"The Future is Now" The Urgency to Elevate the Customer Experience with Ruth Crowley


Emily Lane, Bret Schnitker, Ruth Crowley


October 24, 2022


Emily Lane 00:00 

Welcome back to another episode of Clothing Coulture, the retail experience is ever evolving. And COVID Certainly disrupted things and accelerated an already evolving situation. So what can brands and retailers do? Well, today we have an expert coming on the show to talk about the retail experience and author, not just an author, by the way, a three times author, an Amazon Best Seller, of longtime friends of Stars Design Group, and VP of Merchandise and Brand Strategy of Hudson Group. Welcome Ruth Crowley, we are so excited to have you join us today. Thank you. So I have been hearing Bret talk about you for so long now. You know, the wisdoms that you have the insight, you have a long time friendship? How did the both of you meet? 

Bret Schnitker 01:01 

I think it was in 2004. In Bangalore, India, 

Emily Lane 01:05 

that's where you met. 

Bret Schnitker 01:07 

Very first time in India, I was warned about this really tough driven Irish gal and I had to prepare myself for it. And luckily hit it off. We had we we started having some great conversations. I think over the years, we continue those conversations and, and she is truly a good friend today. 

Ruth Crowley 01:30 

I think that that's actually a critical point as you as you think about customer experience, part of customer experience is driven by such strong relationships and Brett's 100%. Correct. He did, He was warned all about not as bad as by 

Bret Schnitker 01:47 

one person. 

Ruth Crowley 01:50 

It was by multiple people. But what we discovered was a shared passion for what's right, a shared passion, around product around details around the authenticity of the product to the brand. Whereas for some retailers, the concept is here's what we want to do. And here's how it works. We were very conscientious both Bret and I about how do you ensure that what you're creating is aligned with what the customer expects from the brand, not what some genius decided they might like it had to align with the customer and the customer experience. In fact, we took it a couple steps further, because in the customer experience with Harley Davidson at the time, the key was that there had to be a lifestyle product, and then a fashion product because some of it is aspirational. And some of it is functional, like it's further road, it's for that. And so we discovered a unified approach with a shared passion for the brand, and for creating a quality product that would meet the experience of the customer on the road. 

Emily Lane 03:04 

So I'm hearing some kind of insights as to customer experience. Here, you're talking about really meeting and exceeding client expectations on the quality of product that they're going to get. You know, a lot of times when you hear customer experience, I think a common misconception might be customer service. But obviously, it expands far beyond that, can you help enlighten us as to maybe some of the other core values behind customer experience? 

Ruth Crowley 03:33 

I'll share a point of view I never credit myself for enlightening anyone else were appointed. I'll share a point of view with you that I strongly believe that customer service is the physical delivery of what the envision plan is customer experiences driven first and foremost by how the customer feels when they interact with the brand. And in common all of the recent jobs like with Harley Davidson, or even with Lowe's home improvement, I had an amazing group of people. And we we focus completely on customer experience design and customer experience design is rooted in human centered design methodology. And so there's people my boss used to say well that sound Customer Experience Design sounds a bit soft to me. In fact, you leveraged hard facts and data and research analytics and then physical observation of a customer and active listening to customers either in the store or in a focus group or in some other methodology to drive a purposeful and fact based decision to form the plan. Where Bret and I worked and on the clothing was you know the customer expected one of the basic things clothing to fit, and it didn't fit. Yeah because if you, if you have a normal spec, long sleeve shirt, it doesn't work on a motorcycle because you reach your arms to go on the to ride the motorcycle. And now suddenly the sleeve is up above your wrist bone, and it shouldn't be. And so part of the first thing again to elevate that customer experience was how do you work to ensure that the specifications not only align with what the customer experience needs to be, but also is comfortable on the road? And so I think the customer experience is a kind of the elevated view, and the service is how you deliver it. 

