Your Customer is the Real Undercover Boss

Much as we may enjoy watching various C-level executives go “undercover” on the popular reality TV show, the real “boss” for all merchants is — or should be — the customer.

Walmart founder Sam Walton put it best: “There is only one boss: the customer. And she can fire everybody in the company from the chairman on down, simply by spending her money somewhere else.”

But an informal poll of my friends in recent months uncovered little good news on the customer satisfaction front in either stores or online channels. In fact, they all complained about poor/rude customer service, inventory issues, disappointing selections, long lines, slow websites and long phone holds — at merchants across product categories.

So while merchants continue to pay lip service to customer service, relatively few invest in the training, adequate staffing and other support systems. Without that investment, the employees who are on the front lines will be hard-pressed to deliver a “customer is the boss” experience.

Notably, however, I heard no complaints about, Netflix, QVC, Avon, L.L. Bean, Newegg, Apple, eBay, Musician’s Friend, Vistaprint, Walmart and Williams-Sonoma. This turns out to be no coincidence: Foresee reported that these companies delivered a superior online experience during the 2010 holiday season.

How outstanding e-tailers aced the holidays

In his book LoveMarks: The Future Beyond Brands, Kevin Roberts lists six questions that are now top-of-mind for consumers. These include: How can I buy material things and feel good about it? Why does choosing take up so much of my attention? What can you offer me besides price? What do you really know about me — and what do I know about you? What have we got to talk about? And, can you keep up with me (in-store, in games, on TV, on mobile phones and across platforms in general)?

These questions are a good starting point for developing a truly customer-centric brand checklist. Let’s use these same questions to analyze how the above-noted customer-friendly e-tailers differentiated themselves from their competitors during the holidays. Reviewing the partial results below could be good homework for merchant brand leaders.

Customer-centric question: How can I buy material things and feel good about it?

What if one of your kids wanted a guitar for Christmas, but you had no idea where to begin when it comes to such a purchase? No worries. The savvy brand leaders at Musician’s Friend created comprehensive buying guides to help customers sort through the choices. Here’s how Musician’s Friend introduces its service on its website:

“Don’t know a humbucking pickup from a single-coil? Not sure if you need a condenser or dynamic microphone? Our experts will help you sort out the specs and understand the key features to help you make the right decision in choosing the instrument or gear that best matches your needs and budget.”

The merchant then offers detailed educational explanations for its customers. Below is a section from its piece on acoustic guitars:

Customer-centric question: What can you offer me besides price?

Many grandparents received a wall calendar chock-full of their grandkids’ photos for the holidays — a gift most recipients treasure each year. Vistaprint not only provides plenty of format options for pleasing Grandma and Grandpa; it has recognized and capitalized on opportunities to help business executives delight their employees and customers.

Vistaprint offers well-priced traditional-format calendars, but also showcases poster- and wallet-size print formats, magnetized versions, desk calendars and other options.

When a customer clicks on the desk calendar format, up pops this testimonial from a businessman in Glendale, CA:

“Last Christmas, I created desk calendars using some of my watercolor images. I included birthdays of all my co-workers so everyone knows each other’s birthdays. I gave them as holiday presents and they were a HUGE success! When I visit offices, everyone has them on their desks.”

Vistaprint uses such testimonials to serve its customers by providing suggestions about other ways photo calendars can be used, and other family and nonfamily folks who might love receiving these personalized gifts. Very smart marketing — and the copy writing is done for Vistaprint by its brand fans.

Customer-centric question: Can you keep up with me?

One of‘s biggest hits this past holiday season — as in the previous year — was its Kindle ebook reader. Kindle 3 became Amazon’s best-selling item of all time (actually beating out DVDs of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows).

One big factor driving this success was the general merchandise giant’s “Buy Once, Read Everywhere” apps, which enabled customers to gift family and friends with flexibility for their mobile lifestyles. definitely keeps up with its customers.

Customer-centric question: What do you really know about me — and what do I know about you?

Master multichanneler Williams-Sonoma delights in knowing and responding to its customers’ needs. In addition to its long-standing practice of sharing recipes its customers will love (using branded ingredients, of course), Williams-Sonoma knows that its cooking-enthusiast customers have like-minded friends who covet foodie gifts.

For the 2010 holidays, Williams-Sonoma online offered curated, truly selective gift ideas under tabs designated “For the Cook,” “For the Entertainer” and “For the Wine Lover.” By hand-selecting groups of gifts offering a variety of functionalities, features and price points, this famous brand shared its expertise in a meaningful way. This no doubt helped it win sales as well as gratitude from harried customers looking for thoughtful but easy-to-find gift solutions.

Are you (really) focused on what customers care about?

Brands that generally excel at understanding and delivering what their customers care about work hard to maintain and build on this competitive advantage. They know that there are always going to be areas where they can and should do better.

These areas and nuances become apparent when you become a customer of your own brand. I frequently go undercover and buy in stores and online from a client brand and its competitors and report the often eye-opening experiences.

If you are serious about achieving a significant improvement in your brand’s performance this year, here’s my advice: Use Roberts’ six questions as a foundation for creating your own customer-centric brand checklist.

Then focus on delivering on the top customer expectations within each of these areas. If you do this, you’ll have the right boss at the head of your organizational chart in time for next holiday season. l

Andrea Syverson ( is president of the consultancy IER Partners, and author of BrandAbout: A Seriously Playful Playbook for Passionate Brand-Builders and Merchants.

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