Joe Sejean is the founder of Eleven (1+1=11) – The People Engagement Network, based in the UAE. He is also the host of the podcast People, Not Numbers. Joe specialises in customer and employee engagement, culture transformation, retail, luxury, omnichannel and digital adoption.
He talked to me about the profound impact the pandemic is having upon omnichannel operations and frontline employees.
‘The importance of developing a local clientele’
Dubai relies heavily upon tourism – so retail opportunities are often based upon the number of visitors we get. Other cities like Hong Kong have similar profiles.
With the pandemic, all this changed. We’ve needed to rely on the environment in which we live and two things struck everybody working in retail. Firstly, the need to target local people. And secondly, the realization that we didn’t have a relationship with many of these people.
Retailers needed to focus on local clients and build relationships with them from scratch. This will be a lasting change the pandemic has forced us to make – reminding us of the importance of developing a local clientele.
The necessity to nurture relationships both locally and internationally is essential to avoid the risk of having the same problems again in the future.
‘Front-liners are starting to be at the centre of omnichannel’
At the same time, we’re starting to see the role of frontline employees changing.
Not just in retail – as many frontline jobs could see their role becoming much more critical than it used to be.
When we experienced the first lockdown, the people who saved the retail businesses were not the ones in the office. They were the front-liners. They turned the omnichannel world towards themselves in order to continue serving their clients.
They asked the digital team to give them access to Instagram on their cell phones so they could interact with clients. They asked IT to forward emails from different boutiques and back offices to them, so they could interact with both customers and the warehouse.
As a result, the big change initiated by the pandemic is that front-liners are starting to be at the centre of omnichannel.
This shift hasn’t come from the brands. All the cases I’ve seen were driven by the concern of the front-liners to serve their customers. And to save their own jobs.
We’ve seen incredible things happening, including brands overperforming because their retail teams were obsessed with service continuity and have bent the systems and structures to achieve it.
‘Autonomy has grown in customer-facing roles’
Omnichannel has been a very powerful way to open up different channels to interact with customers.
Supposedly it was a customer-centric approach. But it’s not if the individual channels don’t speak to each other – leaving the customer to figure out a way to sort out their own problems. For example, ordering online, writing to customer service in case of an issue, calling the contact centre if the issue was not resolved, writing on social media to find a solution and voice discontent, or going to a store to solve their problem. All caused by a dysfunction by the brand!
As a result, it hasn’t helped to improve customer relationships. A control and protection mentality at multiple levels in organizations has meant that channels don’t speak to each other, leaving customers lost in the middle of the brand’s ecosystem.
During the pandemic we’ve seen something different. Where the control is not at the centre of the system – while autonomy has grown in customer-facing roles.
Similar to retail, the people who saved the restaurants are the chefs and the people who delivered the food to us. Not the back office roles.
Putting front-liners at the centre of the client relationship is a much-needed change in our industry.
‘The whole ecosystem of retail will change’
This in turn is changing the way we work and how we see relationships.
Front-liners know the product, know the brand, the stock levels, the sizes, the issues, the good deals, the prices and more. They also know the clients.
In the past we haven’t necessarily considered that front-liners are capable of interacting in multiple ways. We haven’t paid attention to their multiple talents and capacity to be versatile. Using emails, WhatsApp, phone, video, social media, in-person communication and more to interact with their clients.
Recognising customer-facing roles as poly-talented professionals and critical to the emergence of real ‘brand experiences’ is a durable change. Omnichannel will become a ‘no-channel’ experience.
In the future we will start to see less people in support services such as marketing, digital or contact centres. Instead, interaction with customers will be increasingly channelled through front-liners.
It will be the frontliners themselves who will answer the calls. The same for social media – as front-liners themselves interact on social media. The whole ecosystem of retail will change – to place them at the centre of omnichannel.
This is the only way to safeguard businesses against future turbulence and find a new model where retail will thrive sustainably.
‘There will be a shift in where money is invested’
When omnichannel is used well, it can foster interactions and encourage people to talk to each other. To have dialogue through whatever channel they prefer. And the central person who can easily follow the customers around is the front-liner.
Customer-facing roles will be elevated to where they belong – a central role that builds and nurtures customer relationships and helps people interact with each other.
It hasn’t been narrated like this in the past. We’ve been told that ‘sales people’ are there to simply facilitate transactions.
Consequently, there will be a shift in where money is invested. Less into support services and people in the office. More into people on the frontline.
And they are not going to spend all their time in the store. They will split their schedule flexibly between the boutique, online selling, social media interaction or contact-centre operation. Frontliners will use video channels to sell in-store. And they will be able to provide online live consultation for the e-commerce website.
I believe this is how it’s going to work in the future. People who choose any customer-facing career will be able to express their talents in diverse, flexible and innovative ways. They will nurture relationships through all channels made available to them and consequently have no limits in the revenue they will generate directly or indirectly. They will be able to meet clients face to face in the stores and virtually through multiple ways.
‘There will be no boundaries’
Overall, the purpose of retail is going to change. It will still be a place where you buy things – but it will become much more a place of experiences.
It won’t matter if you bought something online and then you go to exchange it in a retail store. Today it’s still a struggle – tomorrow it will be a completely seamless experience. Not because of the way systems work. But because we will have placed front-liners at the centre of the omnichannel ecosystem.
There will be no boundaries. Brands should be operating as global entities regardless of channels. This is a massive change of paradigm – frontline team members have never been so important.
The real advantage of this central pool of talent is that they can handle all these different means of communicating with customers.
This new omnichannel economy can help remove specialization and open the gates to the wider talents that people have.
It will also enable front-liners to easily reach their sales targets in-store or online. In a flexible way, using multiple channels to their and their client’s advantage.
‘By providing transparency and being open to vulnerability’
We’ve always known an operational model dating back to the industrial revolution – based upon adult-child relationships. And some people are comfortable operating in this context.
But the pandemic has accelerated the separation between people who want to work this way and those who have realized that there is another way to do things.
Many brands have tried controlling people. For example, telling frontline team members that they don’t have the right to use Instagram, or talk to clients on WhatsApp. But it hasn’t worked.
The companies who have not tried to control their people have survived the pandemic significantly better. By providing transparency and being open to vulnerability, successful businesses connected to their employees – not just as task deliverers, but as human beings.
These companies have significantly outperformed in employee retention and motivation. Saving them from the crisis.
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