Mobile phone retail has changed a lot in the past couple of years, both in terms of physical location and staff approach.
We’ve gone from stores with walls of plastic models and tills to open-plan locations with mobile points-of-sale. Staff have changed from working in commission structures wearing shirts and ties to being rated on customer service, and selling in company polo shirts.
This is only the start, however; mobile retail has lagged behind other industries in creating experiential-based shopping experiences. The internet is changing how businesses interact with the customer and is redefining how mobile phone companies view their large retail portfolios.
Not only that, but the types of products and services sold within the modern mobile phone store is set to change dramatically. We’ve already seen the first tentative steps from retailers looking to introduce wearables, tablets and virtual reality. This range will only become greater and more diverse.
Ensuring that retailers have the right kind of staff trained in the correct way to operate in this new environment is absolutely critical. The differentiator in any physical point of sale is the interaction the customer has with the salesperson, and their ability to communicate the technology to the public has never been more important.
Time for a redesign
Typically, the smaller size of stores has been a limited factor for retailers when it comes to layout. The need to maximise space often led to limited physical environments and formulaic designs.
In recent years this has started to change, with retailers making greater efforts to innovate when it comes to store design. In 2014, EE hired design consultancy GOODD to redesign its stores – with a brief to ‘increase service and customer interaction’, focused elements were devised to engage the customer and pull staff to the front of the store.
Since then other retailers have sought to explore further the possibilities that different layouts might offer. Vodafone has used a modular design within its newly refitted stores, which allows the network to add sections in a responsive way.
This enables them to create an environment that can cater to a range of different customers, as the brand’s UK head of retail Jon Shaw explains: ‘All of our refit stores are modular, so we can change and swap stuff out quite quickly. I could put a business lounge in stores if there was a demand for it – or a VR zone if we wanted to do that. It gives us flexibility and allows us to respond to our customers’ demands fast.
‘It’s allowed us to push the boundaries, not just in the UK, but for the Vodafone Group. The new stores allow us to accommodate all our customer types; consumer, business and enterprise. If you are part of Vodafone you can come into any of our stores and we’ll be able to look after you regardless.’
The internet has transformed and continues to change retail. Responding to this is critical, and it’s another area that is influencing the new types of retail environment. Vodafone’s newly refitted shop in Croydon attempts to give a web experience to the customer in-store, as Jon Shaw explains: ‘We’ve been working on an omni-channel approach. It’s going to attempt to show how we can use the website more and how can it be more customer friendly. Croydon will be the first to try click-and-collect too. It’ll have a different look and feel, and an experience that is similar to online.’
Carphone Warehouse is another retailer that is planning to use a new design to increase the time people spend within its shops. As well as combining Carphone Warehouse stores into larger 3-in-1 outlets with Currys and PC World, the business is also planning on refreshing the Carphone Warehouse portfolio.
Andrew Harrison, Dixons Carphone deputy CEO, explains that a shift in the type of contracts that are now sold in store was pushing it to re-think both design and approach: ‘Within the whole market we’ve seen quite a significant shift to contract and people taking out agreements. This by its very nature takes a bit longer. It’s moved away from the grab and go pre-pay, which of course plays into our hands. This is an important decision for people – now we spend time with them getting them their phone, setting them up, establishing the services we offer. More inspiring and comfortable environments are part of this.’
Hiring in a different way
Changes to store design are only useful if a business has a set of employees who can maximise the potential benefits the new format offers. Sitting a customer down on a sofa with a complementary cup of coffee is only part of changing the environment.
The variety of staff that work in a mobile phone store can be very different, there will be a mixture of part time and full time staff. Businesses operate both their own stores and have franchises. All of which makes maintaining a level of consistency across a retail portfolio a real challenge.
There has been a major change in the way in which staff are both recruited, trained and assessed.
This has seen a shift from a commission-driven sales culture to one that is focused on customer service and training. Customer advice in particular has become a critical part of the change. Retailers now seek to increase the length and frequency of customer visits to its stores rather than just monetise the time they are in there.