Bret Schnitker 05:42 

Let me explain. One of my early customer experience lessons that I I had with Ruth and her team. I should have read the book, but you're in India for a while and I figured a great customer experience to be introducing them to different parts of India. And so I thought I would take them on this luxury airplane ride to the hem Malia's. And we showed up in a plane for 20 people with duct tape seats, 132 degrees and barf bags stuffed all everywhere in the plane. You know, I think I wowed them basically with that first experience. And then we hit turbulence. And I think by the time we hit the runway up in the homology as Ruth has replaced the f up word with Jagger, which was the term for the airline at the point. And I think she sat down and kissed the ground. So I think I aced that customer experience at that 

Emily Lane 06:40 

and created a new verb. I 

Bret Schnitker 06:42 

created a new verb. Yeah. That was my customer experience for a very important client at the point. Yeah, oh 

Emily Lane 06:50 

my gosh, 

Bret Schnitker 06:51 

it was all immersive. You know, his entertaining maps the four main pillars. It was educational. He was entertaining it well, okay, maybe a little aesthetic. But it was certainly escapist. So, you know, if you really look at those four, I think I ticked the boxes just in the most horrible way. That's 

Ruth Crowley 07:09 

for realm and thank you also did was helped. And I think this is critical. Joking aside, that was dreadful. thing that you didn't you do is your illustration, there is exactly what people need to do today. And that is get outside your comfort zone, we were 

Bret Schnitker 07:29 

way outside our comfort zone, we were waiting. 

Ruth Crowley 07:33 

So your example is illustrative of the need for that today more than ever, and also the willingness to purposefully change your mindset to admit that maybe you don't know everything, because everything has changed about the customer. And Emily, you mentioned COVID I think that one of the biggest changes in customer experience with COVID is that change has been accelerated. I used to listen to companies say, oh, yeah, we're going to do this in two years, we're going to elevate our digital experience in two years. Well, you don't have two years right now, the customer experience has to be elevated. And the future is now and I think that that's one of the biggest things we all have to do as designers, as retailers, as brand advocates, as storytellers is to accelerate the story to meet the current environment in which you live and do exactly but not as drastically as reactive, and kind of be willing to change your mindset and be willing to collectively and collaboratively move in a different direction because the world has changed. 

Emily Lane 08:48 

So we can get my head around. I'm sorry. I can get my head around what you're talking about with kind of these multi layer experience, you know, I think about going to the Four Seasons, it smells good. It sounds good. If you're staying there, the robes feel good. Like every element, every detail has been figured out. You know, I'm what I'm curious about is thinking about this more online space and of course COVID You know, places had to go even more online. How do we still capture that multi layered experience successfully making people feel really good and and connected and like there's this memorable experience when we're in this kind of, you know, online touchless space? 

Bret Schnitker 09:38 

Yeah, that's interesting. 

