Is Online Selling Killing The Face-To-Face Spirit Of Customer Engagement?
“I drove to the college to talk about applying. When I got there, the admissions officer came out of her office and told me I could find everything I needed on the website, and that after I completed everything there, someone would get back to me. Then she smiled and returned to her office.”
“I walked into the real estate office to inquire about a property advertised in a sign on the window. The rep actually seemed surprised to see a live person in front of him and told me to go online. He said there would be a form to fill out and once they received it, someone would be assigned to talk with me, which seemed strange, since I was already right there.”
“I went into the department store and couldn’t find someone to help me. I finally gave up and went home and bought the product online.”
These stories represent a new phenomenon: Businesses are surrendering their opportunities for face-to-face contact — willingly, it seems.
Historically, the lifeblood of the sales process was face-to-face engagement with the customer, usually in the presence of the product itself. College admissions officers wanted to meet you, to show you around, find out your interests. Realtors wanted to show you the property, see how you liked it. Stores welcomed the opportunity to hear what you were looking for so you’d buy it, and maybe something else they could show you.
Online access started as a way to give busy consumers another way to get information on products and services and to make transactions. It was always assumed sellers of products and services would continue to prefer face-to-face because it gave them a chance to actually engage with customers, tell their story, gauge their reaction and ask and answer questions, hopefully leading to a transaction, and that the online portals would capture the essence of that face-to-face process.
But it seems as though businesses have become afraid of the give-and-take of customer interaction, and don’t see enough value there to want to preserve it.
Companies developed new ways to simulate “customer intimacy” in the online environment, and made it increasingly easy and convenient to do business that way with FAQs and chat lines. That’s to be expected and welcomed. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that they should completely abandon their ability, and even their desire, to work with customers when they appear right in front of them!
- Any business maintaining a brick-and-mortar presence should staff it with reps who are ready, willing and able to meet with customers.
- Any online transaction site should always present the opportunity for immediate live access to a rep who welcomes the contact as an opportunity to serve rather than immediately assume the customer is simply inept and can’t complete the transaction without help. “Sorry you’re having trouble with our (insert the implied ‘easy, convenient, self-explanatory’) process.”)
- Businesses should have processes and systems that encourage employees who run them to display genuine interest in the needs of anyone who approaches through any point of access.
The tools available to consumers will continue to evolve and advance. But it’s essential that businesses keep in mind that customer engagement is critical to sales of products and services, that face-to-face is the ideal and that other methods should emulate and try to capture the spirit of that model.