Clienteling Is Not a New Idea, but Is It a Good Idea?
April 5, 2023

Clienteling Is Not a New Idea, but Is It a Good Idea?

Clienteling is not a new idea, it’s been around since the beginning of retailing, but it’s never really grown beyond haute couture for the wealthy and big spenders.  There have been dozens of software businesses over the last 25 years that have attempted to make clienteling a business for any retailer of any size in any price point.  You’ve likely never heard of them… because none of them have really succeeded.  They weren't bad products, they were actually quite robust..  They failed because clienteling does not successfully consider the real world shopping experience, the consumer’s needs, the unit economics, nor the capabilities of a human salesperson in the proper sequence.  Net net, it doesn’t work, except for appointment shopping for high AOVs (read: $10K+).

Clienteling: Danger, proceed with extreme caution 

I am not a fan of clienteling.  I think it is near impossible to pull off, especially at any level of scale, it is fraught with challenges, and more likely than not it can be a CX backfire. There’s a reason that after 25 years of trial and error it’s never been widely implemented. 

(For point of reference, Humankind is NOT clienteling.  It’s concierge, personal shopper experiences delivered digitally and through SMS.  We’ve incorporated the aspirational elements of clienteling and weaved them into Humankind and our digital experience).

Now if you want to know why I am so down on Clienteling, allow me to pontificate...

Clienteling is defined as enabling in-store sales associates to develop 1:1 relationships directly with their consumers.  If you know me or Humankind and our proposition of bringing personal shopping to digital, you would think that we would be big fans of it.  Well…in theory we are fans of any improved human interactions in retailing, but the problem with clienteling is, in reality, it doesn’t net out into the great, profitable customer experience you think it will.

Let me explain why, but first, let’s start by applying the litmus test I use for any customer experience innovation initiative before embarking on them:  

  1. Is it a large enough improvement in CX versus the status quo?  What is the ratio of benefit to effort?  If the effort is material, then it needs to have a large impact on enough of your customers or outsized ROI to make it profitable.
  1. Can you predictably deliver it delightfully and consistently?  If not, then be careful as you could be offering a great value proposition, but falling short of the consumers' newly set expectations…resulting in the effort backfiring and instead doing damage to your brand.
  1. Can it be offered at some level of scale?  If not, it could be wasted opportunity cost and now you have a small and likely orphaned initiative inside of your organization.

Clienteling FAILS all 3 of these imo.  I will explain why, but before I do, let’s get deeper into what Clieteling means for those unfamiliar with the concept.

The origin of clienteling goes back to salespeople keeping little black books on hand with customers names and phone numbers and notes on their preferences.  When their stores had sales or new merchandise, the salespeople would visit their black book and dial up their customers in an attempt to have them come to the store.  This concept generally only worked for high priced goods and mostly in fashion, and it wasn’t all that scalable (probably why you have never heard of it).

Today’s Clienteling follows suit, but has been conceptually modernized and now is identified with these use cases:

i) The store associate ability to review a customers data and profile in store for richer experiences

ii) The ability for consumers to connect by SMS to their local store associate

iii) The ability for in-store sales associates to text or email their customers marketing initiatives

OK - let’s now unpack why I am a naysayer on clienteling.

  1. It falls way short of an improved experience for consumers 

An in store experience is synchronous, it’s real time.  While it sounds nice that a sales associate might have my previous purchase data and preferences, I am there, in person-in the store and ready to shop.  In the time it would take for a salesperson to find my profile, research my preferences, stop and think about how to use that data, consider that data for product recommendations is…dreadfully too long and imperfect.  I’m there - just ask me what I am looking for and my preferences and I will tell you! :) (the truest of zero party data engagements!).

As for a consumer's ability to text their sales associate, that sounds great, but what we’ve learned here at Humankind and many others have corroborated, consumers are not looking for salespeople in their pockets 24x7x365 - we usually don’t think beyond the next 10 mins.  Consumers desire expert help at the moment they have purchase intent and you need to be present when those stars align, and that likely means a presence for your 1:1 expert program online and through your social and marketing channels (the places I am likely to be when I feel the need).  Since clienteling is a local and offline relationship, it does not leverage the ubiquity of digital to make it easy to have 1:1 engagements and the moments when consumers want and need them. 

