The upside of denial

Is there any?

If your experience is anything like mine, you know how seductive denial can be. Denial is the temptress that helps us avoid pain. Denial keeps us in our comfort zone like a warm bath at the end of a long day. Denial creates the sense that defending the status quo is working or that we can go around our problems rather than through them.

But mostly it creates an illusion of safety when the reality is anything but. It works incredibly well–until it doesn’t.

Denial is cunning and baffling. It’s the monster lurking beneath the surface, hiding in the closet and buried in the chatter of our monkey mind.

In a business setting, denial allows us to trumpet our booming customer acquisition statistics, while ignoring the other engagement metrics that are falling apart. It causes us to crow about our rapidly growing e-commerce business, while the reality is that it’s entirely channel shift. It’s the glowing press release, the clever Powerpoint, the rah-rah company-wide meeting or the slick investor presentation that contains all the right buzz-words, when everyone else knows it’s the proverbial lipstick on the pig.

Denial kept Sears from ever really dealing with Home Depot and Lowe’s. It kept Blockbuster and Borders from confronting digital. And on and on.

Too often denial feels like our friend, when in fact it is every inch our enemy.

As David Pell humorously reminds us: “Among the dinosaurs, there were many asteroid deniers.”

The world’s best growth hack

We spend so much time, energy and money searching for new customers. Yet, in case you haven’t noticed, in many cases acquisition costs are rising–often substantially–and often to the point where these efforts are cash negative.

Once we’ve acquired a new customer, we hit them with an never-ending stream of emails, free shipping offers and the like to increase shopping frequency or build order value. Unfortunately, if you actually do the math, a lot of these tactics are unprofitable or unsustainable.

We chase new store openings, product line extensions and the latest bright and shiny item like Donald Trump looking for the next person to insult. To what end?

Sadly, when it comes to the search for growth, far too many brands are doing it wrong. For most relatively mature companies, the best growth hack is retention.

If you don’t know your churn rate and how many dollars you lost to lapsed customers last year, go find out.

If you don’t know the reasons why they left, I suggest you get focused and get busy.

If you don’t whether they were worth saving in the first place, sounds like you have some work to do. The good news is the work is well worth doing.

And, going forward, make sure you distinguish between a hack and the hackneyed.

Prevention or remediation?

The forward-thinking organization worries about prevention: prevention of customer defection or declining engagement; prevention of an upstart competitor or disruptive technology irreparably harming their business model; prevention of bad word-of-mouth undermining their brand reputation; and so on.

In fact, they not only worry about it, they have systems, processes, metrics and, in some cases, whole departments that are designed to spot problems early and leap on emerging new opportunities.

Contrast that with the remediator. Remediators take a wait-and-see approach and their metrics are focused on the rear view mirror. They lack any meaningful commitment of resources to innovation. They live in reaction.

Not all that surprisingly, “stuff” seems to happen to them and often it seems as if they are painfully unaware–often until it’s too late. Remediators start a lot of sentences with “we should have…”

Innovation almost never happens by accident.

A little bit of paranoia never hurt.

Hope is a great attitude, but not much of a strategy.

Nobody every remediated their way to greatness.

And most train-wrecks can be prevented.

The shopkeeper at scale

Today marketers talk about personalization as some new Holy Grail. It’s hardly new.

Years ago, one-to-one marketing was a core practice of local shopkeepers everywhere. You know, the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker. The shopkeepers of yore would uniquely identify their customers, interact with them to understand their wants and desires and then customize their offering to meet those needs. The best customers got the best treatment. The notion of treating different customers differently was common and these shopkeepers enjoyed huge market share.

Fast forward many decades and the shopkeeper model has largely been displaced by national chains that lean heavily on one-size-fits-all business models steeped in efficiency over effectiveness.

Yet as the present reality of slow growth markets becomes clear, as fewer and fewer store openings present themselves, as the easy growth from launching and optimizing e-commerce starts to subside, the tide is turning.

Slowly, we are starting to see brands that understand that the majority of future growth must come from stealing market share. Growing share of wallet in meaningful ways requires a more intensely relevant and remarkable customer experience rooted in a “know me, show me you know me, show me you value me” set of capabilities.

