Digital experience and white glove customer service at Brooks Brothers

The CIO of an iconic American brand explains how this 200-year old retailer is rethinking customer relationships across brick-and-mortar stores, e-commerce, and mobile.
Written by Michael Krigsman, Contributor

The Brooks Brothers clothing brand is an iconic name in American business. Founded in 1818, the company has outfitted 39 US presidents and prides itself on offering white glove service to its customers.

How does a 200-year old brand translate and deliver high-end service in the digital age, especially when in a price-sensitive consumer environment?

To explore this question, we invited Brooks Brothers Executive Vice President and Chief Information Officer, Sahal Laher, to be my guest on episode 200 of the CXOTALK series of conversations with innovators shaping the world.

The short video above was taken from a lengthy, in-depth discussion that you can watch on the CXOTALK site.

As CIO, Laher is responsible for implementing technology that enables a high-touch, seamless customer experience extending across all channels including brick-and-mortar stores, e-commerce, and mobile.

During our conversation, Laher emphasized three primary goals:

  • Deliver a consistent customer experience across all of Brooks Brothers sales channels
  • Make the customer experience simple and easy
  • Understand every Brooks Brothers customer and personalize the consumer experience to their specific needs

In the video embedded above, Laher explains the technologies and business goals that underlie Brooks Brothers ability to achieve these customer experience goals. He describes how the company put in place a strong "digital core," which is now central to creating a 360-degree view of the customer.

Here is a transcript of the short video embedded at the top of this post.

200 years of white glove service

Michael Krigsman: White glove service as you described it, has been a centerpiece of Brook Brothers approach for 200 years. It sounds like what you're doing is translating that into a multi-channel, or omnichannel, approach.

Sahal Laher:

That's exactly right. I think that manifests itself in many different ways.

It requires that we have a consistent customer experience across channels, and that doesn't apply just to personalization, but it really applies in general, where every company now needs to break down the silos between channels. Traditionally, retailers have thought in channels, and they've been organized in channels and had separate business units for online versus brick and mortar, versus factory, and what is very evident is that the customer doesn't see it that way. The customer doesn't think of channels. They think of it as Brooks Brothers.

Most importantly, I think people are looking at retailers and companies: they're not easy to do business with. It has to be simple; it has to be intuitive. You know, you can't have a very complex aggregation on your website, you can't have extremely long and tedious checkout process, because we've all been to those websites, and lost motivation to complete the checkout.

If it's not simple and you're not easy to do business with, and you don't have a supply chain that can fulfill in a fashion that is geared to give the people the product they want, when they want it, then you're really going to be at a big disadvantage, and you really are going to go to another site where it's easier to do business.

Michael Krigsman: How do you maintain that customer experience, especially going across multiple channels?

Sahal Laher:

The reality of the world we live in now is that it's just not like it used to be in that, now we travel more. We may want to go to the store, not in our hometown, but where we work, or we might be on business at a conference, and we might want to go to a store.

What we've really been working really hard on in the last couple years is trying to figure out: If John Smith comes to the store, and he's never been into that store before, but he's been a customer for 10 years, we are missing the mark if we don't give him personalized service based on the information we already know about him.

We will have turned data that we have into actual, actionable insights that you, the store associate, can use to have a more personalized conversation, as opposed to talking to everyone who walks into the store that you don't know about the same five products in the Fall collection.

So that's a very important piece of who we are, and, obviously replicating that requires a lot of translation of this data into insights. Everyone talks about "big data," everyone talks about these buzzwords of "big data" and "machine learning" and so on, but this is really a case study where it's the differentiator, and really in all industries, I think, can be a differentiator not just for personalization but for many different parts of your supply chain and the way that you go to market.

And, the way that the machine learning works, is we can do that on the fly, and we can do that for terabytes and terabytes of data, which, in the old days obviously was just not possible, right?

Even if we took every single black book, every single store associate's black book from the old days, where they had customer service and all of that done in paper books, that's already a lot of data. And now, you multiply it by, you know, everything like your online clickstream, right? So every time you go online and you're navigating the website there's a trail of breadcrumbs that every customer leaves behind regarding what have they browsed, what have they put in their cart and not bought, how much time have they spent looking at a particular item.