This means that staff need to have a different skill set. With this in mind, O2 recently experimented with a different recruitment process when advertising for positions in its new concept stores. The ads sought music or fitness enthusiasts as opposed to retail staff or salespeople, the idea being that these individuals could advise customers based on lifestyle interests rather than technical capabilities.
Bridget Lea, UK stores director, says that a different approach was vital to recruiting individuals who might not consider a career in the industry: ‘We wanted to find people that maybe hadn’t considered a career in mobile retail before. We’re incredibly proud of our brand, but we knew to a certain group of people we might just be seen as a mobile phone shop.
'So we didn’t actually use the brand in the advertising when we started looking for people. We only introduced the brand about halfway through the process, by which time everyone was so hooked in that they weren’t too concerned about working for what they would see as just a mobile phone store.
‘Recruiting on behaviour rather than on experience in the sector is definitely the future. It’s about finding people who are warm, authentic and interested in customers. There’s a lot of talent within retail and outside of retail that still doesn’t consider mobile phone shops as a place where they could have a great career. Actually they should, because there are brilliant roles and careers for people from all walks of life. We wanted to find those people and show them that it wasn’t just about a sales job.’
A rise in the number of customers requiring service needs as much as sales assistance has also seen EE transform its recruitment process, as Steve Lavery, head of customer experience insights at the brand, explains: ‘Over the past 12 to 18 months we’ve had an overhaul in our recruitment approach and strategy, looking at people skills and service skills. We get as much footfall coming in with service needs as we do with sales needs. So the recruitment process has been changed to look for people with these skills.
‘I think the shape of retail will continue to change. If you look at how we engage with our customers digitally, we want more people to self-serve with products such as the EE App. Not that we want to lose the opportunity to have discussions with the customers in the retail environment. It’s just that it will become a more involved service conversation.’
Vodafone’s Jon Shaw says that the operator has changed the way in which its staff speak to customers. Employees are encouraged to have a conversation with the customer based on lifestyle to establish what contract and device would best suit them, rather than pushing products, explains Shaw: ‘We do what we call power selling. This means that before we talk about types of handsets we have a conversation with the customer about their needs. It’s about what they need a device for, lifestyle questions so that we can relate to the type of product or contract that is best for them. It can help inform everything – right down to how much battery they need.
‘All our guys get their bonuses based on support rather than sales. The key for us comes from giving customers good service, talking to customers as easily as they would talk to their friends. We train our staff quite heavily – they have a full week of training, which is followed up with weekly sessions for a further four weeks. Also, all staff get mentored to make sure that they are fully supported in their development.’
Shaw has also been making use of modern methods to find staff with ‘personality’, stating this was critical in getting people who could sell in the right way: ‘In terms of recruitment, what we’re looking for more than anything else is personality. We use different ways to uncover whether they have that personality.
'They load a video to the team where they have one minute to make a pitch to the organisation – some people sing or do a poem. It’s a way of them showing whether they’ve got character, if they are an individual. We also pay a higher rate than others in the industry – we know to get the best we need to pay them well.’
Care and repair
The number of service centre features within the modern retailer is set to explode over the next few years. In-store technical experts are not a new phenomenon, from Apple’s Geniuses to Carphone Warehouse’s Geek Squad and O2’s Gurus, this type of advice has been around for a while.
However, the complexity of both devices and services has increased since these roles first came into being. In a world of instantaneous very public customer complaints using platforms such as Twitter, the expectations placed on store staff to assist customers have never been higher, and are continuing to rise.
Vodafone’s Jon Shaw has been examining the role repairs play within his store format and believes that solving problems on-site is the key: ‘We’ve been re-purposing our tech team – we’re having a look at what repairs and innovation services work in store. Over the next year we’ll be offering enhanced repair services. What’s different to other retailers is that we’ll actually help customers in store. We want to fix devices for customers there and then, not tell them to put it in a jiffy bag and post it.
