John Carney is senior vice president and general manager of Industries, communications and media at Salesforce.

Wireless carriers have seen rapid changes in the way customers shop for their products since the onset of the pandemic. As lockdowns took effect across the U.S. and many brick-and-mortar stores closed, digital growth skyrocketed [best to view on desktop]. Simultaneously, many communications service providers (CSPs) experienced a sharp rise in demand for self-service options such as buy online, pick up in store (BOPIS), and contactless delivery.

It's clear customers seek new ways to interact with wireless carriers — but how well are carriers delivering? Our New Retail Playbook inspired us to explore what these changes mean for the telecommunications sector and whether companies’ retail strategies keep pace with the market. Below, I round up some highlights from that research and suggest what telco providers need to do now to reimagine the retail experience to ensure they can meet customers’ changing expectations.


The retail landscape is fast evolving

For decades, the brick-and-mortar telecom store has played a major role in wireless carriers’ retail operations. More than mere sales outlets, these stores have traditionally functioned as customer support hubs, offering shoppers technical help and advice on products and billing plans.

Then came COVID-19, drastically cutting foot traffic to stores along with a major source of customer connection. While most wireless carriers, including T-Mobile, moved swiftly to help employees, customers, and communities adapt and stay safe, that often involved temporarily closing outlets. Some have since announced plans to shutter selected locations permanently.

It’s not all bad news, however. While every U.S. smartphone manufacturer’s sales fell during the first few months of the pandemic, online sales doubled. Research shows that while smartphone sales dropped by 25% during the second quarter of 2020, COVID-19 boosted ecommerce transactions from 14% of phones sold in 2019 to 31% of phones sold in the second quarter of 2020.

At the same time, customers have sought to use more self-service options while reducing physical interactions. For example, retailers offering BOPIS and curbside pickup options saw digital revenue skyrocket 127% in the second quarter of 2020.

As a result, many telco providers are now designating more stores purely for pickup purposes and inventory overflow (“dark stores”) and stocking these with the most popular products for particular geographies.

Today, with carrier stores starting to reopen across the country, retail outlets must consider customers’ desires to minimize their time in store when they visit to see products in person before committing to a purchase. And they also must be mindful that many consumers want to start the shopping journey online, then make the final purchase in store — or vice versa.


Delivering a seamless experience

Winning in this environment means telco providers must evolve the customer experience so shoppers can move seamlessly between this more complex blend of digital and physical channels. Here are three suggestions to help ensure they can do just that.


1. Turn up the dial on digital

With fewer in-store interactions taking place, wireless carriers need to ensure they can deliver a superior experience across the digital channels customers prefer. Before the pandemic, many customers visited stores to discuss a range of customer care needs: service problems, billing questions, and plan changes, for instance. Now, more seek to interact with agents via social channels such as WhatsApp to get answers to product and service questions and help with orders. Retailers can also take steps to address common concerns with a regularly updated FAQ page and embed web chat for further on-demand support.


2. Offer in-store appointment booking

When customers decide to visit an actual store, it will likely be for specific purposes — to replace a cracked smartphone screen, say — and they will seek to get in and out without delay. Make it easy for them with an efficient online appointment booking system to minimize their time in store or waiting in line. Appointment booking also helps CSPs stick to store capacity limits in line with local government guidelines or company policies.


3. Enable your retail store associates

Supporting these new kinds of customer behaviors means equipping store associates with the best tools to follow a customer from discovery to purchase. Cutting-edge order management and inventory system can give associates a real-time look at the stock they have in any specific store and more easily move products between stores. They can also get instant visibility into customer preferences, devices, usage, and interaction history to personalize recommendations to more easily replace the impulse purchases of items such as phone accessories, which customers in physical stores would have made at checkout counters.

To hear more insights about how the retail landscape is shifting for telco providers, watch my recorded interview with Mobile World Live and Salesforce retail expert Rob Garf.

Digital transformation remains critically important as wireless carriers respond to the ongoing disruption caused by the pandemic. Learn more about our new industry-specific innovations on our virtual Salesforce Industries Summit Communications Channel. You’ll hear how communications companies are accelerating value, going digital, and transforming their businesses.