As technology and digital continues to infiltrate consumers’ lives, the need for human interaction and emotional connection is more important than ever. Using the data at their fingertips, retailers can capture a more in-depth view of customers’ lives, allowing them to better understand their wants and needs — and ultimately use that picture to create a service experience that incorporates both technology and humans.
We sat down with design visionary Jean-Pierre Lacroix, President and Founder of Shikatani Lacroix Design, to discuss the emerging need for humanizing the digital experience.
Retail TouchPoints (RTP): Shikatani Lacroix Design’s latest white paper looks at finding the balance between technology and human interaction. What are the keys retailers should keep in mind while trying to bridge the two?
Jean-Pierre Lacroix: It is always great to leverage the latest in technological innovations, but you don’t want to lose the emotional connection that comes with human interaction. Numerous studies have shown that customers still want to talk to your employees, they still want to explore your physical space and engage at a level that can’t be done solely through technology. Take chatbots — we’ve all probably had frustrating experiences with customer support chatbots, where they are unable to answer a question or only have a determined set of answers. If you’re not careful, technology can disrupt the customer journey in a negative way. We really believe that technology should help, not replace.
RTP: How has the pandemic impacted consumer behavior and the need for human connection the most?
Lacroix: During the first wave of COVID-19, we did a series of studies and found that consumers were split between two groups: those that are optimistic about the future and those that are pessimistic. Obviously, there are a number of factors that can play into a consumer’s mindset — especially during a pandemic — but the lack of human connection that a lot of people have experienced is one of the biggest. And it is impacting purchase behavior. For example, many people opted for curbside pickup because they just wanted to get out of the house and have a basic interaction! Now that vaccines are starting to roll out and we are seeing more stores and restaurants be allowed to re-open, this is really an opportunity for brands to re-establish that personal connection and be there for their customers and employees.
RTP: In what ways can retailers emphasize emotional connections with their customers?
Lacroix: At its core, the ideal service experience answers an emotional need that a customer has. If you start from a point of empathy and have a desire to understand those needs, you are able to create a deeper connection. Right now, technology is falling short of delivering on those emotional needs. If a customer goes into a bank, for example, the simple transaction would be to make a deposit or open an account — something that can now easily be done through technology. But when you go a bit deeper, what are the real pain points that a customer has? Anxiety about retirement, buying a house, paying off student debt? Understanding some of these concerns and helping solve them is still how a brand can ultimately create that emotional connection.
RTP: Emotional connection is vital for brand loyalty, but research indicates several challenges undermining consumers’ ability to emotionally connect in today’s world. What do you think is the biggest hurdle and how do retailers overcome this?
Lacroix: When you break down the service experience, what you realize is that frontline staff have such a huge role to play — oftentimes more than merchandise, services or marketing. So it is really about empowering your staff and arming them with the tools and information they need to do their job. For all of the promise that technology brings, if frontline employees do not activate the insights or see the benefit, much of the investment in knowledge and technology will fail to move the needle. This comes down to leadership training for store managers and not undervaluing those frontline staff, which is often a problem in the retail sector. Brands are going to have to rethink how they value those roles, and not only offer relevant training but leaders and values that get people excited to come to work and deliver excellent service.
RTP: In your own immersive experience study, consumers said the real value of technology is as an enabler to better customer service as opposed to replacing human service. How should brands be using technology to improve customer service while also elevating human connection?
Lacroix: In the Humanizing Digital Experience report, we outline a few strategies that will allow retailers to create a service experience that incorporates both technology and humans. It starts with leveraging all the data that you have at your fingertips. By capturing a more in-depth view of a consumer’s life, you can have a better understanding of their wants and needs. These data points can in turn help you develop finely tuned customer personas and a customer journey map that really homes in on how digital, physical and virtual can work together.
Taking it a step further, we suggest that you think about how your digital and physical sales choreography can be improved. How is your digital marketing impacting traffic to your store? Is your physical space incorporating digital signage and wireless POS systems? Ultimately, asking lots of questions and thinking holistically about the customer journey will ensure that both physical and digital get equal amounts of attention and live up to their full potential.
RTP: In your study, how did consumers define “immersive experience”? What does that mean for retailers?
Lacroix: Respondents highlighted that an immersive experience is one in which they receive the best service and can be fully engaged participants. It is important to note that consumers link immersive experiences to a benefit and not necessarily technology. So, “the use of virtual reality and augmented reality technology” and “a place where digital and physical come together” ranked surprisingly low as a way to describe an immersive experience.
Once again, it really validated this idea that consumers are less interested in the type of technology and its features, and more focused on how these technologies can improve the shopping experience. Consumers in the study reported the ability to find what they are looking for as the benefit they value most. Some other popular ones were increasing the level of service and making shopping more efficient.
RTP: What else do you think is crucial for retailers to know about humanizing the digital experience?
Lacroix: Especially now with consumers interacting with brands so much digitally, there is a great opportunity to leverage your website, social media channels, ecommerce and digital advertising, but back that up with a human approach. Create an emotional connection that goes beyond transactions and you will set your brand up for long-term success.