You can’t own ‘discount’

As we enter the holiday season, retailers are already guns ablazin’ with sales and promotions. Like all price wars, this will end badly for just about everybody. Spoiler alert: if you don’t have the lowest cost position you can’t win a price war.

Now don’t get me wrong, I get that promotional marketing is part and parcel of most retailers’ business models. I’ve been around the block a time or two (or three). You may recall that I was in that Johnson guy’s face big time for pulling the plug on discounts at JC Penney. Sales and promotions aren’t going away any time soon, nor should they.

And I certainly understand that retail competitive dynamics are such that if you aren’t aggressive early and often you risk losing out on market share, which is critical in a largely fixed cost business where slow-moving inventory may start to lose value rapidly.

Yet if you look at most retail marketing–particularly during the holidays–you’d think that % off was the entire basis for competition.

The simple fact is that very few players can successfully build their brand positioning around having the lowest prices or the most aggressive sales. Very few.

If you aren’t in this elite group, the bottom line is that you can’t own discount. And chance are you’re just chasing your tail when, instead, you should be laser focused on other dimensions where you have the potential be relevant and remarkable and to build a differentiated, defensible position.

No you can’t own discount. But discount can sure own you.

How about we start with ‘I’m sorry’?

During the last few weeks, I’ve had far more than my fair share of incredibly frustrating customer service issues to work though. I’ve also encountered quite a few dangerous–or at least annoying–driving situations. Whether caused by global warming, sun spots or, more likely, the universe simply balancing out my karma account, it’s led me to a few observations and conclusions.

In the case of the customer experience snafus, all four companies made stupid errors, some certainly more egregious than others. In all cases, it took quite a bit of time and back and forth–on the phone or via email–to get things straightened out.

Now I get that mistakes happen. I get that, in the big picture, these issues are comparatively minor (feel free to add #FirstWorldProblems if you retweet this). And having led customer service teams myself, I also get that–contrary to retail mythology–the customer isn’t always right. Nevertheless, in the scheme of my multi-year engagement with these companies, these were major fails that had the potential to diminish or destroy my relationship with the brand.

Ultimately, in all cases, the matters got resolved to my satisfaction. Yet how these interactions left me feeling about these brands is markedly different.

Based upon my horrendous experience, I will never do business with one company again. Two of the others, in the end, finally did the right thing. But it was way too hard and took way too long. Now I question whether they really value my business, despite my being a pretty significant, profitable customer. They’ve got plenty of good competition, so when my agreement is up I’m going to be shopping around. The fourth, I’m more or less locked into for a bit, but one of their employees really stepped up and solved a complicated issue.

So what made the difference?

Only 1 of the 4 said “we’re sorry.” When it’s obvious you screwed up, you need to take responsibility. Right away.

Only 1 of the 4 acknowledged how frustrating my experience was. Want to connect with customers? Demonstrate empathy.

Only 1 of the 4 really took on the problem. In all four cases it was immediately clear that the issue was on the company’s end. Yet 3 of the 4 tried to shift blame –and the work of figuring it out–back to me. When you become the customer’s trusted agent, you win.

Only 1 of the 4 had one person who stepped up to drive the matter–in all of its complexity–to resolution (way to go Megan at Cigna!). Own the customer’s problem completely and you have a better chance of owning the relationship.

Which brings me to my recent driving experiences. In one case, someone rolled through a stop sign. Had I not taken evasive action, I would have T-boned them going at least 30 mph. The other day, someone was darting in and out of the traffic going at least 70 and nearly collided with me. Yesterday, someone texting (on the Expressway, doing about 60!) started to drift into my lane, coming within inches of hitting me before they corrected their trajectory.

In all cases, I leaned on the horn; not in a rageful way, but definitely loudly and with a sense of urgency because, hey, high-speed collisions just ain’t my thing. In all cases, I got the same response. They gave me the finger. You know, the one Johnny Manziel likes so much.

Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but it seems to me that whether it’s dealing with customer service issues, engaging in basic human interaction or dealing with loved ones, if we’ve made a mistake–even if we’re embarrassed by our behavior and feel protected by the mothership brand or five thousand pounds of metal–the appropriate response is “I”m sorry.” And the sooner we say it, the better.

Nobody likes a victim. And, in my experience, a little contrition goes a long way, even in the most challenging of circumstances.

The big stall and your angle of attack

Many brands, particularly in retail, seem stuck in a persistent malaise. Earnings report after earning report detail tepid sales and mostly flat-lined profits. The accompanying press releases describe the consumer as “on the side-lines.” Others opine that shoppers have adopted a wait-and-see attitude toward spending. The CEO of The Container Store recently concluded that we are experiencing a “retail funk.”

I freely admit I don’t know a lot about aerodynamics. But what I do remember about why planes stall mainly has to do with their speed and the “angle of attack” of the wings. The reasons we are seeing a big stall in retail are similar.

The lack of speed comes from little to no growth in discretionary income. Combine that with a consumer wariness toward spending after a brutal recession–and an uneven recovery–and we have little forward thrust. There is little reason to believe that this will change markedly anytime soon. And, of course, no brand can do anything to change these macro-economic factors.

The angle of attack is how you approach the market–and this is entirely within your control. Confronted with a lack of acceleration you can choose to follow the herd, taking a one-size fits all approach, making average products for average people, engaging in a race-to-the-bottom price war and so forth. Best case: you hold your ground and your results are in line with your industry segment–which is to say strikingly mediocre. Worst case: inadequate speed and an insufficient angle of attack cause you to plunge to the ground. Not very appealing.

Perhaps you’ve noticed that even in the worst of times there are still some clear winners. Perhaps you’ve noticed that somehow, even when the stock market goes through its gyrations or consumer confidence wanes or weather conditions are not conducive to seasonal apparel sales, somehow or other, a few brands manage to shine.

Maybe these brands are less concerned with the speed of the market and more focused on their angle or attack?

Maybe if you are losing lift, you might want to stop doing the same things over and over that got you there in the first place?

 

“Chief Silo-busting Officer”

We’ve all heard the term “customer-centric” ad nauseam. And “omni-channel” is quickly reaching similar status.

My inbox and RSS reader are chock-a-block with articles, white-papers and sales pitches, all promising the keys to omni-channel success. Some extol “a single view of the customer.” Others opine on cross-channel inventory visibility or similar elements of a supposed seamless customer experience.

By now, the building blocks of what I like to call “frictionless commerce” are well-known. By now, if you’ve been paying attention, you know what to do. Yet it’s not getting done. We all know it and the customer data proves it.

The simple fact–the blindingly harsh reality–is that a bottoms-up strategy takes too long. The business world is not short on well-intentioned VP’s and Directors each pushing their particular agendas to act on behalf of the customer. Yet despite their passion and clever PowerPoint presentations, they all hit the wall at similar points.

Time and time again, over and over, the barrier to customer-centricity, omni-channel success–or whatever the heck you want to call it–starts and ends with organizational silos: silo-ed systems, silo-ed customer data, silo-ed inventory, silo-ed metrics, silo-ed incentives and on and on. When customers don’t care about channels, yet brands remained anchored in channel-centric thinking and structures, the gap between expectations and reality remains stubbornly large.

Some more forward-thinking companies have put senior executives in charge of “omni-channel.” Others have named Chief Customer Officers.  Good for them. Necessary perhaps, but not sufficient.

The hard, essential work of moving towards remarkable customer-centricity and true frictionless commerce requires an all-in, top-down strategy. And that, my friends, means it must be owned and driven by the CEO, supported by the Board of Directors.

Until the Chief Executive Officer becomes the Chief Silo-busting Officer all the talk about omni-channel this and omni-channel that is really just that. Talk.

 

HT to Suzanne Smith at Social Impact Architects. She addresses this issue for the social sector in a recent post.

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.

 

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.