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Concierge Commerce: Rebirth of a Salesman

The Rise and Fall of Mass Marketing

Conversations have been the native interface for business since the dawn of commerce, and it has only been in the past 50 years or so of mass production and mass marketing that these conversations have been distorted or killed altogether.

Even before the concept of sales, there was the bazaar. People would go to the marketplace, see a shopkeeper, meet the craftsman responsible for the wares they were interested in, and hear about all of the benefits first hand. As The Cluetrain Manifesto famously declared, “markets are conversations.”

Fast forwarding to the turn of the 20th century, we meet the salesperson. The salesperson would peddle consumer products (often door-to-door)—anything from vacuums to cash registers and from paint to soap. In most industries, they saw their peak sometime in the 1950s, just as something more efficient came along.

Things changed with the Mad Men era of mass marketing. Advertising and branding gave salespeople air cover to boost their odds of success. This air cover was fused with the advent of new “technology” like the supermarket and big box retailers, which offered more efficient ways to mass produce and distribute goods. While salespeople never went away, far more effective ways to reach customers began to make them less important.

But mass production and marketing ultimately succeeded to the detriment of customer experience. The most expensive retail stores would offer personal shoppers and the white-glove treatment—but commerce for the rest of us largely became sterile and impersonal.

Mobile Brings Back the Salesperson

With the dawn of e-commerce, the sands began to shift beneath the feet of the incumbents.

Driven principally by Amazon, customer expectations around price, convenience and selection were dramatically raised. Amazon “listened” to customers—explicitly via feedback and implicitly via data—and created a model where Amazon’s supply chain could “respond” to the requests and needs of its growing customer base. We began to move to a world of “supplier push” to one of “consumer pull.”

With Prime, Amazon has been able to create a differentiated customer relationship—a “conversation” between it and its customers—that is the envy of the commerce world. Not everyone has been so lucky. The dominant e-commerce player of the desktop web era has, like Facebook, been able to parlay that success into an even more dominant position on mobile. But that doesn’t mean it’s invincible, nor does it mean that its grasp on the economy will become absolute.

Mobile has proliferated to the point that everyone has a supercomputer in their pockets—and our primary use case for these supercomputers is to talk to our friends and family. Like Steve Jobs said in the original iPhone introduction, smartphones are our internet communicators.

Until this point, we’ve mostly used smartphones to talk amongst ourselves and extend into other forms of communication like dating apps and social communities. But messaging in particular is giving us an opportunity to apply mobile communication to much more.

Commerce has always been about conversation in one form or another. We may have distorted the buyer/seller conversation in the mass-marketing era, but it never died. It’s just been laying dormant until now.

Mobile has sparked the return of a “salesperson” approach to commerce in the consumer markets (ironically, just in time for people to finally declare traditional B2B sales dead).

Concierge Commerce Poised to Thrive on Mobile

One of the major early shots across the bow for concierge commerce was the introduction of Operator. The goal of Operator is to give consumers expert personal service over messaging as if they were being guided by a personal shopper in a brick-and-mortar store.

Despite some early struggles to find footing in the United States, Operator is by all accounts seeing strong growth internationally. They’ve been a trailblazer for a new way of selling to customers—and the idea of mobile concierge commerce has stuck.

Concierge commerce doesn’t just serve the need for convenience. It helps you decide what to buy. Companies like Trunk Club are already proving that this model can revive the personal sales approach.

Founded in 2009, Trunk Club has shown retailers that personal stylists can be fused with salespeople to provide white-glove fashion advice on a 1:1 level at scale. By putting messaging at the core of the business, Trunk Club has achieved:

Rather than manning a phone center or relying purely on email conversations, Trunk Club was able to take the conversation back to the glory days of the salesperson. Representatives could talk to customers in the context that makes the most sense to them today—messaging.

The concierge commerce model is bringing back the best aspects of the old-school sales person. But the concierge model isn’t limited to commerce use cases.

Messaging Can Power Every Customer Conversation

The concierge experience is already starting to branch out into other industries. For example, Accolade has already started offering personalized health advisors over messaging. We’re seeing financial services adopt the messaging model to provide real-time, personalized advice. And the classic hotel front desk is already transforming into a mobile concierge experience.

But be careful. Many companies are already making the mindset mistake that led to the death of salespeople years ago—they’re thinking scale before personalization. Chatbots might seem like a great way to scale a concierge messaging experience, but they’re only a component of a larger strategy.

When customers need help deciding what to buy or try to make a big financial decision, you can’t just rely on chatbots. You need to offer real human services that can live up to their individual expectations. Scale is important for the concierge business model to work—but you can blend chatbots with human interaction to get there.

Rebirth of a Salesman

History has a funny way of repeating itself. The personalized future predicted so lucidly by Martha Rogers and Don Pepper nearly 25 years ago in The One to One Future has finally arrived. At a time when communication is so often criticized for lacking a personal touch, the salesperson is officially back.

From what makeup to choose to which car loan to accept to who your doctor should be to how to decorate a home—computers can’t answer these questions yet, but a personalized concierge experience gives consumers access to millions of people who can.

Because of mobile and the messaging UX that dominates it, we finally have an effective way to create 1:1 connections with customers.

Check out how some companies are already making the leap into concierge commerce.