The True & Co. website.

How far are you willing to go to focus on your customers? To truly listen to them, realign strategies and business processes as needed, and above all else, put your customers at the center of the business in order to communicate your unique purpose, create remarkable experiences, long-term loyalty and drive profitability?

As we enter 2019, this isn’t a philosophical musing; it’s an existential question. Your customers expect and deserve nothing less than radical customer centricity, and in fact, the way you understand, connect with and act as a champion for your customers is your competitive advantage over Amazon and your peers.

As the retail industry continues its rapid transformation, the brands that prosper are those that intrinsically know their customers and make decisions with their true expectations and core needs in mind. They are radically customer-centric and keep lifetime value and true customer profitability at the forefront. I recently sat down with two of the leaders that are taking an inspirational approach in focusing on their customers. From authentic community building to organizational structures that foster data understanding and action, to good old fashion care, concern and listening, here are a few of the key learnings from brands blazing the trail and becoming beloved by their customers.

True & Co.: Building a community based on customer-centric innovation

For True & Co., radical customer centricity originates with an authentic sense of community. The incredibly popular women’s intimate apparel company describes itself as “a community of women joining together for a common cause: to make better bras.” As cofounder and chief executive officer, Michelle Lam explained, “We believe that each customer is an individual and that her likes and dislikes should be designed into the products we build for her.”

True & Co. created its Original Fit Quiz to determine the styles that best flatter the individual’s shape and size. “Women volunteer information about their bodies, their preferences and who they are through our quiz,” Lam says. “It’s a conversation between us and our customers. For everything they tell us, we give a response, whether it’s a recommendation from their personal shop, a fitting tip or a tailored marketing message; we avoid spamming women with the wrong type of bra. Women love self-discovery and learning what flatters their bodies; we’re opening women up to a concept that retailers haven’t shared before.”

Rather than focus on Amazon or chase its competitors down the rabbit hole, True & Co. stays focused on its mission of listening, learning and responding. Lam says, “We listen to our consumer community of over 7 million women, and she told us where she would like for us to go. She told us she wanted a different way to shop, and we listened to create the Original Fit Quiz. She was dissatisfied with the current bra options in the market, and so we created products based on the over 150 million data points that women have shared with us about their bodies and their lives. Most recently, we’ve heard that our consumers wanted to see more of our styles on real bodies, so we highlighted our consumer community photos and added them across the web site.”

Customer data is the epicenter of True & Co.’s success, and each type of data has its use. According to Lam, “the customer is getting more discerning about what is truly personal. It is no longer an e-mail that just says, ‘Hello, Michelle.’ They are looking for in-depth personalization and you need an infrastructure based on data to make that happen. Otherwise, it’s just on the surface, and the customer will see through that.”

Kidbox: Giving kids a Voice

Another company that’s taken a radical approach to customer centricity is Kidbox. In this case, they’re partnering directly with the set of consumers for which their brand was built: kids. Kidbox is a highly successful online brand that turned the subscription model on its head with a passionate, structured customer focus. Parents take a style quiz, order a box with six to seven items curated by Kidbox stylists and keep only the products they enjoy. In much the same way that True & Co. listens to its customers, Kidbox is building a community where kids are at the center — and their home’s doorstep is the new main door of retail.

“We’re partnering with kids to build our brand. Kids have a say in everything from what fills the candy jars in our office to what should be included in the boxes to surprise and delight them,” said Miki Racine Berardelli, ceo of Kidbox. While Kidbox is a convenience for busy parents, each monthly box is designed to bring joy to the child, turning the event of opening the kid-friendly box into a special occasion. Mini-fashion shows are taking place daily in living rooms all over the U.S., and Kidbox is listening. “We’re designing to what children want more of, and we’re pivoting the authority of what is purchased into the child’s hands,” she says.

Kidbox’s business is rooted in customer research — “where design meets research and sentiment,” as Racine Berardelli explained. “We’re taking a methodical approach to evolve our business model and customer experience. To do this, data has to be enabled throughout our organization so we have the data we need to make decisions quickly.”

Kidbox underscores the notion of customer centricity so seriously, it even has a kids’ board of directors: 12 children who are authentically taking action in their local communities to make a difference. “They are getting their fingerprints all over the brand,” Berardelli said. “Their voices are heard and impact our business. They have endless ideas and points of view, with perspectives that we don’t have.”

Other Radical Ideas Across Retail

Across the industry, we’re seeing other companies embrace radical ideas that are paying off in spades with shoppers. Nike, for example, has utilized its successful digital business to improve the brick-and-mortar experience at its “Nike by Melrose” store. Pulling from local data, the store rotates inventory on the shelves with items popular in the surrounding neighborhood to offer an experience that’s relevant to its shoppers in that area. Bridging the gap between physical and digital gives Nike the ability to offer customers a curated, unique and relevant selection and embraces the importance of experiential retail.

Meanwhile, Farfetch continues to understand the value of data, announcing its “Store of the Future” late last year that aims to dramatically improve retail productivity by collecting invaluable customer data. Founder and ceo José Neves, introduced this idea last year, noting that with 90 percent of sales still occurring in-store, customer data in brick-and-mortar stores should not be overlooked. Instead, Farfetch envisions a store where data can be collected as effectively as it is online and utilized in ways that enhance interactions between shoppers and sales associates.

Key Takeaways and Lessons

What can traditional retailers gather from these “radically customer-centric brands?” Here are a few aspects that I’ve found most impactful:

  1. Data Connection and Consideration: The first step of utilizing customer data is to have the means to collect it. As such, brands and retailers must make sure that every step along the journey, customers’ actions are being measured so that the brand can derive more about the shopper and ascertain who is most profitable for their business. Additionally, once this data is collected, it’s essential that key people in the retail organization can access it, read and organize it, and most importantly, learn from it. This means establishing an infrastructure of data collection and connection that can be easily understood, as well as hiring those who have the ability to put the metrics and information swiftly into action.
  2. Structure that Supports Customer Centricity: If there’s one thing to be learned from my discussions with True&Co. and Kidbox, it’s that the key to customer centricity is deeply and openly listening to your customers. Some retailers look at data and only see a mass of numbers that impact their bottom line. The leaders I spoke with are able to see human beings whose lives can be improved with products that are made specifically for them. This level of customer-focused thinking is only possible if the entire organization is on board and if every interaction, from product development to marketing to mobile to store, is treated as an opportunity to better understand and ultimately delight the customer.
  3. Creativity and Vision: It’s simple enough to examine data and react to it. But in order to be truly successful in reaching customers, retailers should be radical and willing to take risks to build truly authentic customer relationships. As with Kidbox’s kids’ board of directors and True & Co.’s Original Fit Quiz, fresh ideas can have a significant impact on customer adoption and loyalty. These initiatives show shoppers that these brands care about them and want to deeply understand them. Listening — in-store, in-person, via social, online and through data — opens up many doors that can lead to customer loyalty and, as such, brands and retailers must have a creative mind-set and truly be attuned to what their customers are communicating.

While the methods may be new, innovative and even radical, the premise goes back to the original days of retail when a neighborhood shopkeeper knew each customer, her preferences, her purchases and her expectations, and delivered them with authentic care, creativity and attentiveness.

Simply analyzing data and personalizing marketing is not enough to convince customers you care about their unique needs. There are many intricacies involved with becoming a truly customer-first organization. As we enter 2019, we should take a cue from passionately customer-focused like True & Co., Kidbox, Nike, Farfetch, etc. who consider listening to their customers and innovating with their customers at the core, not just smart business, but organizational imperatives for long-term success.

Sarah Engel is chief marketing officer of DynamicAction.

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