Category: Customer Experience

Don’t let your brand go LeBron

In case you missed it, last week NBA superstar and Cleveland-area native LeBron James elected to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers in favor of the Miami Heat. He announced his decision midway through an hour long, nationally televised special conceived by his team of personal advisers. It all came across as incredibly self-absorbed and spectacularly anti-fan as he essentially broke up with Cavaliers fans in front of a national audience. He repeatedly referred to his decision as being about “business” and hoped his fans would understand.

But they didn’t understand.

When shown an image of fans burning his jersey, James seemed temporarily startled before stating that he couldn’t “get involved in that.” His Sports Q rating, which determines an athlete’s popularity and advertisers use to determine whom to endorse , was the highest in the NBA pre-announcement, but it’s sure to take a hit now. In fact, this post calculates a drop in Q score could cost him as much as $150 million.

But what does this all have to do with retail?

I think there’s a lesson we can all learn about dangers of making business decisions without fully considering the effects of those decisions on our customers. After all, our businesses wouldn’t exist without our customers, and we continue operations at their pleasure.

We’ve probably all been in those meetings where a suggestion motivated by self-interest groupthinks its way into a spectacularly anti-customer business decision. I imagine that’s the type of meeting that occurred with LeBron and team when they hatched the national TV special idea.

A retailer colleague of mine recently told me a story of such a session at his company. The head of the call center was complaining about volume spikes that kept hitting the call center. Her call center operations were deemed a cost center, so the metrics she used to measure her operation were all cost related. These spikes in volume were jacking up her costs, and she was making a lot of noise about it. My colleague noted the spikes in volume were following promotional email blasts that were widely considered very popular because they drove a lot of sales. No one would even consider stopping those emails, so the group began to latch on to the idea that they simply close the call center on days when the promotional email went out. Seriously. Luckily, my colleague was able to pull the group back from the brink and save them from going LeBron. But it was close.

We have to be careful that we don’t get so caught up in our own perspectives that we lose sight of our customers’ perspectives. Because we have direct control over the experience we provide, it’s sometimes easy to let that control be dominated by our own needs without considering the needs of our customers. When that happens, we’re seriously in danger of going LeBron.

Consider a few potential scenarios:

Does your company’s loyalty program makes its rewards intentionally difficult to redeem in order to reduce costs? If so, you might be going LeBron.

If your return policies make your job easier while making your customers’ returns a lot more difficult, you might be going LeBron.

If you promote a sale of up to 70% discounts and bury only an item or two at 70% off within a sea of items that are less than 20% off, you might be going LeBron.

If you choose to leave in place an onerous process for customers to check the status of their orders because it saves you time and money, you might be going LeBron.

Whenever our needs get way out of line with our customers’ needs, we’ve got a business problem that could be deadly. We provide products, services and conveniences that our customers value enough to give us their hard earned cash in exchange. But the relationships we have with most of our customers are somewhat fragile. When we make business decisions that are primarily motivated by our own self interests (especially those motivated by some subsection of our businesses and driven by short sighted personal motivation), we risk potentially fatal damage to many of those relationships. We don’t want be caught startled that our customers are burning our jerseys. We don’t want to go LeBron.

Instead, we can best succeed by regularly considering our customers’ needs and desires when making business decisions. Such consideration will help us maximize the customer engagement cycle and lead us to solid and profitable growth.

What do you think? What examples have you seen of companies going LeBron?


Bought Loyalty vs. Earned Loyalty

Earned loyalty vs Bought loyaltyAcquiring new customers is hard work, but turning them into loyal customers is even harder. The acquisition efforts can usually come almost solely from the Marketing department, but customer retention takes a village. And all those villagers have to march to the beat of a strategy that effectively balances the concepts of bought loyalty and earned loyalty.

I first heard the concepts of bought and earned loyalty many years ago in a speech given by ForeSee Results CEO Larry Freed, and those concepts stuck with me.  They’re not mutually exclusive. In the most effective retention strategies I’ve seen, bought loyalty is a subset of a larger earned loyalty strategy.

So let’s break each down a bit and discuss how they work together.

Bought loyalty basically comes in the form of promotional discounts. We temporarily reduce prices in the form of sales or coupons in order to induce customers to shop with us right away.

