Ironically for a sector that is so good at looking outward, the IT departments of the retail sector can be very introverted. Too often the question is “what systems worked best for us as a company?” Or “how we could best do our jobs and achieve productivity and efficiency?” This introverted view doesn’t put the customer first.
The IT argument in traditional retail is that if the systems and applications are best of breed, the merchandisers can plan the seasons, logistics are enabled to carry out just in time deliveries, the stock systems are always up to date, and the store colleagues can seamlessly carry out a sale and ultimately the customer will be happy. It is the marketing teams that need to worry about the customer and how best to get them into the store, and the sales and operations teams need to worry about how best to sell to them. As long as they have been adequately equipped with fit for purpose enabling technology, IT has done its job.
The logic is not entirely wrong, and for a traditional bricks and mortar business it may still hold true to an extent. IT has the role to always make sure that the business gets what it asked for. Whatever the approach or methodology, ultimately there would always be a requirement followed by a spec, a build, a test and then a launch. The testing specifically would consist of some user acceptance testing to make sure what was being delivered was fit for purpose in the eyes of the user.
Personally this paradigm shifted somewhat in the middle of the night in July 2006, when I put my first major digital project live. All of a sudden it didn’t really matter what the users had requested. IT was not focused on employees, but on the customer.
Dixons the largest online electronics website in the country at the time had just been given a makeover that would drastically change the user experience and proposition. Customers found a new user journey that offered a solution that most of them had never thought of as a necessity but they would hopefully adopt in their droves. The paradigm shift was that this new retail experience would be rigorously tested, accepted and/or rejected not by a handful of internal users but by thousands of real life, active and demanding customers. Each one of these customers had an opinion as to how the website should work, some would love it, others would hate it, some would transact within minutes, others would get stuck half way through.
There would inevitably be hundreds of calls to the call centre from the word go, and feedback would be fast and unrelenting.
What has stuck with me since is that in the world of digital and multichannel, the traditional ways do not work. Traditional methods rely on opinions of a small number of users, usually with a similar mind-set and that insular starting point. The digital revolution has meant that our applications reach directly to customers. Organisations have to try and cater for all customer types and be flexible enough to satisfy a wide range of tastes and preferences. Our websites have to be intuitive because there is no training or user guides, and they have to influence the customer to buy.
Our back-end systems have to be intelligent enough to tell us what we are doing right and what we are doing wrong and they have to be fluid and open to change when the feedback is less than positive. We start to design and plan our solutions not from a spec or a technical requirement, but by looking through the eyes of the customer.
In this world, IT’s opinions are no less valid than the marketeers or the operators. In fact as custodians of the transactional tools IT has a greater responsibility than marketing to get it right. So IT needs to incorporate the ideas and concepts of usability into day to day thinking over and above the traditional view of functionality. CIOs and IT need to start talking directly to customers and incorporate feedback into our solutions. As a result we need to start championing the customer because all of a sudden, IT is closest to them. We need to understand how our customer wants to relate to us and which touch points are seen as desirable, to make sure that our technological landscape caters for these. Whether it is online, mobile, other emerging technologies and channels or even through the traditional shops or call centres, the concept is the same. The customer is now driving the demand and writing the spec, and if we do not take note we risk losing them altogether, and as we know even the best IT department in the world would not be able to help a business without customers!
Chily Fachler has been CIO of Encore Tickets since May 2011 and was Group IT Director for outdoor fashion retailer Blacks for three years.