Customer service: Are you a ninja or a nincompoop?

Having divorced and moved earlier this year, I’ve had quite a few occasions to interact with companies’ customer service functions. In most cases, I’ve merely been updating my personal information. In others, my request was a bit more complicated. I’ve also bought a fair amount of new stuff, so I’ve had to deal with delivery issues and the like.

Most requests have gone smoothly. A handful were remarkable. Others were noteworthy for their sheer incompetence.

Addressing customers’ problems can be the proverbial moment of truth for a brand. The commitment to owning the customer’s issue can truly illuminate the difference between those that view customer service as a necessary evil and those that understand it as a key competitive advantage. Reflecting on my recent experiences, I’ve come up with a few simple guidelines to separate the ninjas from the nincompoops.

Seek first to understand. Before you shoot off the canned response or solve a problem I’m not having, make sure you actually know what my desired outcome is. I’m still trying to get an account issue resolved with a major upscale home furnishings retailer–I won’t say their name, but it rhymes with Festoration Lardware–because their CSR’s keep suggesting fixes to a problem that’s different then the one I’m experiencing.

Start where we left off. If I’m already into my third conversation or umpteenth email, don’t make me start all over again with my story. Pay attention to the chain of interactions.

Respect my communication requests. If I say I prefer to be contacted by email, don’t call me. Seems simple, but two companies specifically asked for my preference and then promptly ignored it.

Do what you said you we’re going to do. The folks at Regus told me they’d get back to me in 1 or 2 business days. 3 weeks later I’m still waiting. And they haven’t responded to my follow-up requests.

Anticipate. You can merely do what the customer requested, or you can act as an advocate or trusted agent and look at the bigger picture. I asked Hilton to update my account information and reset my password. They handled that request very efficiently but also noticed that I had not gotten credit for a recent stay. So they went ahead and took care of that without my asking. Nice.

Add a dose of wow. Offer to waive a delivery charge because I’ve made multiple purchases? Upgrade my shipment to next day delivery? Expedite my order because I’ve had a problem? Yes, please.

Avoid ironic messages. “Your call is really important to us.” Really?  Then why am I in a 10 minute queue?

Treat different customers differently. Yes, every customer deserves good and respectful service, but some needs must be prioritized above others. If you know–or can reasonably surmise–that some customers have greater lifetime value and/or significant brand influence potential–you might want to show a bit more care and attention.

It’s worth remembering that every customer interaction with your organization is an opportunity to enhance or detract from your brand’s value. Every interaction has the potential to increase the odds of positive word-of-mouth or turn someone into a detractor–and, worst case, a vocal and influential one.

You don’t have to call your customer service staff ninjas to get this right, though maybe that helps. Mostly, you just have to care.

Let’s get physical

Amidst all the breathless pronouncements about the inexorable decline of brick and mortar retail emerges an interesting phenomenon: some of the fastest growing and most exciting internet-only brands are opening stores.

Recently, Bonobos raised $55MM largely to accelerate its foray into “Guideshops.” Other e-commerce innovators such as Warby Parker, Trunk Club, Nasty Gal and Bauble Bar are all expanding into physical store fronts. Expect more announcements soon, not only from earlier stage companies, but from larger direct-to-consumer brands as well. This seemingly counter-intuitive trend reflects a few realities.

First, most of these venture capital funded darlings have thrived in their first few years by exploiting a highly specific customer niche and leveraging the heck out of the advantages of a direct-to-consumer model. Alas, the number of customers who are willing to buy product sight unseen, without working directly with a sales person and lacking the instant gratification that physical stores provide, is comparatively small when it comes to product categories where fit, material quality and fabrication are important. For these brands to continue to grow–and have a chance for material profitability–physical locations aren’t a nice-to-do, they are a necessity.

Second, brick and mortar retail is different, not dead. In most product categories, for many, many years to come, the overwhelming majority of sales and profits will continue to come from, or be influenced directly by, physical locations. Regardless of whether a brand started as an actual store or as a virtual entity, the ones that will ultimately win will offer a tightly integrated experience across their various channels and touch-points. They will eschew traditional mass, one-size fits all strategies and embrace more personalized missions. There remains plenty of business to be done in brick and mortar locations–if you have something remarkable and meaningfully customer relevant.

