The global retail environment is changing. It’s being transformed by the launch of many new brands, progression of existing ones, improved service ethos and access to information through the web with the widespread adoption of handheld technology. All of this within a context of ongoing social and cultural change.
While it is true that every brand believes that ‘change is a way of doing business’, there can be no denying that markets like South Africa compel us to rethink conventional wisdom about product, customer expectations, service, and loyalty.
As we have spent a number of years engaging with retailers and brands in various markets, we can tell you with certainty that emerging markets like South Africa offer unique challenges and unprecedented opportunities for brands.
From our experience, there are four fundamental principles of building a brand on an international scale that are timely, relevant and remain consistently true, over time and across geographies.
Firstly, it’s always about the product. If the product delivers to shopper expectation in terms of design, quality and value, you will be successful. It is so inspirational to work in an environment where every item has been created with passion by the artist herself. No product will be launched unless the artist is wholly satisfied with the excellence of its style and quality.
Secondly, the most successful consumer brands view customer service as an ‘aspirational journey’ that evolves with time – fuelled by knowledge, trust and confidence. It’s the art and science of earning the respect of a ‘customer’ and elevating the relationship to that of a ‘client’, then to a ‘friend of the business’, and ultimately to a ‘brand ambassador’. It aspires to have the customer live the brand, day after day. This point serves, to consider your trade partners across the global stage.
Thirdly, customer service is not about doing one thing or another extremely well. There is no single ‘silver bullet’. Quite the contrary. It is about doing everything with excellence. It is all encompassing. It touches design, quality, product, relevance and availability, the shopping experience, and the quality of the experience versus the shoppers’ expectations. It goes beyond and encompasses marketing, merchandising and in-store greeting. Exceptional customer service is an end-to-end experience, whether it be in-store, online, or on-the-go with mobile technology.
Fourthly, customer service is about exceeding expectations consistently. Everything must be right all of the time – every time. It may be a cliché – but it is undoubtedly true. It takes only one unsatisfactory experience for customers to question their loyalty. Brand consistency is key across all platforms. Consistency in ethos, product delivery, quality, customer support, marketing communication and brand identity.
No wonder every forward-looking brand is preoccupied with new ways to stay ahead of customer expectations – whether through research, technology, or more effective training and professional development.
So, what does this mean to forward-looking companies like Carrol Boyes who are committed to growing the local design talent and taking it to the world?
It means we always have to be acutely aware of what dynamics are defining the preferences and buying patterns of the increasingly more affluent shoppers who are moving up the social and brand spectrum.
There are profound differences between the retail and customer service landscape in our home market versus that of a mature, First World economy. The evolution in South Africa has been astonishing since Carrol Boyes launched in 1989.
As you would expect, average income levels in South Africa significantly lag those of Europe, Australia and North America. But this does not mean that there is no market for luxury goods. In fact, a growing number of the population experiences a high standard of living and the middle class is emerging as a retail force to be reckoned with.
However, it is safe to say that the majority of customers in South Africa have different expectations when they are buying premium and luxury products for the first time.
In the First World, the usual pattern for the rise of the middle class sees incremental rises in income accompanied by growing appreciation of higher quality products and service levels over time. In South Africa this model just doesn’t fit. This is due to the fact that many previously disadvantaged members of South African society have been catapulted into higher wealth brackets. This may have happened in a matter of years, without having followed the normal process of wealth accumulation and life experience which in other societies may take a life time or many generations.
Despite these vast differences, there are some key facts that remain true no matter which market one is dealing with. The service bar and expectation of a brand is set at the top from day one. A winning brand must demonstrate uniqueness, connectedness and, ultimately, value. This most desired customer segment is something of a moving target. Their needs and expectations are dynamic and tend to change continuously. To stay on top, brands must formally evaluate their customers’ changing needs.
Yet companies who are not willing to constantly update their product offer and service delivery do so at their own peril. Without question, however, the most powerful phenomenon in the branded and retail sector over the past number of years has been the emergence of smart phone technology.
The world has truly ‘jumped on the bandwidth’, so to speak, and are surfing the web to stay connected, access social networks, complete banking transactions and, increasingly to shop. We are even changing the way we look with some of the apps available today. It’s fuelling the revolution in customer expectations of brands that is powering up with the advancement of digital technologies, greater accessibility through affordable data and the popularity of many social networking apps. The implications of technology adoption and usage cannot be ignored. The number of global smart phone users is estimated to be 2.3 billion.
Looking to the future, our success will depend on our ability to engage a younger ‘mobile generation’ of customers whose brand preferences are still in the making. We recognise the need to speak to our customers in a way that is uniquely and explicitly relevant to their stage of life, family and friends, self-image, culture, beliefs and specific shopping motivation.
It’s another way we can present a more modern image to our customers of the future by associating ourselves with the ideas, information and causes they care about. There are customer service lessons that can be applied on a global scale.
Firstly, we must accept and adapt to the reality that personal technology has permanently shifted the balance of power to the customer. They have more information, access to opinion, decision making tools and buying power at their fingertips than any generation in the history of retailing.
In the truest sense, the retail revolution of this generation will be fought hand to hand – or more specifically – ‘handheld-device’ to ‘handheld device’ with the digital channel gaining ground on the storefront as the battleground for success. Our mission critical is to find meaningful ways to connect to the digital world and integrate our brand with our customers, like-minded partners and the communities they value most.
We must bring our online and mobile strategies in line with the behaviours and interests of our most valuable customers and the customers of tomorrow.
Secondly, we must acknowledge that complacency is the silent killer of our industry. We must act with an enlightened sense of urgency to anticipate and lead the way. We need to focus on the customer’s preoccupation with newness and timelessness.
Finally, we must never lose sight of the fact that our ability to deliver customer service and the brand promise – whether online or in-store starts with our investment to grow our people, to raise professional standards, and build a career in product design, brand management and retailing to be proud of. Talent will determine success.
Today, Carrol Boyes (Pty) Ltd is a womanowned business and a multi-cultural organisation that supports gender empowerment both within and out of its infrastructure. The company’s ethos is driven by a sincere commitment to the betterment and welfare of individuals in the community and workplace. It invests in its staff to ensure the future growth of the organisation, and supports the community at a grassroots level. The Carrol Boyes brand is recognised as an icon both locally and internationally.