In the first episode of Customer First Radio, Dave Clements, Global Head of Retail for dunnhumby and David Ciancio, Global Head of Grocery for dunnhumby kick off the series by discussing what it means to be a truly Customer First business, share which retailers and brands today embody a Customer First mindset, and examine how Customer First materialized during the pandemic with retailers.
[This is the fourth in a series of articles advocating the voice of the Customer in the highly competitive food-retail industry. David Ciancio is Global Customer Strategist for dunnhumby, a pioneer in Customer data science, serving the world's most Customer-centric brands in a number of industries, including retail. David has 48 years experience in retail, 25 of which were in Store Management. He can be reached at David.Ciancio@dunnhumby.com].
Treating Customers differently based on their 'profitability' is counter-productive to building loyalty and toward creating a healthy retail Customer Experience.
All Customers are not created equal…
Any typical Recency/Frequency/Spend analysis tells us that some Customers are more valuable than others in terms of the sales given to a retailer or brand. Further, loyalty industry methodologies like the EMO Index and the Net Promoter Score indicate that those Customers who are more emotionally engaged with, or who more strongly advocate for any retailer or brand tend to be more loyal to that entity.
Logically, it might follow that some Customers might be more profitable than others, and conversely, some could be downright unprofitable. Knowing which is which is the all-important question in a popular relationship management concept called 'Customer Profitability'.
A recent Google search returned more than 7 million references to Customer Profitability – how to segment, measure, and manage relationships with Customers based on how much an individual contributes to the firm's bottom line. An accountancy method even has developed around this concept: for example, understanding 'Customer Lifetime Value' and 'Customer Value Management Cycle' are seen as keys to business health by some firms.
But beware the siren song to consider individual Customer or household profitability.
Customers’ gifts of choice – or not
Typically, Customers have choices around at which retailer they spend their money, what brands they select, and how much they engage with a brand's marketing. They decide to what degree they prefer one brand to another, and advocate at-will for their best (or worst) retail and brand experiences.
Customers do not, however, have a choice on how much margin they give to a retailer or brand.
So, how is it that Customers can be responsible for their own profitability? Is the Customer accountable to margin by choosing to respond to a particular set of value propositions offered on the retailer's terms? Is the Customer culpable if a value proposition is not itself profitable, or if it allows for choices by Customers that vary in net profitability?
I don't think so.
Doing what’s right for the business…and for Customers
Every business – and most particularly a Customer First organization – must focus its decision-making energy on doing what's right for its Customers and its shareholders at the same time. For Customers, it's about which value propositions increase participation (reach), sales (uplift), or frequency (visits) and thereby incrementally grow the basket 'one more item, one more time'. For shareholders, this means understanding which value propositions grow sales and margin and which don't.
Customers expect a fair exchange of value for their money. Shoppers cannot be expected to understand the cost to the business of the value offered. It is not the Customers' fault if a loss leader is offered, or if a store coupon reduces the net margin, or if the mix of the products bought according to one level of affluence and lifestyle delivers a higher basket margin than that of another.
Wrong for Customers, wrong for business
In my experience, (and please feel free to provide a different opinion in the comments) credit card and financial services providers are the strongest advocates of a 'Customer Profitability' approach to relationship management. It's little wonder in these quarters that annual industry churn of accounts is greater than 40%, or that the cost to acquire / switch each new Customer account is in the hundreds of dollars as industry standard, or that business costs have spiraled upward now for decades. Of course, these increased costs are transferred to the Customer via higher interest rates or hidden in higher exchange rates for the retailer (which in turn, drive up retail prices).
'Good' profitable Customers maximize their credit limits and retain high balances owed, whilst 'bad' Customers 'revolve' by regularly paying off their balances. Poaching to encourage switching is a hallmark industry tactic, using offers like 'freeing balance transfers', often punishing the Customer with hidden charges and costs to serve so that profitability by Customer might be optimized.
It's my observation that a 'Customer Profitability' mindset sits at the heart of these Customer-disrespectful and anti-loyalty practices. Simply, Customers do not have the gift of choice or the ease to understand which factors drive individual profitability, particularly given the customary qualification requirements and fine print common to this industry.