Finally, when we think about the market or the customer we inevitably get it wrong. Global pronouncements about industry dynamics or the “typical” consumer are rarely particularly illuminating and almost never sufficiently actionable. The brands that are winning–the ones that are stealing share from you–go beyond the averages and the mega-trends. They understand how to apply technology to create frictionless commerce. They delve into data and apply customer insights that inform stronger acquisition, growth and retention tactics. They are committed to experimentation. They treat different customers differently. And on and on. None of this is fundamentally rooted in how a brand started or whether trends tend to favor its success.

Of course it’s far from certain that these previously web-only brands will successfully transition to an omni-channel world. Some will stumble mightily. A few will fail completely. Others will see their growth stall at only a handful of profitable locations.

The one thing for certain is that for quite a lot of customers, the benefits of physical shopping are here to stay. For traditional players the rush to close and down-size their store base may have some merit. But it’s equally likely the problem isn’t just the real estate portfolio.

 

Rewarding stupid

The brand that incentivizes lowering the cost of its customer service function, when faster response time–and assuring the customer’s problem gets resolved the first time–is what drives customer value.

The retailer that slavishly measures–and provides bonuses for silo leaders based upon–individual channel performance, when the majority of its consumers research and shop across channels.

The credit card company that relentlessly increases late fees and other nuisance charges to maximize “other” income, while card-holder retention and usage rates are dropping.

The marketer that continually increases the frequency of promotional e-mails because they are cheap and reach a lot of people, when opt-out and conversion rates of its very best customers continue to decline.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that when we reward stupid, we get stupid.

But apparently, sometimes, it still does.

Retail’s zero-sum game

I’ve got some bad news for you if you are in retail in North America or Western Europe.

In just about every sector–if you strip out inflation–the size of the pie is not growing. Moreover, you would be hard pressed to argue that this will change any time soon. With few exceptions, the brutal reality is that the capacity and willingness of most of your customers’ to increase their category spending is stuck in neutral. Get used to it.

Sure, the high-end is doing a little bit better (for now), but that’s largely driven by relatively price inelastic demand and an influx of foreign shoppers. Chances are that’s not your situation.

And, yes, there is continued strong growth in e-commerce, but most of that is either channel shift or leakage to unprofitable pure-plays. Of course if you are Amazon it’s a totally different story. But you are not Amazon.

Perhaps you work at a handful of brands that offer something truly differentiated and highly relevant to a sizable part of the market. If so, you are grabbing a greater share of that pie. For the rest of us, that just means our share of the pie is shrinking. Unaddressed, that is almost certain to end badly.

More and more, the vast majority of retailers are playing in a zero-sum game. More and more, the opportunity to drive top-line through store openings has evaporated. In fact, most retailers will be closing stores and shrinking the square footage of the one’s that they keep. Shrinking to prosperity is rarely a sustainable strategy.

Simply stated, driving real growth only happens by stealing market share, by growing share of wallet. And that means being more relevant and more remarkable than the competition.

It demands developing actionable customer insight as a basis for competitive advantage. It requires abandoning much of what you got you to where you are and embracing strategies and tactics that will get you to where you need to be. It means taking on more risk than you are used to.

Sure it can be scary. But quite frankly you have no alternative.

Oh, and I’d hurry if I were you.

 

 

Adapters and Mitigators. Deniers and Innovators.

It’s hardly a great insight to opine that life is full of change. But whether it’s in business or on the personal front, the increasing pace of change may very well astound you. Or frighten you.

When faced with change we have a few differing personas and postures that we can adopt. I’ve broken them into four types.

Adapters. These folks lean into the reality of the situation. They don’t spend much time or energy lamenting the change, they evolve with it. Adapters are typically playing offense.

Mitigators. This type seeks to reduce the impact of any change, pushing back on the root cause of any shift in the way the world is or is quickly becoming. They are focused on alleviating the pain or damage. They play good defense.

Deniers are those that can’t accept reality or responsibility. Stuck in the past, head in the sand, they don’t really play offense or defense. They just don’t play. They are the CEO’s who have yet to embrace all things digital. They are the divorced man or woman who can’t stop bashing their ex and move on. The people who think dinosaurs and man were around at the same time. Sometimes they are named Dick Cheney.