Ruth Crowley 09:40 

So I think first of all, omni channel right people talk about omni channel and I absolutely despise the term omni channel because files for a corporate culture thing. It might put it in a comfortable categorization omni channel doesn't describe the customer experience. It describes what the company wants to deliver. They want to sell stuff across different channels. And I've been known to say, When is the last time you said to your partner, your friends, your puppy, you know, oh, my gosh, I had the best Omni experience today, you know, it doesn't happen. And so the criticality of this is to absolutely go about what you said, Emily, and talk about how the customer feels through every step of a 360 degree experience. It's one of the things in Lowe's home improvement, for example, where we had, you know, we had built a store experience, but, you know, I raised my hand and Brettell. Tony, I frequently do and so yeah, but that's we haven't, we've only started. Because if, even before COVID 86% of the customer journey, start online, there's some research online. And so how they feel online can determine whether or not they come further on the journey with you. And so, if you miss it, there, you miss it. So I'll give you a tip because some of your some of your listeners and your followers I know like facts. And so I'll give you an example, this one occasion, in Lowe's, we were working on a project category. And we said to the digital team, and this will also get to what we need to do to elevate the customer experience. We said to one of the teams, you know, what if we were to help you with this digital experience, so that it's more cohesive, it's more integrated, it's less friction, and so it can seamlessly take the customer where they want to go. They didn't like that initially, because they had done Oh, no, but I've shown all my elements here and here. And here as well. That's not what the customer wants. But the customer wants is to see, what does this product and this category do for me? How does it make me feel? How does it answer the questions I have? How does it address my aspiration? And so long story short, and in corporate culture? One of the huge barriers we had first is how do you break the cross functional barrier? So one of the questions asked of me is, well, are you who's going to get credit for this? And I'm, like, you know, Bret has has shared that occasionally, I can use colorful language. I said, it doesn't matter who gets credit, it's not about credit, how do you elevate the experience for the customer to bring them all the way through, because if you bring them all the way through, and if you care about them along the journey, then they're going to stay with you longer, they won't abandon you. And there's way too many options in the industry, in order for the customer to lose you if you don't fulfill their needs. Long story short, we reworked the digital experience, it allowed the customer to see different options of the category that we were working on, they could envision themselves in this space. And then if they wanted the information on what the components were, they could do a click down and click down and click down. Okay. 1100%, increase 1100. And I'm not I'm not missing a number, I'm not a finance person. But I'm not missing a number, it was an 1100% increase, because people felt it, they could visualize that they could feel it. And if all of us did a little bit more of that, especially now back to your point about COVID. You know, it changed since COVID. Because now more people are more familiar with how to do search online, there's absolutely zero patience. If I don't get what I need in 30 seconds, I'm out I can abandon you and go somewhere else. And so urgency. For me. It's patient urgency, you know, it's not just random. But like how do you thoughtfully consider taking the customer all the way through this experience. So you bring them all the way on the journey with you. And you get them to spend more time with you. And by the way, and Bret will talk about this for days probably on how you also build the loyalty so they become your advocates. And I think that that's part of what all of us have to do, whether it's in design, whether it's in clothing, it's how is that item going to affect and impact in a positive way the customers life sounds like big picture, but that's how the customer feels about it. We have to get into their mindset. 

Bret Schnitker 14:48 

You mentioned cultural, you know, when we traveled we talked a lot about like Asian culture, which by nature wants your experience to be better in the places we were, whether we were experiencing it with a factory or a hotel or a taxi cab driver? Right? You know, they all cared about this human relationship kind of thing. You know, as we get back to the United States, and it always sorry, it's just how it is, you walk into this self service, you know, I'm the most important snowflake in the room kind of feel. And then you're trying to talk about this customer experience and elevating it. How do you get teams? You know, in that culture that we have in the US? How do you get teams to engage? I think that was one of the things you were talking about, you know, executing that whole thing. And in the first book customer? 

Ruth Crowley 15:36 

Exactly. And, you know, one of the things was that, how do you bring the people together, and one of the things we helped was, I was talking to someone just today, Bret about, we need to focus here. And, you know, if we bring people on, and they said, well, we'll just hold people accountable to it, I said, it's not a compliance program, they have to feel it. And they also have to feel the important role they play, no matter what functional role they play, one of the things I said I beg people constantly is, please, please don't let the vertical lines of the organization chart get in the way of a horizontal experience for the customer. Yeah, we all purposefully own a piece of this. And for me, and Bret, you and I have worked on this a few times is in the Harley Davidson system in the Lowe's system in the current system, it's about gauging people who have critical points within that ecosystem, and helping them understand the critical role they play. But then secondarily, helping everybody understand how their roles together is what makes the total experience and it's about a teaching and learning, as opposed to a do this, or else do this or else doesn't work. And especially in today's younger culture in the work environment doesn't work, 

Bret Schnitker 17:04 

I think you can see the authenticity or lack of, I mean, if people are forced, you know, with little badges or the names, and they just feel uncomfortable in that space. Look, I think people are intuitive and realize whether that experience is authentic or not. 

Emily Lane 17:19 

Exactly. Well, you know, you you reminded me of, kind of, early on in my, my career, you know, working at retail, you know, and, and hearing, you know, people come and ask questions, and you know, other associates saying things like, well, that's not my job, you know, go see this person, that person that certainly wouldn't, wouldn't develop or support a wonderful customer experience. And I've, likewise, you know, as I've grown and experienced all kinds of different businesses and endeavors throughout my life, you know, I've gone to hotels, where the owner of the hotel has brought me towels to my room, you know, and so, because it's all it's everybody's job, it's everybody's job to deliver a great experience. And if you are the person that's available to bring the towels that day, that's what needs to be done. Because you're all a part of creating this experience and living to your brand. And that does require education also requires developing this culture within your environment that everybody really cares about, about everybody that walks through our doors, if they're delivering the water, if they are delivering our mail, if there's staying here, if they're a client, all everybody that touches this business, you want to have a positive experience. 

