Posts tagged: continuous improvement

“If it ain’t broke, you ain’t looking hard enough”

The poor economy has done nothing to lower customer expectations of online retailers, and recent mixed results data from ComScore and ForeSee Results indicate that retailers who continue to improve their customer experiences are pulling away from their competitors in both sales and customer satisfaction.

ComScore reports online retail up 4% for the holiday season. While an increase is always nice, this is a much lower growth rate than online retail has seen in the past. And last year’s comparison base was far from stellar. ForeSee Results shows a significant drop in customer satisfaction year over year. Since satisfaction is predictive of future financial results, a drop is concerning.

But still, I wondered how sales could be up at all if satisfaction was so far down.

A deeper look at the ComScore data shows the Top 25 retailers growing 13% while “Small and Mid Tail” retailers are declining 10%. Satisfaction scores are also split, but the differences we’re seeing seem to be more based on those retailers who are continually improving their sites versus those whose cost containment measures have slowed or stopped improvements. It appears that the retailers who closely measure the effectiveness of their sites from their customers’ perspectives and continuously improve their customers’ experiences are the retailers with increasing customer satisfaction scores. Those retailers who didn’t improve customer experience this year are suffering declining satisfaction scores. Many of those in the Top 25 are the retailers who have continued to enhance their customer experiences. Those enhancements are not only helping them to increase their sales, but because of the high visibility and usage of those tops sites, they’re also raising consumer expectations of all sites.

Customer satisfaction can be best defined as the degree to which a customer’s actual experience meets his or her expectations. Therefore, rising expectations can depress satisfaction scores if customer experience improvements don’t keep pace.

In the rapidly changing world of online retail, stopping or delaying improvements is like treading water in a swimming race. While you may temporarily save some energy, you will fall hopelessly behind and your only hope of catching up is spending a lot more energy than you likely saved treading water

Growing online retail businesses realize and fully embrace the need for continuous improvements, and they also realize that online retail in general is far from producing the level of customer experience truly necessary to provide excellent self-service shopping experiences. I recently heard Robin Terrell, Managing Director of John Lewis Direct in the UK (and Amazon alum), say “If it ain’t broke, you ain’t looking hard enough” in a talk about the need to improve customer experience. It’s a brilliant statement, and I totally agree with what he was saying.

So, “improving customer experience” is a huge and vague statement. Where do we start?

  1. Recognize that it’s broke and you ain’t looking hard enough
    We’re still in our infancy in online retail, and we’ve got a long way to go. We too often try to increase our sales by generating more traffic and don’t spend enough time converting the traffic we’re already got. Often, the obstacles to conversion are not the big, shiny, whiz bang functionality; they’re lots of little things that add up to big problems. Those problems are hard to see without a concerted effort, as I discussed in more detail in my Tree Stump Theory post and other posts on conversion.
  2. Truly learn how effective your site is from your customers’ perspective
    We can all identify lots of improvements we’d like to see on our sites, but it’s the improvements our customers most need that will drive our best growth. So understanding where we are and aren’t effective from our customers’ perspectives is critically important, but difficult.Focus groups and usability labs can be very helpful, but they can’t be our first or only methodology because it’s not possible to project learnings from a small group of people onto our entire population of customers.

    First, we need to quantitatively understand our effectiveness in the eyes of our total population, and that requires a statistically solid customer polling and analysis capability. Blatant and shameless plug alert: I’ve had great success using ForeSee Results in the past for exactly this purpose. Once we understand problem areas at a macro level, we can add a lot of color by interacting directly with customers in focus groups and usability labs. More details on this process can be found in my post entitled “Is elitism the source of poor usability?”

