Guest Blogger

By Dan Andrews, Founder and CEO, the tree

One of my first jobs was in a small independent menswear store in Bournemouth on the south coast of England. Despite the ‘retail apocalypse’ and the rise of e-commerce, Ashes is still there today. Men still come in and have a chat with the team before getting fitted out. While I was working there, we would sometimes go across the road to the pub with a customer for a pint to break up the process. It was the kind of service you don’t usually find on the high street, and it showed in the store’s relationship with its customers and the fact it still exists today.

In the digital universe, these time-tested rules of customer service should still apply. There are limitations – you can’t yet take someone for a beer online, unfortunately – but changes in technology are encouraging and facilitating a higher level of customer service.

Increasingly, companies are using personal exchanges through text, WhatsApp and Instagram to develop a closer relationship to their customers. As an article published by the Business of Fashion describes, customers at Dirty Lemon’s in New York send a text to the wellness drink brand after taking a drink from the fridge. That’s how they pay and make future orders. ‘Take what you want, text what you took, get on with life,’ a sign reads.

This is what Silicon Valley calls ‘conversational commerce’, and it involves companies using chat platforms to interact with customers. Burberry, Estée Lauder and Tommy Hilfiger are on board. Proponents describe it as an upgrade on ‘chatbots’, which have never quite hit the mark.

But that isn’t quite accurate. Conversational commerce involves a mixture of ‘the automated and the interpersonal’, as Business of Fashion puts it: the software only guides the conversation, and there are people involved as well.

And it’s best seen as the return, or the beginning of the return, of true old-fashioned customer service in a digital space. So long as the customer has the power to agree to this form of messaging (or reject it), it may be the closest we’ve come in the digital world so far to giving individual people that valuable ‘personal touch’.

The data agrees that this kind of personal communication is valuable. Of all the communication channels available for dealing with businesses (and there are many) 60% of millennials prefer simple, two-way text engagement. It’s convenient, fast and easy to do. And more than 80% of those polled said they opened a text within 90 seconds of receiving it.

What’s exciting is that, though the companies named above are established names, this kind of mechanism seems especially suited to smaller, challenger brands and independents, for whom customer service is a major part of their offering. It didn’t escape the notice of too many that the quality of customer service, as well as the experience, novelty and sense of discovery offered to consumers, was a quality seen in many of the smaller businesses that endured the crisis of the high street. Barbers, florists and beauticians have these qualities by design. So too did the menswear store at which I used to work.

In the digital space, we’ve seen Etsy and Not On The High Street emerge as disruptive online marketplaces. All by Mama, a platform which empowers stay-at-home parents to sell goods online, is another great example. All by Mama uses the tree’s own bespoke content management system, the root, which enables easy two-way interaction between the platform’s thousands of resellers and independent businesses and their customers. Marketplaces like All by Mama combine the boutique qualities and personal touch of an independent high-street clothing store with the kind of convenience only the internet can offer.

It’s a sign, in my view, of things to come. Over time, challenger brands may be able to displace even the biggest companies by exploring and taking advantage of tools that relate directly to one of the things they do best: offer a very human, personal experience. Our own research has shown that in, for instance, the travel sector, brands are using tools and techniques like social listening to empathise more deeply with their customers and develop a more intimate relationship. These brands actually want to connect with their audience as a group of individuals, not as a shapeless, faceless mass, and in doing so understand their needs and wants

‘Conversational commerce’, as well as similar trends brought about by tools that allow for real relationship building, may lead to an overall flattening of the business landscape, as well as its ‘humanising’. And we’ll be reminded of something that, deep down, we’ve known all along: tech on its own is great, but tech with a human element is even better.

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