Retailer marketers face a mammoth challenge, but it’s your future to create

My visit to this year’s BRC CX Conference was an interesting one. Not because I was attending with fellow Beaner, Tim Pike, but because there was a definite air of impending change in the wind. On the surface, it doesn’t seem like the conversation has changed much. Retailer marketers appeared to be wrangling with much the same challenges and questions as they were last year. This is to be expected, since digital transformation is a long journey and won’t happen overnight.

What was hugely noticeable though, was a shift from the focus on data to empathy. Maybe this was partly because the conference had been merged; so customer insight and customer experience were now addressed together. But I don’t think that’s what it was. I’ve seen this shift taking place generally in the marketing profession, and it is expected.

The shift to empathy

If you’ve read Steven Van Belleghem’s excellent ‘When Digital Becomes Human’, then you’ll know that he predicts that empathy will be one of the things that will ensure human resources are valued in the future, because machines are incapable of this. If you haven’t read this book, it’s definitely one for your bookshelf.

It’s not that data isn’t important anymore; it is – more than ever. But this seems to be a marker of progress, as companies are starting to get a handle on the earlier stages of understanding their customers better – getting data into one place, recruitment of the right skills and infrastructure.

As one person asked Katy Gotch, Director of Strategy and Customer Experience at Argos, “How do you turn data into insight?”, she replied very refreshingly, “when you figure it out, please let everyone else know!” She explained that they’re still learning and are on a journey, like everyone else.

Keeping the show on the road

One of the key challenges that came up in various presentations and Q&As throughout the BRC CX Conference was precisely THIS, as Shop Direct’s Ryan Dawson, Head of Strategy and Market Research, replied when asked what keeps him up at night, “customer expectation transformation and trying to keep up with it while still keeping the show on the road”.

What seems to have happened is that companies have now started to bash their data in to some kind of shape, while of course more is being generated all the time. And now they are asking, what can we actually do with it to make a difference to the customer? I’m using this combative language on purpose, by the way! The sense really is that we’re battling with data and the challenges to overcome add up to a long slog when the goalposts keep moving.

What is becoming apparent to retailers is that just having the data, skills and tools isn’t enough to effect digital transformation and customer-centricity. You also have to get people on board with the customer-centric mind-set. As cultures have often previously been built around channels, systems or products, this can be one of the biggest challenges presented to businesses. It has given rise to organisational structures being re-shaped around the customer journey. The old six-person board is now looking very different, according to KPMG’s Head of Retail, Paul Martin. In moving forward, he said, it is “important to be customer-centric and channel agnostic”.

All this, while you’re taking care of the day-to-day business of – erm, doing business!

The need for ‘care and dare’ CEOs and teams

So, why the focus on empathy? Well, the data can be telling you something about a problem in customer experience, but knowing how to improve it requires empathy – being able to understand where the customer is coming from and shopping as the customer does, as Ryan Dawson explained.

He talked about the need to react at a human level to what the customer is telling you. For example, when you encounter a problem, “a transactional approach is to just give the customer their money back; an empathetic approach is to understand that the customer is disappointed, frustrated, angry; and it isn’t just about the money.”

This leads to a need for ‘care and dare CEOs’, Paul Martin said; those who care about the now, but also dare to build for the future. The best will recognise that “the days of command and control are over and that they must empower the front line, whilst putting in the right guard rail.”

With that comes the need for those on the front line to not just have the authority to take action in the interest of the customer; they also need to understand and be able to empathise with the customer so they know what level of action is appropriate.

Right first time

Since easily-accessed customer reviews are now so commonplace in the research and evaluation phase customer journey, and the instantaneous broadcast of the delight or disgust of a customer possible via social media, the stakes around customer experience have never been higher. That’s why empathy is important.

Matt Eames, Chief Commercial Officer, Feefo, shared statistics that user-generated videos will get 10x more views than brand-led ones. Ninety-three percent of millennials rely on user reviews and it’s increasingly likely you will not own that conversation. So, getting the customer experience right first time and responding swiftly to resolve problems in a human way will be of increasing importance.

Feeling overwhelmed?

While all of this is a challenge – there’s no denying it – everybody’s in the same boat. It was great to hear Emma Heal, Retail Director, Graze talk about how she and her team have brought the brand to a retail market using customer insight and a ‘fail fast, fail forward’ mentality.

She very honestly highlighted to the BRC CX audience that her team didn’t know what they were doing with retail. They had no experience of packaging and retail logistics, for example. They didn’t know which products they should stock in which retailers. What they did was got stuck in, learned and paid attention to what their customers and data told them.

Speaking to Emma after her presentation, she shared that she encourages her team to tell her about ‘failures’ and to bring suggestions for how it can be put right or done differently next time and they have a no-blame mentality.

On the days we’re overwhelmed by the size of the challenge, it’s good to keep in mind the wisdom of Paul Martin’s comments that “organisations will be in a constant transformative mindset. We don’t know the destination and will probably never know. However, we do need milestones to keep some sense of sanity!”

Twin that with futurist Richard Watson’s sage advice that we (assuming he doesn’t include himself as a futurist!) should “stop trying to predict the future and treating it as this scary, unknowable force – we create the future. So stop worrying about what’s going to happen and instead expend energy on planning for what you want to happen and create it.”

Go get ‘em, Tiger!