Should store associates handle customer service chats?

Discussion
Source: bonobos.com/about
Sep 13, 2022

At Bonobos, store associates are answering some customer service chats to help reduce waiting times.

According to a report by The Wall Street Journal, Bonobos enabled associates to handle customer chats beginning as a pilot in 2019 on an employee’s suggestion and they now do so at all of its 62 stores.

Associates are told in-store shoppers remain the first priority and they are only allowed to assist with chat queries during downtime and when at least one other store associate is on the selling floor.

Beyond reducing customer waits, store associates are said to be better able to address questions involving style, such as fit, that make up about 20 percent of customer chats, leaving non-store staff to answer questions on shipping and payment.

The Journal article found some Bonobos associates apprehensive about ending chat calls when a customer walks in. Angry online messages can also weigh on their mental health, although associates aren’t required to assist with chats.

High turnover rates among customer service reps in recent years have been attributed to negative interactions as complaints have picked up during the pandemic amid late deliveries. Annual turnover rates at contact centers jumped from 30 to 45 percent to as high as 80 percent during the pandemic, according to Cresta.

A recent survey of business leaders across industries exploring contact center engagement from software provider Five9 found 86 percent reporting a massive increase in call volumes, 53 percent flagging the need for more emotional intelligence and empathy during customer interactions and 43 percent indicating agent calls are longer and more complex. Half of the respondents were focused on reducing agent turnover, with 44 percent implementing artificial intelligence and automation to assist contact center agents.

Peter Fader, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, told the Journal it might work better if Bonobos’ in-store associates focused solely on online interactions for some shifts. However, he believes the practice could support a consistent omnichannel approach. Prof. Fader said, “Once we get to version 2.0 or 3.0, we’ll look back and say, ‘Why didn’t we do this sooner?’”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do you see more pros than cons in having in-store associates handle some customer service chat queries? What protocols should be in place to ensure the in-store experience isn’t impaired?

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"We have all seen sales floor situations lately that are a mess. Requiring store associates to act as call center personnel takes away from what they were actually hired to do."

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24 Comments on "Should store associates handle customer service chats?"


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Mark Ryski
BrainTrust

The customer in the store must come first. Retailers have continued to increase the responsibilities of frontline staff, and this is yet another example. While I agree that there is merit to having store personnel answer chats, especially during times when store traffic is low, I would be very concerned about the impact on store experience. Additionally, not every associate has the communication skills and/or inclination to manage customer service chats. I think retailers should be careful about how they implement this. It can work, but it can also have really bad consequences.

Bob Amster
BrainTrust

The customer service center is the most trained and effective at responding to customer questions and complaints. Calls should spill over to in-store personnel when the wait time for callers reaches a threshold but the primary responsibility of the in-store associate should remain the in-store customer.

Neil Saunders
BrainTrust

What happens if someone is in the middle of a chat and there are multiple customers in-store who need assistance? Someone, somewhere is going to be frustrated and disappointed. The problem is that you can’t just end an online dialogue when you feel like it: that isn’t good customer service. And people in-store will resent seeing associates “chatting” online when they need help in-person. This may work somewhat for Bonobos given their stores are not constantly busy, but it is still fraught with challenges.

Ken Morris
BrainTrust

I see way more pros than cons with this virtual call center approach. This is a great idea. Let’s look at this logically. Assuming noon is peak time in NYC. It’s not noon time in any other time zone and store associates can be available to take calls. Who understands the product better — color, size, and fit — than those who are selling it? When 5G is everywhere, the bandwidth to create virtual call centers with video will be a killer app.

On the other hand, many store associates already ignore ringing phones, even when they’re not doing anything else. So this would require a major culture change, and probably some incentives. But this ties back into my hope that managers will be developing associates for careers in retail and not just temporary gigs.

Lee Peterson
BrainTrust

Boy, you’d think store associates would be REALLY good at this. It’s a big part of why you hired them, right? In the decimated store count of the future, having excellent, well payed associates will be mandatory as the only/best differentiator from e-commerce. Given that, this is a really good idea. You should be thinking about this ability from the minute you meet a prospective candidate as they are your store’s future. So who better to deal with customers rather than some call center in an unknown location?

Jeff Sward
BrainTrust

Having in-store associates handle customer service calls sounds both smart and efficient. The retailer gets maximum productivity and the customer gets product specific input from the person in the best position to provide that insight. It would be fascinating to know the return rate on transactions that went through a store associate versus those transactions that didn’t have the benefit of that input.

Shep Hyken
BrainTrust

If there is downtime in the store, this is a great opportunity for employees to be cross-trained to handle important customer service queries. The key will be finding the balance between handling in-store customers and online customers. This could be an interesting opportunity for retail to continue adapting to the digital age of retail.

Richard Hernandez
BrainTrust
Richard Hernandez
Director of Commerce
21 days 5 hours ago

Unfortunately there is no way, at this time, this would work. From a retailer’s perspective, we are lucky to be able to man the sales floor and checkouts. We would not have the labor for this to occur.

Brad Halverson
Guest

Reality spoken as a retailer/grocer. If your team can barely answer phone calls, for example, you don’t add-on online/mobile interaction because you don’t want to frustrate customers. So you take care of the customers in your store for now.

Jeff Weidauer
BrainTrust

While there are some benefits to this approach, the likely downsides are far greater. Better to add staff for online interaction and let the in-store teams focus on their customers.

