Posts tagged: shop.org

The 4 Keys to a Customer-Centric Culture

customer centric organizationRetail: Shaken Not Stirred reader Sarah submitted an interesting question for today’s post:

“What does it really mean to create a customer-centric culture ? We hear companies say it all the time. I would wager that almost every retailer claims to have it. But what does it really mean and how do you know if you really have it?”

Culture is a powerful and interesting beast, and I certainly don’t claim to be an expert in developing corporate cultures. However, it’s a topic of great interest for me, and I’ve had the opportunity to observe and operate within many corporate cultures. I’ve learned that corporate cultures cannot be decreed from the top as cultures get their power from all of the people within them. While CEOs and other leaders can be influential in culture development, they can also be completely enveloped by powerful cultures that are driven from all levels of the organization and formed over many, many years.

That said, I believe there are certain dynamics that drive cultures, and we can influence and shift cultures by focusing on these key areas.

Without further ado, here are what I believe are the four key facets of a truly customer-centric culture:

  1. Faith
    Customer-centric organizations believe in an almost religious way that sales and profits are the by-product of great customer experiences. They are unwavering in their belief that intense focus on creating the best possible experience for their customers is the best way to grow their businesses. Some of these organization will go as far as saying sales don’t matter, but that’s not exactly accurate. All businesses need to create profits, but truly customer-centric organizations focus on the customer experience and not on directly “driving sales.” They believe the best way to improve sales is to view them as an outcome of great customer experiences rather than something that can be directly affected.

    I once had the opportunity to meet with Yahoo and Google in back-to-back meetings regarding potential partnerships with my company, and the two discussions could not have been more different. The Yahoo team was very focused in determining how the partnership would increase Yahoo’s revenues while the Google team interrupted us immediately when we began to discuss revenue. They said they were only interested in opportunities that would enhance the Google experience for their users. Period. I didn’t take this to mean they weren’t interested in growing their business. They simply believed that Google’s purpose was to help people find all the world’s information, and they would maximize their revenue by delivering on their purpose in the best way possible for their users.

  2. Fortitude
    Relentless focus on the customer experience is not easy, particularly for public companies. Truly customer-centric organizations constantly have their faith tested by both external and internal forces who are looking for short-term sales or profits, even if those sales and profits might come at the expense of the customer experience. Customer-centric organizations focus on the value of a customer engagement cycle that relies on great customer experience as an engine that drives retention and positive word of mouth.

    There will always be pressure to run short-term promotion to goose sales. It’s not that customer-centric organizations don’t run promotions; it’s just that they run those promotions in context of their larger purposes in service of their customer. They focus on earning  sales and loyalty rather than buying sales and loyalty.

  3. Employees first (even before customers)
    It may seem counterintuitive to say customer-centric organizations put their employees before their customers, but in my experience this is true and this may actually be the most important of the four keys I’m discussing here. It’s a bit like when we’re instructed by flight attendants to secure our own oxygen masks before helping our children secure theirs. All employees play a part in the experiences we provide our customers. Some have direct contact with our customers and others make daily decisions that ultimately affect the experiences our customers have with us. Their attitudes about their jobs and the company can make or break the experience they provide for our customers. This is sort of obvious for front line staff like store associates and call center agents, but it’s also true for site developers, delivery truck drivers, mid-level managers, executives and, frankly, janitors. Even those not on the front lines are constantly making decisions that affect our customers’ experiences.

    Truly customer-centric organizations therefore provide absolutely great career experiences for their employees so their employees pass along the greatness to their customers. While decent salaries are certainly a factor, money alone is not enough. An “employees first” approach means employees are treated with great respect. They’re trusted with the authority to deliver on clearly defined accountabilities. They’re also given clear direction and clear guidelines and fully supported when they make decisions that improve the customer experience.  Colleen Barrett, President Emeritus at Southwest Airlines (a customer-centric organization), also points out that the customer is not always right. There are scenarios where the customer is clearly out-of-bounds and truly customer-centric organizations know when to support an employee over the customer. Watch a brief clip of her discussion at the recent Shop.org Annual Summit for some of her keen wisdom on empowering employees and defining an employee-first, customer-centric culture.

