In a culture where customers are empowered to find product information for themselves, retailers are in danger of losing authority in their field. Liz Morrell finds out why it’s crucial they take control.

The days of customers considering the retailer as the product expert have long gone. Today it is often the customer who knows best. The deluge of product information, customer reviews and peer recommendations means retailers have never had a tougher job convincing customers that their staff really are the most informed about what they sell. It’s a difficult enough challenge in a store environment, but it’s an even tougher task in a retailer’s online and call centre support operations, given the physical distance between product and customer.

“The challenge is how you replicate the environment on a shopfloor of a more experienced individual being close to hand,” says Philip Michell, consulting director for customer management outsourcing agency Vertex. “It is possible to replicate this in the call centre environment with a piece of technology called Smart CC, which allows a more experienced adviser to be able to hear the call and see the screen, so that if the adviser says they need help, the manager can either take over the screen or whisper in the adviser’s ear to nurse them through the issue.” He adds: “That means that the next time a customer comes through with a query like that, the adviser can replicate the answer.”

He says the problem of customers knowing more than staff is fuelled, in part, by retailers themselves. “There is a real drive by many retailers to get customers to self-serve as much as they can,” he says. This means that shoppers can answer their own questions through, for instance, FAQ sections on a retailer’s web site or other internet resources before clogging up retailers’ systems and time with e-mails or phone calls. However, it also means that the customer can end up being better informed than the staff member.

“Customer queries tend to polarise themselves into questions that are either more complicated, or they are simpler ones but from people who just want to speak to someone,” says Michell.

So how do retailers stay up to speed with savvy customers? As with in-store staff, recruiting staff and agents from the retailer’s own customer base helps enormously. “Recruiting from your customer base is very effective because they then themselves have a real empathy with the customer and product,” he says. A structured training and induction process is also important, he explains, so that the agent is knowledgeable and can access the relevant information available.

For some of its retail clients, Vertex has a relatively free-form knowledge management system called Einstein, which all advisers can access. This enables any knowledge gained to be shared and stored, so if the query is repeated, the retailer knows how to respond. “It’s like a retailer’s own version of Wikipedia that everyone in the organisation can contribute to, so advisers can search relatively easily for customer queries. Also, if there is a more complicated enquiry that doesn’t come up on the system, then the adviser can add it,” says Michell.

“There are very few enquiries where that is the first person to ask that,” he says. “We have one retailer where the first point of call is Einstein. Around 30 to 40 per cent of the enquiries can be resolved from the repository of information that sits there and the remainder can be added to,” he says.

Retailers have the potential to not only make such a database visible to their telephone and online advisers, but to make the system available to their customers too. “You could include that knowledge base and present it to customers to self-serve,” Michell explains.

Just ask

A similar system is in operation on Ikea’s web site. Its Ask Anna facility allows shoppers to ask the Ikea help centre questions. Although “Anna” heads up the functionality, she is really just the face of the retailer’s automated question-and-answer database. When customers type in a question, the computer recognises key words, searching the database for the relevant question and answer and bringing up parts of the web site that may be useful. Like Einstein, the system allows knowledge to be added.

“If there is no answer to the question the customer asks, the computer stores it for analysis later on and gives the customer an alternative way that we can answer the question – ie, customer services,” says an Ikea spokesman.

Customers are also able to speak to online advisers through Ikea’s live chat service within the customer service department, offering an MSN Messenger-style live link to a customer service assistant.

Carphone Warehouse has gone one step further with its Talk Talk members forum,, which has been at the beta stage since its soft launch last October. It allows its 4,000 members to interact with each other, asking and answering questions, and has about 1,000 active members who regularly use the forum to chat and other less regular users who are registered, but use the facility more as a resource to search for answers to their questions.

A Talk Talk spokesman says: “It’s very much designed to have our members assisting each other.” Although in theory this cuts down on the time that Talk Talk staff spend answering customer queries, the site is moderated closely. “We learn from our regular members too. There are so many people who want to know about broadband and the net and there is so much knowledge among our customers. It also allows us to understand how our customers are using our products and helps us use that for product development,” he says.

He admits the service was developed in response to when Talk Talk’s contact centres were overwhelmed with enquiries about its free broadband offer a couple of years ago. “We felt that at the time when customers were contacting us in huge numbers in 2006 we didn’t have all the systems in place to cope, so we weren’t as open and able to have an honest dialogue with our customers. We realised we needed to be able to have a good dialogue and good engagement,” he says.

And, while the spokesman insists that Talk Talk’s telephone-based customer advisers are well trained to deal with enquiries, he admits the technicality of the product means the members’ forum is a welcome additional source of knowledge. “With the level of complexity in this market, there are new questions every day and this is a great way of dealing with that,” he says.

However Michell points out that such an honest and open approach can be daunting. “You have to go in 100 per cent and unless you have gone through the pain of being swamped with enquiries, then it’s a very tough step to take because it is a warts-and-all approach,” he says.

Networking sites are becoming increasingly influential in shoppers’ buying decisions, too. allows users to pull together many different sources of product information – such as user reviews, expert reviews and shopping comparison sites – in one place, supplemented by advice from its “crowd” of users. It launched a year ago with electrical products initially, adding outdoor gear more recently and baby products soon.

“The concept is less about finding the best price, but more about what to buy and which is the best one to buy for you,” says founder Philip Wilkinson. “For the offline retailer, the salesman has almost been cut out of the equation, because the customer has done their research and knows the specifications of what they want.”

He believes that retailers have a huge opportunity to better support their customers through online reviews and resources, but many are too daunted. “A lot of times, they are just scared. For years they have just been busy being a retailer and they are worried about customers being negative and the effect that can have on product sales,” says Wilkinson.

However, he points out that such information not only helps customers trust the retailer’s brand and product knowledge, but also helps to hone the product range. “There is actually a massive increase in sales, because there is a wider customer base attracted to you and they also feel more comfortable about buying from you,” he says.

Talk Talk’s spokesman agrees. “If people have comments on your brand, they can air them in so many different places, so we would much rather they air them on a forum we own and run,” he says.

With the prevalence of such sites, should retailers also be monitoring social networking sites to see what their customers are talking about? Michell believes that kind of surveillance is still some way off. “My view is that it would take the next step in processing power, because it would need a system that would collate and present that information, as it wouldn’t be cost-effective to pay someone to do it,” he says.

But Wilkinson says that retailers should be going even further than this and adopting strategies similar to those of Carphone Warehouse. “If the retailers were doing their own reviews and communities, we would have less of a business. It’s only going to get bigger and if retailers don’t embrace this trend they will see traffic and customers go elsewhere,” he says.

It seems that keeping staff up to speed with product knowledge really will continue to keep retailers on their toes.