  3. Consider getting some help from usability professionals
    Usability audits are different from usability labs. Usability auditors are professionally trained to understand how people interact with websites. Many of them have degrees in Human-Computer Interaction, a field that truly seeks to understand how people interact with software. These types of people can really help to identify problems with our user interfaces that untrained eyes have trouble seeing but which regularly obstruct customers from accomplishing their tasks.
  4. Put in place a process to continuously improve
    This is really about budgetary and project management mindset. We must just accept the fact that we can’t tread water in a never-ending swimming race, and our only chance of competing is to keep swimming. We have to build our staffs, our budgets and our processes with the recognition that competing in the marketplace means continuously improving our customer experiences. Which leads to …
  5. Wash, rinse, repeat
    Since the leaders in the marketplace are running this same cycle, we cannot rest. We must continue to recognize our sites are broken, continue to measure our effectiveness from our customers’ perspectives, find problems, fix them and begin again.


We’ve got a lot of data that shows that retailers who best satisfy their customers generate the best financial results. I suppose that statement doesn’t sound like rocket science. But understanding that satisfaction has a direct relation to expectations and that our customers’ expectations can change independent of what we do on our own site is important. The leaders are continuously improving their sites, and they’re improvements are raising our customers’ expectations. We’ve all got to swim harder to keep pace.

What do you think? What’s your view on the marketplace? How have you see customer satisfaction affect your business?

The Hidden Cost of Change

Imagine a scenario where you and your business competitors all join in a pact to share your largest revenue sources, pool most of your marketing efforts and limit your respective payrolls to the exact same amount. You all sell the same product. Would you expect each of your companies to perform about equally well?

According to this article, theĀ NFL expected such an arrangement to produce parity — but it doesn’t seem to be panning out. A few teams stand out as being consistently great over time and a few others (including my beloved Cleveland Browns) have been consistently terrible.

Are these success and failure stories the result of random luck, or are there some business lessons to be learned?

I’m not sure there’s enough data to completely rule out streaks of good and bad luck, but some of the analysts quoted in the article offered some reasoning that at least got me thinking about business lessons.

Former Colts coach Tony Dungy went to the playoffs in each of his seven seasons in Indianapolis and won the Super Bowl after the 2006 season. The key to winning, he says, is “having everyone on the same page and going in the same direction. The more stability you can get, that’s how you’re going to win.”

“I think one of the biggest reasons why teams aren’t getting better is instability,” says former Bills coach and general manager Marv Levy, who coached the team to four consecutive AFC titles from 1990 to 1993. “It’s always, ‘Let’s change, let’s change. This constant ‘We have to shake it up’ is causing some of this (disparity).”

Both quotes struck me as pretty meaningful in the business world. In my experience, big changes are disruptive and expensive — both in real terms and in opportunity costs.

For the record, I am definitely not anti-change. In fact, I love change and the eternal optimist in me is prone to almost always seeing the greener grass on the other side. But it’s helpful for me to remember that change does have its hidden costs to be considered.

Real costs
Large scale changes, be they new strategic plans, remodels, site redesigns or something similar, have real costs in their preparation and capital expenses. Since those are more obvious, I’ll move on to…

Opportunity costs
Implementing new change is hard work that takes a lot of time and effort. Diverting attention from current efforts creates opportunity costs and can cause a business to fall behind and lose market share during the buildup. Also, in my experience, big changes like store remodels and site redesigns tend to cause temporary step-backs in business and customer satisfaction (which can have longer term effects) due to the “where’s my stuff” syndrome.

Talent costs
Big changes like strategic shifts due to leadership changes tend to have human costs. For example, I’ve found over the years that any “A” player can become a “C” player if put into the wrong situation. Replacing team members is expensive and can lead to some of the opportunity costs listed above.


Again, I’m an certainly not arguing against change. But in my experience too frequent wholesale changes can generate costs that outweigh the benefits, which is what the NFL coaches quoted above seem to be saying.

At a recent speaking engagement, someone asked me if it’s better to implement occasional site redesigns or take a more continuous improvement approach. I’ve found the continuous improvement approach to be more effective because it’s less disruptive to employees and customers alike. But that doesn’t mean revolutionary change isn’t necessary at times. After all, defending the status quo kills companies. We just have to be careful how often we revolt and make sure revolution is truly the smartest long term move.

But, hey, I’m still thinking through this issue. I would certainly benefit from your thoughts and perspectives. What do you think?

Retail: Shaken Not Stirred by Kevin Ertell

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