All of this information, when you aggregate it together, and you have a true big data strategy, that utilizes some of these next generation tools like machine learning and in-memory databases. And, we have the ability to replicate that service, and now, you can also make that available online, and you can make more thoughtful recommendations for you online, as opposed to showing everyone the same five products that have just come out as things that the might be interested in.

Building the 360-degree customer view

Michael Krigsman: Can you talk about the relationship between service, engagement, customer experience, this machine learning project, because it's all part of a broader perspective?

Sahal Laher:

Absolutely. So, you know, I think, again, customers don't think in channels, right? And so, regardless of what channel they are interacting with you on, they expect that you know... So if I went onto the website and I made a purchase, and I come into the store two weeks later, and you don't have any information on my order, or don't even have any information on what's in my wardrobe, then you're missing the mark.

So, you know, one of the first things we did a couple years ago was really working on creating this 360-degree view of the customer, which sounds fairly obvious and it sounds fairly intuitive. But the reality is very few people have that all in one place, because over time, it doesn't matter how long you've been in business, and obviously, the longer you've been in business, you're likely to have more silos of data. But even if you haven't been in business for decades, and you've only been in business for a few years, nobody has just one sales system, right?

You always have at a very minimum have a point of sale system, and then you have a website. And then you need some kind of system for customer service, you may need some kind of system for your store associate, be it clienteling or looking at alterations, or made to measure, or whatever the case may be.

So, what we try to do is all of those systems that I named was one or more different databases when we started, and what we've worked to do is really bring all of this into a single database.

And that single database now has John Smith's customer record, it has all his personal preferences, it has his e-commerce transactions, it has his in-store purchases, it has his alterations and measure information, and it also has any interaction that he's had with our call center is all logged in one central place.

What that allows us to do is obviously elevate the level of service that we can provide, because regardless, again, of what channel is your preference to interact with us on any given day, we will be able to have a consistent view of who you are as a customer, and therefore we'll be able to better service whatever needs you have on that particular day, and they won't be these handoffs or, "Let me transfer you to the place you ordered that, let me transfer you to the call center or the e-commerce fulfillment team to look at where your order is in the fulfillment process." It needs to be, again, simple, right? If it's not simple and intuitive, people are going to get frustrated and go elsewhere.

The digital core

Michael Krigsman: We have another question from Twitter, and this is from Arsalan Khan, who's wondering, as the technologies change, and as the environment around you, the customer environment, the competitive environment is changing, how do you plan? How do you go forward and consider this ongoing change in your business strategy?

Sahal Laher:

That's a great question, and I'm glad that it was asked because one of the things we haven't touched on so far is the need for a strong, what I call "digital core," right?

What that entails is, do you have a strong supply chain that can allow you to fulfill orders any time, any way? That's the bottom line, right? The customers want their stuff. They don't care where it's being shipped from, they don't care how it's being shipped, as long as you can honor your commitment to getting that particular merchandise to the customer on a date that's promised, then you're meeting the customer expectations.

So, that's obviously very difficult, and when we talk about omnichannel, right? And we talked about the 360-degree view of the customer.

But another extremely important piece that we touched on very briefly was the silos across channels coming down. And as those silos come down, you know, this digital core becomes more and more important, because in the old days it was fine for you to have a website, and a website only having inventory to your e-commerce warehouse merchandise. But now, you need to make sure that you have, you know, it's almost another 360-degree view, it's also a 360-degree view of product and inventory. And looking at that across all of your channels.

So, you know, there's obviously tools that allow you to allocate product, and to come up with these assortments, but there's always going to be times when someone comes in and we don't have that product, and how do we get you that product? We have fifty of those units in the warehouse that are available for e-comm orders, but it's a shame if that inventory's not available to in the store, or vice-versa.

That's digital core and this is kind of, a little long-winded response to the question, but it's an important context that I think needs to be provided, and if you don't have that supply chain that's dynamic and nimble, and you as a company are unable to react dynamically and real-time to customer demand, then you've missed the mark.

This excerpt is part of episode 200 of CXOTALK, which offers in-depth conversations with people shaping technology and the world. Check out the list of upcoming episodes.

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