Innovators are rarely in reaction to the simple here and now. They have the ability to see beyond the obvious and define a new reality. They don’t really adapt or mitigate a situation because they solve a completely different problem or reframe the field of play.

Depending on the situation, being either an Adapter or a Mitigator can be an effective strategy–though rarely does either bring truly remarkable results. Instead, it is the Innovator who has the power to create a step function in utility or orders of magnitude of impact. Easier said than done.

And of course being a Denier just doesn’t work. For anyone.

Unfortunately, when we get stuck in our ignorance or fear, it is a path that is all too easily–and all too commonly–chosen.

We can too better. We have to do better.

 

Shut up and begin

At any given moment, on any given day, my mind is filled with all sorts of things, from the sublime to the trivial. People I should call. Tasks to check off my to-do list. Ideas I want to develop. Projects that–as we say here in Texas–I’m fixin’ to start. That book I’m supposed to be writing. I know I have all sorts of important work to do…and yet…

And yet scarcely a few seconds pass before the Resistance hits. It’s not long before all my doubts and fears begin to find a warm, receptive and, dare I say, familiar place in my brain. Avoidance trumps action. Procrastination is my new best friend.

Sure, I could get started right here, right now, but don’t I require more research? Shouldn’t I let those ideas percolate a bit more before committing them to paper? Isn’t it prudent to prepare more thoroughly before making that call? Isn’t tomorrow a better time to get started anyway?

We all have that inner voice telling us that we are not good enough, that there will be a better time than now, that with just a bit more of this or a smidgen of that the universe will be better aligned for us to do our best work.

Don’t believe it.

In the time it takes to tell ourselves all the reasons we should wait for inspiration, to ponder a wee bit more, to do further research, to seek that perfect confluence of events, we could have started. With rare exception, there never will be a better time than now.

So shut up and begin.

Timid transformation

Funny how many companies speak of the fundamental shifts affecting their industries but haven’t gotten around to changing much about they way they go to market.

And isn’t it peculiar how most brands talk about putting the customer at the center of everything they do yet–with few exceptions–they are still organized by channel and cling to a heavy reliance on mass marketing techniques?

As disruptive new business models emerge and gobble up market share in just about every sector of our economy, you would think that more industry incumbents would be motivated to change and to change profoundly. Alas, mostly we get rhetoric, empty promises and tepid experiments.

The transformative forces shaping consumer behavior–the connection economy, all things digital and so on–fray traditional loyalties, make many historically strong business models obsolete and only serve to accelerate the shift in power away from brands toward the customer.

So you would think that companies would realize the need to change as fast as their consumers. But evidence suggests that this rarely happens.

It’s far from obvious that timid transformations work.  So why then is that the path you’ve chosen?

 

 

 

The problem with ‘good enough’

There are two ways to lose to ‘good enough.’

The first is to believe that you can get away with good enough much longer.

As consumer choices continue to expand, as the pace of innovation increases, as the battle for our attention reaches a fevered pitch, as it becomes more and more difficult for anyone to separate the signal from the noise, your solid, yet undifferentiated, value proposition is going to lose out to the remarkable and the more relevant. Good enough just isn’t anymore.

The second way is to over-estimate the strength of your brand. A specific, very topical, example may be helpful here.

Sears owns and sells several well-known proprietary brands, such as Kenmore, Craftsman and DieHard. One can do consumer surveys–as I have done many times in the past–that clearly indicate that the #1 brand choice for major appliances is Kenmore, the #1 brand choice for tools is Craftsman and the #1 battery choice is Diehard. Many consumers will even state that if they needed any of these products in the next week that their preferred place to shop is at Sears. Yet, both Sears and these private brands have been leaking market share for well over a decade. How come?

Well, If I’m working on a major kitchen remodel and I need not only appliances, but also cabinets, a countertop, fixtures and the like, I might prefer Kenmore, but the appliance selection at Home Depot or Lowe’s is very likely good enough for me to achieve the overall solution I desire.

