Leadership in the Age of Personalization
Glenn Llopis Group, LLC (GLLG)
One woman is most energized when she’s in a full business suit running a meeting in the boardroom. Another is happiest alone at her computer in her home office in yoga pants.
As leader of a large organization, how do you personalize either a work environment (for those women as employees) or a retail environment (for those women as customers) that meets both of them in their own individuality?
As a society, we are more diverse than ever, more informed than ever, more aware of and proud of our individuality. We want to express our individuality as employees and as customers.
But what does that mean?
Consider the world of women’s apparel, where every customer is a unique blend of preferences, lifestyle, body type and size. A retailer might have thousands of employees serving millions of customers. Can you possibly be expected to meet every single need in every single situation?
We’re feeling tension as our society transitions from an age of standardization (when people did what they were told to do inside the box they were given) to our current age of personalization (when it’s becoming less and less efficient to have boxes at all).
But corporate strategies weren’t designed for that. Companies are trying to figure out how to elevate individuality, how to activate individual capacity, how to honor dignity of individuals – all at scale.
That seems an impossible ask, and we’re all just finding our way. In the spirit of exploration, I spoke with three top executives with Chico’s FAS, a women’s clothing and accessories retailer that operates three brands: its namesake Chico’s, White House Black Market and Soma:
- Molly Langenstein, President, Apparel Group
- Ann E. Joyce, EVP & Chief Customer Officer, Technology, Supply Chain & Omni Operations
- Kristin Gwinner, Chief Human Resources Officer
We discussed their own journey toward leading in an age of personalization. I wanted to get their take on the five shifts I’ve identified as necessary for companies to make, as they seek the balance between standardization and personalization that works for them:
- From diversity to inclusion
- From tribal to human
- From brand identity to individual identities
- From mission to contribution
- From results to methods
The shifts are interconnected. Let me explain:
When we turn diversity into inclusion, we stop being tribal and start seeing each other as human. When we shift focus from brand identity to individual identities, we invigorate our shared missions by elevating individual contribution. When our individual capacity is stifled, we stagnate. But when we loosen our grip on results and activate methods for leading in a way that honors our Age of Personalization, we become healthy.
Based on the challenges and successes that the Chico’s team shared, we learned how they are successfully empowering employees and customers to influence the brand in their own ways.
From Superficial Customization to Relational Personalization
When I talk about personalization, most people immediately think of using technology to tailor a product or an experience, with Amazon as the ultimate example.
But that’s limited. It’s easy to get stuck on these shiny objects like technology – which can achieve a certain degree of customization. But if that’s where you stop, you’re settling for the superficial, and you end up diminishing individuality because that’s ultimately an impersonal interaction between company and person.
Gwinner described something much more relational.
“We’ve been on a journey of personalization with the customer experience for several years,” said Gwinner. “The link between the associate and the customer is getting closer and closer.”
Gwinner shared a story about an interaction she witnessed in a Chico’s store last month: “I was checking out, and next to me the sales manager was asking a customer, ‘How is your mom? How did her surgery go? I’m going to come around and give you a hug. You pass this hug to your mom. Tell her I can’t wait to see her again.’ They know each other beyond a transaction. I feel like that’s the part that makes me proud to work here.”
In fact, in Newsweek’s 2020 ranking of America’s Best Customer Service, Chico’s ranked second in the Women’s Apparel category. The key is to be able to translate that level of service beyond the store itself. How do you capture the magic of that kind of personal interaction?
How to Define Personalization Within Women’s Clothing
Langenstein put it in perspective by describing many of the challenging opportunities in the women’s apparel segment: women can’t seamlessly wear the same size across brands, it’s hard to find things that actually fit, no two bodies are alike, and everyone has their own preferences in terms of fabric and color.
“When you look in the mirror in the morning, you want to feel confident,” said Langenstein. “We [Chico’s leadership] are obsessed about being in a fitting room and trying everything on, and understanding why you like something and why someone else doesn’t. Why the sleeves are too long, or why is there all this fabric under the arm that doesn’t feel right … we’re maniacal about making sure you can have as much democracy in fit. We’re not there yet, but we all can see the journey to make that easier for customers.”
She said the next piece is understanding what you’re solving for in a customer’s life. “Today, you can say the word, ‘career,’ but that has a different definition for different women and how they put themselves together.”
Joyce added the idea of diversity of lifestyle: a working mom who has an important interview or meeting, a retired person who has more time to socially interact. She said people rely heavily on someone in the store to help them choose clothing that will allow them to show up with confidence.
