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Turning retail strategy into customer experience

Remove the barriers to making your strategy a customer reality

By Allison Vettasseri

Retailers are nothing if not fast learners - and the past few years have certainly given them some hard lessons to learn. But the loudest and the clearest lesson of all has been one that runs to the heart of any business: create a compelling, differentiating and ownable strategy that puts your customers first, or face irrelevance in the blink of an eye. 

From what we can see in market, this message has been heard loud and clear. In fact, any CEO or CMO worth their salt is touting their new ‘customer-first’ strategy in front of both investors and media alike. 

“[John Lewis], Asda, Tesco, Vue Cinemas … are just some of the brands to instate a customer director or chief customer officer in the past year in an effort to achieve a more joined-up approach, beyond marketing, to the wider customer experience.” –Jennifer Faull, The Drum (8 September 2015) 

However a disconcerting pattern is slowly emerging from the headlines: these well-crafted ‘customer-first’ strategies are rarely improving the actual customer experience. In many ways, the disconnect between theory and reality has never been quite so stark.

If we assume that the underlying strategy is commercially sound and connects to real consumer needs, then why is it so difficult to bring that thinking through to the customer experience?

We have identified 3 key barriers to translating commercial strategy into customer experience, along with tangible steps marketers can take to ensure their new strategy doesn’t meet an untimely demise: clarity, focus and alignment.

Problem 1


Lack of understanding

The biggest problem is actually the most basic one: identifying that you have an issue with your customer experience in the first place.  Revenue could be flat, NPS could be down, returns could be up – but often retailers have little idea if commercial performance is a direct reflection of the strength of their strategy, or if the effects of that strategy just haven’t yet trickled down to the customer’s level. 

If customers were to see your strategy on a page, would they nod their head in agreement or shake their head in disbelief?  Are there hidden assets in your customer experience that you could capitalise on even more?  Or are there any ticking time bombs that could stifle your growth in the near future?

Solution: Clarity

We believe that the first step to bridging the strategy gap is to critically evaluate your existing customer experience:

Make your insight work harder by getting underneath surface-level insights and balancing research approaches.

Link your strategy to clear customer experience principles: What do we want our customers to think, feel and do? Start big to capture relevance across teams and departments, but quickly go deeper so that individual staff can answer the question, “What does this mean for me?”

Make the most of your data – if you can connect disparate databases and analyse meaningful patterns, chances are most of the ‘answer’ is already there at your fingertips

We worked with Timberland to identify where the brand was winning and losing with its customers and create a strategy to bring consistency to the customer experience.

Problem 2


Not knowing where to invest

With so many touchpoints in the customer experience, it’s difficult for marketers to know where and how to invest their limited resources for maximum consumer engagement. They struggle to connect the dots between an improved customer experience and tangible ROI, whilst the discord between claimed and actual customer behaviour provides an additional layer of complexity.

How do you know which customer experience innovations to prioritise? Where do you want to competitively win as a business, and where are you happy to stay at market parity? Which moments unlock maximum value, and how do those change depending on your target segment?

Solution: Focus

Uncovering the moments that matter to customers is the key to breaking through all of the noise at the critical moment of inspiration, consideration, purchase or advocacy:

Determine which customer experience touchpoints are actually in your control, and then identify the potentially negative/positive ‘x factors’ you need to be aware of: variation in staff performance, disconnected cross-channel shopping journeys, etc.

Prioritise the touchpoints that add most commercial value and those that create the strongest ‘halo’ for your brand – balancing these two drivers is the key to sustained growth

Revisit your internal strategy to make sure language is clear and actionable – vague and meaningless words like ‘special’ can poison an otherwise strong strategy by leaving too much open to interpretation and failing to provide a strong ‘north star’ for your employees

We worked with Wagamama to reposition the brand and roll it out across service, staff, menu and experience.

Problem 3


Pace of change

Even if marketers have tackled problems 1 and 2, one final barrier stands in their way: time. By the time you've gotten around to defining your customer strategy and aligning internally around how to execute it, the competitive and consumer landscape has shifted under your feet.

How can you effectively ‘test’ the effectiveness of new customer experience innovations?  What are the internal barriers – structural, cultural, geographical, commercial – that prevent you from working quickly and efficiently towards customer-oriented solutions?  Is everyone working to the same strategy, do your KPIs align?

Solution: Alignment

Every day lost is another disappointed customer, another damaging investor update. Improved ways of working are only an asset if they get the right, on-strategy customer experience out in market faster:

Streamline inter-departmental efforts by empowering and incentivising teams to collaborate in agile, flexible workstreams with tangible endpoints – it’s important to be clear on what is in and out of scope

Align both at the top and at the bottom – there’s no point in creating massive efforts in head office if front-line staff isn’t engaged

Be wary of too much change – balance the benefits of ‘fast-failing’ with the need to maintain consistency in terms of brand promise and customer expectations

Following the above steps can empower retailers to confidently stand behind their own strategies, stop spinning their wheels, and start truly putting the customer first. 

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