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Here at Story, we pride ourselves on getting to know our clients and their areas of expertise inside-out – finding out exactly what makes them tick by doing extensive homework (we’re proud to be teacher’s pet!) and keeping our finger on the pulse.

One sector we’ve always got our eye on is retail – with John Lewis Story’s first ever client, old habits die hard, and current client Berwick Partners regularly offers expert comment on issues such as the recent Graze/Unilever deal and the new breed of retail leaders.

Director Gill Holtom is a font of knowledge when it comes to consumer trends and brand tactics. Here, she offers her thoughts on automation and the importance of customer service: 

It’s no secret that the team here at Story loves, loves, loves Birmingham fried chicken eatery Bonehead. Not only is the food fab, but the service and the relationship with the manager ticks all the right boxes, making it a regular go to. Without even realising it, we have become loyal to a brand thanks to human interaction as much as the consistently delicious food.

Brands are in a feverish race to automate the user experience and don’t seem to be giving much thought to the impact that has on customer loyalty.

The idea that automation is there for customer convenience is often, but not always, true. It is also a cost saving measure. This makes it commercially tempting to introduce it to more and more customer touchpoints, with little thought to how much damage that might cause to building loyal and lasting customer relationships.

Like many, I have started to blacklist brands that have made my experience as a user much worse through anxiety-inducing automation.

I am counting down the days until one retailer shuts up shop in Brum and goes online -cutting a connection that goes back 20 years. Yes, they remarket to me constantly online, stalking me with ads and free returns offers to tempt me to buy online, but for me the relationship is over.

Why would I go through the soulless ritual of buying something online, with the risk that I will have to go through the hassle of returning the item. I will visit one last time to try to futureproof my wardrobe before they are gone for good, but there is no point in continuing such a joyless relationship. It’s over.

And that’s exactly the point: brands that have a purely transactional relationship with their customers are unlikely to command any long-term loyalty. Customers, like me, want to experience a brand, sometimes that’s in store, sometimes that’s online. Some of my favourite art brands offer tutorials and demos that I can watch at my leisure – it’s not content for content’s sake, it inspires ideas, but I will go to the store to get advice, feel the papers and materials and make my choices.

I will buy printer ink, fish tank pumps and groceries online, but when it comes to clothes, shoes or high value items, I will be actively seeking out independents and brands that are still prepared to have a human conversation. In an increasingly automated world, they will be the winners and where I will choose to spend my hard-earned cash.

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