Push “blend”

It wasn’t very long ago that engaging with most brands meant dealing with their disparate pieces. One 800 number for order status, a different one for delivery. Websites and physical stores that often bore only a passing resemblance to each other. Getting bounced from one department to the next to resolve a customer service issue or get a question answered. And then needing to start over again with each person with whom we spoke.

Then–slowly at first–some companies began to realize that customers didn’t care how we were organized. Customers didn’t want to hear about the limitations of our “legacy systems.”  We may talk about channels, but customers don’t even know what that means. And they don’t care.

Upstart brands challenged the incumbents by attacking the friction in consumers’ path to purchase. Companies as diverse as Nordstrom, Amazon, Bonobos and Warby Parker made it their job to integrate the critical pieces of the shopping experience on behalf of the customer. They challenged the traditional verticality in retail and embraced the notion that brands are horizontal.

They assembled great ingredients and then they pushed “blend.”

As retailers we may be organized by the parts and the pieces. We may make decisions on discrete components. We may measure and tweak each variable in the equation.

But at the moment of truth, when the customer decides to enter our store, click on an ad, put another item in their cart or recommend us to a friend, she’s thinking about the whole blended concoction.

 

 

Your customers don’t care

Your customers don’t care….

…that your e-commerce operation and physical stores division are run separately…

…or that your systems don’t “talk” to each other…

…or that you say “your call is very important to us” over and over again.

Your customers care that every aspect of the shopping experience–and that includes returns–is as close to frictionless as possible.

They care that they don’t have to re-start at the beginning every time they interact with someone from your organization–and that they don’t get a different answer based upon who they happen to speak with.

They care that if say “your call is very important to us” that you hire enough people to answer the phone quickly and that the person on the other line can actually resolve their problem the first time, every time.

Customer-centricity is rooted in an outside-in perspective and starts where the customer is, not where your brand happens to be.

Customer-centricity means a commitment to really knowing what customers want, showing that you know them and showing them that you truly value them. Through actions, not words.

When your customers stop caring about what you say, or they see a disconnect between what you say and what you do, it won’t be long before they stop caring to spend any time or money with you.

So what do you care to do now?

 

 

 

 

 

We may not be right for you

Bessemer Trust, a leading private wealth management firm, ran an ad in today’s Wall Street Journal with the headline “we may not be right for you.”

In the copy below, they briefly state that they are not trying to be the biggest but, for the right type of customer, they strive to be the best.

Think about how few brands have the confidence to not only make such a statement, but to act on it.

Think about how few brands even have a clear understanding of who their core customers really are, what their profitability is and how to best engender their loyalty.

Without a clear customer-centric growth strategy and the willingness to treat different customers differently, all too often brands find themselves supremely unfocused in a desperate and often frantic quest for top-line growth.

Embracing the notion that “we may not be right for you” seems risky when, for many, it is precisely what they need.

Untethered

In the first decade of e-commerce’s ascension, with rare exception, the consumer was sitting in their home or office using a desktop computer to do their online shopping. It was a completely virtual experience where the advantages were clear: 24/7 access, wider selection, often lower pricing and so on. So were the disadvantages: inability to try on the product, no instant gratification, no sales help, etc.

Even as e-commerce began to chip away at brick & mortar stores’ dominance, the physical retail experience stayed basically the same. To reap the advantages of in-store shopping you had to travel to the store. Once there, if you wanted product information you had to track down a sales associate and hope that he or she knew what they were talking about. What you could buy had to be in-stock in that particular location. And when you wanted to buy something, you went to a sales register at the front of the store or located in a merchandise department.

With the explosion in mobile devices and smart phones the consumer decision journey is rapidly becoming untethered. Previously a digital shopping experience by definition meant you weren’t in (or close to) a store. But, more and more, what we once counted as an e-commerce shopping trip or sale, versus one made in a physical store, is a distinction without a difference. It’s now a bricks and mobile world.

Increasingly, store sales associates are untethered from their POS registers, lending them the ability to work with a consumer at the real point of sale and arming them with the digital tools that can meaningfully enhance the customer experience.

Today’s omni-channel leaders are keenly aware of how the un-tethering of retail is profoundly altering the consumer and competitive landscape.

For others–the relentless defenders of the status quo–it’s their thinking and willingness to act decisively that needs to be untethered. Hopefully that occurs before their business model becomes unhinged.

 

 

Living la vida local

Until the end of the 19th century virtually all retail was local.

There was no such thing as a chain store or a catalog merchant. Most raw materials were locally or regionally sourced. The local shopkeeper predominated.

