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How to create customer-centric experiences

A group of people creating customer-centric experiences.

This talk was originally presented at Commerce+ in 2019 in Sydney. In this series, we’ve pulled together relevant talks from our past events in Sydney, London, and New York City.

What is Commerce+?

For the last two years, Shopify Plus has hosted Commerce+, a global thought leadership conference that brought together industry leaders to share their knowledge and best practices in the ever-evolving world of commerce.

During this talk, Roy Sunstrum, former VP of operations at Shopify Plus, chats with Travis Wright, general manager of Esther & Co., Dean Jones, co-founder and CEO of GlamCorner, and Megan Olney, head of customer experiences of Who Gives a Crap, about how their respective companies built their business with the best customer experiences in mind. 

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Sunstrum: Today, we’re going to talk about creating a customer-centric experience. And one of the things that’s really interesting is that we’ve got very different brands represented [here]. Our panelists will start by introducing themselves.

Olney: I’m Megan. I lead customer experience at Who Gives a Crap. We sell environmentally friendly toilet paper, tissues, and paper towels. We’re a DTC [direct to consumer] brand. We sell in bulk and deliver straight to a customer’s door. We also offer a subscription-based model so you never have to run out again. And we donate 50% of our profits to help build sanitation in developing countries.

Wright: My name’s Travis Wright. I’m the general manager at Esther & Co., and we are an online women’s clothing brand, and we’re also now a marketplace. In addition to that, we have our own exclusive range [of products] which are comprised of everyday wear as well as bridesmaids dresses.

Jones: I’m Dean. I’m the co-founder and CEO of GlamCorner. We’re Australia’s largest fashion rental business. We founded this business about seven years ago when we realized that the average Australian woman really only wears about one-third of what’s in her wardrobe. The other two-thirds [of women] kind of have a stockpile of items that were purchased for a single occasion—then never wore again. So we realized, if we built the largest wardrobe in the country and let our customer come and borrow from us in the same way she kind of borrows [from] her close friends or family, perhaps we could build a business out of that. 

Sunstrum: You’re in very different businesses, but one of the things that you really have in common is a high-level goal to really create a customer-centric approach to everything you do as a company. So, Megan, how do you do that?

Olney: Who Gives a Crap is interesting because we have two categories that we’re really looking to disrupt and turn on their heads. The first is toilet paper. As you can tell by the brand name, we don’t take ourselves too seriously. There [are] no clouds and puppies in our advertising. The second is the charity sector. Traditionally, charity has often been associated with guilt and with asking people to kind of go out of their way to give, so we looked at both of those things and wanted to reinvent how we go about talking about them. And so everything that we do is focused around making our customers feel really good.

We want them to feel excited about the fact that they’re supporting us. They’re doing awesome stuff. And a lot of that comes through in all our different touchpoints across our website, and our packaging, and our delivery experience, and the unboxing experience. We want to sprinkle through these really awesome moments where our customers [feel] fairly good for choosing to buy from us. 

Sunstrum: Travis, what’s your approach to creating this customer experience?

Wright: Before we even get to creating a customer-centric experience, our journey has been redefining who we are as a brand. 

And we’ve been on this journey over the last two years, where we made a transition into becoming a marketplace. We got a little bit distracted with the new brands coming on board because then you have these brands that you’re working with and you want to promote them, as well, and make sure that they’re happy. But then, at the end of the day, it was an epiphany we had—probably about six months ago–where we realized it’s great that we are building these really good relationships with brands and now selling them on our website.

Sunstrum: Dean?

Jones: I couldn’t agree more. I think the customer experience for all of us here is a moving target. It’s not something you think you’re good at and then you’re all set because it’s always changing depending on what the industry is doing and depending on what your customers are looking for. Our journey was similar and still continues to evolve. 

For us, the fundamental premise of our business was built on removing the burden of ownership for our customer. Early on, we realized for our customer there’s a part of her wardrobe that creates a degree of anxiety for her—a bunch of things that accumulate that she doesn’t really have any attachment to. And it’s almost like throwing away good food. You feel guilty about hanging onto it or throwing it away.

