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Which Comes First: The Brand or the Customer Experience

When Customer Centricity Becomes the Brand

The next few years will be challenging, to say the least, for many retailers. Battered by the onset of e-commerce, brick-and-mortar brands like Macy’s, Sears, Sports Authority, and Walmart are shuttering stores. Most investments in mobile wallets, beacons, and buy buttons have delivered minimal returns. Many retailers are asking themselves: What can we do?

For an increasing number of retailers, the answer is to tie their brands to superior customer experiences. Given that it’s difficult to differentiate products—there are only so many ways to design a t-shirt—retailers are focusing on customer-centric services and experiences to get ahead of competitors.

Luxury retailer Burberry was one of the first brick-and-mortar brands to weave digital and physical experiences into a nearly seamless shopping experience for its customers. In 2009, before it became a common practice, Burberry turned user-generated content into a social media platform. More important, the company focused on consistency across channels. It was one of the first companies to let shoppers buy online and pick up in-store, enable sales associates to place online orders for customers while they’re in the store, and provide a connected shopping cart across mobile and desktop. It was also one of the few retailers whose sales rose during the 2016 holiday period. 

Brick-and-mortar retailers are taking a page from Burberry’s playbook and creating positive memorable experiences for their customers. Instead of focusing solely on the products they sell, retailers are thinking about the different touchpoints in the customer experience, from the store’s layout to delivering fast and helpful service.  

Case in point: Consumers no longer need to enter a store to buy most products. The purpose of the store and shopping malls has changed. Shopping in a store must either be as convenient as buying from Amazon, or provide entertaining experiences that can’t be replicated online. 

Serving the modern customer
Nordstrom has made it a point to align its brand with attentive customer service. Its website states, “We have a long-standing commitment to provide our customers with the best possible service every time they shop and to continually maintain a strong and lasting relationship with them.”

Nordstrom’s efforts to live up to its promise of exceptional customer service can be boiled down to two areas: frictionless experiences and empowered employees. 

Nordstrom has a technology team dedicated to developing new ways to streamline the shopping experience for its customers. One of those innovations includes an app that enables customers to find out if Nordstrom carries a particular item based on a photo. A customer can snap a photo of a pair of red, high-heeled shoes and the app’s algorithm will quickly identify characteristics of the shoes, such as its color and style, and let the customer know if it has those shoes in its inventory or similar shoes.   

From there, the customer can choose to buy the item online and pick it up at a store or have it shipped. And just as online shoppers don’t need to wait in line to make a purchase, sales associates can also ring up purchases on mobile POS devices wherever the customer is in the store. Nordstrom has also implemented 3D foot-scanning sizing technology at its stores to provide more accurate measurements to better match customers with the perfect shoe. 

Nordstrom also has examples of employees going beyond the call of duty to provide great service. The stories include the store associate who found a customer’s purse with a plane ticket inside. A Nordstrom spokesperson confirms that the associate called the airport to page the customer about her misplaced purse.

There’s also the story of the employees who helped a customer search the floor of the store for a lost diamond from her engagement ring and eventually found it in debris collected by the vacuum cleaner. Nordstrom also has an active customer service presence online via chat, phone, email, and social media. On Twitter and Facebook, the social team helps customers find and purchase particular items, address delivery issues, and complement customers’ fashion choices. 

There’s a belief that Nordstrom’s employees must follow only one rule: Use good judgment in all situations. Although the myth turns out to be false (the Nordstrom Code of Business Conduct and Ethics covers a number of topics) there’s merit to asking employees to use their best judgment in customer interactions. 

Highly scripted customer service comes across as inauthentic and impersonal, which quickly turns customers off. Customers respond better to employees who seem genuinely interested in the customer’s concerns and are eager to help. As Nordstrom demonstrates, excellent customer experiences begin with a company’s employees, and so companies must invest in hiring the right people as well as providing them with the resources to be successful. 

The mall of the future
The need to connect with consumers and create memorable experiences also applies to shopping malls. Once a hub of social activity where people went to shop or just hang out, malls have been steadily declining as a result of a shift in shopping behaviors and demographics.

Mall owners like Westfield Corp. are betting on renovated malls outfitted with new engaging experiences to bring shoppers back. Shopping malls must regularly renew their spaces to keep up with customer expectations and stay relevant in the modern retail marketplace, Steven Lowy, co-CEO of Westfield Corp., said in an interview at the Shoptalk 2016 retail convention.

The “mall of the future” must incorporate technological advancements and interactive experiences in order “for physical real estate to continue to be relevant,” Lowy said. “Malls must be exciting places.”

As part of its revitalizing strategy, Westfield is investing $800 million on an immense makeover of the Los Angeles shopping mall Century City, reports the Los Angeles Times. The revamped mall, which is expected to open its doors in 2017, will offer spaces focused on entertainment, food, and fitness. The mall is adding new tenants like Eataly, the gourmet Italian marketplace chain, along with a variety of restaurants, and food and beverage counters. 

Other elements being added to the mall include an outdoor area called “The Terrace,” which can be used for hosting events, such as fashion shows. The shop and restaurant spaces are also being remodeled with lots of outdoor space. The objective is to make Century City a destination for modern consumers. When Century City opens, it will “look nothing like what traditional malls look like,” Lowy said. 

Put the customer at the center
Successful companies also understand that in order to get results, the customer experience must be treated as a never-ending journey. Adding the latest bells and whistles to a retail space is not enough. Brands must continually listen to their customers and give them a reason to keep coming back for more. 

At minimum, organizational leaders should aim their efforts at understanding the following areas: 

1. What are the touchpoints that form the customers’ experience of your brand?

2. Does each touchpoint meet the company’s
standard for a great customer experience? 

3. Which touchpoints are lacking and how might they be improved? 

4. Is there a way to simplify the customer experience? 

5. What compels customers to return to your store?

At a time when most goods and services are easily commoditized, companies must find another way to connect with customers. Redesigning retail spaces with the latest gadgets is not enough, however. The companies with business models shaped around the understanding that customers will remember how a brand makes them feel far longer than the product or service are the ones that will outlast their competitors.