  1. It is operationally heavy for your in store sales employees

Trying to use your in-store associates to do clienteling is a fool’s errand.  Let me be clear, it’s not because your in-store sales people aren’t great, they are, they make your stores a successful experience.  It’s because they already have “day-jobs” and many competing priorities.  By giving them clienteling responsibilities on top of it, you are adding to their workload, it’s not their top priority and in order for it to be successful, it needs to be their main focus.  

Imagine your in store sales associates getting texts during the work day.  There may be times, actually most of their day, where they cannot respond to that clienteling customer for hours and hours because they are busy helping in store customers, working the register, cleaning the store, putting products back on shelves, dealing with phone calls, etc etc.  That’s not the exception, that’s the rule - that’s going to be most use cases (or else your stores are overstaffed I would presume).  While text messaging is an asynchronous, delayed conversation, it’s at its best when the response time is quick and that is not going to be your reality with your in store sales associates and clienteling.

Even worse, imagine your store associate does have down time, and then a live customer walks into their department, oh no!  One of those two customers is going to get delayed help, likely the online customer, and so now you’ve taken an active and engaged customer and ghosted them.  

And because you are decentralizing the workload to dozens if not hundreds of sales associates, who in reality are fractional clientelers, you run the risk of having balls dropped all over the place and with no good way to remediate it.  

Then there’s the training of a clienteling program, which alone is a herculean task. That’s dozens, maybe 100s of salespeople, no small effort.  Add the typical 40-50% churn of instore associates and you are spending a good amount training and training again.  That’s just the how to use the clienteling platform, what about marketing messaging and sales coaching.  You got all dreamy eyed at the concept of your in store sales associates sending outbound messaging to your customers 1:1…except when you realize that these employees not only don’t have the time, they aren’t trained marketers.  Is your CMO cool with that?

Your store operations lead is going to be displeased, too.  They are trying to run an efficient and well managed store, and now you’ve added to the workload of your in store associates. That’s a distraction and will cause friction between your digital and ops teams.

Brands often make the mistake and think that just having a feature is a customer experience innovation and benefit. Au contraire mon frère.  Remember, my #2 litmus test for any CX initiative is only do it if you can do it really well.  There are some realities with clienteling that make this initiative impossible to execute well. 

  1. It doesn’t scale

You really want to juice up your in-store experience, so you think clienteling is the way to go, but when you apply the realities of what it will take to be successful, it’s a daunting, probably impossible task.  Unfortunately, you need to execute wide, realizing that the results will be shallow, and since this isn’t an easy flick of the switch, you will soon realize the program is super inefficient and unprofitable. Let’s unpack this a little more:

Wide:  In order for any brick-and-mortar store based clienteling program to succeed, you need to apply it to most/all of your stores. That’s the way you will get any real volume of coverage. That’s a huge amount of training and operational readiness.  Then you have to design and communicate the program's mechanics to that large and wide group of  potentially 100s of sales associates.  And you will need to do it again and again since there’s a good amount of churn.  And since your sales associates are not on computers all day long at the ready to help customers, they won’t be able to scale the initiative.

Shallow: Since this is a distributed effort across many stores and sales people, the reality is that the sales benefits will only come in small pieces.  That’s not a great recipe for scale, especially given how large the effort is.

Where Humankind shines is in its ability to turn browsers into high converting and spending loyalists.  We put the human at the front of the shopping experience and help you buy, the first time, the second time, the fifth time, the tenth time.  We bring you the salespeople to a digital DIY shopping experience

Clienteling is not designed for new customers.  It’s really only relegated for repeat shoppers and that is a much smaller universe of consumers to touch.  

Clienteling: In conclusion

  • Because your sales staff already has a pretty full day job, the experience they can offer through clienteling will most likely be spotty, inconsistent, and poor.
  • It’s an operationally heavy task of training all stores and sales associates and you do have material churn
  • It does not touch customers new to your brand, it’s reach is only to the top customers and is total addressable market is small
  • It won’t be profitable or scalable

Net net, a potentially slow and crappy experience, that is operationally hard to pull off and maintain, it doesn’t scale, and you will likely lose money…are you sure you want to consider it?

Humankind - a modern adaptation of Clienteling and one that scales

We love the concept behind clienteling, but we understand the realities and limitations.  So, we leveraged the best parts and adapted them for a modern, hyper connected digital world, and weaved them into a beautiful customer experience that scales for both consumers and your sales agents. Humankind is modern clienteling!