We realized that every Australian customer for us accumulates about 27 [kilograms] of clothing in a 12-month period, but 23 kilos of that—about two-thirds—ends up in landfills within 12 months. And so we dug deep into that. We tried to figure out why that was happening, and we realized that for our customer there were a lot of staple pieces—her blacks and her grays and khakis. Sometimes, she was sticking to that because of that burden of ownership. We realized that our business could take care of all the unfunded stuff about owning clothing. Like the storage, the cleaning, and having to go to the physical store to try it on. So we built our business out of that.

Sunstrum: Each of you has a vision, each of you know where you’re heading, but it’s not always easy. So maybe starting with you, Megan, what are some of the really difficult things that you find along the way to create that experience?

Olney: So we went through a really, really rough period as far as customer experience is concerned for about three to four months last year. It was a combination of a few different things all happening at once in the worst possible way. We had a pressured warehouse move here in Sydney. We had our Earth Day campaign, which is one of our biggest campaigns of the year, where we launched a free trial for the first time. And we had a company-wide meetup in Cambodia. So we were in Cambodia visiting some charity partners, and all these things kind of happened at the same time. And it was a little bit of a disaster, I’d say. 

The warehouse in Sydney was under huge pressure. They were just unable to keep up with the demand from Earth Day. There was a huge amount of mispicks, where people instead of being sent a trial box were sent tissues instead. And the thing with signing up for a trial with us is that there’s also a subscription component attached. So 14 days after you sign up for the trial, you’re going to be rebilled for a full box. If your trial box hasn’t arrived, 14 days later you’re [still] going to be billed again. You can imagine it was just like a bit of a meltdown, and our inbound customer contacts were ten times more than normal. And on top of this, a few members of our team in Cambodia got food poisoning, ended up in the hospital on UV drips, and it was just a case of everyone in the business having to stop what they were doing and jump in to help answer customer emails and to try and turn this around. 

It was a really, really challenging time. Anyone here [in] ecommerce knows if a customer doesn’t get a response quick enough, an email, they’re going to go to Twitter, they’re going to go to Facebook, they’re going to go to Instagram. It just piles on really, really fast. As soon as it starts to get out of control, it’s really difficult to reign back in again. 

Sunstrum: Travis: Everything’s easy, there’s no challenges?

Wright: Megan and I actually had the pleasure of sharing these stories with each other last night and it’s just uncanny how two very different businesses can face similar challenges. And to everyone who’s already gone through a warehouse move or is planning on doing it—we’re all in this together. 

Sunstrum: Dean, any challenges in your world? I’m pretty sure there are.

Jones: I can definitely empathize with you guys to the warehouse point. As someone who has personally signed or broken three or four leases in the last five years, I can empathize. It’s quite challenging. You forget to update one supplier that you’ve changed the address. Next thing you know, $80,000 worth of stock ends up at your old address. You can only laugh when silly things like that happen, but you just grit your teeth and suck it up and push through because it’s kind of the only way. In terms of challenges, there’s plenty. 

For us, especially now, we have been blessed with a lot of growth. But what we get a bit worried about is a customer perhaps who first became a customer when we were much younger and much smaller, who had a certain level of experience at that level and answered at the level of customer service, certain level of delivery, and product, and quality. You get nervous as scale builds up that that experience is going to get done. 

Sunstrum: Megan, you mentioned that Who Gives a Crap donates 50% of its profits to help a challenge that I hadn’t realized until a couple of days ago, which is that more people in the world have access to mobile phones than they do a toilet. How does that all link back to the customer experience?

Olney: It’s a pretty shocking stat, and it’s one that we’ve used in our impact messaging a couple of times. When it comes to how we message what we do, impact messaging is really something that resonates strongly with our customers or from a social impact perspective and an environmental impact perspective. 

When we first started shipping orders back in 2013, profit-for-purpose businesses weren’t a huge deal in Australia. But we’re definitely starting to feel that shift now. Businesses are seeing more and more that consumers are becoming more conscious in their buying and who they’re buying from.

Sunstrum: Dean, GlamCorner being a part of the sharing economy means trust is a huge factor, in terms of people coming to your business and their whole experience. How do you actually manage and create trust?

Jones: Oh, yeah. And for us early on that was so critical because fashion rental was a very novel way to consume fashion compared to the traditional ways. We didn’t really have our version of a margin of error. If we got anything wrong, people’s level of skepticism would be more amplified than if it was just a regular online retailer that messed up. So the bar was pretty high for us starting with the online experience, which had to be a blend of regular online retail versus hotel bookings and flight bookings as an interface. 

