Monday, July 16, 2012

Model behaviour

Service is a great barometer for our time. Through economic downturns, technological upturns and corporate u-turns, the changing approach to customer service can be read like a newspaper. I wrote last week on the Moving Brands blog about O2's successful little foray into Twitter-based crisis management, which you can read here. But it was a recent trip to Westfield Stratford - all dolled up for the Olympics - that attuned me to another shift in how brands are are using customer service to cope in today's climate.

"Models protect and project the image of the brand through personal style, providing customer service and maintaining presentation standards" - so runs the job description for sales assistants, known as 'models', at Gilly Hicks. This purveyor of beachwear, 'cute bras' and 'down undies' is the "cheeky", faux Australian cousin of Abercrombie & Fitch. Like A&F and its other (probably backward and almost certainly unsafe around small animals) cousin Hollister, GH caters to buff teens roaming free with their parents' credit cards. Like all stores in the A&F chain, they appeal to their impressionable customers through 00 sizes and stores that are loud, dark and thick with the richly perfumed undertones of consensual rape. 

When A&F opened in the UK in 2007, it drew a line in the sand for service design. Harp on all you like over how there was something distinctly 'not cricket' about they way they swanned into Mayfair, stripped to their smalls and started a roaring trade that sex-ed up a once dingy end of Burlington Arcade. Nevertheless, it's impossible to deny that the all-American customer service that came with it was in stark contrast to the stiff pleasantries of Saville Row. It marked a new era for British retail - as people fled online, great customer experiences were the only thing to keep them in-store. Following A&F's lead, many UK retailers woke up to the value of a more touchy-feely sales experience.

In 2012 at Westfield Stratford, however, Gilly Hicks appears to be doing a weak doggie paddle in the swirling tides of socially-driven commerce. I was greeted by a hungry-looking tween, muttering something about 'welcome....beach......cute...something something'. At check out (research, research!) I was handed my receipt and told in a bored monotone "Don't forget to follow Gilly Hicks on Twitter for all the cutest bras and cheekiest tanks.". I've had dental work sold to me with more excitement.

Forging great relationships with customers through social platforms is key for retail brands moving forward. As Mercedes-Benz CEO Steve Cannon said in a recent Fast Company article, "[youth] perception is going to drive perception of the brand... In order to win, you have to know who they are. That means digital, social, and all the things we are doing". And, for the young audience Gilly Hicks is looking to attract, bridging that gap between online and in-store is critical. Only through on-brand  customer service and socially-driven messaging can this happen and, right now, their 'models' are seemingly too busy ignoring hunger pangs to start a meaningful conversation for the brand that can continue online.