The number of tweaks and changes that the retail industry has undergone as a result of the COVID-19 global pandemic and its impacts are just about incalculable. So, too, are the adjustments and alterations that merchants have been required to apply to nearly every aspect of their operations in order to remain relevant and successful. Much of the disruption has been precipitated by lockdowns and social restrictions imposed by governments across the country, forcing a shift in consumer behaviour toward online channels as a means to make purchases. However, ecommerce is not the only digital capability that retailers everywhere have needed to bolster over the course of the past year-and-a-half. Ensuring the right kind of communication with the consumer in the online world has also become an accelerated priority and a critical support for excellent omnichannel customer service. And, according to David Nagy, digital entrepreneur and Founder of eCommerce Canada, it’s a priority that’s putting pressure on the resources and wherewithal of small- and medium-sized businesses.
“What’s evolved with respect to the complexities around communication over the course of the past 18 months or so is the need to be active in multiple channels, many of which have suddenly become important to businesses,” he says. “The massive shift to online by the consumer has magnified the significance of efficient digital communication. Merchants everywhere are asking themselves whether they need to introduce a Tik Tok strategy or live chat. These things weren’t huge concerns prior to the pandemic. But now retailers have suddenly got to consider these tactics, and more, because the digital component and channels available have all become such an integral part of customer service. And, with continued online adoption on the part of the consumer, the retailer’s ability to provide a certain level of communication on the channels that are relevant to their audiences will continue to become more and more important going forward.”
Resources and talent
Nagy stresses the need for merchants to be operating and present in the digital space, citing their participation in the online world as a required element in the retail equation today, despite the size of the business. In saying this, he also recognizes the challenges that small- and medium-sized businesses have faced through the pandemic, particularly for those who had not yet implemented or scaled up their digital capabilities. They’ve been required to enhance or, for some, introduce into their business for the very first time, software like customer service ticketing and customer relationship management systems, and become familiar with their proper uses and applications. However, the real test, Nagy says, is finding the right resources to be able to manage all of these things.
“The biggest challenge for small- and medium-sized retailers today is finding the right talent,” he says. “They’re often bootstrapping to get their business off the ground, hiring freelancers or people who have just graduated to work 10 or 20 hours a week because they don’t really have the cash to onboard a lot of people. But many of them know that they have to service their digital communications, like DMs through Instagram, which are now messages businesses have to field. A lot of brands are realizing that they need to be on Instagram and other social media platforms, but they forget that the real work is what follows the post and responding to the series of questions and comments that it elicits. It’s too easy to ignore this component of digital communication for days or even weeks when you don’t have the resources to do it. Smaller merchants are struggling to find the proper resources and are therefor struggling to find continuity amongst their digital communications. As a result, many of them are being stretched to the limit in order to look after all of it and maintain consistency in the brand’s tone of voice and the ways it does things in the digital space.”
Immediacy of service
Although Nagy is very much a proponent of the digital world, one in which he has plied his trade and made a name for himself, he acknowledges how meaningful in-person communication and engagement with customers is for small- and medium-sized retailers. He stresses its importance within the retail ecosystem, acutely understanding the ways in which the physical brick-and-mortar environment complements the overall omnichannel experience. However, he says that for small- and medium-sized retailers who want to continue growing their business and customer-base going forward, they’re going to need to leverage all available channels of engagement, communicating and servicing the consumer where they want to be communicated to and serviced, all while the bar for online interaction continues to rise.
“The lack of immediacy in the online world is the biggest pain point for merchants at the moment,” he asserts. “If you walk into a retail store, you almost always receive service right away. It’s an easy engagement within most businesses. However, when it comes to digital engagement, there’s almost an apathy that I don’t think is acceptable anymore. That’s where brands stand to lose the most business. They’ve got to start treating their digital communication like their communication in-store, turning around customer-service oriented emails, addressing live chat sessions, picking up the phone, which is still a desirable communication channel for some customers, or they’re going to lose business to the brands that are communicating effectively in these ways. Going forward, the brands that can service the most actively on digital channels will win in most cases.”
As Nagy points out, the need for resources to properly manage all of the communication and customer service requests and concerns is a major stumbling block for many small- and medium-sized retailers. The inundation of incoming messages that are flowing from a multitude of different channels can seem daunting to deal with. And, given the continuing digitization of the world around us, consumers are likely to sustain their behaviour, increasingly interacting with brands via digital means, and expecting the service they receive to address their question or concern in a timely and efficient manner. The task for some can seem herculean. However, there are, says Nagy, some clever and effective ways by which smaller players can speed up their response times, satisfying their digital customers.
