Helping Store Associates Sell More by Engaging Customers via Messaging Apps

Creative Ways to Increase Retail Sales During the COVID-19 Pandemic & Beyond

If you were asked to name one thing that would help you increase retail sales, what would your reply be? There are probably hundreds of possible answers but it’s likely the following responses would feature towards the top:

  • More time engaging with customers.
  • More people coming through the door.
  • Knowing what customers actually want.
  • Getting to know customers and building relationships with them over time.
  • Being seen as a product expert in the community.

What do all these things have in common? Very simply, they all involve the store associate having more interactions with customers. Retailers have spent fortunes improving their stores to create great experiential shopping environments to try to increase dwell time. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has negated all that investment, at least for the short terms and now it’s more difficult than ever to improve in-store customer engagement and you don’t actually want to increase dwell time. So what other ways are there to improve customer engagement and increase retail sales?

How Pre and Post Store-Visit Interactions are Handled Today

What about interactions with customers before and after they visit your stores?

At the moment, most retailers restrict pre and post-visit engagement with store staff to phone calls. But the voice call is a flawed channel for lots of reasons (covered in detail previously). Key among them is the modern consumer’s aversion to making phone calls to anybody. When they manage to pluck up the courage to call a store, the phone is often left unanswered because staff are busy dealing with in-store customers. The ensuing voicemail tennis can be very inefficient for staff and can actually annoy customers if you disturb them at the wrong moment.

Other retailers prevent customers from contacting stores at all by forcing them to engage with head office staff when they have a query, whether that be via Twitter, email or a central phone line. Assuming you’ve got good people working in your stores, this is a missed opportunity to improve the likelihood of a sale being made. If a customer has set out to contact a store but is routed to a call centre, there is a high chance they will be very frustrated if the agent cannot answer their question and the store visit might never happen.

Retailing in a COVID-19 Context

Few experts expect to see an immediate recovery in footfall when the COVID-19 lockdowns are lifted. Browsing is likely to be hit hardest but calls to stores will skyrocket because:

  • Consumers will be less likely to visit stores unless they’re certain they’re open and the products they’re seeking are available.
  • Vulnerable customers will want to know how busy a store is before visiting or will want to find out if there are specific shopping times set aside for them.
  • Customers will be keen to check that their click and collect order is ready or actually ask for items to be set aside for them to collect or try on so they can get in and out of the store quickly.

This is alarming because many retailers already struggle to answer calls to their stores. Luckily there is an alternative.

How to Increase Sales in Retail Stores in a Pandemic?

Messaging apps like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Google My Business have billions of users between them and for many of those users, messaging is the way they communicate with everyone from their mother to their dentist or insurance company.

Up until recently, it wasn’t easy for brick and mortar retailers to take advantage of these channels at store-level, particularly for multi-unit businesses. But companies like ServiceDock now make it easy for consumers to message your stores using their preferred channel and for your staff to respond from one simple app.

Consumers can message your stores by clicking on a link on your website’s store locator or a button in local search results or on a social media post. They could even start a conversation by scanning a QR code on a flyer or an ad in a local newspaper. No matter where they start the conversation, messaging offers consumers a more convenient way to communicate with your stores and it delivers all sorts of value to your business that phone calls and email simply cannot.

1. Build Rapport with Customers through Personalisation to Increase Conversions

Personalisation is a bit of a buzzword in retail right now. Essentially, it means you (the retailer) know who the customer is and tailor the shopping experience to suit them based on the data you’ve collected on them previously. There are lots of very clever (and expensive) AI-powered platforms out there with algorithms that claim to help you figure these things out and increase sales in your retail stores. But how about letting the customer tell you who they are and what they want?

One of the major advantages of enabling a customer to message a store via Facebook Messenger, for example, is that you get their name and profile picture along with the query. In an instant, your store associate goes from a position of not knowing the customer existed to a place where they know the customer’s name, what they’re looking for and even what they look like. This creates a situation where the staff member can actually approach a customer when they enter the store while maintaining social distance, greet them by name and then show them to the product. This sort of interaction will boost conversions dramatically, which is one of the key ways to increase retail sales without increasing footfall. 

You can improve the level of personalisation by enabling communication via video, which is easily done within messaging apps. Imagine a customer sending a video message to a tailor where he shows the dress his wife is planning to wear for an upcoming wedding and explains that he’s looking for a tie to go with it. The store associate could send a video reply showing the range of ties that he thinks would work best. This brings us into the realm of clienteling and virtual selling, which is the ultimate form of personalisation and is becoming more widespread in the post-lockdown retail environment.

2. Reassure Customers Thinking About Making a Visit to Drive Footfall and Increase Retail Sales

As consumers, we’re all busier than ever before. So a trip to a store that turns out to be a waste of time because they didn’t have what you want is a very frustrating experience. One of the best ways to increase sales in a retail store is to make it easy for customers to confirm that the product they’re looking for is in stock. Some retailers have addressed the problem of stock availability by implementing expensive real-time stock tracking solutions across their store network. The problem with this approach is that customers have to go find it on your website. Many are more likely to just pick up the phone and call the store, which brings us back to the same problems we highlighted in the previous section.

The COVID-19 pandemic will cause a spike in stock availability queries, partly because broken supply chains are causing stock outages to be more commonplace but also because of changes in human behaviour. Customers will be wary of visiting stores due to concerns about their own personal safety and/or fear of spreading the virus to others. More customers will be on a mission to get a job done (e.g. buy a tin of paint) rather than simply going shopping. For that reason, they’ll be keen to make sure the store they’re planning to visit can help them get the job done before they make the trip.

