Lessons from the Customer Relationship Management Conference: Delivering Winning Customer Experiences

I recently returned to Chicago, a city I once lived in and still adore, to attend the 2011 CRMC.  Even with a 40-degree change in daytime temperature between two of the days, I embraced it like a former Chicagoan. Having worked in the loyalty industry for more than 15 years consulting, writing and speaking, I am slightly embarrassed to say that this was my first CRMC. Embarrassment aside, I found it to be one of the best industry conferences that I have ever attended. Some might say “The first time is always the best”, but I would argue that the CRMC has the right mix of retailers and vendors; all looking to glean a few insightful findings which are relevant and valuable enough to help them better navigate our ever-changing marketplace.

This year’s conference was filled with first-rate brands and their agency partners, together imparting lessons learned from their recent loyalty endeavors. They not only shared successes, but challenges they have had honing their loyalty strategies and tactical executions.  One thing we all know is that there is no “silver bullet” for creating more loyal customers.  It takes hard work to test, learn and deploy customer-centric strategies and tactics.  The good news is that if we continue to share our insight like we did at the CRMC, it makes the process less onerous and, hopefully, increases our chances for loyalty success.

As I listened to the speakers and made conversation looking for insight, a powerful theme emerged as an important focal point for bricks and mortar as well as online retailers and other service providers. The theme was customer engagement and customer experience.  The first speaker, Jonathan Salem Baskin, kick-started the theme when he said bricks and mortar retailers are going to have a tough time stemming the move to online sales if they keep making the in-store experience so undesirable (his example was shopping during the holidays). As we all chase the latest technologies and delivery channels in development of the loyal customer, we can’t forget what made the great brands of yesteryear and today great.  It’s their attention on the customer – making each customer feel welcomed and valued, not just the loyal ones.  Many of the conference speakers spoke about the customer experience, but I believe SAKS did a great job of articulating how they have made “The Customer Relationship Job 1”.  To achieve their current successes, SAKS has implemented the following:

• Empowered their sales associates by sharing customer data
• Focused on customer relationship building
• Delivered relevant,  value-added communications at the local level
• Made  sales associates accountable for developing and growing customer relationships

SAKS claims that customers who engage with a personal shopper spend 149% of an average customer.  Now, some of that increase could be the result of self-selection (i.e., I plan to buy more, therefore, I need help), but some percentage has to be attributable to the relationship the personal shopper establishes with the customer.  The message that SAKS delivered is that they have brought empowerment and accountability back to the local level – helping their stores own the customer experience delivery process.  We all know that exceptional customer engagement is a top-down process that must be supported by the brand executives to succeed.  SAKS conducts secret shopping to ensure that their associates deliver the SAKS experience.  When they identify associates that are not meeting expectations, training is provided to help them mend their ways.

As we look at our brands or our clients’ brand customer experiences, let us first understand our customers and products before we embark on wholesale change in the way we engage.  It is important to conduct customer research to determine the engagement loyalty drivers so that we will truly deliver a customer-centric experience; not an experience simply designed by marketers (us) to meet brand goals and objectives.  I offer this word of caution as much has been made of Apple’s successful store environment – with many trying to figure out how they can duplicate it.  As a loyal iPhone customer, I am loyal to the product ─ not the store experience.  Waiting 30 minutes past my appointed time (made days in advance) to meet with a “Genius” who has a 50 / 50 success rate at solving my issues is not what I call a great customer experience.  Analogously, it’s somewhat like the doctor’s office of retail without the six-month old magazines and semi-comfortable chairs to ameliorate my impatience while I wait (I love my doctor, but hate to visit).

Before I cause additional distraction by providing more Apple-like examples, let me offer you an exceptional customer experience that I had while staying in Chicago for the CRMC.  The focus of my praise is the Hotel Monaco–Chicago, a Kimpton Hotel.  Since I had not stayed at a Kimpton Hotel before, they didn’t know me and I am certainly not a loyal customer.  My lack of familiarity did not matter to the hotel staff as they treated me right in two unique instances during my stay. First, having returned to the hotel covered in the residue of red syrupy drinks (a tray full), the staff immediately offered dry-cleaning assistance.  Since I was leaving before my garments could be returned by the dry cleaner, the hotel staff left an abundant supply of stain removing wipes in my room while I was out.  They could have simply said “There’s a 7-11 across the street where you can purchase some wipes”.  On the second occasion, I was provided with a bag of snacks (typically reserved for their best customers), to stem my appetite as I waited 45 minutes for my dinner guest to arrive.  On each occasion, the Hotel Monaco staff did the right thing.  They demonstrated I was a valued guest – regardless of program status.  The experience has placed Kimpton Hotels in my consideration set.  It’s possible that this mention may do the same for others.

Lastly, not all companies are organized to have staff available to provide the level of personal care that SAKS and Kimpton Hotels can, but all brands can work toward a better customer experience.  Understand your customer, your products and your environmental uniqueness. Develop a culture of customer engagement and accountability driven by top management and empowered by front-line staff.  You may have to walk before you run, but each step toward improving the customer experience is a step closer to converting and retaining truly loyal customers.