While more retailers are depending on third-party contractors to help them meet the needs of an omnichannel sales and service environment, many customers are dissatisfied with these workers, who might well be the merchants' most visible brand ambassadors. The solution to managing these contractors lies in technology.
Findings from a recent survey of 200 companies (61 percent were retailers) by ClickSoftware showed that partnerships between businesses and contractors are not as solid as they were once believed to be, and significant service gaps are weakening the companies' reputations, while increasing the cost of service.
The study found that 80 percent of respondents said contractors need to do more for customer satisfaction and two-thirds said complaints were linked to scheduling issues, such as late arrivals, early arrivals, return visits and appointments that were missed altogether. Meanwhile, 87 percent said they don't have enough visibility into their contractors' day-to-day activities to establish performance metrics that would bring about improvement.
"Primary retail brands are hiring more third-party contractors to provide service or product support for their customers," Mike Karlskind, director at ClickSoftware, told FierceRetailIT. "This use of contractors as an extension of in-store personnel is an increasingly important way for retailers to differentiate against pure e-tailers, while avoiding overhead costs related to maintaining a pay-rolled field service and delivery workforce."
The model is particularly important for seasonal businesses like home improvement because it allows the cost for the retailer to fluctuate in lock-step with demand.
Compared to other businesses in the survey, retailers do more deliveries but assign less of this kind of work to contractors. Retailers average 73 contractors versus 89 for other responding companies.
But while retailers contract out less work, they receive more customer complaints: 47 percent versus 43 percent about general scheduling issues; 45 versus 38 percent for late arrivals; and 36 versus 31 percent for the work taking too long.
"Contractors have become an essential part of the service delivery equation for many companies, but there is a need for more visibility into the contractors' workflow, as well as better tools that would help contractors complete their work in a more timely fashion," Karlskind said. More than 80 percent of contractor managers in this survey expressed a desire for a tool that would help them better monitor and communicate with their contractors and subcontractors.
Technologies to help solve these issues are available, he said. "Mobile workforce management capabilities have progressed to the point where they can be implemented to manage workflows and provide a window into the day-to-day, and moment-to-moment, activities of third-party resources as if they were in-house employees.
"At the exact moment a contracted driver is delivering, or a contracted technician is installing, or a contracted carpenter is constructing, a retailer can know exactly what is happening in front of their customer. The difference here is that retailer can keep touch with these events when they happen vs. the typical contractor relationship in which they know a day, or a few days, later."
If there is a delay, the retailer will know immediately and can advise the customer. "If a customer calls and asks where their product or service tech is, the retailer can answer definitively and immediately without needing to track down a contractor manager, who then calls the contractor company, who then radios the driver or tech. Steps get removed from the process," Karlskind said.
Such technology tools, like ClickSoftware's, have the side benefit of improving response time for customers because, as customers place their order in the store, work can be made to appear immediately and electronically for the contractor to dispatch. The delay and overhead of calling, emailing, or using other forms of analog communication are rendered moot, he said.
"Use of the 'contingent workforce' is only going to become more common—big business trends bear that out. The challenge for the in-house managers of contracted work is to support their contractors better, and make communication so transparent and instantaneous that customer satisfaction—and brand reputation—can only go up," Karlskind said.
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