Retailers Have Spoken: Voice Communications Technology is the Key to Smooth In-Store and Online Operations

Yet, several retailers in Latin America have yet to answer associates’ call for mobility solutions with integrated push-to-talk (PTT) capabilities. Here are four reasons why that needs to change this year.

A grocery store associate uses a Zebra TC52 with push-to-talk to communicate with a colleague while looking for an item
by Leonardo Junco
February 08, 2021

Many retailers in North America, Europe and Asia-Pacific have told us that, without enterprise-grade push-to-talk (PTT) solutions, it would have been a struggle to execute store operations in 2020, much less execute new service offerings such as buy online, pick up in store (BOPIS), curbside and even delivery services.

Retail operations are all about workflow orchestration, and there is a tremendous amount of coordination that must occur among store associates to keep operations running smoothly on a good day. Add in the chaos imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic – including increased order volumes, out-of-stocks, social distancing and staff call outs – and it becomes clear why real-time conversations among physically disparate team members are mission critical. Not texts. Not emails. But good old fashioned “phone” calls.

Now, I realize that most retailers across Latin America are using two-way radios to enable instant voice communications between staff. But radios aren’t recommended in modern retail environments. Here’s why:

1. You Can’t Afford for Wires (or Paths) to Get Crossed

Did you know thirteen million people in Latin America made their first-ever e-commerce transaction after the COVID-19 outbreak began – and before the end of March 2020? I know this jolted many retailers in the region into a high tempo operating mode. It also left staff scrambling to keep up with unprecedented demand for BOPIS and home delivery services.

With associates scattered across the store floor, stock room, parking lot and city, voice communications quickly became one of the best ways for the entire team to stay in sync. Whether restocking shelves, updating price tags, sorting incoming inventory, picking items for online orders, delivering to customers or managing returns, associates need to know the status of certain actions – and so do customers. Patience is a virtue and also very limited in this day in age. Customers want to get in and out, whether shopping in store or just pulling up to a curbside pickup spot. If they ask for assistance locating an item, getting a price check or retrieving a BOPIS order, they expect an immediate response from store associates. Even home delivery service customers demand timely service. If you aren’t going to be able to fulfill their entire order, or delivery will be delayed, they want to know.

Though two-way radios are better than nothing, the best way to facilitate cross-communication from worker to worker, worker to group, or even store to store is with an enterprise-grade, multi-mode communication tool such as Workforce Connect™. It allows for instant PTT communications, much like the radio, as well as PBX calls and enterprise-class secure messaging. It also syncs with your store’s operational data and workflow applications, so associates can coordinate all tasks – and create records of progress – on just one mobile device. There is a single source of truth, and only one piece of technology to learn and carry, so nothing gets lost in translation – or the shuffle.

2. Associates Need to Keep Their Hands Free

Many associates spend their days either picking or putting away inventory, updating pricing or delivering orders to customers. As such, they need both hands available to be most efficient at their jobs. With a solution such as Workforce Connect, they don’t have to pick up a device to make a “call.” There are headsets available that turn the PTT app into a fully hands-free calling solution.

In fact, we see this type of solution in high demand for curbside, delivery and even in-store workflows where safety is especially important. Delivery drivers can keep two hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road versus one their mobile devices. Curbside fulfillment teams can keep their heads up in heavily trafficked parking lots. And in-store associates can pay attention to what’s happening in the store to better queue customers and guide foot traffic in support of social distancing.

3. What You Need Today May Change Tomorrow

Technology requirements change – and expand – all the time, especially in today’s environment. In fact, retailers have been under constant pressure to modernize operations and improve store execution for the past decade. In 2011, 67% of consumers surveyed for Zebra’s annual Global Shopper Study reported a better in-store experience with retailers who used the latest technology to assist customers. With competition fiercely increasing in recent years and COVID-19 forcing the sudden adoption of hybrid omnichannel fulfillment models, it’s not uncommon for retailers to report multiple iterations of technology “upgrades.” However, we know – and you know – that it’s not best practice to rip and replace solutions every year or two. Nor is it recommended that you prolong the lifecycle of legacy devices just to preserve resources “a little bit longer.” At some point, the time and money you think you’re saving are being lost on inefficiencies and will lead to a productivity decline. In my opinion, that’s what we’re seeing here in Latin America with the continued use of two-way radios.

