Prioritizing customer relationships helps businesses become disruption-proof

The pandemic continues to disrupt businesses all around the world. Super Retail Group in Australia is prioritizing the voice of the customer and digital/real-world experiences to innovate against disruption.
Written by Brian Solis, Contributor

One of the greatest barriers to digital transformation success is that many companies place too great a focus on the 'what' at the expense of the 'why and how' – purpose and people. My colleague Henry King and I refer to this as "Relationship Transformation" or RTx. Without focusing on purpose and people, digital transformation efforts are likely to meander or even fail. This is especially true during these times of COVID-19 disruption.

Recently, I had the opportunity to spend time with Katie McNamara, Chief Strategy and Customer Officer with Super Retail Group, and hear about how her organization, with 670+ stores across Australia and New Zealand, was faring through the pandemic – a crisis for bricks and mortar non-essential retail. It's a story of resilience against an array of disruptors beyond the pandemic.
"People use the word 'unprecedented' a lot," McNamara told me. "But for us it was unprecedented – we were a really new leadership team."

Super Retail Group (SRG) had a change of CEO in Feb 2019, McNamara commenced in April and new managing directors across three of SRG's four brands also commenced between May and December 2020. 

"We had this period of major bushfires across a large part of Australia, and we're in the leisure and adventure business – none of that was happening during the bushfires. We then hit COVID and it really made us pause and reflect – how do you actually cope? How do you keep  yourself together? How do you keep your business together?" McNamara recalls. "We thought, right at the very start, that our role here as the senior executive was to shepherd this business through – to look after our customers, look after our team and make sure we had a business at the end of it."

That new leadership team has kept those three points – look after team members, customers and the business – as its central purpose throughout the crisis.

"It's kept us focused on what's important and that was something that really helped us," McNamara told me. "Because you can't do everything when you're in a constrained environment."

Ruthless Prioritization

That focus ensured the team's energy was going exactly where it would have the greatest impact on team member safety, customer experience and business resilience.   

Noting an uptick in online research prior to instore purchase, and decreased interaction between usually passionate customers and expert staff, SRG could prioritize response to that change in customers' needs. It provided the expertise and advice online that in-store staff are known for, and quickly offered contactless click-and-collect – launching the capability in four days, and completing training and national rollout within just two weeks. 

Voice of the Customer

To commit all the resources to the ideas and initiatives that are most important, McNamara espouses the value of the voice of the customer (VOC).

"We've always had the customer at the heart of what we do, but we've really focused in the past year on truly listening to the customer, understanding what they need, what they want – which may not be obvious in the first instance," McNamara said. "But then that doesn't mean anything unless you actually bring that voice of the customer into the business decisions across all elements of the value chain."


"It's interesting how such a simple thing as having Scout at the table does make us just take a pause." Watch the full discussion with Katie McNamara.

This is one of my favorite moments at an event: McNamara introduced me to a Build-a-Bear clad ear to paw in sporting, leisure and adventure gear. Scout – the voice of the Super Retail Group customer.

"He sits on the table at our executive team meetings, he's come to China, he comes in my luggage all the time. There was a bit of laughter initially and the team asked 'are we really going to do this?'. But it actually became really natural, and now it's not always me asking where the VOC is or what the customer would think. It might be our Chief Supply Officer asking how a solution is going to affect our level of customer service from a fulfilment perspective, for example," McNamara said.  

"It's interesting how such a simple thing as having Scout at the table does make us just take a pause."

This was just after I'd argued that an AI futurist deserved a seat at every C-suite table in a bid to future-proof the organization, and surely there's a seat too for a Build-a-Bear that can take a retail brand beyond the goal of personalizing interactions for it customer personas to humanizing its entire approach and every decision for those customers.

Listening and contextualizing

As well as having that representation of the VOC at the leadership table, SRG listened to customers to understand context and trends that would drive behavioral change, and found a meeting point between 'capital-CX' customer experience and customers' real, lived experience.

It was top of mind for the team to look at the macro trends, whether economic trends around government stimulus or consumer trends such as the shift to health and wellness spending, or the shift to shopping online.

SRG was also looking for new sources of customer information – new ways to tap into sentiment and contextual insights in real time.

We realized when we were looking at social commentary, not necessarily about our brand, was that people hadn't had their camping trip over the summer, they were missing out on a camping trip at Easter time and there was a feeling of loss," said McNamara. "So we were thinking about how we could help with that – it wasn't about selling more."

"What we thought was going to be this tiny little thing with our customer base just tapped into something in the community and it ended up being on morning TV shows, on the news and all over social," said McNamara. 

"People did see BCF as more than just a place where they could buy boating, camping, fishing, gear – there was affiliation with the brand. We were really seeing an acknowledgement from the consumer that community is important and something that they need, so working out how we could be a part of that community has been a real moment for us, and we'll continue to look at the signals outside of our normal as we work towards an omni perspective of customer data and marketing, not just omni channel sales and delivery."


BCF Backyard Campout promo

And, that's what resilience is all about. It's the ability to recover from or adjust to change as it happens. Although COVID-19 disruption is finite, disruption itself is a constant. Resilience is now a hallmark of leading companies that will thrive in ever-evolving markets. This is what I appreciate most about my time with SRG. Not only is the organization adapting to these times, but the team is keenly aware of changes in customer expectations and behaviors, and is adapting physical and digital experiences to deliver incredible experiences (and results) even in times of crisis. Plus, I got to meet Scout and I'm now convinced every company should have a Build-A-Bear, or some other creative character, to represent the voice of its customers. 

Please watch the full discussion with Super Retail Group Chief Strategy and Customer Officer Katie McNamara here: Fireside Chat with Brian Solis and Super Retail Group: Digital Transformation Becomes a Burning Platform with Purpose.

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