Ruth Crowley 18:39 

I think that's 100%. Right. And you know, I used to work in Universal Studios as well, we could go on and on about. But in Universal Studios, that became a critical pain point, because first of all people had to pay for the experience. And the expectation was that they have saved up either here in universal or in Disney. It was an aspirational journey for the family, and how do you work to ensure that you deliver on that experience, and I for me, I had the added stress of while these people have paid hundreds of dollars just to go into the park, we better deliver. And so there was a very conscientious play about end to end delivery, like a full end to end journey for the customer. What I learned was that on the retail side, we missed it. And because we didn't greet the customer, we didn't say what about this we had one of the huge barriers I had to overcome with some of our associates salty apparel was too expensive. And so we taught them. Why is the apparel a little more expensive? What are some of the components of this and they said I never thought about But that in other words, we had to help remove their own barriers in order so that they could then understand and deliver the expectation. The other one is to value each one of them, Emily. And I think that that's one of the critical things. I, when I worked in Marriott, we worked with Mr. Marriott once and he said to me, he says, wow, it's pretty impressive that you're talking to the housekeeper. And I said, You sound surprised? Like, why wouldn't I talk to the housekeeper? It was a trick question. Yeah, Maria was very much on this. And I said that housekeeper is the last person who touched my room, that person is the person who's going to set the tone for our customer when they come into the hotel. And so it's critical to me that they feel valued. And then they understand that, wow, if we missed the link in the service chain, here, we miss completely. And same thing with the servers in the restaurant with the bus people in the restaurant. Each piece is a critical link in the design culture, for example. And in clothing culture, that became critical as well, because if you have the beautiful fabric, by the way, Brett is one of the best, absolute best in the industry, in fabric and differentiation and understanding application of fabric to what you want to do. But if you don't do that, then you miss that connectivity with the customer you like in motorcycle culture, it was, if the fabric isn't soft enough, if it's a long ride, there's abrasion. But if you if they, you could do a fabric and do a beautiful design. But if then the buttons are too hard, or they rub against your chest or if the zipper pole doesn't work, those it's about considering all the elements in order to drive an optimal results. So 

Emily Lane 21:55 

I'd like to propose a new term. I know that Omni channels something that makes you feel a little prickly. What about Omni experience? 

Ruth Crowley 22:09 

How about customer? 

Bret Schnitker 22:12 

Access the big thing, right? 

Ruth Crowley 22:15 

And, and only because it personalizes it? Yeah. I see what you're saying. And I know and actually, it's actually a provocative if rhetorical question, because the comfortable thing for people to do would be to call it a nominee experience, because they're serving these different but at the end of the day, to Brett's point earlier, were in the people visit we are we're in the everything we do is in the people business. So what about customer experience? And it's not that I'm not willing to look at new stuff. But if we put the customer at the center of everything we do, then we never lose the focus or the target, we can then take it beyond that to say, how do you look at this in an omni way, I prefer to think of 360 degrees, because that's how the customer moves through life, or that's how the customer, that's how we listen, we're people too. And for someone to consider me as part of their family, something doesn't work for me, I want them to care for me as a viable critical element of their business future. And I think that that piece becomes important. It's your point also makes me think about a lot of companies, Bret knows this are working on personalization right now. And it absolutely drives me up the wall because personalization is defined as what they want the customer to buy, as opposed to what they create suits the need and the lifestyle of the customer. And it's just a little pivot, a little technicality and how you approach it, but a monumental difference in how you serve the people you're serving. 

Bret Schnitker 23:58 

As we wrap this up, I have a question for you been doing some seminars lately. And you know, there's been a lot of conversation about introduction of your favorite topic, artificial intelligence, AI and technology. I know how much you love all of that stuff. So in the seminars with all of this conversation about automating even the customer experience, right, you know, taking it out of the hands of humans. One of the big questions where people, you know, when you're at the seminars, what are their big concerns about customer experience? What are their big questions is we're kind of moving down this advent of replacing humans with machines. Is there any of that dialogue? 