At some point, in the very near future, that technology is going to have to be retired and retailers are going to have to switch to a cloud- and mobile computer-based staff communications solution. It’s the only way they’ll be able to reduce miscommunications and mistakes as BOPIS demands grow, the workforce expands and fulfillment times shrink. But making this investment will only pay off if the communications solution is flexible, scalable and expandable for years to come. Fortunately, many enterprise-grade software solutions such as Workforce Connect are designed to grow with your business. You can add more devices and integrate with more workflow applications – without needing more financial or IT resources – as your operations evolve and expand.

4. Privacy and Security Still Matter

I’ve noticed that, with two-way radios, communications between associates tend to broadcast loudly through the stores. That means that customers can hear what is being said. Even though most communications are probably benign, it’s quite possible that information being shared could be considered sensitive – whether it’s someone’s personal information or operational data. And, perhaps this is just a personal observation, but associates seem more apt to leave a radio unattended on a cart when unpacking, picking or putting away inventory than a company-issued handheld mobile computer that is akin to a personal smartphone.

With an enterprise-grade communication tool such as Workforce Connect, certain privacy and security features are built in to prevent accidental public disclosure during discussions. You can also use a headset with the PTT feature to help control the conversation volume.

Just remember that privacy and security considerations are not exclusive to voice calling or even email. I know more retailers in the region are starting to use mobile devices (versus two-way radios) for staff communications. And those that are especially cost-conscious might be tempted to use one of the many free encrypted messaging services out there in lieu of an enterprise-grade solution such as Workforce Connect. However, there are significant risks involved in using these open market, consumer-centric apps in a business environment. For one, you may not have total control over who has access to information shared on those platforms or how it is further shared outside your business.

The Takeaway

I realize that it takes some resources to implement an enterprise-grade staff communications solution such as Workforce Connect. However, your return on investment (ROI) will be far greater than the upfront cost.

Staff must simultaneously fulfill orders, field customer inquiries, help to queue customers and prioritize safety, privacy and security. So, even though individuals may be assigned a single task or zone to own, cohesion is the key to smooth execution of all tasks and happy customers. With an enterprise-grade PTT solution such as Workforce Connect, workers can instantly communicate with each other – and even with other stores – to locate inventory, fulfill BOPIS orders, ring up customers and answer questions without any friction. That’s what’s going to keep associates happy, customers coming back, and carts filled. It’s also what’s going to reduce losses, improve efficiencies (and margins), and increase revenue long term.

Plus, a cloud-based solution like Workforce Connect is far more affordable and easier to install than many retailers expect. In fact, many customers find they only need to make a minimal investment to strengthen their wireless networks and/or equip their teams with the right mobile devices to fully deploy, support and use the Workforce Connect PTT Pro solution, which has all the bells and whistles (and instant two-way communications capabilities) your associates will need to stay in sync and provide high-quality customer service at all times.

Let’s Talk

If you’re ready to give your store associates a communication tool that allows for instant voice and messaging capabilities in one, let’s set up a call to discuss your current technology architecture and workflows. You may already have the right hardware in place to facilitate PTT, PBX calls and secure messaging, in which case a simple software addition can quickly solve your team’s communications challenges. And, if you’re concerned about the network infrastructure required to support such wireless solutions, our solution engineers can work with you to evaluate the most cost, labor and time-efficient strategy to implement the necessary foundational elements, such as a strong LAN/WAN configuration and secure cloud access.

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Leonardo Junco
With 20 years of experience in IT and 15 specifically in the AIDC market, Leonardo has the knowledge and consultive approach to help customers and business partners understand how and where the technology can offer them a competitive edge. As Regional Product Manager, Leonardo handles the go-to-market strategy and health of Zebra’s mobile computing solutions designed for use in retail, hospitality, healthcare and field operations. As an Independent Software Vendor (ISV) Lead, Leonardo work with a team of people to create awareness and demand with software partners and connect their applications with hardware sellers to present complete solutions for customers.
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