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Marketing and CX Executives from AEO, Kate Spade, Shiseido, Vera Bradley on COVID-19 and Adjusting to Customer Needs

Authored by ActionIQ Team

On 4/14 ActionIQ hosted a virtual forum where brand executives and industry leaders discussed how they are adapting to customer experience management and meet rapidly changing customer needs and customer expectations during the global pandemic crisis.

Moderated by ActionIQ’s Ryan Greene and Tamara Gruzbarg, the distinguished panel featured:

Amanda Bopp, VP of Digital Marketing & CRM at Kate Spade, previously a marketing leader at Michael Kors, dunnhumby and Catalina

Oliver Chen, Managing Director — Retail and Luxury Sector Head at Cowen and Company, previously VP and Senior Analyst at Citigroup Investment Research

Welington Fonseca, SVP of Customer Marketing at Shiseido Group, previously a marketing executive at Rent the Runway, Gilt Groupe and Lord & Taylor

Chris Stephens, VP, Data Technology at American Eagle Outfitters, previously a data science and product team leader at Pivotal Software, Dell EMC and SAS

Daren Hull, Chief Customer Officer at Vera Bradley, previously a senior marketing executive at Williams-Sonoma, Amazon and L’Oreal

The discussion delivered a series of helpful and insightful takeaways, beginning with thoughts on how to approach leadership during this unprecedented crisis.


#1 — For Leadership, Clarity is Key

Our expert panelists recommended a back-to-basics, fundamental approach to leadership emphasizing clarity, transparency and availability—especially in the case of organizations that are now working remotely and may not be accustomed to it.  Three core elements of this approach came to the fore:

  1. Understanding what your org is capable of executing on right now, and developing an action plan is within those bounds
  2. Clearly defining and communicating the responsibilities you want your teams to own
  3. Setting out a clear timeline for every goal and deliverable

More than a business crisis, however, COVID-19 is a human crisis. Leaders are striving to be present and available for their teams, acknowledge the difficult challenges they are facing both personally and professionally, and help them work through it. Many brands are successfully employing daily team stand-ups and frequent virtual 1-on-1’s as a way to ensure consistent, clear communication, as well as the availability and presence of leadership.

Geographically, especially for global businesses, different teams are at different phases in the curve of the crisis. Asia, for instance, is working on reopening, while other regions have just begun to navigate shutdowns. Just as brands’ relationships with customers can no longer be “one size fits all,” management must also attune its style, tactics and expectations of employees based on the situation on the ground in each locale.


#2 — Brands Are Listening to Customers in New Ways

Customers are also experiencing unique and unprecedented challenges in their lives. And each customer persona has a differing relationship with—and expectations of—the brands they patronize. That’s why listening to customers about their wants and needs, and adapting the customer experience accordingly, is more important than ever to ensure customer satisfaction is met.

As was stressed in our prior expert discussions on April 8th and April 2nd—quantitative customer data about behavior is key. But brands are using a range of innovative tactics to gather qualitative insights as well.

For instance, a number of brands are turning to social media to observe and engage in conversations—gathering real time insights into customer feedback, opinions and needs. They’re also using those same channels to respond rapidly. Tactics include active solicitation of feedback via surveys and polling, as well as monitoring sentiment on social media, and quickly adjusting messaging and tactics in response to positive and critical customer feedback.


#3 — Store Associates are Coming to The Rescue

Relationships between associates and customers are also proving an invaluable asset. Though stores are closed, associates are working diligently to maintain customer loyalty and relationships via phone and online engagement. Brands are actively shaping their communications strategies and customer experience based on direct feedback obtained and relayed by associates.

One panelist relayed the story of a brand canceling a major launch in partnership with Disney, out of sensitivity for the challenges people are facing with COVID. Through social media channels—and direct feedback to store managers—customers asked the company to reverse course and continue with the launch, conveying that “your brand is so positive, and we need your positivity right now.” After deliberating, the company listened and moved forward. Some consumers were immediately critical of the launch, questioning whether it was appropriate during the crisis. In a heartening turn, customers came to the brand’s defense, self-policing their community and shutting down the negativity—proving out that listening and being receptive to your customers always wins in the end.


#4 — Brands are Innovating to Bring The Real World Online

Many brands are working through the challenges of trying to engage with store-only or store-first customers via online channels. Once again, despite physical store closures, front line employees are proving invaluable and helping to maintain the customer experience, albeit in a new way.