Ruth Crowley 24:37 

There's a lot of that dialogue, right, you're 100% Right. And maybe the question is, how can elements of the experience be reproduced and recreated in an artificial intelligence mode? Here's the big the big idea for you is that I actually even though thank you for bringing into the universe at large that I I'm someone technically challenged, 

Bret Schnitker 25:01 

you just don't you'd rather write a letter than type it. 

Ruth Crowley 25:04 

I actually am physically writing with my purple pen helps me think it through, right? 

Bret Schnitker 25:11 

It was a personal touch to it also. Yes, 

Ruth Crowley 25:15 

yeah. And there's a human element that I'm bringing to you because it's important. But there's pieces. Like if I'm just doing a Word document, I'm perfectly comfortable on it, what I've learned is that the artificial intelligence can actually be a more comfortable interaction for the customer. Sometimes, what we've done in the travel retail space at the moment that you'll be very impressed is do automated retail. And basically, that gives the customer 24/7 options in brands and regional concepts that they can approach on their terms. And by the way, and Emily, two point earlier, in the current COVID environment, a consideration for the fact that there's an anti microbial layer on the each of the units so that the customer feels like they're covered, not only are they served, but they're also covered. The second piece is we've worked with Amazon, on a powered by Amazon, a technology for store where the customer taps comes in, makes their selection to walk out, it's on their terms, they can do that. The end. But the last one, I'd say and Brett, I know you, me and Emily could have a whole other hour on this. There's a real need for options for the customer, one size does not fit all. So one of the other things we've done in our stores currently, is bring this self checkout option to the customer. And so they have the option to check out they have the option to go through a regular human interaction with the with the cash register person with the service ambassador, but the brand ambassador, but I beg us to believe that absolutely leverage technology absolutely leverage AI for things like understanding the customer and understanding the landscape in order to serve it. And then customize it with research, analytics, etc. To bring it AI for people who are depending on an online environment to how do you optimize the SEO piece, so that you are always at top of mind. But the biggest one and Brett knows I'm so so crazed of actors is there's a lot of focus on contactless and digital and technology. But that doesn't mean we lose contact with the human being on the other side of the station. To maintain contact, we have to care, we have to maintain the human element. And we have to remember that at the end of the day, every single one of us no matter what your role is in the people business. 

Bret Schnitker 28:02 

Yeah, and we do business with people we like to do business, we buy products that we think fit our fit our value system. And so I think that's really important. I think it sets it up for an interesting podcast we've got coming up this season, that'll be great to hear your take, there's a group called X Gen that's going to be on and they're using a AI to help cus curate the customer experience as they come on to the websites automatically as a plugin, it constantly re engineers particular products based on customers. And they've shown a huge increase because the customer doesn't have to go hunting and pecking it starts to learn that customer and provide products specifically for their needs through AI. And so that'll be a that'll be an interesting, yeah, nice 

Emily Lane 28:47 

continuation of this conversation over 

Ruth Crowley 28:50 

the beauty of that bread. Last comment is that that actually is exactly what we started off with. But the future is now and if we leverage technology in any way possible to anticipate the needs of the customer, that that old cliche adage of surprise and delight, it happens through information and data and real facts to drive it not what some corporate executives thinks they know the customer want, 

Bret Schnitker 29:20 

right? The ones that are on the bad side of this whole coin as the ones that forgot that we've moved to a consumer driven economy. 

Ruth Crowley 29:26 

Exactly. That's 100% I couldn't agree more. 

Emily Lane 29:30 

Well, thank you so much for all of this insight. It's very, very clear that this is a topic that you are passionate about and expert about. We are going to make sure to share links to your books because you know in the time of our conversation we can't clearly call cover the wealth of your information. But we really appreciate you joining us today, Ruth, 

Ruth Crowley 29:50 

we appreciate that. Thanks a million. Everybody enjoy, be safe be well. Do good but be great. 

Bret Schnitker 29:58 

Thanks for 

Emily Lane 29:59 

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"The Future is Now" The Urgency to Elevate the Customer Experience with Ruth Crowley