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Guest Series: Guest Experience and Sustainability in Omnichannel Luxury Retail


Q&A with Joe Sejean, expert in Omnichannel luxury retail and guest and employee experience. He has helped global brands create and implement a tailored experience based on emotional connections and relationships. His focus on human centricity has allowed him to impact business performance at multiple levels, including Finance and Human Resources


What have you noticed in retail during COVID-19?

More than ever, products don’t make a difference by themselves any longer. Guest experience is now a key marker to define who will survive in the Luxury Retail Omnichannel industry.

During COVID-19, we’ve observed in all the major luxury brands that the front-line associates were the most pragmatic and creative to save their businesses, not just to preserve their jobs, but because they really cared for their guests.

In order to ensure their guests could offer gifts for Mother’s Day, religious celebrations, birthdays, etc., front-line associates managed to make happen in a few weeks what had been pending for years. In-store video experiences, payment links through WhatsApp, phone transactions, deliveries at home from team members in no-time, revamping of e-commerce sites, Instagram pages and more…

In short, COVID-19 has finally seen Omnichannel work for the benefit of front-line associates and customers!long-term growth.


What about in-store experiences?

New hygiene standards have changed forever the way guests and team members interact with each other and the products.

Masks, sanitisation of items and limited number of guests for instance have made it even more important to provide genuine experiences where the transaction is the consequence of a meaningful connection. The focus has to be the person and human connection, not the product.

The luxury retail industry has to focus on creating relationships in order to continue to thrive sustainably. If the focus remains products and transactions, short-term results will be achieved – but not long-term growth.


How does a great guest experience work with digital in an omnichannel retail economy?

There’s no longer a guest experience without a mix of in-store, e-commerce, social media, emails, chats and phone conversations. Investing in the right technology will become a strong element of a successful guest experience. There are three criteria that ensure technology actively contributes to a fantastic guest experience:

1. Ensure the digital technology you’re investing in primarily serves your front-liners, not only your customers. Ask yourself:

  • Is your investment in a piece of technology truly useful to your employees?
  • How is it directly helping them?
  • Does it allow your associates to access useful information?
  • Does it enable them to proceed to multiple actions, serve their guests better and enhance their business performance?

2. Ensure the digital technology you’re investing in is merging existing channels:

  • Is your investment helping your teams merge: video conference, e-commerce, in-store experience, payment gateway, social media, and emails?
  • Is your investment helping to break silos (between email channels, contact centres, phone, e-commerce) to migrate all or most customer interactions towards your front-liners?

3. Prefer investing in platforms rather than mobile applications only: Technology and digital investments should be agile, easy to integrate and interact with existing platforms.

Applications alone often imply huge maintenance costs, compatibility issues, lack of reactivity to improve designs or include new functionalities. To summarise, the target is to detect the right platform, not just a mobile application.


How is this making the luxury retail industry sustainable?

Investing in the right digital technologies can transform luxury retail, and more generally the service industry in ways we’ve never seen before.
Fundamental shifts at deep levels will be enabled:

1. Retail jobs will become flexible:

  • Once you commit to working in retail, you know you’ll have to go to the store five to six days a week sacrificing personal and family life in a big way. There’s no other option offered so far. You’ll need to be physically present in the store, sometimes working long and extreme shifts. If colleagues are sick or on vacation, you’ll even be asked to bridge the gap. This is very demanding and not so attractive to younger generations.
  • The right technologies will allow front-liners to also work from home so they can:
    • Lead e-commerce experience through Video
    • Receive phone work related calls on their own device to relieve shop floor teams and help them focus on guests
    • Similarly deal with emails, Instagram feeds, WhatsApp messages
  • This flexibility will enable them to work from different locations and keep / attract new talent who never considered retail as an option.

