I grew up in a small town in Minnesota where my family owned a hardware store that served the people who lived in town as well as customers from the surrounding rural areas.
My father and his brothers who worked in the store knew customers and their families by name. They listened intently to their situations and needs and responded with understanding and empathy, offering products and services that met customers’ real needs. The store was a place people came to socialize, shop and learn about the latest advances in farm machinery, appliances, tools, décor and more. Interactions were authentic, personalized and relevant.
When I started to think about my most memorable customer experiences, I realized they mirrored the ones offered years ago in my family’s hardware store. Experiences that come to mind are interactions like when the produce manager at the grocery store puts aside produce for me based on my preferences, when my hairdresser asks about my family and shares stories with me as she gives me the perfect cut and when the cheese vendor checks in to see how the cheese she recommended worked in new dish I prepared for the holidays. These kinds of experiences make me feel heard, valued and understood.
Now, these experiences are impactful, but they don’t scale well. Online retail scales well, but can often feel either too impersonal, or too personal, in a creepy way.
So what is the best way to scale the high touch experience using technology?
If you base it on my dad’s hardware store experiences you would:
First, know enough about your customers that your recommendations are relevant. In the old days, that was done by visiting around a cup of coffee. Today, that’s data mining for next best purchase, relevant recommendations via AI, and access to data that might be in silos.
Second, use the power of the community to encourage a sense of belonging. My dad knew which farmers needed help bringing in their crops, and who might need a bit more time paying their bill. He researched the best tractors for the local conditions, and always had time to talk story at the wood burning stove. Today, we can hosting online communities for customers to share reviews, tips and offer support.
Third, keep track of what’s important to your customers. My dad knew each farmer’s crops, families and troubles. Today, you need to data mine an ever larger set of interactions, whether it’s their social postings, their locations, networks, or purchases to know what your customers care about so you can intersect with them relevantly and positively.
And finally, my dad truly cared about his customers. You can demonstrate that sense of caring at scale as well, by connecting them with other relevant products, people or content. You can keep track of and appropriately acknowledge their milestones and anniversaries. It may mean providing them with personalized credit opportunities, support or product recommendations. Caring comes in many forms!
While today we do a lot of online shopping because we value the convenience, we will never outgrow the need for human interaction. We’re all hungry for connection, meaning and acknowledgement. So digital technologies can be a part of that. We can use big data and customer analytics to generate insights that will make both on-line and in-person interactions more like the experiences delivered years ago in my family’s hardware store. They will be ever more relevant, authentic, informed and engaging.