BrainTrust Query: Crafting an Extraordinary Customer Experience

Discussion
Oct 25, 2010
Doug Fleener

Commentary by Doug Fleener, President and Managing Partner, Dynamic Experiences
Group

Last month, I was interviewed for a story about a customer experience strategy
and training I developed with one of our clients. I said that even though competition
and technology have radically changed retail, the essence of what makes a great
customer experience in a specialty store remains the same.

It got me thinking
about what really matters when delivering an extraordinary experience in specialty
stores. Here are few elements that are key:

Authenticity: Is there anything more painful than an unauthentic salesperson?
Most of the time it’s not the employee’s fault, it’s the "system" or "training" they
were given. Authenticity is especially important to Gen X and Gen Y customers
and employees.

Consistency: I can be relentless about stressing the importance of
EVERY customer but at the end of the day retail, like all sales, is a numbers
game. The level of service and experience in most stores is hit or miss. That
means it’s not just hit or miss for the customers, but also for retailers who
need to maximize their sales opportunities.

Accountability: One reason many stores deliver an inconsistent experience
is because the staff isn’t held accountable to the level of expectations. People
rise to the level of expectations when and if they’re held accountable for
it.

Exceptional employees: There’s no doubt that finding and keeping great
retail employees is challenging, but the biggest mistake retailers make is
not rising to that challenge and lowering their standards. It’s simple: You
can’t deliver a great experience with mediocre people. A great customer experience
really starts when we’re interviewing job applicants.

Customer-focused leadership: Whatever is most important to the leader
of an organization or store is what will be most important to the employees.
The retailers who absolutely excel at delivering great experience are essentially
obsessed about their customers. The customer is the only priority; everything
else is less important.

Employee-focused leadership: There is a direct correlation between
the quality of the experience an employee receives from his/her manager and
company, and the one they deliver to customers. The more passionate leaders
are about the work environment, the more passionate employees are about the
customer.

Discussion Questions: Of the points brought up in the article, which ones
are most important to creating a great customer experience? Are there any you
would add?

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26 Comments on "BrainTrust Query: Crafting an Extraordinary Customer Experience"


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Bob Phibbs
Guest
10 years 6 months ago

Great points, Doug. A company’s main asset is their employees. Treating them like serfs is a recipe for disaster but treating them as interchangeable is just as bad. I believe the mark of great brands right now is who they choose to have on their sales floor and who is managing them.

Max Goldberg
Guest
10 years 6 months ago

I’d add empathy: the ability to identify with the customer. And I’d add listen: really hear what a customer wants.

Kevin Graff
Guest
10 years 6 months ago

This is a really great article by Doug. Well done! Each of the key points he raises all contribute (and are all needed) to the ability of a retailer to deliver the right customer experience.

The only point I would add is the importance of being able to consistently measure and share results with the team. There are so many possible metrics, and specific activities that could be evaluated relative to providing a great experience and running a store properly. Retailers need to implement Balanced Scorecards to ensure compliance, and to allow for targeted coaching.

Here’s hoping that a lot of retailers read and act on Doug’s article.

Phillip T. Straniero
Guest
Phillip T. Straniero
10 years 6 months ago
I really enjoyed this article because it hits each of the major points associated with a positive retail experience. There is NO doubt in my mind that exceptional employees are the bullseye in providing a positive retail experience. One of my favorite places to visit is a small ice cream shop staffed by high school and college students. The woman who operates this business has a fabulous knack for identifying and training kids who are incredibly customer focused. It is a pleasure to sit back and watch them delight customer after customer as they enter and leave the shop. Her secret is that she is a retired high school teacher/counselor who has an uncanny intuitive feeling about young people and is well able to identify those young people who help her make her business stand out from all the others I have ever visited. In this economy it seems very likely that there are many exceptional people available to help a retailer create the most positive retail environment one could hope to shop in. The… Read more »
Dave Wendland
Guest
10 years 6 months ago

This topic has been the focus of many articles but Doug does a nice job adding action steps to a lingering issue. Nice job!

Susan Rider
Guest
Susan Rider
10 years 6 months ago

I would add common sense. Don’t lose a $500 customer for a $5 part. People oriented leadership is rare and so very important.

Recently at a seminar for operational excellence I started out with how people are your most valuable asset before speaking about all the operational steps to take for excellence. Before I could get to the operational pieces, several participants left. Leaders just don’t want to hear that people are your most valuable asset! They want to buy technology, equipment or change processes to work around people because they perceive that as easier.

Until companies embrace the people portion, they will always be swimming upstream. Your people ensure great customer service or BAD customer service.

Charlie Moro
Guest
Charlie Moro
10 years 6 months ago

Great article! All the points of building a great experience are critical to success. The one overriding issue that I seem to see in great companies is the organization’s drive and zeal in creating a customer-focused culture. At the end of the day, efforts from interviewing potential team mates to choosing assortments can build a solid foundation towards what the customer expects, deserves and desires in their visit or interaction with my store.

Mel Kleiman
Guest
10 years 6 months ago

A couple of my favorite quotes will help to sum it all up.

