Today's consumers are busier than ever and overwhelmed with choices. Therefore, simplifying the customer experience with frictionless service has become more than a perk-it's a key business strategy.
However a lot happens behind the scenes to deliver experiences that appear effortless. Numerous components including supply chain management, marketing, sales, customer service, and more must be aligned. Here are some of the innovative ways companies are tackling the logistical challenges of engaging customers and delivering exceptional experiences.
Weaving Science with Art
Alton Lane, a custom menswear company, uses a 3D body scanner and Big Data analytics to produce highly accurate custom-made suits in an effort to simplify the customer experience. Headquartered in New York City, Alton Lane offers showrooms in seven U.S. cities where a body scanner uses 32 sensors to capture more than 400 measurements within 30 seconds. Customers also consult with a specialist on the suit's fabric, buttons, lapels, and more.
"Traditionally, it can take 30 minutes or more to take someone's full measurements, so we're giving that time back to the customer," says Alton Lane CEO and Co-founder Colin Hunter. The company also uses the data it captures about its customers' clothing preferences to identify patterns and make style recommendations, including the type of suit employees wear at specific firms.
"Our customers appreciate receiving guidance on what's relevant and popular," Hunter explains. "And with our data we can say, for example, that 94 percent of our customers from Goldman Sachs with your chest size tend to go with two-button suits." The company is working on other ways to leverage its technology and customer data points to simplify the customer experience, Hunter adds.
Alton Lane is in the process of partnering with a boutique hotel chain to offer its 3D scanning capability to guests who want a custom-made suit but don't have time to visit a shop. Instead they can have their measurements quickly taken and consult with a specialist at the hotel. The same could be done on cruise ships and other locations.
The company also noticed that customers were frequently calling to check on the status of their orders. By implementing a bar code tracking system in the factories, customers receive more transparency and can track the progress of their orders. Additionally, Alton Lane could potentially use its data to collaborate with retailers to make recommendations on shoes or accessories that complement the suit.
The goal is to remove barriers that complicate a consumer's shopping experience. "To drive simplicity of the consumer experience, we have to go through the complexity of capturing data, analyzing it, and streamlining processes," Hunter says. "But it's all worth it when it enables you to delight your customers."
Indeed, the next wave of convenience for the customer is about using data to make it easier to shop. Given that Microsoft's Xbox Kinect can already scan people's bodies at home, it's not difficult, Hunter points out, to imagine people getting their measurements taken at home and instantly getting recommendations on brands or clothing that fit their preferences.
And what about receiving your clothing through 3D printers? "Speed is not always the best option," Hunter maintains. "There's still value in craftsmanship. With a suit, I don't think it's a bad thing that some handwork goes into it. You can do a lot with a 3D printer, but we're not close to replicating a well-made suit yet."
A custom-made suit may be something that people hold on to for years, but renting other things is quickly becoming the norm. "Ownership is old school," says Ranan Lachman, co-founder of Pley, a startup that rents toys. "We're finding more people only want to own something for the amount of time that they need it."
The Rise of Subscription Services
Subscription services and apps that save people time, money or even space are gaining traction, agrees Marlene Morris Towns, a marketing professor atGeorgetown University's McDonough School of Business. "People are extremely busy and if you can clearly explain how your business simplifies people's lives or provides some other useful benefit, they'll go through the hurdle of downloading your app or subscribing," Towns notes.
As a parent, Lachman says he noticed his children loved receiving Lego kits, but ignored the toys after the set was completed. At the same time, Lachman and other parents were spending money and time shopping for these toys. In 2012, Lachman and his business partner Elina Furman launched Pley (formerly known as Pleygo) as a subscription-based business for renting Lego sets.
Children and their parents can select Lego sets from an online catalog and have the sets delivered on a regular basis. Pley also designed a system to determine if any pieces were missing from the returned sets by weighing them and sanitizing the pieces before shipping to the next subscriber. A Lego set can be turned around and repackaged for its next renter within 2.5 minutes, Lachman says. And while there are other subscription-based companies that rent toys, like SparkBox Toys and Toys Trunk, none are as efficient at renting Legos, which are notoriously small and difficult to track and clean, Lachman maintains.
"Being able to rent the toughest toy helps us stand out and we're continuously looking for ways to do more for our customers," he says. Understanding how customers want to communicate with a company is also important.
For example, Lachman says Pley added a chat function to its website to make it easier for customers to get help. However, after a few months, few people had used the chat function and it was creating a distraction for employees who were manning the service. "The chat service was not contributing to the customer experience, so we removed it to focus our resources on other ways for helping our customers," Lachman says.
One of those initiatives includes expanding its services. The company is planning to rent other toys besides Legos in response to requests from customers. But improving the customer experience doesn't matter if it doesn't impact your customers, Lachman adds, making it critical for companies to continuously test and track results.
Staying on top of the logistical parts of running a subscription service is also a challenge, says Matthew Hickey, co-founder and CEO of Turntable Kitchen, a subscription service for recipes and music recommendations.
In 2010, Hickey and his wife, Kasey, created a website, TurnTable Kitchen, as a hobby that married their interests in music and food. "When we first launched the site we didn't have any expectations; we just thought it'd be fun to start a blog writing about the music I was excited about and the food she was preparing in our kitchen," Hickey explains. "People seemed to respond to what we were doing and before we knew it we were being written about in The New York Times, GOOD Magazine, and so on. From there we said, 'Let's see what more we can do with this.'"
In 2011, the Hickeys launched a recipes and vinyl subscription service called the Pairings Box. Each shipment includes a collection of recipes, dry ingredients, a vinyl record, and digital "mixtape" that can be uploaded to a computer.The company also earns revenue through sponsored posts, affiliate programs, and advertising.
The Hickeys hired a handful of workers to help them run the business, such as filling orders and negotiating with bands, printers, wholesale suppliers, and packaging companies. Maintaining an organized system for fulfilling the orders is critical. "The most challenging aspect of running a subscription service is simply keeping everyone we work with on schedule," Hickey notes. "A delay in any part of the chain means we have to delay our shipments. We're a small business and time spent responding to concerned customers or hounding one of our partners is time we lose that could have been spent working on other aspects of the business."
It's also important to treat customer interactions as a chance to engage customers and build loyalty. In addition to promptly answering questions, offering behind-the-scenes glimpses into your operations via social media, builds a sense of authenticity, Hickey notes. Rewarding longtime customers with extra discounts and unique products is also important. TurnTable Kitchen thanks those who have subscribed for a full year with a deluxe edition of the Pairings Box that contains exclusive products.
And at the end of the day though, the easiest way to simplify the customer experience, Hickey says, is to "be real; be honest; and be proactive."