  4. They talk the talk and walk the walk
    As Sarah says in her question, most retail organizations profess to be customer-centric. Those that truly are customer-centric talk about customer experience internally exponentially more than they talk about it externally. Strategic and tactical discussions always center around improvements for the customer. These organizations measure the success of their businesses by metrics that represent the perceptions and voices of their customers. They spend a lot of time and effort ensuring these voice of customer metrics are credible, reliable and accurate, and they focus on them incessantly. These metrics are the first metrics that are discussed in weekly staff meetings from the executive level to the front line level. Bonuses are driven by these metrics, too, but the regular discussion of the voice of customer metrics and the drive to improve the experience on a daily basis is what separates customer-centric organizations from companies that discuss sales first and customer metrics later, if ever.

Are these attributes ideals for a perfect world that aren’t rooted in reality? I don’t think so. Organizations such as Google, Zappos and Southwest Airlines attribute their success to such thinking, and based on some of my experiences with them they seem to be living up to the promise. Is it easy? No way. While earning loyalty may not yield the immediate sales results buying loyalty can, the longer term efficiencies gained through providing great customer experiences can more than make up for the difference.

Those are my observations about customer-centric cultures. But as I said a the beginning of this post, I am not an expert. I’m very curious to hear from you.

What are your observations about customer-centric cultures? Have your worked for such an organization? Did true customer-centricity ultimately lead to solid financial results? What would you add to the keys I’ve listed?

(By the way, this is the first time I’ve had a reader submitted topic for discussion, but I would love to have more. Please email me at kevin.ertell@yahoo.com if you’ve got a topic that would be good for discussion in this space.)

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.


Beyond the Buy Button: The Huge Additional Value of Retail Websites

Sometimes, I think we focus so intensely on the e-commerce sales of our sites that we miss the overwhelming additional value they bring to our businesses. Retail websites, particularly for multi-channel retailers, are more multi-dimensional than any other channel and any other brand vehicle. We fail to recognize the value of these sites beyond the buy button at our own peril.

Some are starting to see the additional value. During her presentation at the Retail Innovation and Marketing conference in San Francisco last week, Express Chief Marketing Officer Lisa Gavales talked about her epiphany surrounding Express.com’s value to the brand. It was Express.com’s traffic numbers that sparked the light bulb in her head. She realized that Express.com got as much traffic in a week as all of the Express stores combined. In other words, half of Express brand interactions were occurring on Express.com. Lisa immediately understood the marketing value of such high levels of engagements from Express’ customers. So much so, in fact, that she came to a conclusion she deemed controversial during her presentation — Express.com should be a marketing vehicle first and a direct sales channel second.

After the presentation, my good friend Scott Silverman, Shop.org’s Executive Director, asked me if I agreed with Lisa’s positioning of Express.com. I rambled on a bit before essentially saying “yes and no.” I’ll now take this space for what I hope is a more coherent answer.

I completely agree with Lisa that retail websites are much more valuable to the overall business than their direct sales indicate. Applying resources and strategic importance to sites based only on their percentage of sales is a mistake that could prove very costly in the long run. Customers use our sites for many reasons beyond direct transactions and our failure to highly prioritize those intentions is a disservice to our customers that will affect our bottom lines. But the value of our sites goes well beyond just marketing and direct sales and simply switching priorities is not enough. Furthermore, I worry that prioritizing marketing higher than everything else will lead to the types of conversion problems I previously discussed in my post “Conversion tip: Don’t block the product with window signs.

