Today's customer is the future of your business

- 201203

Calling on the specialists of customer experience! I caught up with Helen Baynes, Experience Design Consultant (former Director of Customer Experience at Cult Beauty) earlier this week. Like me, it turns out she too started her stellar career selling women’s shoes. We talk about Zappos, Net-a-porter, the importance of brand values and why it's essential to consider today's customer as the future of your success.

Anne: Tony Hsieh of Zappos passed away the other day and he has been on my mind as such an inspiration and pioneer in customer service. Can you tell me about how you found out about Zappos and their former CEO?

Helen: So, pre-children I used to go to this conference in the US called Next Generation Customer Experience. This was around 2010 or2011. Zappos spoke both times that I went. The second time I went, it was in Las Vegas, and as part of the conference, you could go and visit their offices. So I got to visit and it was a really immersive experience. They had this real focus on individuality but in alignment with their brand values. And I think that's what is really so powerful about Tony and Zappos.

Anne: He understood customer service like nobody else, didn’t he?

Helen: Absolutely. He was able to distill this absolute focus on customers into the core values of the business. That’s why, for me, he's a customer experience hero, and everybody should read that book because it brings to life your three customer groups are totally interdependent and how you treat one affects the others.

Anne: What are the three groups?

Helen: You’ve got your consumer, your employee and your brands, or your departments for your business. And it's the same in every business, whichever way you look at it.

Anne: How did Tony cover this in the book?

Helen: The story is very clear in the book. He was able to go back and piece it together and analyse how the different groups work. He explains how they arrived at this really powerful set of values, because it was the way that they built Zappos and how that business survived and it became how they lived their business and lived their values going forward.

Anne: How did this affect them as a business?

Helen: Ultimately, when the business was struggling financially, they lent on the partnerships with their brands to keep that business afloat. By focusing on that, they were then able to have the product to deliver to their customers. And they were really just focused on meeting customer needs. This is so relevant for any business. Ultimately, your brand sets an external expectation for your customer, and it's all around who they're stacking you up against in their mind's eye and where they see you positioned.

Anne: What happens when brands lose touch with their values?

Helen: You must have robust values that are defined, that you live by, that you use to execute your brand experience (because every business process that goes on behind the scenes is essentially about executing the brand experience because it all becomes customer-facing at some point); if you've not got that defined, then that's when you can get this real disconnect and this gap between what the customer perceives your business or your brand to be and what you deliver. From a customer experience or methodology perspective, Zappos is an incredible case study of what that can look like when it's executed well.

Anne: How has that impacted some of the work you've done in the past, or how is this still affecting how you are working today?

Helen: Looking back, one of the reasons why when I came across it, it was so powerful, was because so much of it resonated with what we were doing at Net-a-Porter at the time. We had this very distinct set of cultural values when we were building our customer care globally from 2008 onward and expanding that whole division. We created these brand experience standards for the team to work by and we infused it in everything that we did.

Anne: Was it infused in the same level across every team?

Helen: I would say it wasn't probably, but there were elements of it that carried through.

What I found so powerful was how Zappos managed to instill his values across the whole organisation. That gave the business true customer-centricity because everybody was focused around and measured around delivering that set of values, which were defined around the customer.

Anne: How was this achieved?

Helen: At Zappos, it was infused into the culture and then infused into how you measure people's performance, the standards of performance you expect within the business. So it’s ways of working: from how you do performance reviews to how you measure success.

That was where it resonated with me a lot. And then of course, going on to work with Forrester on a broader customer experience project later, a good five years later.

Anne: What did you do there?

Helen: I was then witnessing or being exposed to this customer experience methodology and I was able to say, well, actually there is a name for what I've been doing all these years.
I was doing it based on a very strong sense of intuition, which was founded from having worked in Harrods, where that kind of approach was just innate within the culture of the business. I was taking that personal experience forward and having it validated by seeing what other businesses were doing.

Anne: Are you still using that methodology now?

Helen: What I'm really looking to do now is help other businesses on that journey, whether it's small businesses that are setting up as part of the foundation of what they do or in other areas of work going in to help more mature businesses. Because there are so many different stages of growth within a business, where you can start with all these great intentions but then you go through a wave of growth and all these areas get stress-tested. How do you keep that same sense-check throughout? It's just the experience we want to deliver. How do we keep this being the experience we want to deliver? Or even recognizing actually this experience is not what we want to deliver and actually being brave enough to act on it and make a positive change.

Anne: You mentioned you started on the shop floor; was your first retail experience at Harrods?

Helen: No, I've been working in retail since I was 15. My first retail experience was being the Saturday morning till girl at the pharmacy that my mum worked at in a village, in Gloucestershire. My mum was a pharmacist, so that was where I started. And then I went to work in shoes.