We are the leading conversational commerce platform enabling brands and retailers to launch 2-way digital, concierge personal shopper experiences by SMS.  We initially built it for our own DTC brand and used and perfected it for over 2 years with millions of interactions. Through this experience, we were able to test and learn through a series of hypotheses and experiences until we ended up with the winning formula, the same one we bring to brands and retailers now.

The success of our modern personal shopper paradigm lies within these 3 pillars, and the result is beautiful, scalable, and profitable concierge experiences each and every single time.  

  1. We leverage the power and scale of digital - means we can reach every corner of the internet to help customers in need, democratizing an experience only previously available for the filthy rich and famous…
  1. combined with the strength of asynchronous and always-on connectivity with SMS, which matches the consumers elongated and considered buying journeys without ever having to start over, and enables unprecedented connectivity post purchase to stretch the LTVs
  1. and the superpower of a human salesperson to make for a more personalized, convenient, and trustworthy purchasing experience 

The results speak for themselves: With 25%+ conversion rates, 40%+ AOV lift, and 50% larger LTVs, the proof is in the data.

Humankind passes the Customer Experience Litmus test with flying colors

As I articulated above, there’s a litmus test I use for any customer experience innovation initiative before embarking on them.  To be fair, let’s apply them to Humankind and Conversational Commerce (done right):

  1.  Is it a large enough improvement in CX versus the status quo? 

Yes, online shopping can be a lot of effort to find and choose the right product. There’s a reason why you convert 2-3% of your customers and on average it takes 7 visits to your website before they buy.  It’s a wholly DIY shopping format, and sometimes your users need help and guidance. Humankind enables you to offer the 97%+ who don’t buy another, more convenient and trustworthy way to shop and consumers love it. 

  1. Can you predictably deliver it delightfully and consistently? 

Yes!  Since the salespeople are dedicated, centralized and leverage a bespoke technology platform that’s battle tested with millions of interactions, the experience consistently delivers great results and high KPIs.  Additionally, it is far easier to manage and train 2-20 full time, focused concierge sales experts using a proven conversational commerce platform vs 100s of part time, already busy, sales agents sending ad hoc messages from their mobile phones.  

  1. Can it be offered at some level of scale?  

Yes! The entire experience is digitally enabled, leveraging bespoke technology to make the humans scalable. The organization, the toolset, and the understanding of the customer’s A-Z journey are all weaved into the platform to make it easy for the salespeople to perform their magic consistently and at scale.  And…it’s not just about the humans, although they are the star of the show. There’s a healthy dose of technology behind the scenes that does a lot of the work for the humans. 

Conversational Commerce: filing your top deciles of loyal customers

I am a huge believer that loyalty is built through exceptional experiences.  It’s the way to turn non-converters and ordinary passive shoppers into power users and evangelists.  

We’ve already discussed how with Clienteling, the experience falls short and you run the risk of over promising and under delivering. Additionally, eCommerce is a fairly formulaic experience too.  When was the last time you clicked around a webstore and thought: “what an amazing site, I love this brand…”  It’s probably been a while since everyone has achieved some level of parity.

But with Humankind and our conversational commerce model, you can deliver an exceptional, human-led experience each and every time.  We are democratizing the personal shopper experience that was only previously available to the uber-wealthy and making it available to anyone and everyone.  It’s insanely empowering to consumers - to have an insider, a category expert do all the work for them in an easy to use format.  It’s the reason our clients have a whopping 4.94/5 star rating with their customers in aggregate. 

So while you will see outsized KPI lift, the real power is your ability to connect with consumers on a 1:1 human level, and build unique long term relationships that go beyond what any other format of retail can.

In Conclusion: Humankind vs Clienteling

I can appreciate your desire for a clienteling experience.  Your aspirations are spot on.  Many brands claim to be customer-centric but if you are thinking about this CX innovation, ready to lean in and do it, then you are ahead of the pack. 

But let’s be real, clienteling is a relic of the past and a potential land mine to your business going forward.  It’s been tried and tried again. It may only be for the rich and famous who shop at Saks or Bergdorfs and spend $$$$ per year.  But don’t let those aspirations and desires to innovate on your customer experience go to waste.  There’s a new and better way to reach more customers, more profitably, and with a way better customer experience, and we’re here to help.

With Humankind, we can help you deliver an amazing experience every time, to a huge audience of yours, and be not only a meaningful part of your business, but build loyalty to a whole new scale.  Humankind is the new Clienteling.

To book a demo, click here.

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