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Voice of the Retail Customer: The Post-Pandemic Playbook to the New Customer Experience

Voice of the Retail Customer

The voice of the retail customer is loud and clear: If you haven’t already, it’s time to adapt to meet the needs of the new customer experience.

The pandemic brought with it a new playbook for winning retail customers. Offerings, such as curbside pickup and new operational initiatives like training employees on health and safety protocols, emerged to give retailers concrete ways to remain in the game and delight customers. But what does it mean to execute on those recommendations flawlessly and at scale? Your customers are actually telling you. Are you listening?

To answer this question with confidence, Medallia’s Strategy and Analytics Team (MSAT) analyzed millions of retail customer verbatims, identified the top 100 words and phrases and synthesized the results into three key themes. We also compared results for the 2020 and 2019 holiday season to identify the magnitude of how the conversation shifted to help retailers know where to invest and innovate going forward. 

Three themes — ease, availability and service — dominated the conversation between customers and retailers in 2020, building strong momentum throughout the year and signaling the need to accelerate toward fast, frictionless digital-oriented solutions.


 Voice of the Retail CustomerTo further contextualize their findings, the MSAT team looked back at Holiday 2019 to see how the conversation compared. Interestingly, while service remained an important part of the discussion, customers were far more likely to share feedback around ease and availability in 2020 compared to 2019. 

 Voice of the Retail Customer
The changing consumer behaviors we observed during the pandemic are here to stay. Read on for tips on how retailers, on both the operations and customer experience side, can leverage insights from this research.

Ease: It’s more than just convenience  

Customers defined “ease” in the context of low effort and frictionless experiences, most often in referencing digital or omnichannel interactions. Interesting too was the change in mentions of two words often carrying a very similar meaning (ease and convenience). Ease surpassed convenience at the onset of the pandemic and remained ahead for the rest of the year. 

Here are three ways retailers can leverage these insights:

#1 Design simple 1-2-3 paths to purchase

For operational leaders, simplify journeys to ensure customers — particularly those new to your brand or new ways of shopping —  will find what they are looking for in the least amount of clicks, filters or conversations. For customer experience leaders, combine targeted pulse feedback with observed behaviors to identify and address patterns of friction during, if not immediately following, the experience. Perform tests to see which adjustments have the largest impact on experience and conversion. 

#2 Orient and onboard to new experiences 

For operational leaders, bring customers along to the evolved ways of engaging with your brand by communicating in real time/in the moment to guide them on new elements of the shopping journey, anticipating their needs and questions in advance (e.g. “What comes next with your curbside return?” text message). 

For customer experience leaders, take a pulse of customers on their opinion of the “effort” or “ease” of interacting with your brand. Leverage alerts to save those customers expressing frustration or confusion in real time. 

#3 Offer tailored and flexible alternatives

For operational leaders, remove friction by offering creative and flexible solutions for key moments of truth: payment alternatives (e.g. contactless payment, installments), fulfillment options (e.g. curbside, same day delivery) and simple return and exchange processes (cross-channel returns, Return Bar partnerships).

For customer experience leaders, use feedback to evaluate which offerings yield the highest impact in terms of experience and ROI. Prioritize solutions to evolve and scale.  

Availability: Choice is king 

Confronted with stock outages and waitlists like never before, customers commented on frustrations with availability far and beyond previous holiday seasons. They highlighted the importance of being able to easily find what they were looking for — in the moment they wanted it — by leveraging choices and alternatives to help complete their mission even if their first desired path was not accessible to them. 

Here are two ways retailers can leverage these insights:

#1 Avoid “out of stock shock” with smart substitutions

For operational leaders, offer tailored, creative and in-the-moment substitutions. Go beyond the traditional substitution based on similar features, but rather consider the customer’s motivation or sentiment behind their purchase. Train contact center agents and store associates on the importance of offering substitutions and how to do so in a meaningful way to maximize opportunities for conversion.

For customer experience leaders, use feedback to assess how customers feel about the substitutions process and alternative offerings to drive improvements to algorithms and employee training. 

#2 Serve up inventory in a “when you want it, how you want it” way  

For operational leaders, lean into the concept of “live-time inventory” ensuring store and digital inventory systems are linked to enable customers to choose where they fulfill their purchase based on availability and delivery timelines. Make it easy for employees to quickly and effectively facilitate omnichannel transactions through a holistic view of stock. 

For customer experience leaders, create a strong feedback loop to inventory teams ensuring they have a line of sight into patterns and trends by product and fulfillment channel. Leverage alerts and prioritization analytics to escalate the most important inventory issues to employees who are empowered to “make things right” for the customer in real time. 

Service: Fast and frictionless 

While the conversation around service didn’t experience the same surge in volume as ease and availability, it did surface an interesting insight: Service is associated more and more with fast and frictionless interactions with a brand. While historically one of the more common characteristics of service oriented discussions, it now extends beyond interactions with employees.

Here are two ways retailers can leverage these insights:

#1 Execute on empathy + efficiency 

For operational leaders, enable the frontline to serve with empathy and with a laser focus on efficient interactions. “Warm welcomes” remain important. But without quick, effective and safe interactions at the foundation of the experience, customers will consider other brands to meet their evolved definition of “best-in-class” service. 

For customer experience leaders, give the frontline access to direct and timely feedback to accelerate their personal development and celebrate their successes. Create a channel for the frontline to share ideas on how to improve interactions with customers.    

#2 Enable omnichannel frontline heroes

For operational leaders, arm frontline employees — contact center agents, store associates, etc. — with data and tools that afford them a full view of an individual customer’s journey and a comprehensive understanding of changes happening across the business (e.g. in-store shopping policies). This will ensure accurate and aligned messaging with customers and more effective issue resolution. 

For customer experience leaders, leverage team huddles and case management processes to enable information sharing across teams and as a means of surfacing opportunity areas in the issue-resolution process. 

Driving your business forward

Customers are speaking directly to retailers. They’re saying, “Make it easy for me to engage with you, find what I’m looking for when and where I need it. And when issues arrive, put speed and efficiency at the center of your resolution process.”

Ask yourself two questions: 1) How does your brand measure up against that statement? and 2) How are you activating customer feedback to drive change and improvement toward that goal?

To learn more about how these insights can help your business, watch Medallia’s recent webinar “Looking Back to Leapfrog Ahead: Retail Holiday 2020 Learnings to Drive Experience Innovations in 2021.”