If I’m working on a DIY project and it turns out I need a new drill to get the job done, I’m headed to a home improvement warehouse or hardware store that has all the key items required to complete the task. Am I likely to get back in my car and make an extra trip to the mall to buy the Craftsman drill, or am I likely to view the selection of national brand choices where I already am as good enough?

If my car battery dies, the chances are the replacement is coming from the closest service station or from wherever I’m towed. Regardless of my stated preference for DieHard, in the context of my needs at the moment of truth, just about any brand that is available to me is good enough.

In matters of spirituality, accepting that we are good enough just as we are leads to greater serenity.

In matters of the marketplace, misunderstanding the power of good enough may have far more dire consequences.

 

 

Different, not dead: The future of brick & mortar retail

“Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” 

- Mark Twain*

Media reports highlight the dramatic shift of spending from traditional stores to e-commerce. Industry analysts and pundits predict the demise of brands with substantial investments in retail real estate. We live in an increasingly virtual world, they say, and those with deep roots in the physical realm are starting to look more and more like dinosaurs.

The transformation of shopping fueled by all things digital is profound with no signs of deceleration. The crazy little thing called the internet is changing virtually (pun intended) everything. But anyone who thinks that brick and mortar stores are going away has it wrong. Here’s why.

Brick and mortar retail can enhance the value proposition. Physical retail offers many important advantages–the ability to see and try on products, instant gratification, face-to-face customer service, social interaction and so on–that digital selling cannot readily replicate.

Purchase events matter. There is a reason that e-commerce penetration in many product categories remains low. Where the risk of buying online is perceived as high (apparel, many big ticket items), direct-to-consumer shares remain in the single digits. Brands like Zappo’s have innovated in customer service to overcome some of e-commerce’s limitations, but long-term growth potential is modest. In fact, e-commerce darlings like Bonobos, Nasty Gal and Warby Parker have begun to broaden their reach–and address flattening growth–by opening physical stores. Plenty of products–particularly perishables and low-priced items–also have underlying economic reasons why direct selling volume will remain constrained.

Consumer segments matter. Great customer intimate brands embrace the notion of treating different customers differently. When you do this, you understand the different needs, wants and behaviors of varied customer types. Depending on the product and the particular consumer, the purchase journey may begin and end at a physical store. For others, they will never set foot in a brick & mortar location. Others will research online and buy in store. You get the idea. Your mission is to understand the role your physical locations play in being intensely relevant and remarkable for the customers you need to attract, retain and grow. Then build out and customize the experience accordingly.

The blended channel is the only channel. Stop thinking channels and start thinking about a consistent, integrated customer experience for your brand. Other than products and experiences that can be delivered completely digitally, the majority of retail purchases are influenced by both the digital and physical realms. More and more data is emerging to confirm this. Your mileage will vary, but silo-ed thinking, organizations, incentives and metrics confuse, rather than illuminate.

Frictionless commerce is essential. Let’s be blunt: there’s more heat than light in the discussion of omni-channel capabilities. Strategically, the key is to hone in on how to be differentiated, relevant and remarkable for the customers you wish to serve. And then you must root out the sources of friction in your customer experience. With more consumers going back and forth between digital and physical channels in their decision journey, if you don’t make it easy to do business with you chances are there is a competitor who is ready to pounce.

Mobile adds value to physical retail. When e-commerce was either sitting at your home or office surfing the web, the distinction between digital and brick & mortar really meant something. Now with consumers untethered and having increasingly powerful devices with them 24/7, mobile becomes the great integrator–and makes the distinction between e-commerce and brick & mortar less relevant all the time.

Seismic changes ARE impacting retail. With the exception of companies in the early stages of maturity, most retailers need fewer stores and many of the stores they have will need to be smaller. But assuming that physical retail is going away any time soon is just plain wrong. The tendency to isolate e-commerce and brick & mortar performance is equally misguided.

Amazon and a handful of best-in-class e-commerce companies will continue to thrive. And new pure play digital models will undoubtedly emerge to captivate consumers and gobble up share.

But there is plenty of business to be done in physical stores. Less, but still plenty. And most of the growth in what is counted as e-commerce is not a shift to online-only brands, but rather to brands that have cohesive omni-channel strategies. Think Nordstrom and Macy’s so far. For them, stores are assets, not liabilities. But the way brick and mortar retail drives consumer engagement and loyalty is morphing quickly.

