The coronavirus pandemic changed everything for retailers around the world — from the smallest mom-and-pop stores to global businesses. Customers stayed at home, saved money, and struggled with supply chain issues.
Microsoft was no different. But, rather than waiting to see the lay of the land after the world returned to some form of normality, the technology company took the opportunity to reinvent its retail model during the disruption.
B&T spoke to Michelle Casey, Microsoft digital stores lead ANZ and Carissa Allen, Microsoft’s director of strategy, industry engagement and content, to understand how Microsoft was able to transform its global retail operations for the digital-first age.
“On the physical side, we were monitoring different signals — listening to our employees about how they felt, looking at data showing where cases were growing,” explained Allen.
“The conversation over the course of about 72 hours changed completely. It went from ‘we need to close some stores in some markets for safety concerns about our employees’ to ‘we need to close all of the stores now and bring everybody in.’”
“On the digital business side, Microsoft had already been in a work from home situation prior to Covid,” said Casey.
“We’ve really been thinking about work being what you do, not a place where you go. Microsoft has been doing that for more than 10 years. What we did need to do was make sure that all our customer service, sales, and support teams were in a position so they could work from home securely and be able to scale because, all of a sudden, site traffic tripled.”
With customers and staff alike working from home, Microsoft was able to transform its retail operations and customer touchpoints to meet the needs of a society turned upside down. At the same time, Microsoft was also able to prepare for the future of retail.
Adapting To A Changing World
Unlike a number of companies, Microsoft already had programs to make improvements to its retail operations for its customers and employees.
“We had a number of projects on our road map, already,” explained Casey.
“In particular, digitalisation and humanisation projects — they just happened quicker, we brought them forward.”
For Microsoft’s in-store employees, rather than hampering their chances to develop, removing the “four walls” of the store, provided opportunities for growth.
“We expanded the training we had already started, where we were taking some of our store employees and having them train enterprise customers on how to leverage Microsoft solutions,” said Allen.
“But when those four walls of the store were removed — suddenly, in this case — we started thinking about geography differently. We started thinking about language differently. We started thinking honestly about the solutions we could train on differently because there was a different demand.”
Microsoft, thanks to its range of Surface products, productivity tools, and its Cloud computing power, was able to offer new customer interactions that were tailored to their needs and level of computer literacy.
“I really liked what we did with humanising the digital. If you wanted to, you could have a live chat, which everybody has,” said Allen.
“But do you want to do a video consultation? Do you want somebody to actually show you the ports on the laptop? Do you want somebody there with you to help guide you through the setup?”
These changes were all informed by Microsoft’s data collection and analysis.
“We got signals that our customers needed to engage with us in different ways through our sales and support,” explained Casey.
Those signals came from Microsoft’s Associate Insights app that it uses across all its stores. In fact, the tool proved so vital for the company in understanding the needs of its customers that it has created a free GitHub template to allow other businesses to create their own ‘Voice of Customer.’
The app empowers first line workers to provide feedback from customers through one-to-one interactions. Business teams can then use this feedback to derive deep product and operational insights to improve the product and customer experience.
“Using the data helped build the business cases to bring forward key projects so that we could be available for customers through different channels and vehicles,” added Casey.
In fact, Microsoft launched 17 different programs to help make the digital shopping experience more human. In doing so, the company compressed two years of planned digital transformation into just two months at the start of the pandemic.
Humanising The Digital Retail Experience
Microsoft took the bold decision early in the pandemic to close all of its retail stores around the world. Instead, the retail experience would be moved entirely online.
Four of the stores, however, located in New York, London, Redmond, and Sydney, would later be converted into Experience Centres, but these provide a slightly elevated experience compared to the previous stores.
“We absolutely have a physical store but the connection now means that our customers and small businesses can come and book an appointment, have a live consultation and have that real experience with someone from Microsoft,” explained Casey.
“Someone may come in and have a computer that won’t connect to the internet or someone may come in with 17 laptops and can be walked-through how to get those connected and wants those connected and set up with Azure and Microsoft 365. We have had the ability to continue to run all of those programs and expand them across the country. And, more importantly, it means that we can also serve our customers and support them outside Sydney Metro, which is really critical.”
This monumental shift in the company’s operations required a rethinking of the role that Microsoft’s store associates played, as well as changes to the company’s technology systems.
“We extended the culture with them,” said Allen.
“We took the stand up meetings you have in-store and made them virtual because, even though we were not physically in a store any longer, they were staff who were used to being in-person together and winning as a team.
“But then the next step is that more career opportunities emerged for our retail staff as they were enabled to try different parts of the business that they might not have done within the four walls of the store.
“We have individuals that started as store assistants and they have now moved into either becoming a digital specialist or working with our corporate customers. We have had similar associates move into the partner world where they started to work as enterprise channel managers where they work with our partner community to ensure the success of key customer initiatives,” she added.
Want to know more? Watch Allen’s Allen’s Reimagining Experiential Retail keynote from the Sydney Experience Centre.
These new opportunities, powered by Microsoft’s technology stack and quick-thinking in the face of overwhelming disruption, has certainly paid dividends. The in-store staff, who if working for other retailers, might have lost their jobs, have been retained and can explore different career avenues within Microsoft.
“This is one of my favourite learnings of the transformation over the last two years,” said Allen.
“Companies, including Microsoft, have woken up to the amazing potential these employees have. If we had not gone through this transformation, the front line staff might not have had as much awareness of the career opportunities or pathways available to them throughout Microsoft. That being said, the transformation also helped to drive more visibility of retail staff’s potential throughout the broader business.”
Microsoft also created the Digital Skills Initiative to help its retail staff unlock the potential that they already have.
“Our digital stores team engaged with PwC and we ran a workshop with every employee to better understand what skills they have, what the gaps were, but also an open-ended question around what they wanted to learn — whether it was business leadership, customer centricity, or something else,” said Casey.
Disrupting Beyond The Pandemic
While the pandemic has not completely finished, Microsoft has moved beyond the setup it found itself in during the long years of 2020 and 2021. However, the learnings and initiatives that the company found and developed during the pandemic continue to serve it well.
“We’re keeping all of those humanising programs and being deliberate in how we use our physical spaces,” said Casey.
“We’ll have a Black Friday event in the store and we’ll be inviting key customers to come in and get exclusive deals. But it’s not all about the deals. It’s about actually helping customers understand how to get the most out of the technology. They may come in and buy a laptop, but we want to book an appointment to show them how to use it to its full potential.
“You don’t need to go and stand in the crowd at Westfield. You don’t have to go online, either. You can have access to great customer service through the remote experience, too.”
Allen said that the role of in-store staff has evolved from purely being face-to-face to a more rounded role, central to all customer touchpoints along the Microsoft retail journey.
“They might be engaging with customers in-person one moment and then they might go to the backroom to take some online appointments the next. Or we have people to train in large groups online,” she explained.
“It’s an evolution in the role of those workers and what skill sets we look for and what can be trained and what needs to be there to begin with.”
Rather than having a pre-pandemic shopping experience, a mid-pandemic online experience, and then a return to traditional retailing, Microsoft has taken the best of all three.
Thanks to the disruption of the pandemic, the technology company is now able to meet customers however they like and wherever they are. This more holistic approach to customer experience has certainly set Microsoft up for success in the, hopefully pandemic-free, years ahead.
To find out more, click to watch Allen’s Reimagining Experiential Retail keynote from the Sydney Experience Centre.