In place of relying on email marketing, one retail brand’s store associates are holding virtual shopping parties, where they use their firsthand customer knowledge to lead guided walkthroughs of the digital store, getting customers excited about exploring their favorite merchandise categories via a digital personalized experience.

In another example, a CPG brand’s extended network of local artists is using Instagram to demonstrate the brand’s products in action. The primary goal was to pick up the brand’s traditionally offline engagement with customers in the online world—but it’s also delivered some unexpected revenue and happier customers.


#5 — Opportunities Still Exist for Digital Laggards

Other brands, who had been lagging in their digital transformation efforts, have been scrambling to find their footing in ways to stimulate customer engagement. Panelists advised that—COVID or no COVID—the future is digital. But COVID has certainly accelerated the future. While brands ill-prepared for digital are in more jeopardy than their digital-ready peers, panelists stressed that the crisis also presents opportunities to kick transformation into gear.

Firstly, any internal resistance to change has likely disappeared as brands seek solutions, presenting an opportunity to push forward new initiatives. Secondly—just in the same way consumers are becoming newly accustomed to teleconferencing with family, colleagues, doctors, and fitness pros—they are open to old brands doing new things. And consumers understand it will be imperfect. So it’s a good time to try new things with breathing room to make mistakes.

Leaders should also ensure that digital transformation efforts address gaps in digital literacy within their employee base. Employees are at the front lines of executing digital strategies, and so they must be armed with training and expertise. Through internal events, digital resource libraries, and online courses—such as those offered by General Assembly, MIT, Squared Online and others—brands can jumpstart digital learning internally with less effort than one might expect.


#6 — Mid-Term Plans are Proving Toughest

In a prior virtual forum, panelists emphasized the importance of creating short, mid and long term action plans. By now, most brands are executing on short term action plans. And while long term plans are being tweaked, they’re largely in place.

The real uncertainty is in mid-term plans, and what the second half of 2020 will bring. How fast will the recovery be? What geographies, customer demographics and categories will recover faster or slower?

One approach to planning despite this uncertainty is to look at edge cases. For every geographic region you serve, build out a model for worst case scenarios and best case scenarios. Develop an action plan for each. By thinking about and planning for the edge cases, you should also be well prepared for the in-between scenarios.


#7 — Dependence on Data is Increasing

In this climate of uncertainty, brands have an increased need to take the pulse of the customer and understand reality on the ground. Decision-makers at every level are thirsting for data and analysis more than ever before. And with nearly every company working to meet a mandate of “doing more with less,” companies are looking for any areas where retail data, analytics and AI can help make optimal decisions faster and more efficiently.

Many organizations are also deepening their efforts to democratize data, taking specialized resources out of the critical path to insights, and getting data in the hands of those who need it.  A new spirit of test-and-learn is emerging, even in some of the (previously) most change-resistant cultures, allowing organizations to rapidly innovate and implement new strategies to better engage with and serve their customers.


#8 — Brands Are Preparing for Continued Social Distancing

Two scenarios that brands are actively planning for are continued social distancing and increased concerns about hygiene which will undoubtedly change the customer experience. Experts expect to see a number of trends come to fruition in response. Person to person consultations will be replaced by live online commerce. In Japan, for instance, online appointment setting and teleconferencing is already replacing many consumer-to-associate in store interactions.

When shopping returns to the store, selling processes and product packaging will be revamped to offer germ-free and touch free experiences. For instance, apparel shoppers will browse display-only items without touching, utilize virtual try-on technology for look and fit, use contactless pay, and carry out new untouched merchandise in sealed packaging.


#9 — Envisioning the New Future

Two of the main ways we get together with friends and loved ones, restaurants and shopping, will undergo major and likely permanent transformations. What will socializing look like? What will weddings look like? What will your brand add to that equation? One of the fundamental tasks leaders can take on right now—while we’re all locked up in our houses—is thinking creatively about what the future will look like, and helping shape how we’ll all live it.


Don’t Miss the Next Discussion in this Series

Stay tuned for our upcoming Customer Experience Management: The New Reality virtual forums on Wednesday, April 22 at 2pm ET and Thursday, April 30 at 4pm ET featuring marketing executives and CX leaders from American Express, Pearson Education, Sequoia Capital, Merkle, BCG, Pepperdine, and more. If you haven’t already done so, register now!

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