What does the reopening of retail mean for outsourced customer service teams?

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As part of FM Outource’s continued analysis of how the COVID-19 lockdown has impacted the customer service outsourcing industry in the UK, it has examined what the reopening of retail shops could mean for brands that have heavily invested in outsourcing during the pandemic – and what to do next. Supported by data from its independent survey, ‘Re-examining Retail’ it aims to advise brands on why integrating its n-store customer service with its outsourced solutions is important. Ultimately creating a more cost-effective and efficient system.

The challenge facing retailers

From April 12th 2021 stores in the UK will be able to operate again, albeit with COVID restrictions in place, following over 3 months of national lockdown. Whilst this is great news for the entire retail industry – being able to trade freely again and generate revenue – it does leave a question mark around what businesses will do with their outsourcing services.

During the majority of 2020 and the start of 2021, many retailers invested heavily in outsourced customer service in order to deal with the increased demand. With more shopping being done online, and no stores open for customers to visit with queries, the traffic was referred to dedicated contact centres. 

FM Outsource’s independent survey of UK customers shows that 64% did more than half of their shopping online during the course of the pandemic, with 6% shopping online exclusively. This indicates just how big the surge toward online stores has been over the last 12 months, and the level of investment required by organisations to ensure customers weren’t left unattended to.

The challenge facing many retailers today will be what to do with their outsource customer service teams now that physical stores are reopening, and how they continue to deliver quality. With businesses bringing staff back into stores, this represents new costs on top of paying for customer service outsourcing – which, in a dire economic period for the industry, may be considered unreasonable by some.

Is removing an outsourced contact centre the solution?

One of the most obvious solutions to this predicament is for retailers to dispense with their outsourced team. As outsource staff are not directly employed by the business, it’s in many ways easier and more efficient to lose these services than cutback on internal staff. 

Similarly, if outsourcers are tied to service level agreements (SLAs), it’s easy to think that these could be breached as more customer service is taken into physical stores. Making it difficult for outsourcers to reach their agreed contact targets.

However, FM Outsource – who have years of experience providing outsourced contact centres for retailers – don’t believe this is the right approach. The data shows how much traffic has shifted online during the pandemic. And whilst we can anticipate a surge of customer footfall from April 12th, FM Outsource believes it would be shortsighted to think that the gains made through online stores are going to simply disappear.

It is far more likely that we have just seen accelerated trends through the pandemic – and the reliance on online stores, and the requirement for outsourced customer service teams to support them, is only going to get bigger. Clearly, consumer demand has shifted, and retailers that expect brick-and-mortar stores to handle the majority of customer service issues may be caught out once retail reopens.

Offering alternative services

The survey conducted by FM Outsource shows 90% of UK consumers think that customer service will be more important than ever in 2021, post-COVID. With this in mind, it’s important that retailers are prepared to offer multiple avenues for consumers to make contact if they need to – and relying solely on customer-facing staff may not be the answer.

One of the biggest issues with this strategy is that once retail reopens in the UK, the majority of staff time will be dedicated to sales tasks and customer assistance. This means less time can be spent on customer service unless businesses invest in more staff – a costly and risk-heavy approach.

In this dynamic retail environment, it will be beneficial for retailers to offer alternative customer service routes outside of brick-and-mortar stores, allowing these teams to deal with higher demand and operate in a pure sales capacity. This would mean that retailers spend less money on employing new staff in-store, whilst being able to retain their outsourcers.

For many retailers this not only provides a useful avenue of contact for customers, but also represents a significant competitive advantage. By taking the lessons learnt during the coronavirus lockdown, businesses can offer viable customer service solutions both in and out of stores, giving customers more choice and improving their capacity to deal with complaints where necessary.

As businesses struggle to find the right balance between online and physical stores following the reopening of the retail sector, this is an effective way of future-proofing and providing a ‘best of both worlds’ approach. And it should equate to real-world results, as 84% of FM Outsource’s survey respondents indicated that they would stop using a retailer if the customer service was not up to standard.

Once retailers reopen their doors, we will have a better understanding of the part recently-acquired outsourced customer service teams will play in the new retail ecosystem. But it seems likely that they will continue to provide a valuable service for businesses – helping them to bounce back post-lockdown and deal with growing consumer demand.