More and more, it’s about understanding how to replicate the old-timey shopkeeper feeling at scale. It’s about using deep customer insight and technology to transcend the self-imposed limitations of the mass industrial model that characterizes so many businesses today.

The good news is that the core technology and other supporting capabilities necessary to become a shopkeeper at scale now exists–and is improving all the time. The bad news is it doesn’t happen unless you make a choice and make a commitment.

The wrong side of scarcity

The formula for success in retail–in being intensely relevant and remarkable for customers and investors alike–is ultimately rooted in scarcity.

Scarcity for a highly desired good or service amplifies demand and enables a brand to command a premium price. Conversely, abundance undermines those abilities.

So, let’s be honest, in your market sector are any of these things truly scarce?

  • Frequent % off promotional events
  • TV ads that focus on the above
  • A cash back rewards programs
  • Free shipping offers
  • Ability for consumers to gather product and price information
  • A selection of major national brands
  • Sunday newspaper circulars
  • A professional looking website
  • Convenient locations
  • Friendly sales associates.

How about these?

In a slow growth, ever noisier, consumer-in-charge world, it’s hard to see how doubling down on the already abundant is likely to get any brand very far. Yet that is where most our focus, energy and resources seem to be pointed.

Unfortunately what passes for strategy at a lot of companies is the notion of being better at being common. Good luck with that.

An end to omni-channel?

I have a little confession to make.

Despite my including “omni-channel” liberally in speeches I give, in the hashtags of my tweets and in my often shameless self-promotion of my alleged retail strategy and marketing expertise, I kind of hate the term. Here’s why.

First, it’s hardly a new concept or a revelatory insight. I was leading the “anytime, anywhere, anyway” initiative at Sears in 2001 (not a typo). Companies like Nordstrom, Williams-Sonoma, REI and Neiman Marcus, among others, have been working in earnest on the essence of cross-channel integration and customer-centricity for more than a decade. If a brand has started throwing out the term in their annual priority statements and investor presentations more recently–or injecting it into the titles of staff members–it only means that company was late to the realization that it mattered, not that they are some kind of innovator or industry savant.

Second, it’s vague. As it’s applied relentlessly in retail do we ever actually mean “all”? Home shopping? Cruise ships? Military bases? University book stores? Of course not. Good strategy is rooted in choice, not trying to do it all. It’s not enough to say we’ve embraced all things omni-channel. In fact that’s quite sloppy and unhelpful. We need to lay out the customer relationships that are essential to our brand, the channels that matter for them and what we are doing specifically to eliminate the friction–and amplify the intensely relevant and remarkable–in their experience.

Third, it’s over-used. At conferences, in white papers and among industry observers it’s a virtual hype-fest. It often seems as if certain brands think that if they say “omni-channel” enough their needed (or hoped for) capabilities will magically appear. In my experience if a company is throwing around jargon a lot there is a pretty good chance it’s to obfuscate their lack of strategic clarity and/or executional progress.

Lastly, and most importantly, by itself becoming “omni-channel” is simply not good enough. Regardless of exactly what a brand means when they extol their omni-channel strategy, capabilities like cross-channel inventory availability, order-online-pick-up-in-store, and a host of other functionality that add up to the much vaunted “seamlessly integrated” experience, are rapidly becoming table-stakes, not differentiators.

Certainly retailers must root out the friction in their customer-facing processes and strive for a one brand, many channels experience. But they also need to accept that the power has shifted to the consumer and it’s become much harder to get a brand’s signal to command attention amidst all the noise. The reality is that in a slow growth world, more and more, sales increases must come from stealing share from the competition and mass, one-size-fits-all strategies are rapidly dying. Without making customer insight a core capability–and adopting a treat different customers differently commitment–market share losses and shrinking margins are almost certain.

Ultimately, I don’t care if you use the term “omni-channel” so long as you are clear about exactly what you are doing, how it benefits your efforts to retain, grow and acquire your core customers and why, when successful, it will be truly remarkable. But I’d also like to hear an acknowledgement that those efforts are simply necessary, not sufficient, to win in an ever noisier, customer empowered, slow growth world.