For centuries, the typical merchant specialized in a particular area of expertise–butcher, baker, cobbler and so on. He knew most customers by name and understood what they liked. With the ability to get instant feedback on his offering he could readily curate his offering to local tastes. He didn’t have to learn 1-to-1 marketing. It was his lifeblood.

In the 1880′s, Richard Sears and Aaron Montgomery Ward launched their catalog businesses, and in the decades that followed, consumers began to have greatly expanded choices. As the 20th century unfolded, the transportation infra-structure improved dramatically, creating greater opportunities for sourcing product from around the globe. Multi-unit retailers proliferated and eventually the bulk of retail shifted to regional malls, mass discount stores and dozens of national “big box” retailers and specialty chains.

In the last 15 years, the advent of e-commerce, along with incredibly efficient direct to consumer supply chains, have made it possible for the individual consumer to have virtually infinite choices available to them. The local shopkeeper model has become largely extinct.

Now it’s come full circle. Retail, like politics, has always been local. The winners have always been those that bring the most remarkable and relevant solutions to individual consumers. But over time what was possible shifted. Those that failed to keep pace lost out.

Today the retail world is becoming increasingly bifurcated. A few players are winning by riding the long tail and by offering low prices and efficient shopping. For everyone else, the world is a lot more complicated. Right now the challenge is to differentiate your brand in a sea of sameness. Right now the goal is to curate your offering–or make it incredibly easy for the customer to do it for herself–to a specific set of consumer needs and wants. Right now your mission is to know your customer better than the competition and to leverage that insight to craft more unique and personalized solutions.

Sounds familiar right?

Advances in technology make it possible for your brand to provide value in much the way the shopkeepers of yesterday did. To know me, to understand my individual preferences and to use that information to tailor your offering to my specific requirements is the formula for winning.

You can keep chasing price and remain wed to mass approaches to marketing, customer service and operations. And you can hope to beat Amazon and Walmart at their own game. Let me know how that works out. Or…

Or you can commit to treating different customers differently and invest in a strategy steeped in localization and personalization.

The choices are increasingly clear. The commitment to one path or the other is becoming more urgent. You need to choose.

Ultimately it’s death in the middle.

 

 

 

 

In search of relevance

Excellence used to be the Holy Grail. Develop extreme competence in cost position or product innovation–or some other key element of the so-called value chain–and you were rewarded with strong market share and a high earnings multiple.

Today, not so much.

In an increasingly digitally driven world, advantages that used to endure for years, or even decades, can be supplanted in weeks or months.

In the sharing economy, capabilities that once created insurmountable barriers are suddenly the price of entry.

At a time when the long tail is the norm, and consumers can easily be overwhelmed by choice, share of attention becomes the scarce commodity. Your ability to break through the noise, to earn permission, to be seen and truly appreciated because of the consistent, deeply relevant consumer value you deliver, is now the essence of competitive advantage.

When you accept that most of what the consumer encounters everyday is, at worst totally irrelevant and at best mildly entertaining or a source of mindless distraction, than you embrace the quest for the remarkable and the intensely relevant.

And, by the way, you’re going to need a bigger boat.

 

No managers were hurt in the making of this strategy

A number of years ago my team crafted a proposal to re-organize our company around the customer.

It was apparent that more and more consumers were using multiple touch-points to engage with our brands. Our analytics team had calculated that 50% of our customer base had made a purchase from both our physical and e-commerce channels during the past year. Researching online before shopping in our stores was increasing dramatically. And one of our key competitors had embraced “channel-agnosticity”, was investing heavily in cross-channel integration and starting to grab market share.

We, on the other hand, were locked in silos. We had entirely distinct and decentralized organizations for our online and brick & mortar operations. Separate channel inventory could not be accessed on behalf of the customer. Metrics and incentives were channel specific. Despite “knowing” that a high percentage of our best customers received direct marketing campaigns from both of our separately managed channels, virtually no effort was made to coordinate these consumer communications. In fact, our opt-out rates were greatest among our highest spending customers. To us, the call to action was clear.

So we pitched our CEO on a plan to address these issues. It was a dramatic shift to be sure, with a fair amount of complexity and numerous assumptions about how we would ultimately justify the investment.

Yet, what my boss focused on was how several key executives would be impacted and how they would react if we were to embrace the proposed customer-centric transformation.

“John is going to be angry. Sally would have a lot fewer people reporting to her. How can we move Paul over here, Linda (his boss) will be upset. I promised Tim a CEO title.” And so on.

Needless to say, none of the most critical recommendations were implemented. Eventually, under a new CEO–and mounting evidence of how the company was falling behind–most of the proposed changes were made. By that time I–and every single one of the personalities at issue–had left the company. And market share had continued to erode.