A better language – Proposition Profitability v Customer Profitability
In a Customer First organization, measuring the profitability of its various value propositions should become a business imperative: without it there is no fact basis for managing the value exchange between the company and its Customers.
In a respectful, Customer First approach to business growth, each value proposition delivers recognizable value to Customers as well as recognizable margin to the retailer or brand. The better mindset and language is, therefore, around Program / Proposition / Offer profitability.
An emerging best practice in this area is an analysis of the relative cost of each proposition using a common cost metric vs. the Customer impact (uplift).
Analyzing the relative cost of each Customer or Customer type is a misguided exercise, and is counterproductive to growing true loyalty. If anything, the data reveals more about the retailer's bad habits than it does about 'bad' Customers.
Implications for retail leaders
Think about the choices Customers are given in the value propositions you offer; is the profitability of these offers in any way within the Customers' gifts of choice? Who makes the profit margin decision – you or the Customer?
Mind your language, and coach your loyalty people away from segmentations based on 'Customer Profitability'. Yes, there is a value in understanding 'Customer Lifetime Value' and 'Customer Value Management Cycle' – but only by using spending and preference metrics; profitability considerations do not belong in the equation, however.
Guide toward the best practice of measuring the relative cost of each proposition to Customer impact, using a standard cost metric.
So, I repeat, Customers do not have a choice on how much margin they give to a retailer or brand. Treating Customers differently based on their 'profitability' is counter-productive to building loyalty and toward creating a healthy retail Customer Experience.
Retail leaders must objectively understand how their business currently considers Customers before trying to set a more Customer-centric direction and focus. There are some formal assessment methodologies, like dunnhumby's Retail Preference Index (RPI) and Customer Centricity Assessment (CCA), which offer detailed evaluations of a business' capabilities, strengths and weaknesses based on Customer perceptions (RPI) or global best practices (CCA).
The approach outlined below is not intended to replace these formal tools; rather, these observations are intended as a kind of 'toe in the water' to help retail leaders form early hypotheses and points of views. These are rules of thumb, heuristics culled from global experience. Later, leaders might use these observations to informally check progress from time to time as a way of assessing whether the "program in the stores matches the program in our heads".
Hence, the context and laboratory for these suggestions is the retail store, where the rubber meets the road, so to speak.
1. Who really runs the store?
Walking around a store (or better, walking around several), can give many clues toward understanding a retailer's attitude about its Customers, as well as revealing some of the challenges ahead for installing Customer First. As Customers ourselves, we are qualified to assess an organization's 'readiness' for Customer First, simply starting by walking around.
How a Customer experiences the store shapes their perception of the brand, and there are dozens (even hundreds) of 'moments of truth' for Customers in each shopping trip – opportunities for the retailer to win more loyalty, or indeed to lose it. And it only takes one 'bad' experience to erase all the good.
Leaders can form an opinion about the Customers' true shopping experience by observing 'Who really runs the store?' – a way to put on a Customer lens to assess if the Customer, the retailer, the supplier, or no one is driving shopping experience decisions, like range and presentation. For example:
- Choose three sections across the store (telling categories include yogurt, pasta sauces, milk, and packaged lunch meats). Look to see how the product is organized and presented (remember to try to see through the eyes of a Customer).
- Is the section organized by brand (e.g. all Danone yogurt is merchandised together in a recognizable Danone brand block)?
- By Customer benefit or usage (e.g. all brands of probiotic yogurt are merchandised together, as are all Greek style yogurts, all kid's yogurts, etc)?
- Or, by some hybrid but logical planogram rather random plan, with little recognizable logic at all?
- Would you conclude that the product display / layout logic is influenced more by supply chain, by brands, or by the Customer need states or trip missions?
- How broad is the range (e.g., number of varieties or sizes)? How deep (e.g., number of brands of the same flavor or variety)? Does the breadth and depth feel Customer friendly, or confusing?
Of course, analysing any available loyalty data will later tell us how Customers shop the category and that might well be by brand (or flavour or size, etc., and will certainly vary by section). But this first assessment helps us begin to form our perspective on how tuned-in the business is around its Customers, and about where within the business leaders might need to begin to install insights and the Customer language.