Bought loyalty has lots of positives. It’s generally very effective at increasing top line sales immediately (especially in down economies), and customers love a good deal. It’s also pretty easy to measure the improvement in sales during a short promotional period, and sales growth feels good. Really good.

And those good feelings are mighty addictive.

But as with most addictions, the negative effects tend to sneak up on us and punch us in the face. The 10% quarterly offers become 15% monthly offers and then 20% weekly offers as customers wait for better and better deals before they shop. Top line sales continue to grow only at the cost of steadily reduced margins. Breaking the habit comes with a lot of pain as customers trained to wait for discounts simply stop shopping. Bought loyalty, by itself,  is fickle.

But it doesn’t have to go down that way.

We can avoid a bought loyalty slippery slope when we incorporate bought loyalty tactics as part of a larger earned loyalty strategy.

We earn our customers’ loyalty when we meet not only their wants but their needs. After all, retail is a service business. We have to learn a lot about our customers to know what those wants and needs are so that we align our offerings to meet those wants and needs. Which, of course, is easy to say and much more difficult to do. But do it we must.

To earn loyalty, we have to provide great service and convenience for our customers. But we have to know how our customers define “great service” and “convenience” and ensure we’re delivering to those definitions. Earning loyalty means offering relevant assortments and personalized messaging, but it’s only by truly understanding our customers that we can know what “relevant” and “personalized” mean to them. And a little bit of bought loyalty through truly valuable promotions can provide an occasional kick start, but we have to know what “valuable promotion” means to our customers.

We earn loyalty when the experience we provide our customers meets or even exceeds their expectations. As such, our earned loyalty retention strategies have to start before we’ve even acquired the customer. If we over-promise and under-deliver, we significantly reduce our ability to retain customers, much less move them through the Customer Engagement Cycle we’ve discussed here previously.

But earned loyalty can’t just be the outcome of a marketing campaign. It’s much bigger than that, and it doesn’t happen without the participation of the entire organization. Clearly, front line staff in stores, call center agents and those who create the online customer experience have to be on board. But so too do corporate staff, including merchants for assortment and marketers for messaging. And financial models for earned loyalty strategies inevitably look different than those built solely for bought loyalty.

Since customer expectations are in constant flux, we have to constantly measure how well we’re doing in their eyes. Those measures must be Key Performance Indicators held in as high a regard as revenue, margins, average order size and conversion rates. (Shameless plug: the best way I know to measure customer experience and satisfaction is the ACSI methodology provided by ForeSee Results). Our customers’ perceptions of our business are reality, and measuring and monitoring those perceptions to determine what’s working and what’s not is the best way to determining a path towards earning loyalty.

Earning loyalty requires clear vision, careful planning, a little bought loyalty, lots and lots of communication (both internally and externally), and some degree of patience to wait for its value to take hold. But when the full power of an earned loyalty Customer Engagement Cycle kicks in, its effects can be mighty. The costs of acquiring and retaining customers drop while sales and margins rise. That’s a nice equation.

What do you think? Have you seen effective retention strategies that build on both bought and earned loyalty? Or do you think is all just a crock?

The iPad: A Retail Revolution?

There I was standing in line at the Apple store at 8:30 on the morning on April 3, waiting to pick up a brand new iPad. My mission? Check out this new device to see how retailers might use it to get ahead. Yeah, OK, and I really wanted one for myself, too. But I was legitimately interested in playing with it to determine good retail uses. And I definitely think there are some potentially revolutionary ways retailers can take advantage of the iPad.

Yes, it’s really something profoundly different

Understanding the value of the iPad starts with understanding why it is truly different than anything we’ve seen previously. Many of the attributes you might use to describe it have existed previously, but it’s the combination of those attributes that truly represents the revolution. The fact that it’s self-contained, light weight, and unburdened by a keyboard and a mouse means that it’s easy to hold and carry around. And it’s easy to share with others. It turns on instantly, and the battery lasts for a long time. The touch screen interface feels natural and intuitive. The apps it can run are powerful and capable of more functionality than most web pages. The combination of these attributes provides a powerful platform for retailers to leverage.

