Customer experience at its best

We’ve discussed the customer experience and its relation to the brand, the creative platform, the marketing plan, and the merchandise concept throughout the year. Now let’s look at building a sound channel-centric customer experience.

Your brand sets the tone of the customer experience and is an outward expression of three fundamental concepts: who you are, what is it you sell, and why it matters. Brand is an expression of what distinguishes you from the competitive set.

Your “one thing,” your higher order benefit, should be the starting point of your conversation with the customer. She should come to know you for that and should expect it from you. And you should deliver it at every possible turn: in the retail setting, online, within the pages of your catalog, in your e-mail campaigns, and on the telephones.

Remember that one size does not fit all:The customer experience is channel specific. While key elements of the brand will tie all channels together, your plan must be crafted and executed specific not only to the channel’s environment, but also to the way in which customers gather information and shop.

To do this, you must understand why customers choose to interact with your business in the ways that they do. If you believe customers are shopping online because it’s more convenient, does that mean that your call center operations are inconveniencing them? Let’s hope not.

Or better yet, find out. Getting customers’ opinions on the “whys” and “hows” of their interactions with you can help you align the experience you’re delivering across channels with your customers’ expectations.

For instance, don’t assume that just because you read somewhere that “people go online for the order function only” that it is true for your customers.

What merchants are doing a good job with their customer experience? Let’s look at two companies we consider to be examples of excellence in print catalog marketing and stellar Web experiences.

Newport News gets it right in print

Apparel merchant Newport News not only understands who it is and what it sells, it knows who its customers are and how to engage them. Newport News aims to offer “the latest fashions at affordable prices.” Even its marketing materials promise “Real Style, Real Value.”

How does the cataloger prove its one thing? First, by touting that its design teams are inspired by worldwide influences, always looking and predicting where fashion trends will go. Newport News understands that it is not just selling apparel or items on a page, but a “fashion-forward” lifestyle its target audience can afford.

The copy and photography looks fashionable and everything is presented in “collections” rather than just a functional category. Collections include lifestyle names such as “Together” (designed in Europe), “Urban Safari” or “Everyday Romance,” mirroring fashion nuances that are popular today.

Terms are used both in the catalog and online, such as “What’s New” and “What’s Hot,” reinforcing the notion that the merchant is an expert in the fashion world. Newport News further proves affordability with its reasonable prices, but takes it one step further by offering “two-fers,” special savings events, and even a club card that offers deep discounts.

Consistency is the key to this catalog’s success, and every time a catalog arrives in the mailbox, customers know what to expect. But how does the mailer create a relevant customer experience beyond presenting the right merchandise and prices?

Engage me!

Unlike most apparel catalogs, Newport News understands how to engage customers. Rather than a typical catalog spread, this book mirrors what customers see within the pages of on-trend fashion magazines. You’ll see one garment shown with three unique outfits. Or, you’ll see an entire outfit, shown accessorized to achieve a look similar to what is seen in magazines.

The magazine-style format is something its customers are comfortable with, and the pages will highlight the versatility of Newport News collections. And just like fashion magazines, the cataloger offers fashion tips, styling updates, and figure advice.

Within the past year, Newport News further engaged customers by creating a catalog that proved its “on-trend” focus. The catalog was called “Fashion Editors love Newport News!” and it demonstrated how Glamour, Elle, and O highlighted the company’s clothing within their magazine pages. What an endorsement!

Show me how I can be on-trend

As mentioned earlier, Newport News never sells just items; it sells a “look.” The catalog begins by positioning the company as the experts by advising you on “Fall Fashion Trends,” “Fashion Editors Favorites” or the “Fall Color Palette.” Throughout the catalog, products are grouped by trends and colors. Looking for “Equestrian Elegance” or “Animal Glam” or those “New Warm Reds”? The catalog pages present these concepts by spread, demonstrating how you can achieve each of these looks from head to toe.

Help me solve a fashion problem

Newport News provides solutions to everyday fashion problems. From “What to wear for that special night on the town” to “How do I accessorize to achieve a certain look” to “Help me make my body look better.”

As mention before, tips are sprinkled throughout to help in your fashion endeavors. Most impressive is a collection called “Shape fx” a line designed to “make the body you have look like the body you want.” The line is presented throughout the catalog demonstrating how it will “re-shape your rear” or “conceal your tummy.”

Catalog copy engages the reader by explaining how this “haute collection is constructed of technologically enhanced fabrics that smooth, shape, lift and conceal. No diet or crunches required.” Photography and illustrations then demonstrate and show exactly how these garments will solve your fashion problem.

