Posted: August 28, 2014, 10:35 a.m. EDT
It’s a business strategy called CEM (customer experience management), and doing it right can help attract loyal shoppers in droves.
By Cheryl Reeves
Managing the customer journey means tracking, handling and organizing every interaction between shopper and store—from the first time a customer crosses the threshold through the duration of the customer’s relationship with the retail brand.
Sounds complicated and perhaps a bit overwhelming, but according to Bernd Schmitt, a professor at Columbia Business School in New York and the author of "Customer Experience Management: A Revolutionary Approach to Connecting With Your Customers,” the goal at the heart of a successful customer experience management
(CEM) program simply boils down to making customers happy.
"CEM is a customer-centric rather than a product-centric approach,” Schmitt said. "A successful CEM approach must begin with understanding your customers—reasons why they have a pet, both rational and emotional, how they behave toward the pet, whether they have other pets, etc. Then retailers must develop a customer-focused store and sales strategy out of this.”
Kerry Sutherland, founder of K. Sutherland Public Relations in Irvine, Calif., emphasized that small retailers have an amazing advantage to connect to their customers on a personal level.
Whether it’s knowing about their pets or their product preferences—along with actually listening and taking action on suggestions (both online and in person)—independent retailers will most likely be well-rewarded by making customers feel that they are being heard and are given an exemplary shopping experience.
"Metrics play a large role in measuring how well a retailer is doing at managing a customer’s experience,” Sutherland said. "Whether it’s an informal conversation or a more structured feedback strategy, you need to know where you stand with your current customers and improve as needed.”
Retailers should focus on and manage key milestones in the shopper’s journey to best personalize customer service, Schmitt said.
"It’s important to make a complete list and see where the shopping experience can be customized and improved,” said Schmitt.
For example, he cited a few techniques that can personalize and engage shoppers: holding focus groups with pet owners, taking and posting photos, and generally finding creative ways to encourage customers to share their experiences at various touch points.
Start at the Beginning
Before implementing a CEM program, first assess the status of your current customer service, experts recommended.
"The basic CEM tenets are critical to your organization, but benefitting from the findings will require much organization willpower,” said Michael Johnson, vice president of marketing and information at Chuck Latham Associates in Parker, Colo. "So before embarking on a multitechnology/multiplatform strategy, do some assessments: Are you already the most friendly, helpful, knowledgeable and customer-focused organization you can possibly be without technological assistance? How well do you know your consumer, and how well do you know your individual customers? Do you diligently endeavor to understand why consumers want to shop your store or what might keep them from it, and then course-correct based on this knowledge? If you cannot answer ‘yes’ to these questions, find the internal discipline to fix these things first.”
At Parker’s, a Natural Dog & Cat Market in Chicago, CEM is specifically discussed in every monthly staff meeting.
"We have guidelines in place on how to pay lots of attention to customers, and I overstaff specifically to make sure we accomplish this,” said Katie Pottenger, owner. "At each monthly staff meeting, customer interaction is an assigned topic, with each employee responsible for reporting positive customer experiences.”
Sherry Redwine, co-owner of Dallas-based Odyssey Pets, said that each customer’s journey with their pet is an intimate and unique experience. She and her staff guide customers in the right direction by offering knowledge and healthful products, she added.
Once retailers are ready to move forward with a clear strategy for CEM implementation, they should understand fully how each of the components they choose will benefit the store and the consumer, said Johnson.
"There is a lot of varying CEM lingo out there today that basically means ‘know me, know my needs.’ Going along with that is responding to those needs and to do so consistently across any retail engagement platform,” he said. Whether the customer journey is taken in store, online or through other methods, the elements are the same in contributing to taking an interest in the quality of the shopping experience, Johnson said.
A foundation of the CEM platform at St. Louis-based Treats Unleashed is making it a point to contact customers at least three times during their store visit.
"When clients enter the store they are greeted and we find out if they have shopped with us before,” said Teresa Miller, founder and owner. "This leads us down two paths. If the customer is new, we can initiate a conversation about their pets and ascertain any special needs. If they are a returning customer, we welcome them back and see if they have any questions/feedback from their previous visit. The next contact point might be circling back later to answer questions, and the third interaction could be at checkout, where we are offered one final opportunity to make the customer experience exceptional by answering any final questions and thanking them for their business.”
