Something clicked for me when I finished the Staples case study for my book, "Outside Innovation." What snapped into place for me was a conceptual framework for thinking about how and when to differentiate types of “Voice of the Customer” input: operational customer data, customer surveys, ethnographic research, customer personas, customer validation of personas, customer focus groups, customer communities, customer co-design, business process redesign of customer-impacting initiatives, customer usability testing, and so on.
Staples used the following types of customer input and research in re-energizing its brand and gaining mindshare, marketshare, and increased profitability:
* Customer surveys
* Customer call drivers
* Watched customers’ behavior in the stores
* Observed customers’ behavior in their offices
* Interviewed customers
* Focus groups
* Private online communities
* Developed customer personas
* Customers validated personas
* Connected personas to profitability
* Customers defined and sorted products into categories
* Observed customers’ online behavior
* Performed repeated usability testing with customers (in stores and online)
* Treated employees like customers--make it easy for them to do their jobs!
* Pulled all of this customer research and prioritization together into a cohesive, actionable framework.
As with many “best practices” examples, I don’t think Staples had this all figured out ahead of time. But in retrospect, you can see some patterns that are worthy of emulation. Here are some of the patterns I noticed and encourage you to emulate:
1. Find out what customers value. Start with a top-down strategy that makes customer experience a competitive differentiator. As Staples was becoming an undifferentiated commodity office supplies superstore, its top execs combined customer research with soul searching and determined that small business customers were promiscuous when it came to deciding where to buy office supplies. But they were also more focused on convenience than on price. Customers valued their time above all else.
2. Observe customers’ behavior in the physical world. To redesign its stores, Staples watched what and how customers purchased in the stores and began to reorganize the stores around customers’ purchasing patterns––printing supplies and paper at the front of the stores, not the back, for example.
3. Start with the biggest drivers of customer call volume--customer dissatisfiers. One of the largest drivers of phone complaints was the “where’s my rebate check” query. This was the largest driver of customer complaints to the call center, and it was one of the issues customers brought up over and over again in focus groups. Customers hated the rebate process.
The rebate checks customers were awaiting didn’t come from Staples. The product suppliers are the ones who offered and processed rebates at the time. But the fact that customers were negatively impacted by an industry-wide business practice that customers associated with Staples meant that it was a process that needed to be fixed.
4. Engage with business partners in redesigning customer-impacting processes. Since customers associated the broken process with Staples’ brand, Staples decided to take control of its suppliers’ rebate processes. But of course, Staples had to convince and involve their suppliers. Staples’ Easy Rebate program is the result of three years of hard work, involving 200 suppliers with major changes in industry-wide policies and practices, and accountability.
5. Observe customers’ behavior in their workplaces. Staples engaged in ethnographic research to understand deeply how small business customers gathered and placed orders for office supplies.
6. Observe Customers’ Discussions and Dialog. Staples also hosted a private online community among small business office supplies’ purchasers--to get them talking among themselves about the things they cared the most about, such as knowing about nifty new products first, getting great deals through smart coupon redemption, and always getting the right tool for the job.
7. Create and validate customer personas with customers and with transactional Information. From their deep ethnographic research and observation, Staples’ usability team created five Customer Personas, including Lisa Listmaker and Sammy Specific. They validated these personas with a large group of customers through an online survey, asking customers to identify with one of the characters or to select a different description for themselves. Most customers identified with the five main personas the Staples team had identified. But Staples went one more step: it correlated those personas with customers’ transactional histories to determine which ones represented the customers who were the most profitable.
8. Staples engaged with customers to co-design its product classification scheme. Thousands of customers sorted office supplies into the categories that made the most sense to them.
9. Make the brand promise real for employees before you make it real for customers. The other thing I learned from listening to the Staples executives tell their stories about the way they rolled out the “Easy” brand promise across the company is that they started by practicing on themselves--by making it easy for their colleagues to get things accomplished. They rearranged office layouts and streamlined employee-impacting processes. By making it easier for their “internal customers” to do their jobs, those employees became more interested in helping make it easier for their customers, and so on.