Give me a reason to come back again

To further prove its differentiation as “affordable,” the cataloger offers a membership card that gives customers further discounts. A one-year membership offers 10% off on every purchase, plus private sales and promotions extended to members only. Even better, at least eight times a year, members receive special catalogs offering a double-discount of 20% splashed right on the front cover.

Club membership costs $25, but if customers do not realize at least $25 in savings, Newport News will refund the portion customers did not save. Furthermore, a member can enjoy a special hotline and a “members only” Web page.

One of the biggest deterrents to ordering clothing via direct mail is the problem of fit. Newport News works hard at helping you find the right size. If you can’t figure out what size is right for you, the catalog pushes customers to an online size chart that will further assist.

Still concerned? The guarantee is simple: If you are not satisfied, send it back.

CRUTCHFIELD: An online expert

The Web is great for information gathering. It is a shopping channel, yes, but more than any other channel, the Web lets you research. Product features, use options, content and composition, installation, price comparisons, how-tos — you name it.

The Internet has put the power of knowledge in the hands of the consumer, and the companies that are serving the best online experiences understand what makes the Web work.

Think about what Crutchfield sells. Car and home audio and video equipment, you say? Electronics and “guy stuff”? Maybe. Tangibly, that might be what it sells. But what customers buy is help — help in the selection, help in the installation.

On the site itself, Bill Crutchfield describes how he started the business in 1974 while he was restoring a classic car. He realized that there was no outlet for car audio equipment at the time and there was a niche to be served.

After a year of poor sales, Bill asked his customers what the problem was. They didn’t say, “Well, Bill, you just don’t have the exact 8-track player I was looking for.”

Rather, they told him that they didn’t know much about car stereos and were intimidated by the thought of installing one themselves. They told him they needed help and couldn’t (or more important, wouldn’t) buy as a result.

From that point, Crutchfield set out to provide information so that customers would be more comfortable with car stereos and audio components. Today, the company emphasizes its customer service; its employees are enthusiasts first and experts second.

Crutchfield has logged specifications for more than 10,400 vehicles and provides step-by-step installation instructions for every piece of car audio equipment it sells. But first, it has to sell it.

Will it fit?

There may be no more important question to a Crutchfield customer. To address this, Crutchfield starts the shopping process with a simple request: “Please select your car.” And the site gets at this critical piece of information in more than one way. Choosing “Outfit My Car” helps the customer by isolating products that will fit the make and model of vehicle the customer owns.

Crutchfield continues to instill confidence with simple visual cues like the “This Item Fits” icon — a green circle with a check. The site continues with the assistance throughout the checkout process too, with helpful tips (“Use the factory grilles with these speakers”) and friendly aids (“Tell us where you’re going to install these so we can be sure to send the right installation booklet”).

Don’t just take our word for it …

Crutchfield also understands the importance of testimonials in the selling process. Let’s face it, product specs and dimensions won’t tell you how something performs. For that, Crutchfield relies on its customers.

Every product has a customer review and is rated on a five star scale. Customers create the content, customers consume the content. Crutchfield delivers on its own expertise by letting the customer do the talking. Again, the customer is getting help — this time from other customers.

What do I get?

For many of its customers, the decision about what to buy is easy compared to the actual installation — and Crutchfield certainly knows that. The site provides content throughout the shopping experience ensuring the customer of everything he’ll receive in the box, from installation guides to wiring harnesses to available on-demand tech support and installation assistance. It reminds customers to get everything they need to do the job right upfront and continually reinforces cross-sells and accessory sales.

Need to know more

Knowledge is power, and customers who have a firm understanding of what they’re buying and how to use it will no doubt feel more comfortable buying more. The Crutchfield Learning Center is Crutchfield’s answer to the quest for knowledge.

Relying on its A/V experts, Crutchfield has created its “all information site,”, to answer all of the car and home audio and video questions a customer could conceive of in one central location, away from its commerce site. Once again, Crutchfield understands that customers want to know before they buy and the site delivers an outstanding customer experience from click to buy.

Both Newport News and Crutchfield understand who they are (their brand) and specifically what they sell (their merchandise concept). They also know why that matters. Crutchfield customers are seeking help to install their own audio systems. Newport-News customers want fashion advice. Both brands understand how to deliver on “what matters” and have created shopping channels that engage.

How well do you understand what matters most to your customers? By now, you probably realize that without a comprehensive understanding of this concept, it’s difficult to present an engaging and relevant experience — no matter the channel.

Lois Boyle is president and Steve Trollinger is executive vice president, client marketing, for J. Schmid & Associates, a catalog consultancy based in Mission, KS.

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