Let’s consider some of the many values a retail website provides for a multi-channel retailer:

  • Marketing vehicle
    As Lisa noted, the marketing value of our websites is immense. We are getting tons of traffic, and each engagement is an opportunity to enhance our brands. (Of course, if we’re not careful, the opposite is also true.) Websites are a highly efficient way to strengthen the Customer Engagement Cycle. Both online and offline marketing vehicles can direct customers to our sites to further enhance our messages. Our sites are also a great way to tell people about our stores on both a collective and an individual level.
  • Merchandising vehicle
    Customers come in droves to our sites to learn more about the products we sell, whether they intend to buy online, over the phone or in our stores. Our sites have to essentially be our best and most knowledgeable merchants. They have to lead customers to the right products for them and provide the right information for them to make a selection, regardless of the channel where the purchase takes place.  This is a huge, often untapped, opportunity for quality merchants to reach their customers and sell them the right products.
  • Customer research tool
    This is a bit of a double entendre. As mentioned above, our customers are certainly using our sites for their research. But we can also use our sites to learn more about our customers. There is a wealth of information to be had about what our customers are doing and what they desire. Not only can we see what they purchase, but we can also use web analytics to see what they look at. With tools like those provided by ForeSee Results (shameless plug), we can also know what they are thinking, what they are intending to do, and how they are perceiving our brands. All of this can be done fairly easily and inexpensively in ways that are either impossible or impossibly expensive in the physical world.
  • Customer relationship enabler
    We can continue to build relationships with our customers by applying what we’ve learned above to give them better experiences. The applied knowledge of our merchants combined with the long-lasting memory of our websites should allow us to constantly serve our customers better. As we focus on building those relationships with more personalized site experiences, more informed personal interactions via contact centers and in-store, and more relevant email and direct mail communications, we will build stronger loyalty with our customers.
  • Community builder
    Websites also give us ways to connect our customers with each other. Our brands can act as a central hub for like-minded customers to find each other and help each other find products that meet their needs or solve their problems. How great is that? We can make these connections both via our own sites and via social networks like Facebook. Either way, it’s another way for our brands to provide services for our customers. Our sites can also allow our brands to be more localized by providing additional vehicles for our stores to connect with their communities.
  • Sales driver — in-store and online
    And, of course, we can sell stuff. We can sell lots and lots of stuff online. Our sites are still not where they need to be for maximum usability, so we have plenty of opportunities to improve their ability to sell directly. But we also have lots and lots of opportunity to drive traffic into our stores. We can show inventory; we can let people buy or reserve online and pick up in-store; we can host coupons;  we can help people find a store close to them; we can provide reviews and recommendations to people standing in our stores (whether via kiosks or mobile phones). The possibilities are endless.

These site values are not mutually exclusive. Their value in combination is exponentially higher than any one individual value. Therefore, it’s critically important to consider our sites holistically when determining their place and priority in our strategic plans. We need to consider their combined value when we determine allocation of resources and organizational structure.

Too often, though, resources and executive attention are not apportioned to the site according to this additional value. And we often don’t even measure these additional value points (which might explain the lack of resources and executive attention). If our most important measures of our sites revolve solely around direct sales, we will continue to minimize the importance of all other values of our sites.

I believe the multichannel retailers with the brightest futures in this new decade will be those who fully embrace and leverage the multi-dimensional value of their websites.

What do you think? How is your site valued in your organization? What retailers do you think are most recognizing the additional value of their sites?


The Tree Stump Theory

Since I mentioned it in my eTail presentation last week, I’ve received a number of requests to expound on my Tree Stump Theory in this space. So, here goes:

As truly amazing as the human brain is, it’s not able to re-process everything we see anew every time we see it. So, our brains take some shortcuts by basically ignoring things we are very familiar with, and that can cause us trouble any time we have interactions with people who don’t have the same level of familiarity with something as we do. I usually talk about this in reference to website usability, but it actually applies to many areas of our lives. To illustrate the concept, I have my Tree Stump Theory…

Imagine if someone brought a big tree stump into one of your conference rooms. The first time you saw it, you would say something like “Hey, what’s with the tree stump?” Someone would give you a compelling reason why it was there, and you would go on with the meeting. The next time you entered the conference room, you would notice the tree stump but not ask about it. After while, someone might throw a tablecloth on it or dress it up in some manner, but it would still be there. You would no longer ask about it or think about it. Frankly, you wouldn’t even really see it. You’d just arrange yourselves at the table in a way that worked around the tree stump and go on with your meeting. Meanwhile, anyone new coming into the room can’t help but see the tree stump and find it to be an obstacle.