“80% is hiring great people and 20% is leave them alone so they can do their job.” Dilbert

“The day we screw up the people thing it is all over.” Herb Kellher Southwest Airlines

“The most important decision a retail manager makes every day is who they allow in the door to take care of their customer.” Mel Kleiman

Here is a new one by Steve Jobs: “Get rid of all of the JUNK.”

Marge Laney
Guest
10 years 6 months ago
This article highlights the fact that customer service is personal! Doug sums up the keys to success nicely, but I think they all need to be present to produce a truly great experience that creates the elusive customer loyalty. The trouble with making this blueprint a reality in most chain retailers is that it works at cross purpose to the current reward systems. Customer servicing takes a back seat to processing shipments, markdowns, and even go-backs because associates are punished for not completing these tasks in a timely manner. In the current 2/2/2 payroll scheduling environment it’s difficult to get everything done and still maintain a high level of service, but it can be done. Payroll allocation that emphasizes staffing ‘task to talent’ is a must that schedules the efficient tasker in early before the store power hours and schedules the energetic superstar sales people when the bulk of the customers are in the store. Technology that provides insight and feedback regarding customer traffic into the store and in the case of the apparel retailer,… Read more »
Steve Montgomery
Guest
10 years 6 months ago

We are familiar with the term “moment of truth.” In that moment it is the customer and the employee who are interacting so my vote has to go to exceptional employees.

The article also referred to a numbers game. In my mind, the numbers game with employees is to continue seek the best while letting go of those that don’t meet the grade. No one is likely to have every employee be exceptional but the more you have the more likely in those moments of truth it will be an exceptional employee who is interacting with the customer.

Lastly, if you want good people, you have to treat them good.

Dan Berthiaume
Guest
Dan Berthiaume
10 years 6 months ago

For all specialty retailers, exceptional employees are crucial. Specialty customers are looking for a specific product that matches a specific lifestyle and will pay more for an experience that feels “right.” They differ from dollar store or discounter customers seeking cost savings above all else.

Also, I agree that authenticity is crucial for the younger crowd, a teen-focused retailer with employees talking about the latest Limp Bizkit album or how great Crocs are will not do well.

Ben Ball
Guest
10 years 6 months ago
Great job, Doug. This really hits home. Many of the commentators have gone for “exceptional employees” as their most important element. They are certainly key. I was just with friends this weekend who own grocery stores in a small Lake Michigan resort town. They just sold a store because they didn’t have enough family members to run it–and couldn’t find employees with the dedication to do it “their way.” But I think every employee has the capacity to be “exceptional” if given the right examples to follow. So my vote is going to customer-focused leadership. How could anyone work for L.L.Bean–knowing he personally kept the store in Freeport open 24 hours a day so that customers trekking north or in need of replacement gear or parts could be serviced at any hour–and not feel that commitment? How could they not feel an obligation to live up to that standard? And how could they not feel proud when they did? The magic in creating exceptional employees is the same as the magic that creates exceptional soldiers–lead… Read more »
Shilpa Rao
Guest
10 years 6 months ago

Great Points Doug.

I think each of the points mentioned are important for the success of retail. I would put a special emphasis on accountability. If the employees are measured on the right KPIs and are rewarded for their achievements, many of the issues with customer service could be sorted out. However, the key is to get the KPIs right, which could be a tricky task.

Another point I would like to add is that a right employee/customer ratio should be ensured, so that the employees are not too overworked to deliver good customer service.

David Rich
Guest
David Rich
10 years 6 months ago

So glad to see this healthy discussion. Obviously most of us agree to the importance of an exceptional customer experience. I would predict most customers would too. The problem is that most organizations talk about how important the customer experience is, but few do anything meaningful about it. We all know the one’s that do (Wegmans, Disney, Southwest, Coach, etc).

All the suggestions made do lead to creating a winning organization. If I had to narrow it down to one…I can’t. In our experience I have found it is a mesh between Customer AND Employee Focused Leadership. Once you have that, the rest of the points will follow. If the recession did anything it did wake up many companies to the importance of the customer and the responsibility of providing a great experience.

Bill Emerson
Guest
Bill Emerson
10 years 6 months ago

These are all key points and extremely well articulated. To be exceptional in customer service goes beyond understanding “what” needs to be done. It requires the recognition that the interaction with each customer is as critical a component of the brand as the assortment. It is not just an expense to be managed. As obvious as this sounds, there are very few retailers that demonstrate it.

Ian Percy
Guest
10 years 6 months ago
The very question we’re asked to answer exacerbates the problem we’re trying to solve–that is: Why is there so little customer engagement? Why is the retail experience (with some wonderful exceptions) something you just have to put up with if you want stuff? We still seem stuck in a 17th century Newtonian mindset that regards life (and/or the customer experience) as a collection of separate and independent “components.” “Pick one” is what we’ve been asked to do. That may make a nice graph but that won’t do much to change things and it certainly won’t make us more aware of the infinite possibilities all around us. What are we to do with the winning item? This is precisely why imitating another’s ‘best practice’ seldom does anything of value. What the 21st century quantum mindset says is that “It’s all ONE thing!” Everything is connected to everything regardless of time and space. The secret lies in the energetic relationships between and within all these listed “components.” If a retail enterprise would take the time to find… Read more »
John Karolefski
Guest
10 years 6 months ago

Great article! Speaking from a consumer’s point of view, I would appreciate a store and salesperson with all of those attributes. I would add one more: Returning to the same store a few months after a positive experience with a salesperson AND finding that same salesperson there is a major plus for me. That speaks to other key issues like employee retention, loyalty, compensation, etc.

