What Is Authentic?

When talking about retail customer experience, someone will inevitably throw out the word “authentic.” Authentic is a safe, reliable term that sounds intelligent in a game of buzzword bingo about customer experience.  But, what do we really mean when we say that we want to deliver an “authentic customer experience”?

In the video that accompanies this chapter, Joseph Pine defines authentic by quoting Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.”  Pine points out that the duality of this quotation cuts to the heart of authenticity.  Being authentic, he says, requires that you are true to yourself as well as to those around you.

For retailers, providing an authentic customer experience requires that the experience is consistent with your brand values and heritage as well as your customer’s perception of your brand values and heritage.  When these are at odds, when what you say you are is different from what the customer thinks you are, the experience becomes inauthentic or fake.

This two-dimensional view makes it easy to conceptualize authenticity, but as with anything two dimensional, the view is flat.  To add depth, a third dimension needs to be considered: your associates.  In that context, authenticity requires that the experience is true to your brand, true to your customer’s perception of you, and true to your associates’ perception of you.

Your associates’ perception includes their understanding of and belief in what your brand stands for.  Their perception drives their behavior and their engagement with your customer.  When these are at odds with your brand, the experience your associates deliver to the customer diverges from the experience you want delivered, and authenticity is lost.

As consumers, we have experienced this disconnect.  You walk into a store expecting high-touch service, only to find the associates disengaged and non-caring.  You walk into a store expecting to find a product expert, only to find that your smartphone provides more insight than the staff in the store.  You walk into a discount store expecting a treasure hunt, only to find associates have not completed any recovery and the store is a mess.

As retailers, we have tried to hire associates that we feel embody the experience we want to deliver.  Maybe, they are very service-oriented with great soft skills.  Maybe, they are passionate about the product.  However, a few weeks into their new job, the things we hired them for have faded, and they have blended in with everybody else.  What happened?

One of two things (and potentially, both) are happening when associates are not delivering on a retailer’s brand promise.  First, the associates don’t understand the brand, or more likely, do not know how the brand should drive their behavior. Second, the way work is done in the stores – both in terms of volume and procedure – takes away from delivering the desired experience.  In other words, they know the right things to do but other things have been deemed more important by field management or by corporate.

In a retail, the store and product become the stage in which the customer experience will take place. Right now, retailers are resetting stores with new signs, lighting and fixtures.  They are introducing new product lines.  Some are staging in-store events such as fashion shows, theme nights and even concerts.  All of this is being done to create memorable experiences for their customers.  But, the customer is not the only participant.

The associates are the other actors.  Do they know their part?  Do their associates understand the brand and its promise?  Do their associates know how the retailer’s brand promise should drive their behavior both on and off the sales floor?  Retailers who are connecting the dots between their brand and their associates’ behavior are enabling an authentic customer experience.

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