These emerging winners follow a simple but compelling formula:

More focused.

More differentiated.

More relevant.

More remarkable.

More personalized.

More integrated.

See you in the blur.

 

* This isn’t, apparently, the actual quotation, but one that has become part of his folklore.

5 reasons Sears should liquidate ASAP

As a former Sears senior executive I’ve followed the once mighty brand’s journey from mediocrity to bad to just plain sad. What a long strange trip it’s been.

When I left in late 2003 we were gaining traction in our core full-line department store business and piloting several important growth initiatives. To be fair, whether we could pull off the necessary transformation was highly questionable. But one thing is now certain. The subsequent actions taken under a decade of Eddie Lampert’s leadership have assured the retailer’s demise.

For some time now, I’ve been referring to Sears as the world’s slowest liquidation sale. After yesterday’s annual shareholder meeting, it is time to stop the charade and embrace the inevitable. Here are the 5 reasons Sears needs to throw in the towel:

  • No value proposition. No reason for being. After all this time Lampert has still failed to articulate a vision of why and how Sears will fight and win in the intensively competitive mid-market sector. In fact, just about every action that has been taken over the last 10 years has weakened Sears competitive position. And the horrific results make this plain for all to see. The world does not need a place to buy a wrench and a blouse and a toaster oven.
  • The competitive gap continues to widen. In every major product category Sears has lost relevance (and market share) while key competitors continue to improve. In hard goods, Sears is fundamentally disadvantaged by their real estate and as a practical matter there is not enough time nor capital to fix this core issue. In soft lines, they have been given a great gift by the recent foibles of JC Penney and Kohl’s and yet still woefully under-performed. Both competitors have key advantages relative to Sears. As they start to execute better they will win back the share they lost.
  • Digging a deeper hole.  For Sears to be a successful omni-channel retailer their core physical stores have to be compelling. Sears has under-invested in their brick and mortar stores for years, so not only do they have a lot of catching up to do, they have to develop and roll-out a new store design and related technology support. One need only to look at the capital that successful retailers like Nordstrom and Macy’s are investing to get a sense for the magnitude of what will be required. There is simply no way for Sears to earn an adequate return on this level of investment. More practically, Sears can’t possibly fund this.
  • A leader who is either a liar or delusional. The results speak for themselves: Lampert doesn’t know what he is doing. After 28 straight quarters of declining sales–let THAT sink in for a minute–he has the chutzpah to assert, among other things, that Sears is investing in where retail will be in the future (huh?), that the “Shop My Way” member program is some huge differentiator, that having fewer, less convenient locations than the competition is a good thing and that Sears can compete effectively with Amazon. All of these hypotheses would be laughable if the implications were not so tragic. Whether he really believes any of this is, or is merely spinning the story to buy time, remains an open question. But regardless of whether he is being disingenuous or whether he is nuts, you’d be crazy to give him your money.
  • Valuable assets get less valuable every day. There are pockets of meaningful value within Sears Holdings. But proprietary brands like Craftsman, Kenmore and Diehard are not sold where the majority of customers wish to buy them. Ultimately the brands are only as good as their distribution channels. Simply stated, as Sears and Kmart continue to weaken, so do the value of these brands. Side deals with hardware stores and Costco barely move the dial. Sears real estate is also cited as a major source of value, yet the real estate portfolio is a very mixed bag: some great properties in A malls, but lots of locations that are mostly liabilities. Regardless of how this all nets out, it is becoming increasingly clear that, on balance, mall-based commercial real estate has lots of supply, but relatively little demand for new tenancy. As retailers continue to prune and down-size their locations it is difficult, if not impossible, to make a case for Sears real estate value increasing over time.

The uncomfortable and sad reality is this: Sears has zero chance of transforming itself into a viable retail entity. Any further investment in this sinking ship is throwing good money after bad. Stripping out the idiosyncratic technical reasons for gyrations in the Sears stock, the underlying true company economic value declines each and every day. There is no plausible scenario where this trajectory will change.

Frankly, it’s been game over for some time now. It’s only Sears legacy equity and Lampert’s ability to pick at the carcass that has propped up the corpse.

Let’s stop the insanity.