Mark Price
Guest
Mark Price
10 years 6 months ago

These are all super points. It is clear that the retail experience in general is substandard, and that most retailers would benefit greatly from taking these lessons to heart.

The one thing that I would add would be “empowerment.” As part of treating employees as valued resources, a level of empowerment to solve customers problems immediately, without having to seek levels of approval, is one of the hallmarks of great service organizations. The classic example of this is Ritz-Carlton, where each employee historically has been empowered to spend up to $300 to solve a customer issue in real-time. The level of trust that is indicated by that empowerment further drives employee authenticity and accountability.

Tim Henderson
Guest
Tim Henderson
10 years 6 months ago

Each of these is important to creating great customer service. My addition is more tactical–retailers need to clearly inform shoppers and associates how they define customer service. The amorphous statements we too often see about customer service (e.g., “we aim to exceed your expectations”) don’t tell shoppers what to expect or associates what to deliver.

Granted there must always be latitude in how customer service is delivered. But what is and isn’t great customer service is defined differently from one consumer to another and from one associate to another. Without clear guidelines, customer service will be left to inconsistent interpretation by shoppers and inconsistent execution by associates.

Lee Peterson
Guest
10 years 6 months ago

We always say that customer experience revolves around the P’s: positioning, people, place, product, price, promotion. Surprised not to see those in this survey, because, let’s face it, if great product isn’t part of your customer experience, you’re going to be the only one in your store experiencing it.

Product aside, I completely ‘get’ the people focus for this article, but I also think that creative visual merchandising, done independently (forget consistency, think locally!) and by local staff for each store is a much bigger factor than most suits imagine. For emulators on the VM topic, just do a verbal survey with any customer of any Anthropologie or Whole Foods (VM experts!) and see what they say–they’re brand evangelists, every last one of them! Something all brands need badly today; everyone talking about their experiences with you.

Mark Burr
Guest
10 years 6 months ago

All good points in the article, all good comments. After reading through it all, one thought came to mind. It comes to mind often on this subject. That is, “You get what you talk about” and “You get the example you set.” Many don’t talk about anything so that is what they get–anything. Sometimes ‘anything’ is not always what you’d expect or want. To some it doesn’t matter, as the doors will swing regardless, due to other factors. For others, it’s the kiss of death.

And the example you set? Well, I think we all know that answer. The answer is so astoundingly clear that there is a new television series devoted to it. Surprised? None of us should be. How well are we all doing by example?

Ted Hurlbut
Guest
Ted Hurlbut
10 years 6 months ago

I agree completely with all of Doug’s points. To me, they address very well what I consider three of the essential pillars of an exceptional customer experience: execution, passion, and engagement. I would only add what I consider the two other pillars, product and innovation.

An exceptional customer experience in any specialty store also requires compelling merchandise assortments. Think of the very best specialty retailers, and there’s nothing me-too about their assortments. Similarly, there’s nothing me-too about the store itself. The most memorable customer experiences grows out of a well-planned synergy of imaginative store design and layout, compelling merchandise assortments and presentations, engaging and passionate salespeople, and exceptional execution.

Ed Rosenbaum
Guest
10 years 6 months ago

Excellent points and one of the best discussion questions we have had recently. Mel mentioned one of Herb Kelleher’s quotes about “the day we screw up the people thing we might as well close the doors.” True, the “people thing” is critical. The people being both the customer and the people taking care of the customer. Training is important; but hiring the right people to train is even more important.

The Container Store is one of the best I know at this. They hire the right people, pay them more than the market requires, train them well and gets out of the way to let them do what they are prepared to do. Each of those steps is important and can not be overlooked. They know the cost of hiring and training; and have learned over the years to come as close as they can to get it right the first time.

More companies should look at their approach.

Phil Rubin
Guest
10 years 6 months ago

Without the right leadership, nothing else is going to happen that’s right for the customer, at least not in any sort of sustainable way. This kind of leadership, largely by definition, extends to all the other elements–authenticity, consistency, accountability, and having the right people to interface with customers. This last element is always a prerequisite for customer loyalty.

It’s not surprising that almost a full majority of BrainTrust Panelists and others commenting on this article agree. Well done, Doug and company!

Odonna Mathews
Guest
Odonna Mathews
10 years 6 months ago

If the focus is really on the customer, everything else should fall into place.

Bill Hanifin
Guest
10 years 6 months ago

I fully agree with the other panelists that Doug has capably outlined the essential elements of providing a strong customer experience.

The question is, how does the specialty retailer pull it off? Just as so many talk about using data to more smartly manage promotions but don’t execute, the list is clear, but how does the average firm execute?

There is a huge opportunity for leadership training and associate coaching if someone would pick up the ball.

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