Georganne Bender
BrainTrust

Sometimes you need to speak with an actual person, but this only makes sense if shoppers on the sales floor, or who call the store specifically, are truly the priority.

We have all seen sales floor situations lately that are a mess. Requiring store associates to act as call center personnel takes away from what they were actually hired to do.

Scott Norris
Guest

In the ’80s and ’90s this is what we did as retail clerks – trying to juggle phone calls with shoppers walking up to you. And it was disjointed then just as it will be disjointed now – you don’t know who’s going to come in off the street and what their complicated situation will be that requires your immediate attention. The person waiting on hold would be peeved then – with today’s expectations of instant communications it’s a recipe for review disasters. If you can’t hire what you’d consider “excess” staff for the floor, don’t push this responsibility to the floor.

Georganne Bender
BrainTrust

Great points, Scott! I remember those days…

David Spear
BrainTrust

Dedicated in-store associates ought to prioritize their talents to serve the needs of the in-store shopper. Dedicated customer service representatives should focus on chats and calls. Can there be a model that intermingles these functions? Sure, anyone can devise a model and put it into practice, but the answer lies in execution and outcomes. How many of you have engaged in a retailer chat lately? What’s your patience level for wait time? Hmm — if you’re like me, it’s near zero. You want answers pronto. That’s today’s expectation. So, let’s play this out. Assume a dedicated in-store associate is handling your chat and – in the middle of your chat – he has to attend to an in-store associate who just walked in and you’re left hanging for five,10, or 15 minutes? Sorry, this ain’t going to work.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

Talent, skills, and personality are very different for the on-the-floor associate and the call center employee. I believe it is a rare individual who can do both jobs well.

Today call center workers are carefully screened, thoroughly trained, and carefully monitored. I would hesitate to put a neophyte on the line with a customer.

The idea is good on the surface. The problems could be treacherous.

Paula Rosenblum
BrainTrust

I think it has to be this way. Shoppers have had enough of long customer service lines in stores, or worse, the dreaded customer service calls to scripted CSRs half a world away who really don’t understand what you’re talking about.

The store profit model really does have to change. It’s groaning, and I don’t think the tide can be held back much longer.

Clay Boatright
Guest
21 days 4 hours ago

No matter our profession, all of us are in the customer service business. Sadly, retail customer service in America was declining steadily for years before pandemic, which accelerated apathy and forced consumers to lower their expectations. If a shopper walks in a store today and an associate offers help, the customer is pleasantly surprised. If that customer calls a 1-800 number and talks to an actual person, it’s like winning the lottery! Consumers have been conditioned to keep their expectations low, so any creative effort to improve the in-store/online/on-phone experience is worth a shot and certainly can’t make things worse.

Natalie Walkley
BrainTrust

This cannot be a sweeping practice, it has to be considered on a case-by-case basis. Some stores with higher price tags and lower foot traffic might be able to successfully operate this way. However this proves difficult in high foot traffic stores where customers are waiting for service. To Neil’s point, someone is waiting somewhere. Additionally, if associates are incentivized to “sell” on the floor, I imagine this feels like being benched.

Mel Kleiman
BrainTrust

Why not reverse the thinking and move call center employees to the store where the customer actually walks in to buy something? This could lead to better coverage, better training, and better utilization of staff.

David Slavick
BrainTrust

In a word — horrible idea. Turnover of staff, inconsistency in delivery, risk to brand reputation, asking in-store associates to multi-task vs. other wildly important goals. I can’t imagine store operation leadership being in favor of this approach at most retail operations we are aligned to. I understand the idea and the aspect of addressing call wait times and/or creating a shift due to challenges at call centers in general, but this is not sustainable at all.

Bob Phibbs
BrainTrust

Nothing says, “We value customer in the store less” than this idea. It’s bad enough associates are expected to pack online orders. Now with “downtime” they’re supposed to also be chatting with customers until something else happens. Ridiculous. Either do your damn job, which is to service in-store customers, or be a warehouse.

Brad Halverson
Guest

The closer all types of customer service is to a store, or in it, led by associates who know the product and understand the local market, the better the upside for customer experience.

Customers increasingly don’t want to drive everywhere to get answers. They will phone in or ask questions online about specific brands, about inventory, get opinions on use and like having someone putting products on hold for pick up.

If online chat can’t be done to emulate the experience of a local store, then don’t do it at all, or hold off until you can make it seamless.

Oliver Guy
BrainTrust

This is a really tough one. On the one hand the in-store staff know the products very well and are experienced handling customers — but balancing with customers coming in is tough (we have all been frustrated waiting to check into a hotel when the receptionist is on the phone). Trying to finish a conversation can be tough.

Perhaps looking at quiet periods — and using AI/ML to predict when they will happen — and routing enquiries to those quiet period stores could be part of the answer.

Anil Patel
BrainTrust

It’s true that in-store associates handle fashion-related customer queries more efficiently. Therefore, I believe retailers must increase their in-store workforce. However, directing all the online customer requests to in-store associates would create disarray. So, an in-depth requests analysis is required to ascertain which requests are better suited for in-store associates. Other regular requests can be directed to customer service reps. Additionally, retailers must also employ self-serve facilities in order to optimize the workflow. Companies like “Lang.ai” tech can help retailers’ customer service reps to control and improve critical support processes.

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"We have all seen sales floor situations lately that are a mess. Requiring store associates to act as call center personnel takes away from what they were actually hired to do."

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