“Servicing the customer adequately in today’s digital space is a challenge for smaller retailers,” he admits. “However, there are a number of things that merchants can do in order to prepare themselves to better deal with all of the communication that’s required online. First, it’s critically important for them to let the customer know that they’ve been heard by responding to them within 24 hours. They may not have the answer that they’re looking for or a solution to their problem. But the kindness of an acknowledgment is usually enough to prevent the session from moving elsewhere. To increase efficiency further, there’s almost a templating that the digital space allows for. There are many emails and responses to customer concerns that can pretty much be pre-written. When a retailer understands their business and the product or service that they offer, and they’re listening to their customers in every sense, they’ll develop a really good idea of the types of questions or concerns that are most often raised and can pre-bake responses that simply require substitutions. When resources are stretched thin, this is a great way in which digital allows merchants to find efficiencies in their digital communication processes.”
It’s a simple tactic, but one that is incredibly effective in helping small- and medium-sized retailers deal with the deluge of digital communication that some are receiving from their customers. In fact, it’s part of what Nagy refers to as a toolkit approach to digital communication that he and his team help develop for their clients. Another tool that he strongly suggests employing is the development of an editorial and promotional calendar, allowing business owners and their teams to plot out themes and opportunities throughout the year, enabling them to prepare for those opportunities twelve months out. The editorial calendar provides a framework that merchants can leverage to feed the creation of their social media content, the growth of the brand’s blog, information that will appear on the website homepage, and all other forms of content. And, according to Nagy, it can also help focus the work and effort that goes into developing it all.
“In a perfect world, an editorial calendar will allow businesses to create three months of content in advance,” he says. “A little bit of latitude is left for changes and other anomalies that need to be addressed. But, getting out in front of these opportunities and requirements provides some focus for business owners. You can get a lot done in a week if you know exactly what you’re doing to create the next 90 days of content. Businesses can hire freelance writers and designers and work with them to knock out three months worth of the communications plan. This approach is opposed to the traditional ad hoc ways in which communications are usually developed, which is often as an afterthought. Being proactive, planning and preparing prevents scrambling, lends to the creation of engaging and effective content and frees up time to allow business owners to do what they do best – run their businesses.”
Nagy also recommends that in order for merchants to be most effective online and deepen their understanding of their customers and the things that are driving their behaviour, a familiarity concerning keyword demand research is required. Not only does it allow merchants the ability to recognize what consumers are searching for and at what level of demand, it also feeds into the development of the business’ editorial calendar, helping retailers understand when they should be focused on certain pieces of subject matter and content. There is a plethora of other data available, as well, that merchants can begin diving into in order to broaden their understanding of the ways their communications strategy and tactics are impacting their business. But Nagy warns business owners to be selective in their approach to data, suggesting that much of it can send them down the proverbial rabbit hole if they don’t possess a keen comprehension of the numbers they’re looking at.
“Merchants should become familiar with the most important KPIs for their business,” he stresses. “It’s a terrifying amount of data that we have access to today. The sheer quantity of interfaces producing reports and analytics yielding data is immense. And trying to prioritize these datasets can be really overwhelming for a lot of small businesses. In addition, there’s a lot of mythology around this data which tends to mislead businesses with respect to the things that should matter to them. It’ll sometimes mislead them into thinking that they have a bad bounce rate or average time spent on site. But, that’s often debatable because chances are the retailer doesn’t even know what an acceptable bounce rate or average time on site is for their business. Success can look different to different businesses, depending on their desired outcomes. So, developing an understanding of the numbers that matter to the business and how they impact performance is critically important.”
Enhanced digital engagement
The digital world remains a relatively unfamiliar one for many small- and medium-sized businesses operating in communities across the country. However, with shifting consumer shopping preferences toward online channels, the need for retailers to be there in order to communicate to and service them is becoming paramount. And, although the complexities of the digital environment tend to rise with its ongoing advancement and evolution, Nagy’s confident that Canadian small- and medium-sized businesses will continue to adapt, deepening their understanding of their digital businesses, refining their communications strategies and processes and enhancing their engagement with consumers.
“The world around us is constantly changing. As part of that change, we’re experiencing a tremendous digitization that’s increasingly impacting our daily lives. As a result, it’s leading to alterations to consumer behaviour and the ways they want to interact with brands. There are many small businesses across the country that have done a really great job digitizing their communications and servicing the consumer online. It’s part of the new reality for businesses today. And I’m looking forward to seeing how others will continue to adapt and grow their brands through strong digital communication. In the end, whether in a physical brick-and-mortar setting or online, merchants need to always keep in mind that what they’re doing is still retail and about the customer journey and experience. It’s about the story and the emotion and connecting with the consumer in a tangible, meaningful way. The retailers that can navigate the nuances of digital, plan and prepare their communications and engagement opportunities, and apply the same emphasis on customer service in the digital environment as they do within their physical spaces will be the ones that flourish going forward.”