Here are just three ways retailers can leverage the power of the iPad:

Take catalogs to the promised land
For years, we’ve had visions of using technology to take catalogs to a new level. But online versions of our print catalogs just haven’t really taken off. Sure, we’ve added hyperlinks to make them interactive, and some have even incorporated multimedia elements, but the online versions really haven’t bested the old fashion print version. I believe a main contributor to the lack of the online catalog’s success is the fact that it’s just not comfortable and cozy to flip though an online catalog. Viewing on a computer screen using a keyboard and a mouse is not comfortable and convenient. The extra benefits of the interactive nature lose out to the lack of comfort in browsing.

But the iPad brings the comfort. It’s easy to sit on the couch and flip through pages with your fingers. It feels pretty natural. It doesn’t get hot, and it’s easy to just turn it off when little Suzy needs help with her homework and instantly turn it back on later with a single press of a button. Interactivity and personalization are possible with an internet connected device, of course, so catalogs created for the iPad can be extremely relevant, fun and informative. And they provide a direct connection to purchase capabilities. It’s really a beautiful thing. I believe catalogs that take advantage of these capabilities will be a huge hit with consumers.

Sales floor assistant
Part of the dream of true cross channel integration is the ability to bring the advantages of technology into the physical store in a way that can improve the shopping experience for our customers. Initially, some retailers used kiosks or POS-to-web integrations to provide these experiences. Lately, we’ve had lots of discussions about providing these capabilities to the mobile phones our customers carry with them into the store.

With the iPad, a sales associate can carry with her all the product data, the customer data, and the recommendations available online. Because the device is so easily shareable, she can easily pull up recommendations and hand them to the customer. She can show the customer how the brown lounge chair he’s viewing in the store would look in the red color that’s available via special order and place that special order on the spot. Or she can play a demonstration video of the food processor that struck the customer’s interest and easily show customer reviews. The possibilities are endless.

Virtual planogram and visual merchandising guide
Many retailers are still creating giant visual merchandising and planogram books, printing and binding them, and snail mailing them out to each store. It’s a costly process and not very flexible or efficient. Last minute changes mean reprints or sloppy additions to the original book.

With iPads at each store, we can send full color, highly customizable guides that are custom made for each store, if desired. They will be easy to carry to the racks, and they can even have built in check boxes to help track when the work is done. Efficiencies abound.

—————————

Of course, there could be s significant capital investment to stock each store with set of iPads, and some of the consumer catalog capabilities I mentioned will not bear much fruit until the iPad is more common — or until the inevitable stream of competitive products hits the market and reduces costs. But there’s little doubt these types of devices will become fairly ubiquitous. And when they do, the retailers who are ready take advantage of the capabilities will be the retailers who come out ahead.

What do you think? Do these ideas seem nutty? What ideas do you have?


2 important concepts for better usability

As I mentioned in my last post, I believe (and data I’ve seen at ForeSee Results supports this belief) poor usability is the #1 obstacle to better conversions on our sites.  Getting usability right is hard — very hard. It requires a mindset that is very difficult for most of us to develop naturally. In fact, I’d argue that our natural development tends to pull us further and further away from the mindset we need to design highly usable websites.

Two concepts we need to carefully consider — and strike the right balance between — are “knowledge in the head” and “knowledge in the world.”

Knowledge in the head and knowledge in the world are concepts introduced by noted psychologist, cognitive scientist and author Don Norman is his classic book, The Design of Everyday Things, which I just finished reading. The book was originally written in 1988, well before the web as we know it existed. But the principles he discusses about the design of doors, faucets, phones and other everyday things are extremely relevant to web design. To me, chief among those principles are the concepts of “knowledge in the head” and “knowledge in the world.”

Here’s how Norman explains the two concepts:

Human memory is essentially knowledge in the head, or internal knowledge. If we examine how people use their memories and how they retrieve information, we discover a number of categories. Three are important for us now: 1. Memory for arbitrary things. The items to be retained seem arbitrary, with no meaning and no particular relationship to one other or to things already known 2. Memory for meaningful relationships. The items to be retained form meaningful relationships with themselves or with other things already known. 3. Memory through explanation. The material does not have to be remembered, but rather can be derived from some explanatory mechanism.

