Customer Experience, Work

Amazon, Wholefoods and the Future Of Human-Led Customer Service

Last week’s announcement that Amazon is taking over Wholefoods has sent shockwaves through the retail community, with experts predicting major changes in the way grocery chains run and operate. Markets reacted immediately with stock prices for major players like Target and Walmart being hit significantly. Plummeting stocks reflect the belief that this takeover will spell disaster for established grocery brands, and signal a period of disruptive change in a market that’s long been broadly stable.

So, what does this mean for customer service? Helpshift‘s CEO, Abinash Tripathy, has weighed in:

“We see Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods as part of a growing trend of digital and brick and mortar convergence,” said Tripathy. “From a customer service perspective we are excited about this development since we believe more and more stores will adopt the app philosophy of customer engagement. Similar to what Amazon is proposing with the Amazon Go stores, the shopping experience will be truly seamless. That means when you shop at your nearby store you won’t have to hunt down a customer service clerk to find something but rather your phone will tell you instead.”

It’s clear that customer service is in a real state of flux, with Tripathy’s forecasting of app-centered shopping experiences, as well as advancements from Chatbots to drone delivery promising to revolutionize the way that we all interact with companies.

But what do these advances all have in common? They’re all taking us further away from customer service delivered by people.

A Wholefoods Experience

I’m a Wholefoods shopper. Wandering around my local store recently, I ran into a little stand with a chap selling hummus and pesto.

Tasters were available, and since I can’t resist a freebie, I tried a little. Needless to say, it was all utterly transcendent. And the man at the stall was friendly, peppy and immensely grateful at being able to sell his homemade creations instore, making me all the more happy to buy several tubs.

Walking around a little more, I needed to find something, and failed. I couldn’t think what the proper name was for the thing that I wanted, or remember any brand names. My issue, as a new-ish Brit in Canada, is I’m still not totally sure what names some unfamiliar things have here. Let alone where to find them in the store!

I glanced at a customer service rep in the aisle and then thought twice. How on earth would I explain what I was looking for when I didn’t even know the name of what I wanted?

The rep caught my eye. “Can I help you, maam?”

“Erm, yes I need some things but I’m not sure what they’re called. They’re like… tiny plastic squeezy bottles with fruit stuff that you put in water?”

The rep looked at me quizzically for a second, then his face lit up. “Oh! I think I know what you mean! Like the little water flavoring bottles? I think Mio is one of the types we have…”

“Yes, brilliant, that’s them!” The rep led me to where I needed to go, we exchanged smiles, and I blustered away my embarrassment by chatting away then thanking him enthusiastically.

I did the rest of my shopping, then went to pay. Exchanged some cheery small talk with the cashier, paid up, and left.

Feel-Good Service

There’s a common theme throughout all these interactions – not once did I need to seek help outside of the store (through the internet, apps, or otherwise) to get, or do, what I needed. All the people in the store were ready and able to help me, and we all came out of the interaction with smiles on our faces.

Authentic customer service, delivered with kindness, inspires and uplifts. From the proud man selling his pesto, to the amused aisle walker, to the cashier who seemed genuinely pleased when I asked her how her day was going – interactions with people like this don’t just feel great, they’re proven to have a host of positive effects.

Now, consider:

  • What would customer service look like if there were no workers in stores?
  • If there was nobody to tell us about that great new pesto that would blow your culinary mind?
  • If we had to rely on apps to find what we needed, and couldn’t give our terrible vague descriptions to superstar reps who know just what we’re after?
  • Or if we were doomed to having to interact only with self-serve checkouts, with no human backup? (Truly, a seventh circle of hell situation.)

I admit, this future of customer service scares me.

It scares me because, in the 21st century, loneliness is an epidemic. Communities are eroding. And in a world where we can have thousands of friends on Facebook, actual human contact can be rare and unfamiliar for those who have lost touch with how to interact with others.

Thoughtful customer service acts as the glue that binds people. It can give you the smile that you need on a day where you’re feeling down. It can show the kindness and consideration that keeps people coming back, even when other places are more convenient, or less expensive. And for some people, it might be the only human contact they really have.

Personally, I’ll keep my apps for the rare situations when they’ll actually benefit me, and others around me – when I’m sick, in a bad mood or even, god forbid, horribly hungover – all situations which benefit from keeping myself to myself.

The rest of the time, I’ll take actual, human customer service any day.

I can only hope that as technology advances, we don’t totally forget the reasons why so many of us are passionate about customer service. It’s potential for us to build people up, to offer and receive help because helping feels good, and to make other’s lives even a little bit nicer.

In an age where screens are replacing faces, that’s the part of customer service that just can’t be replaced.

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