customer experience

Is Online Shopping on the Wane?

Computer graphic illustration about internet shopping in virtual world.

Originally published on November 11, 2016 as a Guest Column in The Globe and Mail: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/small-business/sb-managing/is-online-shopping-dead/article32658017/

A few years ago, I was sitting with friends and talking about a job offer that one of them had just received. It was with a new online retailer of “everything gardening.”

I laughed. Then choked (elegantly) on my drink as we learned that our friend had already accepted the new position. For greater context, this Ivy League-educated professional had been wooed away from a Tier One international consulting firm to join a startup aiming to sell spades and seeds online.

It’s not that I don’t believe in the transformative potential of the Internet. I was and continue to be an avid online shopper for what I call non-tactile purchases: commodities such as books and music, where, once you’ve made your decision to buy, price and speed of access are the key, rather than place of purchase. I can even be pushed as far as buying shoes online from brands that I know and trust, feeling confident that they will arrive on time and fit as comfortably as the ones I just wore out.

But this was gardening! And gardening may be the most tactile of all pastimes. Avid gardeners spend hours of their scarce free time lovingly planning, shopping for, implementing and showing off their creativity and passion for the beauty of nature.

It just seemed counterintuitive to me that a hobby driven by touch and feel could be fed by a computer screen and two-day shipping. Of course, we all wished our friend luck and praised him for getting in on the ground floor. But it turned out we weren’t the only ones with reservations. Less than a year later, that “sure thing” startup laid off staff by the bushel, and it was back to Tier One consulting for my friend.

What made me think of this so many years later? On a stroll along Toronto’s Queen Street West, I passed one of the new Warby Parker “brick and mortar” stores. Warby Parker, for the non-hipsters among you, is an American company that formed in 2010 to sell affordable, good quality prescription eyeglasses and sunglasses. Despite its online roots, Warby Parker now has 40 retail locations, with many more planned, including both standalone outlets and mini-showrooms lodged inside existing boutiques.

Naturally I went online to read more about Warby Parker and this crazy new trend of shopping in stores. In an Inc. magazine article entitled Amazon Could Open up to 2,000 Grocery Stores, author Eugene Kim noted “Physical stores are becoming increasingly central to Amazon’s business ambitions as the company expands beyond its online-retailing stronghold and looks for new ways to reach customers.” New ways to reach customers? Incredible. Physical stores are now being heralded as innovative solutions to tech companies’ growth challenges. What Tier One consulting firm helped Amazon achieve this stunning breakthrough?

I get riled up about all this because I staunchly, consistently counsel companies not to chase all the shiny new toys. I know that online retail is not just a fad. But I will never believe that human beings will come to a point where they no longer need personal contact with each other.

A world in which we shop and do business cocooned in our homes or offices, void of smiles, advice and all human contact seems a dreary place to me. And it seems to miss the point that shopping is a personal experience, all about learning, growing and sharing with each other.

If you are a retailer, build the multichannel approach to reaching customers both online and off. If you are in business-to-business, the personal element is even more important. Get off your e-mail, tear yourself away from the Internet and do something novel: Pick up the phone or get in the car and go visit your customers. In real life, they don’t just want commodity service and the lowest price. They want more advice, more reasons to trust, and stronger personal relationships. These competitive advantages can’t be developed with the click of a mouse.

Remember, it’s called customer engagement for a reason.

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In Touch with the Female Side of Branding

 

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My esteemed business partner, Ken Tencer, is a thought leading advocate of innovation.  He recently published an article in the Globe & Mail urging entrepreneurs to get in touch with their feminine side in order “… to remain relevant in this age of empathetic opportunity and emotion-driven entrepreneurship.”  I started to wonder if the same advice might also apply to male marketers.  Wouldn’t our brands benefit if we listened better, asked for directions more often and acknowledged how much we appreciate our customers?

In his Globe article, Ken quotes psychologist Dan Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, who says, “Women tend to be better at emotional empathy than men.”  Given that emotional empathy is one of the bedrocks of successful relationships, maybe it really is time for male marketers to get in touch with our feminine sides.

I’ve made the point in the past that building brands has a lot of similarities with tending personal relationships. 

I also believe that how much energy you put into it determines how successful you’ll be.  Getting in touch with our feminine side may tell us where to invest that energy and how to crystallize our relationship-building priorities.  It may also give us some additional insights into what facets of our brand are most appealing to women.

