I was recently at a conference for digital marketing. Among the catchy, but ridiculous, sessions about how to work with Millennials and what you can learn from Beyoncé to up your email-targeting game, I found myself listening to Peter Nitsch from Shopify talking about the future of retail.
His session focused on the history of retail and how we got to where we are now — from open-air markets to brick-and-mortar to big box stores to online. What rang true to me is the shift we are going through now between online and brick and mortar. What is it that will bring someone off their screen and into a place to physically interact with a product when they don’t need to anymore? In other words, do we actually need physical stores?
Peter’s answer was all about experience, creating an environment that isn’t necessarily about selling a product, but about creating a more emotional connection with a customer. I was fascinated. I found myself reflecting on brands that I purposely seek out because of my connection to them and trying to figure out what that connection is. I also pondered my day-to-day work of building empathy online for brands, which sometimes feels like a truly insane goal considering how cold the web can be, but also truly as easy as having a person on the other end who is receptive to listening.
I recently had a great terrible experience (yes, great and terrible) with Delta Airlines that embodies how good customer service can create loyalty despite everything in the universe going wrong. This experience was the lightbulb that went off and made me realize the true power of personal customer service.
I travel a lot for pleasure. In March 2017, my boyfriend and I packed our warmest clothes, waterproofed our boots, dug out ski pants (which were buried deep as we live in South Carolina) and set our sights on the Lofoten Islands off the coast of Norway, about 100 kilometers above the Arctic Circle. After arriving in Atlanta, our next flight to Amsterdam called for volunteers to take a later flight. We had a long enough connection, so we decided to go for it. We were told we’d be on the next flight, “go get your boarding passes from the gate; there are plenty of seats left.”
When we went to the gate of our new flight, we were, of course, told that that was not the case, there were no seats, and definitely none available for us. We were told, “the person who told you there were seats should have called.” We were dumbfounded; like so many others, we had slipped through the cracks of the airline system.
However, Delta, which created this awful situation for us, was determined to get us out of it. It tried to get us on a flight to Paris, which our bags caught, but we did not. Eventually, we ended up in Oslo and started our Scandinavian adventure there, ending up above the Arctic Circle without boots, coats or anything useful until our bags caught up with us. Throughout the entire process, we met the most empathetic, caring and understanding Delta employees. They identified the situation as being an issue with their own company and tried everything they could to help us. Their earnest efforts influenced how I view the brand today. Even though the problem the company created for us did impact our holiday in a big way and they didn’t actually fix everything, the way they treated me changed how I feel about the brand.
Now I choose Delta even when it does cost more than other airlines because of my personal experience with their customer service. I know that they will try to make things right and treat me with respect. I remember my time walking through the Delta international terminal in Atlanta and people knew my name because of how much work they were putting in to fix the problem. Pretty powerful branding for me.
While this may seem very “duh” I know, as good in-person customer service always goes really far, it also has further reaching implications. In the world of online customer service, you don’t need something bad to happen to you to build a connection with a company. In fact, any engagement is an opportunity for a meaningful conversation.
Building rapport is something only a human can do. Circling back to my point about the future of retail. How can a brand build an emotional connection to a customer if their connection starts online? The answer is in real, timely communication from people who are invested in that experience.