But it still had to feel like a very familiar high-end online retail experience. And then in terms of delivery we had to work very hard and build a lot of relationships with a lot of carrier companies to deliver to a customer swiftly, because they’ve selected a delivery date we have to meet. We had to get the logistics of that right. And in terms of return, as well, we had to make it easy to just put [items] in a prepaid return [package] and put it in the postbox.

We also had to ensure the quality of the items we buy were designer quality items. We know that the piece can be rented 20, 30 times and still be as good as new between wears. Because you think about how many times you wear good quality clothing, a good pair of jeans or a good jacket—how many times you wear it before it no longer looks as good as new. It’s in the dozens, at a minimum. For some people, it’s in the hundreds. 

We realized that item has to arrive clinically—clean off the rack and smelling like fresh-washed bed sheets and feeling like fresh-washed bed sheets. So we had to build our own laundry facility. We got to do that and use a wet care system that’s environmentally friendly. It’s kind to the environment. It’s also very kind to the garments, where items can be clinically cleaner and smell delicious and arrive in a box just like any other online retail experience. 

Again, the bar was really high for us there that we had to invest in really early on, for the business model to work. But also in the end, it was driven by what the customer wanted. We never want one of our customers’ items to arrive and, if it looked tatty or looked unclean, they’d say, oh, it’s just a rental. Like if you rent a car or rent something else. [We] blew our customers minds early on and remained consistent with that. 

Sunstrum: Dean, talk a little bit about how you use technology. That can be chat technologies or anything automated—just how you bring technology to augment that customer experience.

Jones: It has to always come back to the customer experience. Any product

decisions we make, frontend, backend, it’s always tied to, “What does this do better for our customers?” If it’s something else that’s a bit more convenient for us but it’s not as good for customers, it actually takes a backseat for our whole team. If it’s a change to make it better for us, but it’s somehow detracting from our customer’s experience, we don’t do it.

Technology has come into that in several ways. Obviously, it’s an online business with a moving target. We’ve got to make it a seamless experience. Something we’ve introduced that has allowed us to do it at scale is we built our own RFID [radio frequency identification] inventory tracking system. So every single one of our items has an RFID tag in it, which is not like a GPS or something. It just allows clothing to move through at a phenomenal speed through all the different checkpoints all while keeping the customer informed. Has it left the warehouse? Has it returned back? Very important to our customer and for our team to be able to track where it is.

Sunstrum: Travis?

Wright: For us, one of those big journeys we’ve been on is the website redesign that’s complete with several different new features, as well as different filters now. Because I feel like we want someone to come to our website, understand what they’re looking for, and be able to find what it quickly. 

Sunstrum: Megan, you’ve got to get the last word here. How are you using technology?

Olney: What we’ve been focusing on mostly over the last few months and [will] over the next few months is our self-serve channels, which sounds a little bit more boring than it is. But I think for a business that has 100,000 subscribers—and we know that at least 80% of those subscribers are choosing to self-serve when it comes to subscription management—it’s incredibly important to make that process really easy to manage, really seamless.

If you’re running a subscription model, you’re essentially asking your customers to trust that they will be able to manage that subscription really easily. We’re essentially saying, “Let us hold your credit card details and send your stuff when you need it.” So just for the sake of leaving anxiety, it’s really important that customers are confident in how they’re managing that subscription. 

The other part of this is looking at ways to make our help docs essentially more personalized. So we’ve recently launched a new tool on our website called Beacon, which is run by Help Scout, who are awesome. I’m a big fan of this. And it basically means that we can push more personalized FAQ content through to a customer depending on where they are on our website. So if they’re on a product page, they might need data that’s different information than if they’re in their subscription management page. And that also gives us the ability to scale our team consistently in a way that we can provide service that we want to our most valuable customers.

We’re still a small but growing team. And if we want to do live chat, it might be that it makes more sense for us to offer live chat to subscribers who are trying to manage their subscription there, and then in the window rather than trying to spread ourselves too thin across the general website, as well. So we’re looking at ways that we can try and talk to that support a little bit better. And as we talked about, really get on top of this effortless experience piece and make sure that things aren’t billing when they’re not supposed to do, and people are in control of their subscriptions with us.

This article originally appeared in the Shopify Plus blog and has been published here with permission.

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