Online Customer Service More Important than Expected Amid Digital Shift in Canada: Study

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New Salesforce data indicates that more than three-quarters (76 per cent) of Canadians expect customer service online to be as good as or better than the in-store experience.

Rob Garf, VP and GM of Retail at Salesforce, a global leader in Customer Relationship Management, said over the course of the pandemic consumers by and large were forced to go online to engage and ultimately purchase with retailers. They didn’t have a choice. And neither did retailers.

Rob Garf

“Two really interesting things occurred because of that. First of all, we saw over the course of 2020, 40 per cent net new digital shoppers. So these were individuals who might have gone online for other things like entertainment and interacting with friends, family and colleagues, but they didn’t purchase online. So we saw a large spike in new digital shoppers and that drove worldwide a 57 per cent year-over-year increase in digital sales,” said Garf.

“Given this, a whole new definition of loyalty emerged during the pandemic and that comprised health, safety, convenience and trust. If I think about a common theme across those four values that is frictionless. Consumers got really used to having a frictionless and convenient shopping experience. That behaviour and those expectations are now the new baseline for shopping both in the digital world and the physical world as we emerge from the pandemic.”

Garf said that one-third of Canadians say they are willing to compromise on product quality for a positive customer experience. What’s interesting to note is that consistently over the years, traditionally, product quality has been the number one priority for the online experience.

Hudson’s Bay App signage on Bloor – Photo by Dustin Fuhs

“But in this case what we’re finding is that Canadians are willing to compromise just a little bit on product quality for a better online experience. These expectations of service, of personalization, really removing the friction that has become table stakes over the last 12 months has elevated in importance,” said Garf.

He said that over the next few months as we get to the back to school and holiday seasons these new expectations for online experience are now going to translate and transcend into the physical store.

“We anticipate as we come out of the lockdown, we come out of the pandemic, obviously varying degrees of where you are. Consumers are going to want to experience life again and part of that experience will be going into a physical store. We anticipate a shopping spree that will occur in the fall through the holiday and it will be a combination of digital and physical,” said Garf.

“So really where the winners and losers will be defined is how retailers take those digital experiences and bring them into the physical store.”

Image: Roots

One example is the personalized service. Most retailers have been focused on check out which is all about speed and efficiency and getting people through the till as fast as possible. There’s going to be a change to focus as much on the ‘check in’ event which is about engaging the consumer with personalized service and curating that experience ‘at the moment of truth’ when they’re doing discovery and inspiration, added Garf.

Amber Mac, a technology expert, entrepreneur and President of AmberMac Media, who has been hosting Salesforce’s #PathToGrowth series, said there is an acceleration of digital adoption in retail but that acceleration is not necessarily equal among all retailers.

“If I think about the future of retail, one of the things I think is concerning is we know that those retailers who have successfully adopted digital technologies over the course of the pandemic will continue to be able to build that better but for those businesses who are a little bit slower I think they’re going to have a harder time in terms of their post-pandemic recovery,” said Mac.

Amber Mac

“As a retailer it is so critical that you provide a really seamless experience for them when it comes to your digital offerings because if we think about the conversation around building trust you really have only one shot to be able to do that with the customer and we know from all the data that they will leave if they don’t have a good experience.

“It’s hard to take things away that you’ve already offered. What I mean by that for retailers is let’s say that a retailer has decided that they’re going to offer contactless experiences in terms of rallying customers to order online and pick up at the store. It’s going to be more difficult for retailers to take away some of these digital offerings that they offered during the COVID-19 pandemic. So I do think there is a challenge ahead for those retailers in terms of how do you continue to offer those things that you offered during the pandemic that were easy for customers but also continuing with these other digital channels that are so critical for your business.”

Garf said it is absolutely critical for retailers to get the shopping experience right the first time amidst the pandemic. Because of this new definition of loyalty, consumers were really quick to move on to a new and different brand if they were able to get that health, safety, convenience and trust.

“That’s why it doesn’t necessarily surprise me that more than three quarters of consumers that we surveyed in the April time frame of this year said customer service online should be as good or better than the in-store experience,” said Garf. “There were a whole new set and a whole new baseline of customer experiences that was set. Consumers were anticipating and expecting a personalized experience – 46 per cent of Canadians expect brands to know them and know their profile. So personalization became really important.

“The ability to buy online with the confidence the products will be available in the store and then pick it up with the convenience and safety in and around the store became a new service in many cases offered by retailers. Customer service really emerged as a critical, or I would say even re-emerged as a critical, experience and partly because inventory was in many cases scarce for certain categories, shipping capacity issues emerged . . . There was a whole new set of expectations as it relates to the customer experience that now sets a whole new baseline that doesn’t just snap back as we emerge from the pandemic.”

When it comes to digital innovation in retail, it’s about the transition to e-commerce. Many businesses have successfully been able to transition to e-commerce over the course of the past year or so. Some have also been successful in digital marketing and building community.

“What’s really interesting is that when we talk about the digitization of retail businesses I think we have to include a conversation about how do you build relationships and how do you build communities during a crisis like we’ve seen over the past year or so. For me, one of the things I really learned throughout hosting #PathToGrowth for Salesforce is that the key conversation a lot of retailers need to be having about the future of retail is how do we build trust in an environment like this where so much of the business being done is through digital channels,” explained Mac.

Retailers such as Roots and Hudson’s Bay, as well as entrepreneurs like Arlene Dickinson and Joe Mimran, have been leaders in this field.

“Joe is a great example of an entrepreneur in the retail space who not only understands how to be able to continue to build a brand during difficult times but if you watch #PathToGrowth, the most recent event, Joe is building a business right now that is targeting new parents. I think what’s really fascinating about Joe’s perspective on the future of retail, he isn’t just thinking about how to run a business during COVID-19, he in fact is launching a business and that of course has additional challenges in order to be able to succeed in such a tumultuous time,” said Mac.

When asked how their expectations of online shopping changed since the beginning of the pandemic, the Salesforce survey found:

  • 67 per cent of Canadians expect online stores to better understand their needs;
  • 46 per cent of Canadians expect online brands to know their customer profile;
  • About one-third (31 per cent) now expect to be able to buy big-ticket items, such as vehicles and houses, online. This increases to nearly half (44 per cent) of 18- to 24-year-olds; and
  • More than eight in 10 (82 per cent) Canadians expect to buy a greater variety of products online.

Other survey findings include:

  • 71 per cent of Canadians say the in-store safety experience will be the most important shopping feature to them even after the pandemic is over;
  • Other Canadian shopper priorities in a post-pandemic world include: 36 per cent of Canadians want a variety of shipping and return options; 36 per cent of Canadians want personalization; 31 per cent want social media shopping; 33 per cent want customer service live chat; 20 per cent want virtual access to in-store associates;
  • One-third (33 per cent) of Canadians say they are willing to compromise on product quality for a positive customer experience; and
  • When shopping online, the majority of Canadians (85 per cent) prioritize product quality. When shopping in-store, a quarter of Canadians (25 per cent) say customer experience is top priority.

Article Author

Mario Toneguzzi
Mario Toneguzzi
Mario Toneguzzi, based in Calgary, has more than 40 years experience as a daily newspaper writer, columnist, and editor. He worked for 35 years at the Calgary Herald covering sports, crime, politics, health, faith, city and breaking news, and business. He is the Senior News Editor with Retail Insider in addition to working as a freelance writer and consultant in communications and media relations/training. Mario was named as a RETHINK Retail Top Retail Expert in 2024.

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