Messaging is an extremely efficient and convenient way for consumers to ask about stock availability and for store associates to answer them. Google’s new Click-to-Message solution is particularly useful here as it instantly reduces call volumes. Other advantages become apparent when looking at scenarios such as buying that tin of paint, where sending images can really help with colour selection. Sticking with the hardware theme, the customer might send an image of a hole they’re trying to fix and the product expert in the store could suggest the best product for the job at hand. In the case of a fashion store, it would be a great experience if the customer could send a message ahead and include images of the clothes they want to try on. That would enable your staff to have them ready and waiting for the customer on arrival. This will be particularly relevant where clothes may have to be “quarantined” for 48 hours or more after being tried on due to COVID-19, which could put huge pressure on in-store stock levels. 

Implementing Google My Business Messaging will help you increase retail sales
Enabling Google Business Messages can help you increase retail sales almost immediately.

The final benefit of messaging in this context is that it gives the store associate time to think about what the relevant cross-sells for the product in question are and what discount they can offer if the customer was to price check the product online etc. Much better than being caught “on the hop” by a customer.

3. Improve Follow Up Conversions and Reduce Returns by Connecting Customers to Store Staff

The first two scenarios are focused on the pre-sale period but very often customers have queries about the purchase they made or have follow-up questions on an item they are considering purchasing. 

Post-purchase queries are more frequent with electrical products and the likes of flat-pack furniture. Customers often have difficulty getting something to work or assembling it. Many of these products end up being returned at great expense to the retailer and inconvenience to the customer, even though there is nothing wrong with them. 

What if the customer could message a product expert in a local store and ask a question? How impactful would it be if the same person they bought the product from or someone from a local store in a delivery context, sent them a short video explaining how to connect a device to WiFi, for example?

When a customer has follow-up questions on a product they have already researched in-store, both the customer experience and the probability of a sale being made can be greatly improved by connecting the customer to the same staff member.

4. Resolve Complaints Quickly at Store-Level to Improve Customer Loyalty and Wallet Share

Resolving customer complaints quickly is one of the most effective ways to improve customer loyalty. The results of this study published on Harvard Business Review shows how customers who have complaints resolved quickly are willing to pay higher prices to the company going forward. It also suggests speedy complaint resolution can result in NPS increases of up to 59 points, which is staggering. 

There’s one use case where messaging really comes into its own regarding complaint resolution. Many of the complaints retail chains receive on social networks like Twitter relate to something that happened in a particular store. This creates a challenge for the social media team. How do they efficiently handle the complaint when they have no idea what happened in the store? The standard operating procedure is to tell the customer to return to the store or to ask them for their details (i.e. phone or email) so the store manager can contact them. Neither option is particularly satisfactory from a customer point of view. They didn’t contact you via Twitter to get fobbed off onto email.

An alternative and much-improved option would be to have the customer send your social media team a direct message and then transfer the chat to the store manager. He can then resolve the complaint via direct messages with the customer. This is more efficient for your staff and a significantly better experience for the customer.

5. Capture Customer Data to Improve Marketing and Reduce CAC for your Ecommerce Team

The final benefit of store-specific messaging is that you create a lot more digital touchpoints with customers. Unlike over the phone or in person, it’s relatively easy to capture customer details within messaging apps. Facebook Messenger, for example, enables users to release their email to businesses with one tap so they don’t even have to type it out. 

Capturing data in this way can help can improve email or SMS marketing at a local level to drive future footfall and improve personalisation. It can be a useful way to drive sign-ups to your loyalty card or drive downloads of your mobile. It can also help convert offline customers to omnichannel customers and reduce customer acquisition costs for your eCommerce team.

The final data-related benefit of messaging is that head office can retain oversight of messaging transcripts and can extract insights from what customers are saying. This would be extremely difficult to achieve with a phone system. The insights generated can help shape future product ranges and training to maximise sales. 

Bonus Benefits – Head Office Can Easily Assume Control or Pick of the Slack 

The final benefit of messaging is that it is very easy for head office staff to jump in and start answering messages whenever there is a backlog of customers waiting to be answered. This might be the case for many retailers post-lockdown but in “normal” times it is very prevalent in the run-up to Christmas, for example. In fact, it is possible to route all messages to head office if that is your preference in very busy periods (or all the time).

The messaging channel offers great flexibility and helps you look after each customer as well as possible and improve overall customer experience and loyalty.

Messaging is the Creative Way to Increase Retail Sales You’ve Been Looking For

At least 23% of consumers searching for store details online are looking for the store’s phone number. This was one of the most surprising statistics I unearthed from the users of my previous startup (Localmint.com), which was an online retail directory.

If you switch on messaging as a store contact channel you will see traction almost instantly and you can start reaping the benefits outlined above. This is particularly true for Google My Business messaging, which will be the driving force behind messaging being adopted as a store contact channel. A real plus is there is very little input needed from IT or any other part of your organisation. You just need to ensure that your store staff are equipped with devices and have some basic training so they can respond.

Implementing store-specific messaging would be a good idea at any time. During the COVID-19 pandemic and the recession that is likely to follow, it could be the difference between survival and bankruptcy for some retailers. True retailers understand the importance of customer engagement in increasing retail sales. Retailers that adopt store-specific messaging early will steal a march on their competitors.

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Creative Ways to Increase Retail Sales During the COVID-19 Pandemic & Beyond

by Oisin Ryan time to read: 10 min