Gwinner agreed: “That goes back to the associates. It’s the associates that secure the honest conversation.”
Employees Define the Methods
Because that level of personalization starts in the stores, those employees have been able to influence the business.
“I think that our unique selling model was born with our associates,” said Joyce. “It was born in the stores. They led that effort. We were the students and the preservers of what they’ve done well. We owe it to them to continue to build a culture and provide them with the tools that they need to do what they do best, which is that customer service.”
Joyce said what evolved was a suite of tools that enable the field to service the customer not just in the four walls of the store but also digitally. As the world was talking about the retail apocalypse, Joyce said their outlook was the opposite: “We believe the store is the center of retail. Although there are other channels, it’s very important that we acknowledge the secret sauce and the unbelievable relationships that get created.”
So one of the tools they created in order to merge the offline and online worlds was Style Connect, which lets people see their local stylist online and allows that stylist to be able to create different looks for you or help you through a situation.
“If I have an event that I have to go to and I can’t make it into a store, I can contact my stylist and she can create outfits for me,” said Joyce. “I can either pick it up or she can ship it to me. I can do all that digitally, either on my phone or my computer. It extends that relationship and customer service beyond the four walls of the store.”
Here’s an example that perhaps too many of us can relate to. Joyce said someone lost her luggage. “Actually, she wasn’t even a customer. The airline lost her luggage, and she called Chico’s and they had an entire wardrobe created for her by the time she got to the store. Now she is a loyal customer. She used the tool to do that.”
But again, it’s not just about giving people technology. As Langenstein described it, the Style Connect tool was built as an extension of the behavior that already existed in stores.
“I don’t think the tool would have been successful if you didn’t have people who could figure out how to use it,” said Langenstein. “There are a lot of tools, but getting people to use them is the hardest part. The secret sauce on this one is how intimate the team was in making sure that it was user friendly, making sure that how it was customer facing would be received.
“It is a wonderful experience for the customer,” Langenstein continued. “Again, it is not because you’re shopping on a tablet in a store. It’s the experience the sales associates create for the customer that makes that journey more interesting and also enables the connectivity, whether you’re shopping in a store, whether you’re shopping on online or even at an outlet. It pulls together all those things. We’re excited with the way that the team built it with personalization in mind.”
The Customer IS the Brand
Langenstein mentioned one very direct way they’re putting customers at the center of the brand: by creating an Instagram gallery where customers can upload photos of themselves in Chico’s clothing, and Chico’s features those photos on the company’s website. This is one way of allowing customers to express themselves and let their own individuality define the brand.
Chico’s FAS (www.chicos.com)
“We might provide the framework, but this is about her,” said Langenstein. “When a customer walks into a Chico’s, we are celebrating her and creating a way for her to put herself together that she believes that the brand is her. The brand today is the customer.”
Gwinner elaborated on the importance of the connection of allowing employees to influence the methods by which the company connects more directly with customers – whether in store or online.
“The future in the organization is linking those key concepts into the culture,” said Gwinner. “That’s what we think about, that’s how we behave, that’s how we share, that’s what we’re focused on. We are 100% focused on customer centricity. Again, providing the most amazing, personal service to our customer and to each other. That’s where we’re going to focus in 2020.”
Gwinner was also very open about personalization as a work-in-progress.
“I think it’s a journey, frankly,” said Gwinner. “We are focused on trying to take out those friction points, but it’s not a smooth ride yet. We continue to work together through this journey but it’s through paying attention to things that we’re talking about today around personalization. We do think it’s a growth strategy. We work faster. We listen to each other. We share our ideas. We link people that have skills together to help us move faster, but we’re not perfect yet. I can tell you I’m thrilled to be part of this leadership team. We make difficult decisions every day to support the culture and the strategy of the direction of this organization.”
And that’s the key right there. No one is perfect at this. We’re all on a journey to figure out how to honor this age of personalization.
Chico’s is finding ways to let individual identities impact the brand, and that can be powerful.
People want to identify with a brand whose products and services give their business or life meaning and significance. Employees and consumers want to align with brands that are capable of leading and serving them based on the person’s own values, unique needs, and desires.
This shifts the balance of power from brands and businesses to individuals—to the standardization of “me.” Organizations that make employees and consumers feel included and understood on an individual level will have a huge advantage over those that don’t.
What is your organization’s readiness to lead in the age personalization? Click here to read my latest whitepaper, Dignity at Scale.