I Am Robot: Mobile Technology and the Sales Rep

Mobile has become an integral part of the shopping experience. There are even some opinion pieces that propose retail “reps” as we know them will soon become obsolete, as information (often more accurate than that provided by the rep) is more quickly gathered by use of smart phones. The rep, in theory, is headed for extinction. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Back in the 50s people contended that waiters would vanish with the advent of automats. By 2000 we would have flying cars and robots would do all our household chores. I clearly remember being told in 1999 (just prior to the bubble bursting) that within five years cable TV would vanish, there would be no more cash and the hotels would no longer require interacting with a human being at the point of checkin. Clearly these things didn’t happen, at least not as they were foretold.

Mobile technology hasn’t changed the fundamentals of communication, but it has made the process more complex just as writing did when it was introduced several thousand years ago (I have to wonder if there were Sumerians saying that the new-fangled technology of writing would kill speaking).  Sales folks are simply going to evolve into something new and mobile technology is going to be a tool, not a replacement. The challenge is developing mobile technology that is sensitive to the context of both employee and shopper.

Most of what research are finding is that mobile isn’t making retail interactions less important because we still prefer face-to-face interactions, but it is allowing us to be more selective. When the daily conversation is positive or intimate, we want face-to-face communication. But when the conversation is negative, we increasingly struggle with face-to-face interactions in part due to the ease with which the web has made it to avoid direct conflict. Similarly, in the retail environment, where the process is increasingly less transactional and more experiential, mobile is a tool that can facilitate or stop interaction. Long story short:

  • People want face-to-face interactions when it generates intimacy
  • Texting tools and apps are training us not to be able to deal with conflict in a face-to-face encounter
  • People use their devices to avoid interaction with strangers or to signal that they want to be left alone by their intimates
  • Think about how mobile can integrate with a shopping context, not replace it

While mobile technology definitely affects the interaction, it is a question of integration rather than replacement.  Retail shopping has become as much about the experience than the stuff being sold — the store is a media channel. That means reps will still be there but their roles will increasingly develop into mediators of a storyline than people simply pushing products. Think of the emphasis Southwest Airlines has put on personality as the top of the criteria for flight attendants. The interaction on the retail stage is about fulfilling the need for validation on the part of the shopper.

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