For decades a retailer’s business was understandably centered around the products it sold. However, the onset of digital drove the need for retailers to reassess what their central focus must be, moving from products to the customer.
This change created a delta between a retailer’s leadership team placing the customer in the center and the day-to-day operational reality of it. It's one thing to place the customer at the heart of your business, but to do it successfully an assessment of pan-organizational operating behavior and practices must occur. The switch for many retailers focused on using technology to address customer centricity as a kind of silver bullet, rather than looking at the whole operation.
While technology will continue to be at the heart of customer experience, the focus of its next evolutionary step must be led by a role and not simply the application of technology. That role is the customer experience strategist — a person whose job is to anticipate and adapt to the next, and subsequent, generations of customer experiences.
Over the past five years, numerous C-suite leaders have asked me, “How do we prevent, or minimize, the impact of the next trend like digital to avoid being caught off-guard and slow to respond to consumer demands?” This is a great question because there will always be emergent technology-led trends that can have a profound impact on how retailers engage with consumers from within, and across, channels.
The reason the question keeps getting asked isn't because of the impact of digital specifically, but because it's easier to point fingers at technology being the challenge, rather than a retailer’s ability to be self-reflective and anticipate and understand how it must adapt existing or introduce new retail operating models.
One of the common mistakes retail leaders made was treating digital, and ergo customer experience, not as a fundamental challenge to the business operating dynamics across the whole organization, and between organizations, but rather a technology trend that affected the day-to-day operating dynamics of specific channels. This narrow and reactionary focus left many retailers woefully ill-prepared for the profound shift that was needed to be planned for in regard to customer experience across the organization as a whole.
The root cause of this issue is the disconnect that typically exists between a retailer’s corporate strategy department and the channel-based focus of customer experience roles. Customer experience strategists need to be at the heart of the corporate strategy team that answers to the CEO and C-suite leadership team — not a departmental role. Otherwise, it continues to be a role with isolated influence on an immediate use case, or requirements for a channel, rather than fundamentally changing the operating dynamics across the whole organization.
The purpose then of the customer experience strategist role, within the corporate strategy department, is to anticipate and assess nascent/outlier trends and recommend how the company should prepare for them at the point of the business strategy creation. This ensures a mechanism is in place for the retailer to anticipate the holistic impact of customer experience behavior with enough lead time to plan an appropriate course of action, while maintaining channel-specific customer experience specialists to meet the demands of near-term retail dynamics.
There's no question that this course correction is essential to the future success of retailers in an environment where customer expectations continue to rise, and brand loyalty is easily lost. It requires agility, bravery and commitment, but the rewards will be great.
Spencer Izard is the lead advisor and researcher at Leading Edge Forum, a global research and thought leadership organization committed to helping clients embrace opportunities created by disruption.
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