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

Liam Burns
Written by Liam Burns
June 30, 2021

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. And in response, brands roll out innovative offerings, such as curbside pickup, and introduce updated operational initiatives, like training employees on health and safety protocols, to remain in the game and delight customers. 

But what will it mean to meet customer experience expectations flawlessly now as life gets back to “normal” in the near future? 

To answer this question with confidence, Medallia’s Strategy and Analytics Team (MSAT) analyzed millions of retail customer engagements. After synthesizing the results and identifying the top 100 words and phrases being used, three themes clearly dominated the conversation between customers and retailers in 2020: ease, availability, and service.

Changing consumer behaviors driven by the pandemic appear to be here to stay, and that means delivering exceptional  customer experiences matters more than ever before. Read on for tips about how retailers can leverage insights from this research to make improvements across operations and customer experience.


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, the goal should be to 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, your call to action should be to combine targeted pulse feedback with observed behaviors to identify and address patterns of friction during, if not immediately following, each 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, walk  customers through new ways of engaging with your brand by communicating in real time/in the moment to guide them through new elements of the shopping journey, anticipating their needs and questions in advance (e.g. sending a “What comes next with your curbside return?” text message). 

For customer experience leaders, take a pulse of customers to get their take on 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 

During the 2020 holiday season, stock outages along with lengthy waitlists challenged retailers like never before. And customers took notice as they aired their frustrations about limited availability far and beyond previous holiday seasons. It’s now clear as ever that providing customers with alternate choices in the moment despite. These issues ultimately magnified the value in providing customers with useful, alternate choices while shopping in the moment to salvage those retail experiences.

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 conversions.

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 increasingly being associated with fast and frictionless brand interactions. 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 and 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 these new expectations?
  2. How are you activating customer feedback to drive change and improvements to achieve the  goal of meeting new customer expectations?
Topics: Customer Experience, Retail
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