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.

 

 

 

 

The world’s first omni-channel executive

The world’s first omni-channel retail executive was probably me.

In 1999 (not a typo), in a shockingly rare moment of forward thinking and risk taking, Sears’ senior leadership decided to launch an enterprise-wide initiative to glean how e-commerce and digital technology would alter our business model and to design a strategy to meet customer needs “anytime, anywhere, anyway.”

Millions of dollars were allocated, full and part-time resources were assigned from various business and support functions, a big name consulting firm was hired to help with systems integration, governance structures were created, and yours truly was plucked from the relative obscurity of running a small division to become the Vice President of Multi-channel Development & Integration.

Over a 15 month period, our renegade bunch of retail futurists executed a ton of analysis, unearthed scary findings (we had over 200 different 1-800 numbers!), delivered PowerPoint presentations bursting with jargon and coined memorable catch-phrases (my favorite: “silos belong on farms”). We also gained a deep appreciation for the barriers erected by organizations steeped in product and channel-centric thinking and behavior.

Once we wrapped up our work–and having blown through something like $7 million– we couldn’t point to many immediate high ROI recommendations. But our work did lead to an acceleration of investment in sears.com, building systems to create a single view of the customer and the formation of a central CRM group that yielded a lot of actionable customer insight.  We also developed the confidence to make pioneering investments in critical cross-channel capabilities such as ordering on-line and picking up in-store.

Personally I gained a very firm understanding of what is required to design a customer-centric strategy and implement a frictionless, channel-agnostic experience–which I was able to leverage once I moved on to the Neiman Marcus Group and in the years since I’ve been a consultant.

The purpose of this story, however, is not to regale you with my multi-channel bona fides.

The real point is that despite all the recent fervor around omni-channel this and omni-channel that, if you were really paying attention at any time during the past ten years or so, it has been blindingly obvious that digital technology was going to dramatically change the retail customer experience.

If you were really paying attention, you would know that Sears (and others) were publicly discussing the higher spend and engagement rates of multiple channels shoppers as early as 2003.

If you were really paying attention, you would know that companies like Nordstrom have been investing heavily in channel integration technology and processes for nearly a decade.

So if you are just starting to take customer-centricity seriously now–if you are peppering your earnings reports, industry conference presentations and investor meetings with little anecdotes about cross-channel customer behavior and the omni-channel blur as if this all just started happening–all this proves is that you were not paying enough attention years ago.  One has to wonder what other game-changing stuff you are years behind on.

Of course as Seth reminds us: “The best time to start was a while ago. The second best time to start is today.”

Leading through innovation starts first with awareness. Which needs to be followed with acceptance.

It’s a choice what you decide to pay attention to. And it’s a choice to act and to act boldly. Ultimately nothing matters without action.

It’s later than you think.

The useless jury

Whether we acknowledge it or not, much of the time many of us are playing to one or more juries.

I’m not talking about a literal jury–or even one of those goofy panels HLN puts together for sensational legal cases.

I’m talking about those sometimes nameless and faceless people that we consciously or unconsciously allow to drive our attitudes and behaviors.

We not only believe that there are these groups of people who are out there constantly judging us, but we take action to seek their approval, to get them to agree with us, to persuade them to buy whatever it is we are selling. To try to make them like us.

There are useful juries of course. Hopefully we all have friends, confidants or other members of our tribe whose input is trusted and valuable. They help us sharpen our message and fine-tune our product or service. They give us confidence to walk through our fear.

The customers we have or want are useful juries as well. Ultimately if they aren’t voting on behalf of our value proposition it matters a lot. And we have the choice to adjust our strategy and try to win them back, or move on to something new.

The useless jury, however, is the most pernicious.

Sometimes they take the form of the relentless defender of the status quo. They are filled with fear and hate most change, particularly if it might somehow reflect badly on them.

Sometimes they are the folks that aren’t engaged enough with your project to fully understand what it is about and who it is for–and you are powerless to change that. If they aren’t willing to do the work, they don’t get a vote.

Mostly, though, the juries that bring us down–that keep us stuck–are those whose judgment is irrelevant, yet somehow we feel compelled to listen.

When, as Seth reminds us, you choose your customer first then you can be emboldened to say and accept that “this is not for you.”  And if it’s not for them, why does their opinion matter, why do you have to listen, why let them hold you back?

It’s time to dismiss all the useless juries in your life.

 

 

This might take a while

Certainly the world is moving at an increasingly faster pace.

