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Building Great Customer Experiences: Conversations with Digital Leaders and My 30+ Years in Retail

Building Great Customer Experiences: Conversations with Digital Leaders and My 30+ Years in Retail

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By Michael Scharff, CEO

I’ve been lucky enough to make optimizing the customer experience (CX) my life’s work.

After stocking shelves and configuring store layouts at The Good Guys, a now-defunct consumer electronics retailer, for over a decade, I moved to Best Buy, serving in a number of director-level roles and helping bring the company’s then-nascent online presence to life. Working at Staples, Toys “R” Us, and Sears Canada helped me further refine my knowledge of the ecommerce space and really get involved in a number of digital optimization projects.

Today, I proudly serve as the CEO of Evolv Technologies, a company focused on helping retailers and other companies improve the digital customer experience. Since CX has always been at the forefront of my career, it’s probably not hard to guess why I’ve enjoyed Evolv’s ongoing Think CX series of webinars so much. These webinars, which our talented marketing team started organizing as the coronavirus began hitting the US, have focused on a variety of relevant and timely topics in the CX space. They’ve covered everything from the state of retail with COVID-19 to using data to build personalized experiences to successfully digitally transforming. Each webinar is different, but they’re all really intriguing and have featured panelists from world-class companies such as Verizon, Albertsons, Google, Corner Bakery, Hudson’s Bay and Reebok.

Even though I’ve got over 30 years in retail, I’ve been blown away by the insights our panelists have uncovered. In particular, I think they’ve really nailed some points that retailers need to pay attention to as the world slowly returns to a “new normal.” In this article, I’ll cover a few of the most impactful things I’ve learned.

It’s time for a bottom-up approach, not top-down diktats

Every marketer out there will tell you they listen to their customers and try to incorporate their feedback as much as possible. But I honestly feel like most retailers have a long way to go in order to become truly customer-centric. The secret, I believe, lies in having regular dialogues with your customers, asking them specifically what is and isn’t working, and then following up with them to talk about how your new initiatives directly connect to the needs they voiced.

Ben Labay, who leads research, data, and experimentation at CXL Agency, said it best during our second Think CX webinar. “The voice of the customer should be a big driver of your marketing and positioning efforts. Engaging in more conversations with your customers about what is and what isn’t working, and conducting polls, can help you collect more data,” Ben said.

So what should these conversations look like? In my opinion, retailers need to collect both qualitative and quantitative data from their customers. Regular NPS surveys are useful, sure, but so is data about what users are and aren’t engaging with on your website, where they’re navigating in your mobile app, how they’re arriving on your site, how often they use your app in store, and more. This data can then serve as the fuel for experimentation, an area Ben and I are both passionate about.

Feedback and ideas should come from other places, too. Janie Yu, a partner at Fung Capital, a VC that focuses on funding innovative companies in the retail space, talked during our first Think CX webinar about how leaders should listen to people “on the ground,” closer to the customer. “To build a culture of experimentation, you have to encourage it from the bottom up,” Janie said. “Give your employees at the warehouse, at the desk level, the power to experiment.”

The more retailers base their experimentation efforts off what they’re hearing from customers and their staff, the more likely they are to see better results.michael_scharff-blog-2007b

These are scary times — all the more reason to experiment with new ideas and see what works

There’s no doubt the coronavirus is causing serious economic challenges for companies everywhere, and few industries are immune. While it’s easy to watch the news every evening with disappointment and have a pessimistic outlook on things, it’s far better to look at these times as an opportunity.

I’ve dealt with a number of recessions in my career, and while none of them were fun at the time — and I certainly don’t look at them now with fondness, either — they undoubtedly served as the catalyst for new, important developments.

The dot-com bust in the early 2000s took place just after I had joined Best Buy. The industry quickly shifted from thinking, “The internet is the future we all dreamed of!” to “All this hype for nothing?!”. It was easy to get caught up in the negativity, but my teammates and I recognized that building an Internet business was all about driving sustainability and results. At Best Buy, my teammates and I started building the company’s excellent ecommerce experience by focusing on creating a great customer experience first and foremost.

The 2008-2009 recession was no walk in the park, either. The stock market took a dive and millions of people’s mortgages went underwater as the housing market collapsed. Yet in spite of all these real losses, products and services we all rely on today — the iPhone, Uber, Venmo, Instagram, WhatsApp, Android, and many more — emerged during this time, since people were unafraid to try new things. “What the worst that could happen?” they asked themselves.

The current recession looks to be far worse than anything the US has experienced since the Great Depression. But now’s the time to try bold new ideas that you’ve never been able to explore before. Matt Blonder, Global Head of Marketing, Brand Management & Digital Commerce at Reebok, was kind enough to join us for our first Think CX webinar. One of the most striking things he said had to do with Reebok’s reaction to the COVID-19 crises unfolding back in March. “One of the biggest blockers in our organization is inertia,” he said. “For us, this [coronavirus crisis] is an opportunity for us to say, ‘all bets are off.’ This is an opportunity where we no longer have that muscle memory blocker, so now we can leap forward.”

That’s a really brave outlook to have, and I’m encouraged by some of the steps other retailers are taking to confront the very real challenges we face today. Take food retail, for example. Leading grocery chains have unveiled curbside pickup in a matter of weeks, some restaurants have started selling meal kits as more people cook at home, and “ghost kitchens” have emerged as leading chains have decided to experiment with new menu offerings (hear about these trends in the food and beverage space in our fifth Think CX webinar).

The point is, retailers should take this opportunity to reset everything: all previous expectations are out the window. So if you want to try new pricing models, website layouts, product assortments, marketing strategies, or anything else, now’s the time.

Bring the whole team together

With companies sending corporate employees home to work and COVID-19 shrinking the appeal of open office plans, it may feel like companies are inadvertently deemphasizing collaboration. But reducing teamwork is directly antithetical to progress. When retailers experiment with new ideas, they should do so by involving as many members of the team as possible. This is for two reasons: one, it’s important to rally everyone around the same KPI(s), and two, you need to make sure everyone has a seat at the table and is sharing insights with the rest of the team.

First, mandating that everyone focuses on hitting the same KPI eliminates the possibility that different product managers or sub-departments within the organization fight about which experiments to run. (Here’s a humorous example of what can happen when people don’t focus on the same goal: the customer most certainly does not benefit.) During our third Think CX webinar, Greg Shaffer, the Executive Director of Product & Data Science at Edmunds, mentioned, “You need to ensure every single team member is incentivized around a top-level KPI, like revenue, and that everyone rallies around that. That’s how you’ll focus experiments on what matters: the customer experience and generating revenue.”

Second, siloing ideas, just like siloing data, is a recipe for disaster. Companies need to encourage cross-collaboration between different teams in order to come up with great new experiments. Greg, for instance, organizes a weekly meeting in which he brings together a variety of team members, including folks from product, engineering, design, and marketing. He does this because different people have different levels of understanding when it comes to customers’ needs and product capabilities. “If you don’t know what customers want or what tasks they’re trying to accomplish,” Greg warned, “you have no chance of building a compelling product that’ll meet their needs.” This aligns well with the knowledge I gained building retail experiences throughout my career.

I’ll be honest: I don’t envy the challenge ahead for most digital retail leaders. We’ve never seen uncertainty quite like this on such a massive scale. That said, I’m confident that if retailers listen closely to their customers and the employees close to them, aren’t afraid to experiment, and ensure their teams are incentivized to chase meaningful results, they’ll be better-prepared to deal with the crisis they’re facing today (and the challenges they’ll continue to face post-pandemic, because let’s face it, the retail world is never done changing).

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