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From shopkeeper to "customer keeper"—how retail is shifting its focus

Customers increasingly view a good experience with a brand as table stakes. And though creating positive customer experiences has long been the purview of many business leaders, the way that retailers are thinking about it is evolving.

“Retailers need to stop being shopkeepers and start being customer keepers," says Jill Standish, senior managing director for retail at Accenture, speaking on a press panel at the 2019 National Retail Federation (NRF) Big Show.

I took a couple of things away from this statement: As a business, it’s not just about the stuff you make and sell. And the experience is definitely not about you.

The idea is to place your customers at the center of everything you do: within your internal organization, behind your business strategies, and as the leading factor in your decision-making. This is hard because the natural tendency is to build your business and brand around your vision, and what you make. Plus, there are many ways to organize around the customer, and businesses often take different approaches. Some double down on customer convenience, whereas others heighten the physical, hands on, sensory experience. Lifestyle guru and HGTV star Joanna Gaines, who also spoke at NRF, said that at Magnolia, it’s not about pushing product; instead, it’s about the entire experience a customer has with the brand, even if they don’t buy anything.

As a business, it's not just about the stuff you make and sell. And the experience is definitely not about you.

The quality of your products or services still matter, but even the concept of quality is becoming more nuanced. A luxury brand might ride on the clout of its name and history of white-glove service, but may begin losing points if the bag’s high-end materials aren’t sourced responsibly, if the workers who made it aren’t paid a living wage, or if the company steps on its reputation with public faux pas. Count the “How did that even happen?” accidentally racist, sexist, or insensitive products and marketing that made their way into the news cycle—it all speaks to quality of intention, and that impacts the customer experience and the bottom line.

Many businesses have thrown a lot of solutions, technological and otherwise, at experience-related issues that aren’t entirely defined. As Joel Percy, Chief Strategic Consultant at ciValue, said this year in another NRF session, “We’re taking new tools and making the same mistakes—just making them digitally and making them faster.” That’s why it’s essential to pause, go beyond the buzz, and figure out what being a customer keeper means within your company. What is the message you want to convey to your customers, and how does that permeate the business? From the Big Show, here are five questions to ask as you begin defining an experience that is all about the customer.

[Read also: Not all great customer experiences are convenient]

1. Are you offering a “fearless customer experience”?
They say animals can smell fear on you; so can customers. If customers feel you’re approaching them with your guard up, it has a serious impact on the customer experience. There’s the ever-present returns saga, for example, where retailers may find themselves caught between protecting their business against loss prevention and rubbing customers the wrong way over a misunderstanding.

A luxury brand might ride on the clout of its name and history of white-glove service, but may begin losing points if the bag's high-end materials aren't sourced responsibly, if the workers who made it aren't paid a living wage, or if the company steps on its reputation with public faux pas.

Indy Guha, VP of Growth Marketing at Signifyd, specifically called out digital-native retailers like Warby Parker, who are winning market share by adopting what he called a “fearless” approach to experience. Built for the digital transformation, Guha says, these businesses excel at focusing on their core business, which translates into fewer questions about the customer experience they aim to achieve.

Guha pointed to Rad Power Bikes as another example, describing them as “obsessed with customer conversations and explaining bad news.” Operating with a startup mentality, Guha says, businesses like these are innately committed to creating the best possible customer experience. This customer-first approach comes full circle, impacting the product and inventory in positive ways—because companies like these don’t make things that customers don’t want.

2. Do you know how or why you’re using customers’ data?
Speaking of assets, customer data is a big one. Considering its value, some internal reflection about why you’re collecting or using it in the first place is less a recommendation, and more a requirement. That’s because great power comes with great responsibility, and the onus is on the keepers of customer data to be trustworthy and transparent.

Great power comes with great responsibility, and the onus is on the keepers of customer data to be trustworthy and transparent.

Tony Drockton, speaking on a panel about how technology and women are disrupting the way we shop, advocates following the European standard of data privacy: let customers know why you’re collecting data, how you’re doing it, and—this is key—the value to the consumer in doing so. And be honest: If more personalized experiences, better marketing emails, or more relevant ads are in store for customers, great. But if you’re thinking of advertising dollars before your customers, try again.

3. How does talent fit into customer experience?
The short answer is that it does—a common view across the sessions—but the question is to figure out how your employees impact your customers. A company’s greatest commodity is its talent, and well-trained, satisfied people at all levels are essential in delivering optimal experiences for customers. Anyone can google their own way through any purchasing decision, and customer expectations have raised the bar for experiences provided in store and online, at every step of the journey.

[Read also: Everyone can get service right. Here’s how—a Q&A with Jeff Toister]

4. What will you stand for (or against) as a brand?
Standish said that 31 percent of people will spend more at a company that reflects their values. That may mean taking a stand for something—or even against it, as Levi Strauss and Co. has done with gun violence, and like REI, which shuttered its doors on Black Friday.

Levi Strauss and Co. President and CEO Chip Bergh, honored at the Big Show this year with The Visionary award, said at NRF that the company has historically never been afraid to take a stand, having granted same-sex partner benefits before it was commonplace, and organized voter registration efforts.

Leaders and companies have a responsibility to give back, Bergh says—“and if you do it in an authentic way, customers will reward you for that.”

5. What purpose are you serving in customers’ lives?
Purpose impacts customers’ experiences in a very intimate way. It adds up to something much bigger than their experience navigating your e-commerce purchasing flow, their in-store experience with an associate, or what they posted on social media. Purpose influences whether the customer is excited to pull your stuff out of their closet, or feels confident at a meeting or while on a date with your products at their side, or on their body.

Purpose influences whether the customer is excited to pull your stuff out of their closet, or feels confident at a meeting or while on a date with your products at their side, or on their body.

At NRF, Standish pointed to Levi’s Tailor Shops that customize jeans and Trucker jackets, a memorable experience for customers—who are more likely to feel that excitement or confidence having put their own stamp on the product—which became a huge driver of business for the brand. Bergh pointed to the success of customization, as well.

“Every retailer is trying to figure out the purpose of their brand in your life,” Standish said. “If that brand went away, would you be distraught?”

A good question for all of us to consider.

Business is still business, and revenue is a huge part of that equation. But centering yourself around your products— instead of leading with the impact on the people you make the products for—could leave your shop doors closed for good.

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