Anne: You did? Which shoes?

Helen: Oh yes, shoes have been a very important part of my life. I was a child that wanted shoes for Christmas instead of toys. I used to work for Manfield, which was a real 80s shoe brand that then became Hush Puppies. So I worked there all the way through school. And then I worked for Waitrose when I was doing my art foundation course. I used to run the deli on Friday evenings and Saturday mornings. I’ve wanted to work in fashion since I was 10.

Anne: A proper fashionista!

Helen: It all started with watching the clothes show and it was a process of figuring out what that looked like. Originally I thought I was really creative. I thought I wanted to go into design, so I did an Art foundation course and realised that I couldn't produce 50 designs a week.
There was something about it that just sort of didn't feel right. I got a place to go to do textiles at Chelsea and I didn't go because I actually felt like I still needed to keep using the academic part of my brain, which was very strong. And so, I did history of Fine and Decorative Arts at Leeds which fed that. Whilst I was there, I kept myself afloat financially by working at Next on weekends. And it was my experience of working in the shoe shop that got me in there.I worked there because actually I loved what they sold at that time. They had a great stop shop in Leeds.

Anne: Did you get lots of free clothes?

Helen: It was amazing. I was a well-dressed student for very little money! It's always been my motivation and I remember just standing there and thinking, somebody puts this together and I think I could do this. So, I continued with retail because I thought I wanted to go into buying.
I did work experience at House of Fraser for one summer for a couple of months in their buying office. It was great. And I learned so much, but I think my biggest takeaway was that I didn’t understand the structure. How can you buy for customers that you're so removed from?

Anne: What did you do next?

Helen: From there, I went to apply for the various graduate training programs and I could have gone back to House of Fraser. Now I could have gone into that office as buying a system, but I didn't feel like it was the right place based on that intuition. I got onto the management training program at Harrods, because of my customer centricity that came through in the assessment process. And I also knew that the buying offices there were literally attached to the shop floor. So, there was that real closeness of knowing your business and constantly interacting with your shop floor staff, knowing your business, knowing your customer, talking to your staff about your customer.
And that was just something that just really drew me to it. And that was why I ended up working there for four years. Working on the ladies fashion floor was an amazing foundation and it's informed so much of what I've taken forward into all the different aspects of my career.

Anne: How has that focus on customer closeness changed over the years?

Helen: I think the challenge has been about moving into digital and how you translate that closeness with the customer through to the digital world.
Having been involved in digital from the beginning, the customer expectation was the same. So you have to think about how you bring it to life for them, how you create that same feeling about buying from you remotely as they could get through the personalised experience in a store. And what extras could you offer that were not just extra for the sake of extra but were fulfilling a need?

Anne: Presumably this was perfect for your role at Net A Porter?

Helen: Yes, that was where the whole setting up of digital personal shopping came from. I had identified our customer. This is what she wants. I can offer her this. I know that our competitors can't offer her this because I've come from that environment. That was where the whole concept of pre-order started from because at NAP in the early days where we were dealing with this customer who was a very early digital adopter. She was also an early adopter of the fashion cycle. Put the two together and you have something that is very compelling for our customer. And then a s ripple effect happened, of tapping into her other motivations such as wanting to own it first. Eventually the loyalty came from her. It was about being able to source the pieces she wanted. It was a really interesting formative time

Anne: What is the biggest lesson you think you learned from the shop floor that has made you the customer experience specialist that you are?

Helen: Right, so if I look all the way back, that was exactly how we were trying to sell shoes and I think this is why this is probably why I got the job at NEXT because they understood the training I had had.
It's about going above and beyond. It was always, if you hadn't got what they wanted in their size, you would always be looking for a suitable alternative and helping them, understanding their needs.

Anne: Yes. I remember being crafty. I remember trying to make it so that the person would get what they wanted as much as possible.

Helen: That was sort of embedded in me in that time as well. That was how we worked in the store. When I think back to how we operated at Harrods, the buy would be quite limited. So, you would have a style that would sell out. Once you've sold the sizes that are gone, you can't reorder even when someone would fall in love with a particular piece.

We trained our staff to know who else stocked our brands. And we would ring round all the other stores to try and source the piece on behalf of the customer and, if we found it, we'd ask them to hold it for them. Because ultimately we lost the sale, but we gained the goodwill of the customer and we knew that we created a memorable service experience that they would take away with them. They would talk to somebody else about it and they would come back to us and it was all about keeping them coming back. That was a hugely formative experience in terms of approach to the customer and seeing the customer as more than the transaction today.

When you look at your conversion, you've always got to see today's customer as being the future of your success.

Anne: Oh, that's fantastic. You just mic dropped. I have nothing else to say.