Knowledge in the world acts as its own reminder. It can help us recover structures that we otherwise would forget. Knowledge in the head is efficient: no search and interpretation of the environment is required. In order to use knowledge in the head we have to get it there, which might require considerable amounts of learning. Knowledge in the world is easier to learn, but often more difficult to use. And it relies heavily upon the continued physical presence of the information; change the environment and the information is changed. Performance relies upon the physical presence of the task environment.

He goes on to note that “whenever information needed to do a task is readily available in the world, the need for us to learn it diminishes.”

It’s very interesting to look at our sites in the context of these concepts. Imagine a typical customer. What knowledge about how to use the site would she have in her head? How does that compare to the knowledge in our heads about how to use our sites? What’s her educational background, familiarity with web technology and familiarity with our sites versus our educational background, familiarity with web technology and, most of all, familiarity with our own sites?

The reality is, we are not like our customers.

It’s very difficult for those of us who work on sites day in and day out to see our customers’ perspectives. Elitism is the source of poor usability. We all too often consider ourselves to be proxies for our customers. It’s easy to do, and I’ve certainly been guilty of it myself. After all, we are customers of our own businesses, and we see things that work and don’t work for us as customers. We have to remember that we have a lot more knowledge in the head, particularly about our own businesses, than our customers do. And that knowledge in our heads prevents us from seeing our customers’ perspectives. We also easily miss lots of “tree stumps” on our sites that regularly get in our customers’ way.

So, should we just include step-by-step instructions for everything on our sites?

No, I don’t think that’s necessary or even prudent for everything. Norman explains lots of design principles that, if applied, should make many elements of our sites highly intuitive without instructions. But we probably should include a lot more help than we do. We really need to listen to what our customers are telling us and watch them use our sites. It’s the only way to get a better sense of the knowledge in their heads so we can know where we need to include some knowledge in the world.

For example, all too often username or password requirements are not mentioned at the point of entry and customers only find out about them when an error message occurs. Let’s be clear about those requirements upfront.

What type of terminology is being used in navigation? Are customers likely to equate “jackets” with “outerwear” or “stoves” with “cooktops?” One quick way to get a sense of terminology customers use is a review of search terms customers use.

Conventions can be our friends

There are certain conventions that are established enough to effectively be knowledge in the head for most of our customers. For example, navigation on the top of the page and on the left are common enough that we can reasonably expect the majority of our customers to find navigation in those places.If we veer from those types of conventions, though, we have to remember that we’re messing with that knowledge in the head.

But we have to be careful with conventions as there are many site practices that might be second nature to us and not to our customers. I once watched a usability session where on-screen instructions directed the customer (a 40ish or so middle class man) to select “the drop-down box.” He searched around the page looking for a box labeled “drop-down” and didn’t find one. That terminology wasn’t familiar to him. Some of our everyday language isn’t as common as we might assume.

————————————

While many of the concepts from Don Norman’s book have already seriously changed the way I look at the world (I think my wife may be getting annoyed at my now constant commentary on the design of every door we see), I most appreciate the relatively simple concepts of “knowledge in the head” and “knowledge in the world.” Forcing ourselves to identify what elements of our sites’ designs require which of those concepts will lead us to create significantly more usable sites for our customers. And more usable sites will absolutely lead to more sales. Woo hoo! Bonuses for all!

What do you think? Do you see your site differently in the context of these concepts? Do you have other concepts you like to use?


Social, mobile and other bright, shiny objects

It’s official. Social media and mobile commerce are this year’s bright, shiny objects. I recently attended a couple of industry conferences where those two topics dominated the agendas, and the trade mags and email newsletters are full of articles on everything social and mobile.

Heck, I’ve also written a white paper and blogged about social media.

Don’t get me wrong. I think social and mobile are important opportunities for us to improve our businesses. I just don’t think we should focus on them to the exclusion of some of the core aspects of our sites and businesses that still need a lot of work.

The level of our success with any of these new technologies is going to be limited by the effectiveness of our core site capabilities and constrained by any internal organizational challenges we might have.