We all have these types of “tree stumps” on our sites and in our lives. I bet you could think of something like this in your house right now. They manifest themselves as obstacles to good web usability, but they’re also our biases, our stereotypes and any other set of assumptions we rely on, usually unconsciously, to drive our daily actions and decisions. Sometimes they’re relatively harmless, but more often than not tree stumps prevent people from buying on our sites, or they are the unspoken roots of disagreements and miscommunications in our daily interactions both at work and at home.

So how do we get rid of our tree stumps?

1. The first step is to recognize the fact that tree stumps are everywhere, even when we can’t see them.

If you’ve read this far, you’ve probably made it to step one.

2. Next, get some help finding them

The very nature of tree stumps makes them difficult to self-identify. If you’re dealing with web usability, try the steps prescribed in this post. If you’re concerned about tree stumps in strategies, policies or general decisions, seek some input from someone who is outside the general team and who has a different background from you and your key decision makers. Ask them to openly question everything.

3. Specifically call out assumptions, preferably in writing

Assumptions are the roots of tree stumps. We make assumptions so often that we don’t always realize we’re making them. Listen for statements or reasons that hint of tree stumps. The most obvious is “That’s the way we’ve always done it.” If you hear that one, sound the sirens. But there are other, less obvious comments like “People want…” or “Based on my experience…” or “In a previous life we…” Don’t get me wrong, some of these statements could be perfectly accurate and valid. But whenever someone is applying past experience to a currently situation, he or she is assuming the two situations are similar enough to warrant the comparison. That’s potentially an assumption fraught with problems because the number of potentially important variables in any situation is massive. Writing down those assumptions and then testing them on the current situation often brings bad assumptions to light.

Also, on the web usability side, remember that while your internal reason for a tree stump may seem extremely valid to everyone in the company, your customers don’t know those reasons and even if they did, they probably don’t care. Common explanations that won’t hold water with customers include:”I’m not in charge of that area;” “It doesn’t matter because people don’t use that anyway;” or the time-honored classic, “That’s due to the limitations of our platform.”

4. Schedule regular reviews of your own assumptions

This one in some ways is a repeat of #3, but the point here is to specifically and methodically question yourself. This is really hard to do, of course, but it has a tremendous amount of value. One technique I’ve used in various situations is to write down my first impressions of important situations so that I can regularly review them in the future after I’ve learned more. I recently talked with Shop.org about this technique in reference to starting a new job. Beyond that technique, it just takes practice and discipline to think about your own biases and assumptions to see if they still apply.

I also find it helpful to constantly look for new ideas. I read lots of business and science books. I don’t always agree with everything I read, but new ideas cause me to question my own ideas. I also enjoying reading thought-provoking blogs, some of which are listed to the right, and I follow interesting people on Twitter. More than anything, though, I love to spend time talking to people who think differently than I do and are willing to share their perspectives. (And I hope you’ll share your comments on this post and others.)

Tree stumps are everywhere. We’ve all got them. And as soon as we remove some, more will crop up. It takes a concerted effort and a solid process to regularly look for and remove the tree stumps in our lives and our businesses. But I’ll argue that those of us who are aware of our tree stumps are on a much faster path to improvement than those who go on ignoring them.

What do you think? What types of tree stumps have you run into? How do you go about removing them?


Retail: Shaken Not Stirred by Kevin Ertell


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