loader image
Skip to content

Retailers, It’s Time to Get Real About Customer Engagement


Retailers talk a lot about personalization, customization, and all things “customer relationships.” The reality is, however, it’s difficult for any retailer to know whether their customers feel the love—that the brand wants to truly get to know them.

In a recent Salesforce survey, less than 1 in 3 (32%) of U.S. shoppers felt most or all brands were really interested in getting to know them and half (50%) thought retailers were more focused on sales than on building lasting relationships.

Conversely, when we looked at the responses from consumers who were already engaging with brands that showed they wanted to know them, 68% of those customers wanted to participate more with those same brands. 

As we know in retail, the Holy Grail of building profitability lies in increasing customer retention. Yet, 70% of online purchases are one-time-only. Customers have infinite choices, and, without reasons to stay, they easily move from one brand to the next.

Retailers have a finite window of opportunity to engage a customer post purchase before they are gone forever. Retail success in today’s digital economy requires a long-term, strategic commitment to nurturing customer relationships and shifting the paradigm from, “what can customers do for the brand” to “what can the brand do for customers.”

Asking the right questions

Brands and retailers must center the customer in every conversation and decision. They also need to exhibit genuine curiosity for the customer. Too often, business leaders set out to create more personalized experiences without first stopping to consider what kind of experiences customers actually want or need. 

Personalization is not a one-size-fits-all discussion. There are different levels of need and substance involved depending on various considerations, and brands need to clearly define what their specific customers want and need if they ever hope to earn their business, trust, respect, and loyalty.

Online pet product supplier Chewy is an incredible example of a brand that is asking the right questions to understand its customers and build relationships that withstand the test of time. Its customer service department will often send flowers, personalized letters and custom-made pet portraits to owners when their pets pass away.

For many, the loss of a pet is just as devastating as any other family member’s death would be, and Chewy has come to understand that its customers appreciate a heartfelt token of sympathy over a standardized email and discount on their next purchase.  

To emulate customer experiences that are as impactful as Chewy’s, retailers should be asking themselves questions such as: “What kind of relationship does your customer want with you?” “What do they value?” “What are the drivers of participation and loyalty?” “What feedback loops are in place to hear and learn from the voice of the customer?”

Measuring what matters

Inspect what you expect. The same Salesforce survey found that 68% of shoppers were asked to write a review after their purchase, but only 5% of customers were asked for any information about themselves to help the brand build a long-term relationship. Those relationships matter and are a way to analyze how and if a customer is feeling connected to the brand.

Establish qualitative and quantitative metrics to hold the brand accountable to its customers. Create technology-enabled feedback loops to capture data and regularly update leaders on how well they are doing against those metrics. And, require centrally-accessible dashboards to make sure everyone in an organization can see and act upon the same data, whether it’s Customer Satisfaction Scores (CSAT), Net Promoter Scores (NPs), surveys, or social media commentary.

Sprinkling in a little technology

A decade ago, when I worked for a major fashion label, we attempted all of the strategies in an incredibly manual way. We lived the proverbial 80/20 rule, with 80% of time collecting and aggregating data, and only 20% of our time analyzing and creating actionable insights that could improve the business. 

Like most brands and retailers, we made things happen through sheer force of will. Today, it doesn’t have to be so manually intensive or time consuming. It is technologically possible to establish single sources of truth for understanding customer histories and behaviors.

Indeed, tools for data collection and segmentation (CDP) data quality, data integration, customer relationship management (CRM), and data analytics tools have come a long way in recent years–many of these tools even use machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) to automatically surface opportunities for improving customer experiences. But it is important to ask the question: “What are you solving for?” 

Technology can be the enabler of the experience, but it can’t be the entire experience. 

Be curious about your customer. Be obsessed with your customer. Put them first and make it about them. By having the right mindset and strategies in place, creating continuous feedback loops, and applying data and automation technologies, brands can build more meaningful, enduring, and lucrative customer relationships.