In my last blog, I spoke broadly about brand loyalty and making the physical store part of the local community. The basic tools of the retail trade are brand story, products and services, technologies, design, and the store employees. I’d like to now talk a bit more specifically about how great employees armed with powerful technologies can build or strengthen the brand and store performance.
In many cases, the slow recovery from the recession, the fear of “what to do” next and the avoidance of adding labor (in any way), is driving retailers in a race to the bottom. Adoption of self-service applications and devices in restaurants, hotels, grocery stores, and even specialty retail, is diluting brand strength and simply identifying these businesses with the commodity paradigm. People connections do matter, one-on-one service does matter, and the ripple effect in the social media space is where the battle for brands will be won or lost. In this battle, cutting labor and other costs versus boldly hiring, training, and retaining great customer-facing talent is the foundation. Empowering employees with technology and applications that help them recognize customer preferences and truly “who they are” leaves a very strong impression that will transfer to “likes” in Facebook, Twitter, or their favorite social media platform.
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When the store “recognizes” every customer as an individual, this creates an opportunity for a conversation. That particular customer will be transformed from a shopper of commodities to a buyer and advocate for the brand. When the store manager or associate is able to be elevated to the customers’ trusted friend, the bond creates stronger and longer sustained loyalty than any design or trend.
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In a recent survey in the National Restaurant Association, 38% of adults said they would use a smartphone application for the restaurant if offered. Does this mean encouraging customers to engage the brand and experience primarily through a smartphone is a good idea just because they want it? What about the human experience through conversations, being immersed in the physical space with store employees you recognize as community “friends”? The idyllic picture of families and friends enjoying themselves while having a meal together? Restaurant/store employees should enhance the guest experience with unique service strategies and engagement that lift and clearly define the brand’s story.
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I read recently that a large casual dining-restaurant chain is implementing a smartphone app that enables guests to order and pay for their food without a server. Now, that brand’s story will be about self-service and fast food (with less service). Sounds like they are moving from the casual dining category to fast food. I’m not saying folding in a useful technology or app is all bad. The retail industry broadly, needs to think deeply about strategy in context of how the experience will affect the brand story.
People go to dinner for lots of reasons but the common thread is to enjoy a dining out experience with family and/or friends together in the same space. Great one-on-one service from talented brand ambassadors significantly enhances the experience and creates more conversation between the families and friends at the table and then extends to the social media space and all the buzz that goes with it.
In the longer term, some of these great brands may dilute and redefine their reason for being – becoming mostly about commodity and faceless or just poor service. Unintentionally, they join the race to the bottom. The time to take bold action to strengthen brand is now, and great employees enabled with powerful technology and apps are the secret sauce to taking a higher road to winning through the hearts and minds of customers!