2. Retail will be the catalyst of meaningful innovations:

  • Very little deep innovation has benefited front-liners and their interactions with guests in the past decade. Aside from strong operational improvements like better POS (points of sales) software and ERP (enterprise resource planning), the few innovations accessible to front liners were more ‘gimmicks’ like digital screens and gondolas; digital catalogues on iPads and other ‘fun’ functionalities like virtual reality (still quite in its early stage).
  • Today, meaningful innovation can express the full potential in retail, enabling job flexibility, allowing existing channels to merge, creating synergies between store and e-commerce to the benefit of employees, manage workload in an unprecedented agile way, and much more. This again will attract different talents and make retail an appealing career for people who crave job agility and efficiency from diverse places, always in touch with their guests.

3. Retail will become a stimulating and diverse job:

  • Up to now, a retail career has mostly meant being in-store and selling to guests. Diversity has been available in the different profiles of guests, in new collections and occasional marketing activations. That’s pretty much it.
  • Meaningful technologies will allow any front-line associate to develop new competences beyond their great shop floor skills. Just a few of these new skills are:
    • Interacting confidently over the phone
    • Pursuing conversations through mails
    • Managing WhatsApp / WeChat
    • Mastering Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms interacting with their guests
    • Leading live e-commerce experiences


Why ‘guest’ experience and not ‘customer’ experience?

The notion of ‘customer’ is widely spread in all industries. Hospitality is the only sector where there are no customers or clients, only ‘guests’.

In this sense, luxury hospitality has been leading the way for a long time, showing us that sustainability in business means primarily treating people like ‘guests’, not ‘customers’, making them feel valued and appreciated. This is the best recipe to increase returning guests, sales and boost advocacy.


To which industries can guest experience apply?

It’s key to understand that a guest experience shouldn’t only apply to guests, but also to employees. Your front-liners must first live the experience you want them to deliver. Guest experience applies to all industries.

Treating people as guests, not as ‘walking wallets’ is an approach that brings immense benefits in industries like hospitality, F&B, real estate, health care, automotive, entertainment and banking. But it also applies to B2B industries.

I heard a good example at a summit in Miami in 2014 (Total Customer Experience Leaders’ Summit) around the owner of a family run cardboard company. This was a B2B business, not in the most romantic sector.

His four production sites were in the red and he decided to put finances back on track by focusing on the experience of their guests, without pulling down prices to the level of their Asian competitors. He looked at:

  • How did they respond over the phone?
  • How did they answer by email?
  • How did they welcome their clients?
  • Was it human – warm?
  • How did feel when people were visiting the factory?
  • How did they respond to client’s issues?

It allowed him to put his production sites back in the black in less than 12 months and save most of the jobs. Because according to him, people were ready to spend more when they understood trust was there and no problem was unsolvable.

Pharmaceutical companies, big industrial engineering or chemical companies, any so-called ‘B2B’ business can impact their financial results by focusing on their guests’ experience.


Who are the most important people in an organisation to make guest experience a reality?

I would say two types of positions:

  1. Senior management and leaders to start with. Providing them with the right mindset through workshops and executive coaching is a key to the success of a transformation through guest experience. If they don’t lead a change towards guest experience, nothing significant can happen.
  2. Any ‘bottleneck’ position in an organisation. For example, area or zone managers. This role in most companies is often neglected. Area and zone managers sit between two worlds, back and front office, and their position is pivotal to d` rive change in real-life situations.


You are from the Middle East region, how do you assess the potential of the area after COVID-19?

The situation is still being handled remarkably well given this difficult and unique situation.

The Middle East and GCC region are far from having delivered their full potential.

Big projects like Neom in KSA are leading the way to a different future, integrating digital and environmental elements from the get-go.

In the UAE, where I live, the Expo 2021 represents a massive opportunity to showcase what the country can deliver and how attractive it can be for people from around the world.


A word of conclusion?

As Maya Angelou famously said, ‘It’s not about what you do, it’s about how you make people feel’.

The rebound of industries like retail, entertainment, hospitality, tourism, airlines and more, will depend hugely on how guest experience is implemented to ensure a sustainable growth based on stakeholders interest.