2. What messages are Customers receiving?
Store signage not only delivers a written message, but also a type of 'body language' that Customers tune in to, albeit not always consciously. Look around the store to see both the written and hidden messages, and hear the tone being communicated: ask, do messages speak respectfully to Customers? For example:
- Signage at the entrance rudely telling Customers what the rules are, even though 99.999% of Customers will never even think of shopping without shirts or shoes, or wearing roller blades
- Narrow limits on the quantities of promoted products or services.
- Rules and restrictions, terms and conditions.
- Aggressive security barriers and gates at entrances – although sometimes operationally necessary, these also tell honest Customers that they, the shoppers, are not to be trusted.
- Phony expiration dates for promoted prices – Customers learn that the deal will be repeated soon, if not immediately. Best example is the many carbonated soft drink promotions below shelf price that are repeated frequently, and the innumerable 'roller' prices practiced by many retailers.
- Stupid pricing signs (any stupid sign, really).
3. What messages are Employees receiving?
While walking the store, traveling through stock rooms and the employee break room, note the signage and messaging aimed at staff. What seems to be valued more – numbers or people?
What policies and rules guide employee behaviour?
How are they expected to interact with Customers?
Are the messages respectful of staff? Of Customers?
What do signs say about the culture around Customers?
4. Who has the power to satisfy Customers?
dunnhumby's Loyalty Drivers analysis suggests that Customers exhibit four 'mindsets' in their shopping journey – Discover, Shop, Buy, and Reflect. One element of the 'Reflect' mind-set includes the decision to return, exchange, or to request a refund when the product or service does not quite suit.
On your store walk, observe who has the power to satisfy Customers making a return or wanting a refund: is the front-line employee empowered to satisfy the Customer, or must the Manager be called? Is there one 'service' desk where Customers must queue to get their money back, or can the helpful cashier make it good on the spot?
Examine the return policy to assess its sensibility and ease from a Customer viewpoint. For example, must a Customer act within 7 or 30 days, and is a receipt required and signature under penalty of perjury? Is the taking of an oath necessary, or perhaps a drop of blood? The store's practice says volumes about who deserves trust in the eyes of the business. Requiring levels of approvals and higher management involvement (or some other form of hoop-jumping) is neither trusting of employees nor Customers.
The return / refund policies and practices are strong indicators of a company's readiness for, or progress along the Customer-centric journey. Customer First organizations give front-line employees broader authority to resolve Customer needs, and extend the power to satisfy Customers to most members of staff, in some form. For best practices in this area, please see the policies from Nordstrom in the U.S. and Ritz-Carlton globally.
5. Do the words of your leaders matter?
Senior leaders set the tone for how Customers are regarded and treated in the business both by their words and their actions, of course. And the C.E.O.S – Customers, Employees, Owners, and Suppliers – all take notice. It's widely documented that leaders who walk the walk are more effective than those who only talk the talk.
One simple yet powerful way to assess readiness and progress is seeing how leadership's walk and talk align. A word cloud, like the one illustrated below, makes the point very clear. In this example, recent shareholder statements (same quarter) were compared for two companies on a Customer-centric journey. We can see different progress in a form of 'walking the walk' at Retailer X and Retailer Y. The C.E.O.S are hearing what really matters to the leaders, and are forming the Customer culture accordingly, all the way down to store level.
Implications for retail leaders
The store shapes Customers' perception of the brand; there are hundreds of opportunities for the retailer to win or lose loyalty in each shopping trip. Customers take clues, consciously and unconsciously, throughout their entire shopping experience, and draw conclusions about retailer warmth and attitude toward shoppers. And it only takes one disappointing experience to erase all the good.
Retail leaders must take an objective assessment of the shopping experience using a Customer lens to understand their current state and readiness for customer centricity. Pay close attention to the body language and tone of your policies. Store signage, employee empowerment and communications, and practices around assortment and presentation are clear indicators of the organization's attitude about the Customer.
Who actually runs your store?
This is the first in a series of LinkedIn articles from David Ciancio, advocating the voice of the customer in the highly competitive food-retail industry.