I don’t mean to be callous about the individual concerns and needs of folks working in companies. But the reality is that consumer needs have evolved radically and traditional approaches simply don’t work. The evolution (or revolution) in your strategy is certain to shatter the status quo and be painful for some (or all) of your managers and executives.

Yes, it’s inevitably going to hurt some of your people. But not going through the pain is ultimately certain to hurt your customers–and your results.

It’s a stark choice. But the choice seems clear.

 

 

 

 

Omni-channel: Fix it in the mix

I’m just back from the intimate little affair known as the National Retail Federation’s “Big Show.” Of course if you’ve ever been, you know that it is, in fact, far from intimate. The multi-day extravaganza in New York’s Javits–from the Hebrew, meaning “non-existent mobile connectivity”–Center features thousands of attendees, hundreds of exhibitors and buzz-words aplenty.

In many sessions, barely a minute could go by without a speaker uttering “omni-channel” this or “omni-channel” that. Yet the attentive listener would quickly conclude that not only was there often more heat emitted than light shed, there was also a fair amount of out-and-out hooey and semantic mumbo-jumbo.

Let’s get a few things straight, shall we?

First, omni-channel is no different from what many leading retailers have been investing in for years: the vision of a customer-centric, anytime, anywhere, anyway, seamless experience across channels and touch-points. Call it “channel-agnosticity”, “frictionless commerce” or “multi-channel integration”, it’s all more or less the same. Customers don’t care what you call it, they care what you do with it.

Second, the point is not to simply add more channels. The “omni” part of “omni-channel” is about being intensely relevant in all the channels your customers care about and making the experience frictionless for her as goes through her decision journey. I heard one executive say they were the best omni-channel retailer because they sold in more channels than anyone else. That’s very misguided thinking.

Third, participating in, or being pretty good within, all the channels that your customers employ is not enough, nor is having a decent experience across all channels for your average customer.

Winning in omni-channel is all about the mix. The mix of customers you serve. The mix of products and services you offer. The mix of media employed to drive engagement and loyalty. The mix of channels where consumers can learn and transact. And so on.

To be sure, there are some foundational ingredients of winning in this evolving omni-channel world. Possessing a single view of the customer and the ability to uniquely identify, track and reach individual customers regardless of where and how they engage with you is critical. Without breaking down organizational silos (and the culture, incentives and metrics associated with them) you won’t get very far on your transformation. Making your entire brand’s inventory available to the customer at all points of sale (supported by easy, channel of choice returns) is rapidly becoming the price of entry.

Yet without the capabilities and commitment to treat different customer differently, your omni-channel strategy risks being an also-ran.

Many of the NRF’s Big Show presenters and vendors were pushing ingredients. Ingredients are essential, as is a good recipe. But the customer wants the finished product. And it’s the mix, that perfect blend, that really makes something special.

Fix it in the mix.

Easy or good?

It’s far easier to run your business with a paint-by-numbers operating model.  Why risk the vagaries of human interaction?

It’s far easier to craft a one-size fits all marketing plan. Why invest in complicated customer analytics and the complexities of managing vast numbers of different campaigns?

It’s far easier to focus on efficiency rather than effectiveness. Doesn’t Wall Street reward brands that run a tight ship?

It’s far easier to remain product or channel focused. Organizing your business around customers–and the realities of the omni-channel blur–means blowing up many existing processes, metrics, incentives systems and management structures.

It’s far easier to focus on the certain short-term fix, rather than commit to a long-term program of testing and learning and building foundational capabilities. After all, how can we be sure we will ultimately generate sufficient ROI?

The problem is that easy is not the same as good.

And good enough is rarely good enough anymore.

Remarkable. Relevant. And built for me, rather than built for everyone, is what it will take for just about any business that cannot win by price alone.

And like it or not, easy is not going to cut it.

 

My Top Ten Blog Posts of 2013

As I take a break until the end of the year, here’s a recap of my top 2013 blog posts, in order of popularity.

1.   Neiman Marcus & Target: A glorious failure.

2.   JC Penney: Trouble on the home front.

3.   Math is hard, for JC Penney.

4.   Sears: The world’s slowest liquidation sale.

5.   JC Penney: Gloat edition.

6.   The multi-channel customer is your best customer. Duh.

7.   No pottery, no barn, no crates, no barrels.

8.   The world’s first omni-channel executive.

9.   Blaming the hole.

10. Silos belong on farms (redux). 

On a special note, my most viewed post of the year was actually from 2010. Fail better got a huge boost from being featured in Seth Godin’s Krypton course. Thanks Seth!

Thanks as well to everyone for reading my blog, challenging it, promoting it and just simply paying attention to my ramblings. It means a lot.

May you and those closest to you enjoy a wonderful holiday season.  Namaste.