Technology, Brand Recognition and Accountability
The customer experience might be face to face, online or via email, social media or even text message, said K. Sutherland Public Relations’ Sutherland. Regardless of where customers are finding a retailer, the experience should always be favorable.
"I also think that if they are choosing to have a website, social media page or any other existing presence outside their brick and mortar store, it must remain current and up-to-date,” she said. "I always cringe when I see a store or company neglect to update their website or social media accounts. It appears lazy or forgetful, which customers notice. Designate either an in-house person or a subcontractor to make sure that whatever is being broadcast to customers is current and relevant.”
Monitoring a CEM program in order to determine whether it’s actually working is part of the overall plan as well. Nicole Kitagawa, marketing and social media specialist at Natural Pawz in Houston, said deploying secret shoppers is a surefire way to ensure that the Natural Pawz customer experience is held to standard.
"The secret shoppers are in our stores—and in our competitors’ stores,” she said. "We use this feedback to find areas where more training and attention is needed. This feedback is very high quality.”
Further, because Natural Pawz has multiple locations, every store is designed with a recognizable brand uniformity and a simple store layout so customers feel at home and know where products are located, she said.
"For example, every store features a custom computer where shoppers can look up the ingredients of the food they are feeding and compare it to the brands we carry,” she said.
At Odyssey Pets, knowledgeable employees and customer perks are key to achieving consistent CEM, said Redwine. The store features warm colors and creative displays, and offers curbside deliveries and a monthly newsletter. Branded pens and reusable shopping bags also promote the brand, she said.
Elevate CEM With Empowered Staff
A store with CEM strategies ranging from computerized kiosks and learning-centered events to creative displays and a dazzling online presence is all well and good, but it’s the employees who offer phenomenal customer service that are a store’s most lucrative asset, said interviewed sources.
"We empower our associates to handle customer service like they ‘own the business,’” said Treats Unleashed’s Miller. "Everyone understands that the store provides a 100 percent guarantee on all our products and takes the long-term view on customer satisfaction because the value of a customer is much greater than a single transaction.”
At Natural Pawz, Kitagawa said that giving managers the responsibility to make decisions is effective because the sooner a store can resolve issues, the better.
"When issues arise, we immediately alert the training managers, who in turn reach out to all store managers to review the issue,” she said. "If the problem is the result of a process or a procedure, the managers will work with the appropriate people and communicate the resolution to the entire sales force to ensure it doesn’t recur.”
Retailers who achieve destination status are the ones who listen to customers, understand and, equally important, let customers know that their feedback is highly appreciated as a valued insight, said Johnson. Retailers should then use that information to codify learning, spread it out across the store’s team and, of course, act on it, he added.
What is an important component of your store’s customer experience management strategy?
"We have a working bakery in each store; this offers the customer a readily
recognizable experience when they come in the door. The fantastic smell they
experience tells them they are in the right place. When their pets enjoy the treats
we bake, then the experience is complete.”—Teresa Miller, founder and owner of
Treats Unleashed in St. Louis
"Twice a year we publish a newsletter called The Barker. Informative articles, event
announcements, sales, new products and more are included in this physical publication. We also post it on our website.”—Sherry Redwine, co-owner of Odyssey
Pets in Dallas
"We are entrenched in the community and do lots of adoption and other events,
like dog washes for foster dogs. I also go to trade shows and blog about the
new products and the exciting industry people I meet at those shows. I also ask
customers on Facebook if they have any interest in various products by posting
a picture, product description and price. So customers feel very involved with
the store, and this builds loyalty and a deep community bond.”—Katie Pottenger,
owner of Parker’s, a Natural Dog & Cat Market in Chicago
"We have great signage that is very helpful in directing customers to where they
want to be. In terms of employee training, on the first day of work a new employee
is handed a training guide on what is expected from them. We feel so strongly
about training that we have two long-term staff members as training managers
who have the sole responsibility of training staff. Additionally, each major vendor is
scheduled to train all our staff several times a year.”—Nicole Kitagawa, marketing
and social media specialist for Natural Pawz in Houston
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