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The future of brick and mortar

In March, 2015, the Digital Screenmedia Association was re-launched as the Interactive Customer Experience (ICX) Association in response to the rapid evolution of interactive technologies available to B2C brands.

After examining the complex layers of relationships between customers and technology, as well as store associates and technology, it became evident to us that the future of interactive technology within a B2C context depends upon the ability of brands to properly utilize technology as an extension of one-to-one human interactions rather than the replacement of them.

That’s why we re-framed our mission statement – to connect B2C brands with technology that elevates the customer experience – to focus on the human aspects of applying technology to the customer experience and serve as a constant reminder that the function of technology is to invite customers into a deeper conversation. That is, technology is but one way of making doing business with you more engaging.

Simply put, we see the future success of any interactive technology, be it digital signage, interactive kiosks or mobile wallets, in terms of how human it is.

Let me explain by way of a few snapshots from the ICX Summit, which was held in Chicago last June, that illustrate the vitality of good customer experience practice to the sustainability of B2C brick-and-mortar environments.

Snapshot 1 – This is a big idea!

ICX Summit: Scavenger Hunt

ICX Summit Scavenger Hunt

One of the early indicators of us being onto something big at the ICX Association was when the inaugural ICX Summit sold out about three weeks before the kickoff.

Event planning is always tricky because there are so many ways you can lose your shirt. For a first-time event, you minimize risk and build on the lessons learned.

As we approached, then blew past the capacity for the event, we shoe-horned in as many attendees as the Sofitel would allow before finally, and reluctantly, shutting down registration. Our marketing director likes to say that good marketing won’t save a bad conference agenda, and based on the response we received, our agenda struck a deep nerve.

Everyone I spoke to at the event was eager to hear from our speakers and talk to their counterparts at other brands to glean some secrets on how to do a better job of engaging customers.

Shapshot 2 – More than a scavenger hunt

The Summit opened with a scavenger hunt, an ice-breaker activity that was significant in many ways; first as a get-to-know-you bonding exercise, but also as a means of evaluating the state of the art in customer engagement deployments.

ICX Summit: Under Armour

Under Armour flagship store

On a beautiful Sunday afternoon, we were divided into groups of 6-10 people and sent out to Michigan Avenue with a custom-designed app that pointed us to various stores to encounter customer engagement strategies at work. Over the course of a few hours, we marched in and out of flagship stores selling clothing, electronics, candy and other goodies.

Some of the deployments were clever. Another stood off to the side of a busy aisle, all but ignored. Most deployments were free-standing and independent of the associates working alongside them.

To me, the store that really nailed it was Under Armour. Among a dazzling array of digital signage displays was an unbranded training tool developed by a doctor for athletes to help maximize performance. Under Armour used it to engage children – and their paying parents – by giving them free assessments of foot speed, jumping ability and other sports metrics. There was a long line of people waiting for their turn to be evaluated, attended to by a few store associates clad in the latest Under Armour shoes and clothes.

The magic of the installation was in the interactions that took place in the line, as families watched those who were having their abilities evaluated. Associates asked simple questions. “What sport do you play?” “What position?” Simple questions that sparked free-flowing conversations that eventually wound their way to product.

As I said, the deployment was unbranded and nowhere near the flashiest bit of technology in the store. It looked like the diagnostic tool it is, and it worked because of its authenticity. Families felt as though they were learning something. Value was gained.

Snapshot 3 – It’s not about the tech. It’s the total experience.

A final snapshot from the ICX Summit occurred during its final moments as Blaine Hurst, the Executive Vice President and Chief Transformation & Growth Officer of Panera Bread, transfixed attendees with his story of The Panera 2.0 Integrated Experience. Or, as my kids call it, “The iPads.”

Without going into a full synopsis of the session, I’ll simply boil it down to a few bullets from one of Hurst’s first slides:

  • Disruptive innovation requires a holistic perspective of the guest and their total experience.
  • It’s not about the tech – it’s the integration of the total experience
  • From front of house to back of house to front again
ICX Summit Blaine Hurst

Blaine Hurst, Panera

You’ll notice that those three points are focused on the customer – understanding who the customer is and what he/she wants and how to create a total solution that delivers on that expectation.

One of two big takeaways of Hurst’s talk was that, for Panera 2.0 to work, many broken systems within the company had to be fixed. Think about that for a second, as well as the costs that surely came along with deconstructing front of house and back of house systems and re-building them in order to hopefully create a better customer experience.

For many, if not most companies, their 2.0 initiatives would never get beyond this point because they look at customer experience deployments as bolted-on solutions that ride along with the status quo of their day-to-day operation, not a re-imagining of the company culture from top to bottom and bottom to top.

Customer engagement is more than C-level bluster. To truly alter the way your company relates to the customer you must alter the DNA of the organization. This starts at the top, with a commitment of will power and money, and works its way through the rest of the organization with purpose and tenacity.

The other big takeaway of this session was that the Panera 2.0 project began with a deceptively simple 4-page white paper that outlined how one might successfully compete with Panera.

This idea sounds so elementary, right? But who does this? Who exposes their company to this kind of intense internal scrutiny that infringes on others’ turf and generally makes people uncomfortable?

The status quo, or denial, is a powerful drug.

Technology is the extension, not extinction, of humanity

There’s a good TED Talk by a guy named Barry Schwartz called The way we think about work is broken, where he challenges business executives to think about the cultures that exist in their operations and the impact those cultures have on the employees who work within them.

Schwartz talks about the technology of ideas, ways of understanding, and how innovation can happen as much from an evolution of thought as from an evolution in digital technology.

To illustrate this idea, Schwartz points to the factory system of the Industrial Revolution, which viewed people as cogs in a giant machine. This concept exists today, of course, and is easily identified in high turnover positions in places like fast food restaurants and retail, where front-line staff are basically interchangeable parts. Or at least that’s the defacto way in which they’re treated.

In a culture like this, where the employees are systematically de-motivated by bottom-line management policies that view labor costs as a necessary evil, what kinds of customer engagements can rightfully be expected?

Or put another way, what kind of chance does the latest customer engagement deployment have at building deep connections when the staff are treated like factory workers cranking out widgets-by-the-hour in an environment where no-shows are commonplace, and managers are regularly struggling to fill holes in the work schedule?

I asked my friend Bob Phibbs, The Retail Doctor, what he thought about this.

“It’s bad enough stores that were designed to run on four, five or more employees are now reduced to one or two person coverage – they are managing the sales down because customers won’t wait where there are rushes,” he said. “Adding more technology will make those employees feel even more disposable and shut off any creativity they might have had, diminishing returns exponentially on all the brand’s marketing, design and buzz.”

Phibbs went on to say that in transformed retail cultures, associates are given space to engage customers – “really engage them to the point where they open their wallets and tell their friends.” Think of how technology is used in environments like these. Apple comes to mind. The technology used by associates isn’t front-and-center. It’s a tool that facilitates an uninterrupted dialogue between the associate and customer that is unpressured makes for a smooth shopping experience.

 

As computing power continues to evolve, B2C brands will have the ability to understand and engage customers in ways that are hardly imaginable today, and the brands who lap the field, as always, will be the ones who are the best at innovating around humanity – the ones who see technology as an extension of humanity, not the replacement of it.

What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments section below. And please consider joining us at the 2016 ICX Summit and the February ICX Symposium, where we’ll be working through challenges like these with your peers and industry thought leaders.

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