Clearly we have seen transformative new business models seemingly come out of nowhere to supplant industry incumbents.

Without a doubt, traditional sources of customer loyalty are being challenged in a rapid onslaught of ever-expanding options and innovative marketing techniques.

Yet, for many brands, it is still very much the case that relationships and trust matter.  And those precious assets are rarely earned quickly.

Despite the publication of Permission Marketing well over a decade ago, too many brands fail to follow the basics of Seth’s admonitions.

Too many brands want to get married on the first date.  Too many brands fail to take the time to treat different customers differently.

Too many brands think quantity trumps relevance (I’m looking at you Groupon).  Too many brands think they can shift their customer base quickly (I’m looking at you JC Penney).

As the pace of change accelerates, you may be tempted to do everything faster. But if you have a business model that is anchored in trust, rooted in deep relationships and in building a growing permission-based asset, the right answer may well be to go more slowly and deliberately.

Yes, it might take a while. But it’s likely to be worth it.

 

 

My Top Ten Blog Posts of 2012

Happy New Year.

And now, as has become my custom, here are my top ten posts of the past year. Enjoy. Comment. Debate. Share.

1.   The world’s best loyalty program.

2.  The end of e-commerce.

3.  JCPenney’s Road to Recovery (Part 2): The intervention.

4.  JCPenney swings for the fences (Part 1).

5.  JCPenney’s Road to Recovery (Part 1): The reality distortion field.

6.  JCPenney’s Road to Recovery (Part 3): The 10 point action plan.

7.  In gut we trust.

8.  Now you’re just somebody that I used to know.

9.  Honey, I shrunk the store.

10. 8 things that are wrong with your omni-channel strategy.

And one of my personal favorites that, in my humble opinion, was mostly overlooked: Knowing what ‘yes’ looks like.

But it did get excerpted in Seth Godin’s new book The Icarus Deception.  So I got that going for me. Which is nice.

Knowing what “yes” looks like

Creating something meaningfully new, taking a risk, putting yourself out there to face the critics, skeptics and trolls is never easy. As Seth reminds us, our lizard brains are wired to keep us stuck.

But what if you sit across the table from the person who has walked through their fear and is now asking your permission to innovate? What if you are faced with the decision to green-light a risky project that is being advocated by a passionate team?

Having been the chief strategy and growth officer at two Fortune 500 companies I’ve led dozens of projects, big and small, and across a spectrum of boldness, designed to spur innovation and accelerate growth. More often than not, when our team has gone to the CEO or the Board asking for support to move ahead, we were told “no.” Sometimes we understood why we were declined and walked away with clear feedback and a road-map to move forward. Other times the feedback could be summed up by either “this is not the right time” or “we’ll know a great idea when we see it.”

Just because you have risen to a senior leadership position doesn’t necessarily mean it’s any easier to walk through your fear. Frankly it’s a hell of a lot easier to say “no” to a new venture than to risk being wrong or looking foolish.

As leaders we can do better than defaulting to the least risky position, to letting our lizard brain win. If we are going to say “no” we need to know what a “yes” looks like. And we need to be able to communicate that to those we lead.

And when they come back having addressed our concerns and resolved our doubts, than we owe them that “yes.”

 

The people who want to hear from you asset

Go to your customer database. Right now. I’ll wait.

Now ask yourself the following questions:

How many of those people really want to hear from you?

How many actually pay attention to what you are saying?

Better still, how many eagerly anticipate getting your communication–Sunday circular, direct mail, e-mail, phone call, whatever–because they know it will contain something meaningful and relevant?

While it’s not on the balance sheet, one of the most important assets for just about any company is “the people who want to hear from you asset.” And many brands manage it poorly. As Seth pointed out in the classic Permission Marketing, permission is a privilege that needs to be carefully cultivated.

Just because e-mail is cheap, doesn’t mean you should spam me with largely irrelevant offers. But enough about Groupon.

Just because you are organized by channel, doesn’t mean your marketing shouldn’t speak to me with one integrated voice.

Just because I have shown a propensity to respond to prior offers, doesn’t mean you should up the quantity of communication to test my tolerance for pain.

At Neiman Marcus–because no one was paying attention to it–our highest opt-out rates were among our most valuable customers. We were squandering our people who wanted to hear from us asset.

Typically, it is expensive to earn marketing permission from customers with high lifetime value. Once lost, it is even more expensive to win it back.

My guess is you might want to start paying more attention to the people you want to keep paying attention.