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Mullets are back in business—especially in customer experience

The mullet has been a part of the cultural conversation for decades, often eliciting some ‘80s nostalgia or a chuckle. Today, according to one retail industry leader, the mullet is making its return—to the workplace. Not as a fashion choice, but as an apt business metaphor for what the customer experience should look like.

What’s that now?

“The new brand-and-business mullet should be ‘simple in the front, sophisticated in the back,’” explained James “JC” Curleigh, president of the Levi’s brand, at the 2018 National Retail Federation (NRF) BIG Show. “Think of the best brands on Earth...they found a way to deliver simplicity on the front side through a very sophisticated platform on the back side.”

The new brand-and-business mullet should be "simple in the front, sophisticated in the back."

That translates to a customer easily finding her favorite jeans on an ecommerce website, or the style marketed to her by email in stock, as promised. Post-purchase emails take her size, preferences, and previous purchases into account.

“In today’s world, there are more choices, more angst points, more obstacle courses than ever before for our fans,” said Curleigh.

Easier said than done, even for a 165-year-old retailer that enjoyed a record-breaking year of business. Curleigh acknowledged that delivering simplicity to the customer requires a level of sophistication “powered by partners who are interested in managing big data.” He’s talking about investing in artificial intelligence, radio-frequency identification (RFID), and other productivity and customer-centric software solutions. One by one, these investments should remove roadblocks for customers so that they can get what they need and get on with their day.

Buzzcuts, “The Rachel,” and fades, please stand up

If the mullet is the goal, what kind of haircut is your business rocking now? In other words, what’s the current state of your customer experience in relation to its ideal state?

The reality is that many customer experiences fall short of the ideal. Let’s say I bought a dress that I need to return via mail, but I’m not sure how—so I contact the support team. Great; support is on it. But since the support team isn’t in communication with the marketing department, I continue receiving emails and am served online ads about the same dress. This can be a frustrating experience—why don’t they know that I already bought and returned that very dress? The sense of discord continues when the sales team, out of the loop, doesn’t understand why the dress isn’t selling.

If the mullet is the goal, what kind of haircut is your business rocking now? In other words, what’s the current state of your customer experience in relation to its ideal state?

This type of frustrating, disjointed customer experience isn’t the problem. Instead, it’s a symptom of a much larger problem: internal silos and complexities behind the scenes that have become painfully obvious to the outside world.

Direct-to-consumer: Case studies in simplicity

The scenario of the returned dress paints a clear picture of how retail companies can create a more complicated customer experience than they realize, leaving many to wonder: How to rectify the experience for customers?

If simplicity is the holy grail and high water mark for the “best brands on Earth,” as Curleigh calls them, there is a clear argument for retailers to infuse simplicity into their business models. Direct-to-consumer brands like Warby Parker, Away, Parachute, or Quip do just a few things and do them exceptionally well. These companies stand in clear contrast to the at-times overwhelming shopping experiences at big box retailers.

If simplicity is the holy grail and high water mark for the “best brands on Earth,” as Curleigh calls them, there is a clear argument for retailers to infuse simplicity into their business models.

Full disclosure, I am an unapologetic disciple of the direct-to-consumer (D2C) movement. I lose focus quickly in department stores that offer goods from multiple brands, even online. Similarly, part of why I’ve avoided a certain restaurant chain is its terrifyingly voluminous menu. By contrast, I think In-n-Out is the bomb because of its simple menu, fast service, and well-kept restaurants. (Also, I like the burger.)

In the online world, Parachute features 20 items in its Bath section, and they all fit on one page. Quip, a subscription service for oral care, features just four supplies in its store. Product sets and subscriptions are easy to find and product descriptions are easy to read. The language used to describe the company philosophy is pared down into a simple-to-grasp concept: Proper oral care involves improving your habits instead of emptying your wallet on electric toothbrushes.

Back to basics

Despite the curb appeal of clean UX and simple product offerings, there are other ways to create simpler customer-facing experiences. Take the subscription box model used by companies like BarkBox and FabFitFun, which crank up Christmas-morning delight with curated goods. The customer experience is designed to remove the analysis paralysis from the shopping experience—without simply sending overstock samples to customers. FabFitFun’s subscription service includes beauty, wellness, fashion, and fitness products, and the company asks lots of questions when a customer signs up. According to David Oh, the company’s chief product officer and head of growth, there’s an entire forecasting, modeling, and testing infrastructure behind everything mailed to a customer.

Handy, a platform that connects customers with home services professionals, is also built on the concept of simplifying experiences for the customer, explained CEO Oisin Hanrahan at the BIG Show. The company started by thinking through how people book services: you get referrals from friends and leads in your inbox. It’s messy and still might end with someone showing up late or that only accepts cash as payment. Businesses like Handy start with the customer experience: How do you get a reliable professional in a single click? What does it take on the back end to make that happen?

Businesses like Handy start with the customer experience: How do you get a reliable professional in a single click? What does it take on the back end to make that happen?

In another example, Brandless applies a simple formula to creating and selling everyday products from pasta sauce to tampons. They use bare-bones packaging and branding, consciously eliminating inefficiencies in the chain, from creation to distribution to marketing—everything that Brandless calls (and has trademarked) Brand Tax. As a result, everything on the site costs $3. Though they differ from many D2C companies by offering dozens of household products, Co-Founder and CEO Tina Sharkey says the simplicity of the model—applying a brand filter of “just what matters”—has been key to its success.

“We are a unapologetically a brand—we are just redefining what it means to be one,” Sharkey explained at the BIG Show, emphasizing that

Simplify at any size

For even the most complex organizations in the retail game, there are ways to simplify without reinventing the wheel.

  • Nurture relationships with your customers. For the incumbent players, as Starkey calls them, it’s imperative to treat customers the way you would want to be treated; for example, by asking first about their needs and wants instead of jumping straight into holiday campaign mode.
  • Pick the right tech partner. The best solutions will guide your fans and customers toward a simple solution. Help them help you.
  • Use data to inform your decisions. Customers don’t have to know how much data analysis went into that perfect scarf arriving in their subscription box at just the right time of season. They probably don’t want to know, either.

Data tells companies a lot about their customers’ needs and wants, and tapping into that data is a big step in identifying where customer experiences can be improved. Explained another way, by Zendesk COO Tom Keiser, “Anonymity does not beget loyalty.”

Since we’re talking mullets, let’s turn our attention to a pretty fabulous one—Adam Sandler’s in The Wedding Singer—and something else that benefits from front-end simplicity: weddings. Weddings are typically beautiful and fun experiences, and people only remember the ones that aren’t: when the flowers were tacky, the speeches terrible, or the seating arrangements uncomfortable. The customer experience is like that, too. The mistakes stand out, even if they’re small and seemingly inconsequential—a typo in your newsletter, or being served an ad for a product the customer already purchased. The biggest compliment might just be when no one notices your company’s efforts at creating a memorable customer experience. Instead, they reward your efforts by coming back for more.