities for in-store retailing are carrying unique brands and face-to-face customer service. Target has been going down both paths, and its investment in customer services teams should pay dividends in attracting consumers. Target will be able to attract associates with enough knowledge or can be trained to support consumers. However, the associates will likely need to be paid more yet the investment in the associates must still provide a return to Target. The Shipt model will help Target focus on customer service, but different skills will be needed in the store to represent products and categories.

Dave Bruno

There is no question in my mind that investing in more informed, more empowered associates is a great investment for Target. The way to sustained relevance for the store is through better experiences, and what better way to enrich the experience than through associates who can actually add value to the process?

When one looks at Target’s primary competitors, finding any associate at all can be difficult, let alone a helpful and knowledgeable associate that can help make informed (and loyalty-building) purchase decisions. I strongly applaud this investment at Target.

Max Goldberg

For years Target had a poor customer service reputation, so it’s refreshing to hear that management is putting effort and resources into this area. This is part of Target’s effort to make its brand distinct from Walmart and other big box retailers.

Mike Osorio

This is exactly the right strategy for Target to differentiate itself from Walmart and other value retailers. I don’t see the others investing in customer experience through expert, quality sales assistants. Particularly in categories like beauty, this investment will pay off if they stick with it. And I do think they can attract quality staff if they offer competitive wages and most importantly, also invest in training front line supervisors to provide effective leadership and coaching to staff.

Investing in the customer experience in-store in this way, along with the online and delivery (Shipt) experience can be a game changer for Target. I hope they stick with it — the impact won’t be felt immediately, but they’ll see the results within a year.

Lyle Bunn (Ph.D. Hon)

The saying is that whatever you focus on gets bigger” so the focus on product information and customer service expertise should change the department store experience, not just at Target but by those who follow the lead. Such a vision has the potential to offer more rewarding employee engagement as well.

Cynthia Holcomb

Target has a friendly atmosphere albeit currently lacking in staffing outside of the checkout process. For this reason, inserting an expert into apparel, home, tech, etc. would be an unexpected, welcomed surprise to shoppers. Sort of from left field, unlike in stores where “can I help you”receives the standard customer response of “no, just looking.” Target, given its low key vibe, could shift the paradigm ushering in friendly experts. Sort of like social shopping with a friend. Reinventing staff vs. experts. Go Target!

Neil Saunders

Yes, Target is sensible. This is precisely the type of service that physical stores can use to differentiate from online.

The challenge won’t be in attracting or training staff. Target is an excellent company to work for, and it draws good people. If it puts in the investment, those people can be taught new skills.

The challenge will be in shifting customer perceptions that Target is a place that offers such service. They’re making progress with this, but there is still a long way to go!

Todd Trombley

The retailer’s position in the market and price point of the merchandise dictates what the customer experience needs to be. If you’re up-market and selling pricier goods then you better have associates that can actually help a customer purchase the “right” goods. Quite a few elements need to be addressed within this paradigm. Converting shoppers into purchasers in this segment is significantly driven by the interaction between customer and seller. Target’s investment in the customer experience via investing in its people in select departments will probably help to positively impact sales. The low price, self-service retailers can certainly get by with addressing merchandise and transaction processing driven areas.

David Weinand

To deliver on the promise of a great customer experience, properly trained and engaged associates is job #1. Technology in the hands of poor associates is flushing $$ down the toilet. It’s great to make statements like these, but to attract people like they want, they either need to invest in training or commit to higher wages for these types of people. Results will take some time, so the c-suite may just have to be comfortable with taking it on the chin for a few quarters from Wall Street.

Sterling Hawkins

Smart move. Technology for the sake of technology doesn’t do anybody any good. Using technology to improve the experience and deepen human connection is where it matters. And Target seems to be making steps in exactly that direction.

Ricardo Belmar

For years, many of us have been stressing how important a well-trained associate can be for retailers. They are, and always have been, the front line face of the brand in stores. Target’s idea to make them into department experts is a wonderful concept — let’s see how well they execute. For Target, this means training thousands of associates. I once heard a Target HR VP say at a conference that their challenge with high-quality training is how to achieve 100% success when you have tens of thousands of associates to train! Yes, the scale is massive, but the rewards should be tremendous!

Regarding Shipt, I think it’s brilliant to have the same person pick products and deliver. One of the friction points to the adoption of these services for groceries is that consumers wonder how well the picker will do in choosing what they want. This helps in the long run to alleviate that pain point.

These ideas represent a change for Target, in my opinion, and a good one at that!

Matt Sebek

Investments in people and technology are not mutually exclusive. They complement each other. Target is building an underbelly of technological capabilities and they (obviously) are smart to to invest in customer service. BUT it will be interesting to see when/if Target joins these swim lanes (e.g., assisted selling, AR/VR, automatic detection of customer personas and notification to the “right” expert).

Craig Sundstrom

I’m sorry Messrs Smith and Cornell, but (perhaps) the biggest mistake any company can make is to overpromise; use of words like “expert” and the implication of personalized service coming from a discounter — which by its nature is self-service — can’t but help fall into this category. Let’s hope no “guest” heard this, or if they did, they didn’t take it too literally.

Dave Nixon

Great approach! We should have always had a Customer-Centric mindset, but it seems that retailers have been distracted by other priorities over this one. If they don’t forget the EQ side of hiring and training those associates, Target will be successful in their efforts. It won’t happen overnight with the state of staffing at retail, but it can be done, a la Chick-fil-A. They seem to find the right kind of customer service talent and Target as an esteemed brand will also. You can train the domain, but you cannot train Attitude and Aptitude.

"Target, given its low key vibe, could shift the paradigm ushering in friendly experts. Sort of like social shopping with a friend."
"How many years has it taken for this obvious lightbulb to go off? Too many."
"Smart move. Using technology to improve the experience and deepen human connection is where it matters."

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