If IT doesn't enhance the customer experience, start again

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Aaron Stibel CIO

Technology is reinventing the way people shop – in part by changing the in-store experience for shoppers. The consumerization of technology has put a smartphone in the pocket of at least two-thirds of customers, allowing them to go online and find better deals, pricing, reviews, and even comparable products all while standing in the aisles of your store.

As an enterprise architect at BJ’s Wholesale Club, I’m always thinking about how can we better plug into our customers’ needs to improve their experiences. I’ve learned that when you look at introducing new technologies, it’s important to make sure they sync up with your organization’s culture. It can’t be about technology for technology’s sake.

For us that means any technology upgrade has to fit in with our overall brand persona and warehouse club model, where we traditionally have fewer associates on the floor and don’t offer as many amenities as traditional stores. Our members like this because it allows us to keep costs low and pass the savings onto them.

Being conscious of how technology fits into our company model means we’re not likely to dole out Google Glass to every associate to scan products. Retail may eventually head in that direction, but if all of our employees started wearing Google Glass tomorrow, some of our customers might wonder how that affects the low prices they’ve come to expect from us.

Great ideas can generate lots of excitement, but keep a clear head

Not all great customer experience ideas come from outside your walls. If you can source them correctly, they can come from any employee – IT, operations, marketing, line of business or senior management. Sometimes it’s a matter of all the senior executives receiving a request to reach out to their teams to get ideas for specific topics. Innovative ideas also arise in smaller task force-styled sub-teams that try to focus on specific problems and come up with recommendations for a new solution.

It may be that employees will look at ways some technologies have been implemented in the industry, yet we don’t know exactly how successful other retailers have been with it. That’s why you shouldn’t follow just because another competitor has done something. Explore whether it makes sense for your specific business. What I’ve learned over the years is that the regardless of technology, customer experience concepts have to be simple and powerful to have sticking power.

You’ll also be met with customer experience ideas that the business brings to you and insists you try to implement. It can be tough at this moment because while you may want to be as open as possible, you may have to say, “Well, if you can wait six months on this particular aspect, we're putting in a system that will be able to make that process seamless.” You never want to be stuck trying to build on what you have and then have to throw it out in six months when that new system comes. As a leader your responsibility is to strike a balance and figure out what makes sense to do in the interim to deliver business value versus what you can do longer term.

Knowing when to pivot and when to persevere

Piloting a new customer experience idea in a small setting – a specific, targeted group of stores, if you’re in retail – is a great way to put a customer experience idea through its paces, particularly if it involves targeting. You get a lot of input quickly to figure out where a technology might make sense and whether it's delivering good results or negligible ones. The key decision point – using the Lean Startup concept – is whether to pivot or persevere. A few questions you can ask yourself:

  • If the concept is not working, is it the concept or just the execution of it?
  • What do the local leadership at the pilot location have to say about it?
  • Have customers offered any input on how we’re enhancing their experience, or how we might think differently to deliver something more relevant?

Armed with this kind of input, you’ll be able to make a decision about a new technology-driven experience with confidence – which at the end of the day is exactly what your customers are trying to do.

For more from Peter Buonora, read his article: Anticipating and Architecting the Future of Retail

Peter is a change agent driving alignment of business IT functions while evolving IT organizations from operational cost centers to a catalyst for competitive advantage. Peter’s extensive experience includes global technology strategy, architecture, cloud computing, and information security.  Peter currently works as Enterprise Architect at BJ’s Wholesale Club, was formerly Senior Global Enterprise Architect at Ahold Corporation, and has held positions at Supervalu, John Hancock and other companies.

Peter is a change agent driving alignment of business IT functions while evolving IT organizations from operational cost centers to a catalyst for competitive advantage.

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