Business Insider had an informative piece by Kate Taylor about Kat Cole, the group president of billion dollar consumer corporation Focus Brands and a bit of a media darling because she used to be a server at Hooters.  Focus Brands is the parent company of Cinnabon, Auntie Anne’s, and Moe’s Southwest Grill.  Ms. Cole revealed her three top business tips.

1. Be honest, authentic, and confident in what you stand for.

According to Cole, your values and transparency are what differentiates you in the marketplace.

2. Stay incredibly close to the customer.

Cole responds to every single person who tweets at her, as just one small way to stay close to the consumer.

3. Do the right thing for the right reasons.

This golden rule should guide your partnerships, product launches, and funding decisions.

It seems to me that these tips are not only valuable for brand building… but also for life in general.

And while we’re on the subject of gender, should more of our brands intensify their focus on women?  Should traditionally male or gender neutral brands make a greater effort to develop relationships with women?  As a brand strategist and designer, my concern is not the politics of gender, but rather the purchasing power of gender.  And when it comes to making purchasing decisions, it is pretty clear that women are not the weaker sex.  They are goliath and their influence has the clout to make or break brands.

Ken originally published this on July 5, 2016 as a Guest Column in The Globe and Mail: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/small-business/sb-managing/why-getting-in-touch-with-your-feminine-side-is-good-for-business/article30675493/

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Isn’t it time to start thinking outside the cliche?

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Originally published on April 9, 2016 as a Guest Column in The Globe and Mail: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/small-business/sb-managing/isnt-it-time-to-start-thinking-outside-the-cliche/article29537629/

Every time I hear somebody use the phrase, “Let’s think outside the box,” my frustration boils over. Such statements remind me why so many businesses today struggle and even fail.

People who believe they need to think outside the box have all missed a fundamental reality: It’s been a while since there was any “box” in business. There may be a status quo, but nobody goes there any more. It’s been replaced by continuous change.

The need for continuing innovation and course corrections should be glaringly obvious to all leaders and managers. I mean, really: Did somebody miss the fact that we can all communicate directly with our customers now in real time? Or that our wristwatches are now digital business and life assistants that speak to us and guide us through the day?

If we have to create a metaphor to replace “the box,” it might be a virtual-reality video game. These digital diversions are fast and all-absorbing. They engage all of your faculties, and get more difficult with every level.

We need to learn, understand and process the fast-changing business environments just as we navigate the next level of a game. We must constantly adjust, react to new threats, and take advantage of emerging opportunities. One slip and it could be “game over.”

How do you keep pace with continuous changes in the marketplace? For me, the one guaranteed success strategy is staying focused on your customers. In a World of Warcraft context, your customer is your game score. Delighting (or failing) your customer is how you win or lose.

With today’s immersive digital games, you slip easily into digital avatars or personae that bring you into new worlds of fantasy, combat or sport. Refocusing on your customer involves a similar transition: creating new models of customer behaviour that enable you to better understand their feelings and experiences, and thus engage them in stronger and deeper relationships.

Customer success today requires continuous commitment to developing and refining customer personae (models of your most important customer types) and customer journey maps (models of your customers’ experience as they move from initial contact to purchase to continuing relationship). These two approaches help you develop deeper knowledge of who your customers are, how and why they buy, and what challenges you face in keeping them as customers.

If you hope to take your business to the next level (as in the video game context), you first need to improve your knowledge of your customer. Be more curious. Ask more questions.

Customer personae bring each of your identified target groups to life in a personal and meaningful way. Developing customer personae means creating authentic, insightful descriptions of each target group that include:

  • Relevant details about their key needs;
  • Understanding of their unmet needs, or where your next opportunities lie;
  • Identification of “hot button” issues that can make or break sales opportunities and continuing relationships.

At my firm, once we have a clear understanding of who our clients are and what motivates them to purchase, we create a customer journey map for each identified target group. This means understanding all of the steps they go through in deciding to purchase our products and services:

  • Identification of need
  • Sourcing of solution provider
  • Modelling the customer’s decision-making process
  • Uncovering “tipping-point” factors
  • Driving purchase decisions
  • Assessing post-purchase satisfaction

So important are these customer-recognition insights that we post them on our office walls. They remind us why we are creating solutions in the first place. They articulate the decisions that our customers make and the steps that they have to follow to purchase and be happy with that purchase.

Once we understand that customers are always looking for something better, we can leave behind the “outside the box” cliché and start thinking inside our customers’ lives and aspirations.

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