Here are some topics I’d love to see get a little more press and conference content time:

  • Usability
    From my vantage point at ForeSee Results, where I can see customer perceptions at many different retailers, it’s clear that our sites have not come close to solving all of our usability issues. In fact, I’ll go as far as saying improving usability is the #1 way to increase conversion. I’m currently reading a book called “The Design of Everyday Things” by Don Norman. The book was written in the ’80s (I think) so there’s no mention of websites. Instead, he talks a lot about the design of doors, faucets and other everyday objects and, most interestingly, the psychology of we humans who interact with these things. The principles he discusses are absolutely relevant to web page design. Other books, such as “Don’t Make Me Think” by Steve Krug and anything by Jakob Nielsen are also great sources of knowledge. I’d sure love to see us cover these types of topics a little more in our conferences and trade mags. Also, how do different retailers approach find and solve usability issues? In the end, if the experiences we create aren’t usable our social and mobile strategies won’t reach their potential.
  • Organizational structure
    How often do we come back from a conference with great new ideas about implementing some new strategies (say, a new social media or mobile commerce strategy) only to run into competing agendas, lack of resources or organizational bureaucracies? Discussing and writing about organizational structure doesn’t have the panache of social media or other exciting new frontiers, but there’s little doubt in my mind that the structure of our organizations can make or break the success of our businesses. When we were first setting up the organization for the new Borders.com, we spent a LOT of time studying the structures of other companies learning about the pros and the cons from those who lived through different schemes. It was hugely useful and more interesting than you might think. Mark Fodor, CEO of Cross View, just wrote an excellent piece for Online Strategies magazine that discussed the hurdles involved in going cross-channel and included a very good discussion about the need for mindset shifts. I’d love to see these topics further explored in interactive environments at industry conferences.
  • Incentives
    Books like Freakonomics make strong cases for the fact that incentives drive our behaviors. I’d love to hear how other companies set up their internal incentive structures. And there are multiple types of incentives. Certainly, there are financial incentives that come in the form of bonuses. But there are also the sometimes more powerful social incentives. What gets talked about all the time? How do those topics of discussion influence people’s behaviors? How do all those incentives align with the needs generated by new strategies to maximize the power of social media or mobile commerce?
  • Data/analytics storytelling
    We have so much data available to us, and we all talk about being data driven. But how do we get the most from that data? How do we use that data to form our strategies, support our strategies and communicate our strategies. John Lovett of Web Analytics Desmystified wrote an excellent piece on telling stories with data recently. There are also several great blogs on analytics like MineThatData, Occam’s Razor, and the aforementioned Web Analytics Demystified. I’d love to see more discussions in trade mags and conferences about how to get the most from our data, both in analyzing it and relating the findings to others.
  • International expansion
    We used to talk a lot about international, but it doesn’t seem to be a big topic lately. Yet the opportunities to grow our businesses internationally are immense. So, too, are the challenges. Jim Okamura and Maris Daugherty at the JC Williams Group wrote an absolutely excellent white paper late last year on the prizes and perils of international expansion. Jim did have a breakout session at last year’s Shop.org Annual Summit, but I’d love to see more discussion from retailers who have gone or are going international to learn more. Or it would also be good to hear from those who simply ship internationally or those who have decided to stay domestic to learn more about their decision making processes.
  • Leadership
    Leading lots of people and convincing big, disparate groups to do new things is hard. I just read the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Dan and Chip Heath. There are some amazing tips in that book about implementing change in organizations (and in other parts of life, for that matter). I would love to see more discussion of these types of leadership topics that help us all implement the changes we know we need to make to take advantage of new opportunities like social media and mobile commerce.

I know a lot of these topics are more business basics than retail or e-commerce specific. But the reality is we need to be our absolute best at these business basics in order to implement any of our new ideas and strategies. I personally always enjoy talking to other retailers about some of these basics, and I certainly never tire of reading books that expand my horizons. I’d love to see more about these topics in our conferences and trade mags.

But these are just my opinions. I’d really love to know what you think. As a member of the executive content committee for Shop.org, I’m actually in a position to influence some of the excellent content that my good friend Larry Joseloff regularly puts together. But I’d love to know if you agree or not before I start banging the drum. Would you mind dropping me a quick comment or an email letting me know if you agree or disagree. A simple “Right on” if you agree or a “You’re nuts” if you don’t is plenty sufficient; although, I certainly appreciate your expanded thoughts if you’d like to share them.

Please, let me know what you think of my little rant.


Retail: Shaken Not Stirred by Kevin Ertell


Home | About