‘It’s the local touch that will help to bring the footfall as people come in looking for help servicing their device. There are a lot of older devices out there because of the growth of SIM free, which means that customers typically need more help. Not everyone will just buy the new handset.’
Independent retailer Fonehouse also recently made efforts to tap into the market for instantaneous repairs. Its new TechHouse accessories stores features in-store repair stations with an accelerated tech repair service.
The spread of mobile phone shops across the country means that retailers are embedded in local communities in some diverse locations. For years, staff have engaged with locals on a daily basis and played an active role on the high street. However, there has been a concerted effort by the retailers to provide platforms that take this engagement further in an effort to strengthen the brand.
Three has announced that it will roll out its free training Discovery programme across 50 of its stores. Discovery sees the retailer work with consumers and community groups running free sessions that teach them how to use technology better.
Sian Laffin, head of Discovery and innovation at Three, explains that the programme is part of a wider effort to transform the store environment: ‘What we’re trying to do is change the retail experience from when you walk in. It’s about making it more than just a transactional environment. It’s far more about the experience and about what you can do with your device. Discovery complements that – we work really closely with the stores, but they are separate environments.
‘There has perhaps been a perception that people in the mobile industry can’t be trusted and this gives us a wonderful opportunity to create the ethos of Discovery, which is all about the aftercare. There is no selling in Discovery. If a Discovery partner is after that, they are instantly referred to the store. The idea is that this a two-year commitment and we should be with you every step of the way, not just at the point of the transaction. So you start to trust us more, and if you trust us you’re going to come back to us. That is what we’re building our brand on.’
For Laffin’s colleague Jessica Tompkinson, community engagement and discovery manager at Three, this new type of customer engagement will be beneficial long term in winning over new customers to the network: ‘50% of people that came into the first Discovery centre in Maidenhead were non-customers. They wouldn’t have ever walked into our store before, but they’re more likely to walk into our store now when they’re in that transactional window. I think that if we didn’t haveDiscovery they’d still be going back to their current network provider time and time again because they’re used to it.’
Working with community groups is something that Vodafone has also been doing, as Jon Shaw explains: ‘We do two things when it comes to community engagement. There is the partnership with the Scouts, who have two badges sponsored by Vodafone related to learning about technology. Another thing that we do is with every store refit we give a £1,000 donation to the community for them to do something. We do this on the basis of wanting to make a difference. We want to be everyone’s favourite store on the high street.’
The concepts that mobile phone retailers need to communicate to the consumer continue to become broader and more complex. In the past couple of years, EE and Vodafone have both starting selling broadband in stores, while Carphone Warehouse’s merger with Dixons Retail has seen the breadth of additional services sky-rocket.
Television is also poised to be another battleground for mobile retailers. EE already sells a TV service in-store and the cross-selling of services will only increase following BT’s acquisition of the mobile brand. Vodafone is also poised to launch a TV offering, while Carphone Warehouse is looking to increase the number of different services it sells, particularly in its larger stores.
Vodafone’s Jon Shaw has been keen to ensure that his staff are well prepared for this new type of sale and can introduce these adjacent products in the right way. He says: ‘We carry out special training so our staff are ready to talk about the product and its unique features. We also work with our staff to make sure that when they talk about it, customers don’t feel that they are getting a hard sell. It comes down to thinking about how, over the course of a conversation, we can talk about broadband. Going forward that will also help staff fit in a TV question, once the service launches.’
EE’s Steve Lavery says that the operator’s new owner’s range of services will allow it to build further on the service selling methods it already employs: ‘The BT takeover will build on what we’ve already started. We’re already becoming very skilled and confident in talking to customers about their full connected needs and their full connected life. This can hopefully add a more exciting products and services for us to sell.
‘It’s easier to make a single purchase on a handset so we’ve had to change the way we speak to our people and speak to customers. It’s all geared around the EE way, which starts with understanding customers’ connected needs. It’s not product led, not price led it’s customer led. It’s far more about understanding customer needs rather than device needs. The new stores have helped with this type of sale – there’s greater transparency that comes with sitting side by side with customers when dealing with them.’