“Eat Your Own Dog Food!” – Lessons from a Chief Experience Officer

Samantha Conyers of First Retail Group provides insights and tips on everything from mystery shopping to achieving employee buy-in.

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Published: May 23, 2024

Rhys Fisher

Samantha Conyers started her new role as First Retail Group’s CXO in December of last year, in a move many of her friends and colleagues thought was “crazy.”

As the Christmas rush reached its last-minute, bargain-hunting crescendo, Conyers eased herself into her new job by spending the entire month on the shop floor.

Well, on the shop floors – plural. First Retail Group is the largest franchise operator in the Caribbean, with their brands including the likes of Aldo, Levi’s Jeans, Victoria’s Secrets, and many more.

As you can imagine, with such a diverse range of brands, it’s impossible to have one all-encompassing CX strategy. A point that Conyers explains:

“We have such a wide variety of brands that there is literally no day that is the same. When you think about it, Levi’s experience, for example, is totally different from that of Victoria’s Secret or of Bath & Body Works.”

While Conyers found the opportunity to see firsthand how the customer experience differed from brand to brand helpful, she also admitted that it emphasized to her how challenging it was going to be to “create any level of consistency from an experience perspective.”

But Conyers is clearly someone who enjoys challenges. While the shop floor may seem an odd starting point for most CXOs, it typifies her and the company’s “hands-on” attitude towards brick-and-mortar retail CX.

But how did she go about adapting to her new position and implementing the necessary changes to improve the company’s CX offerings?

Dog Food and Data

Dog food and data might not be two things you’d usually like to see together, but they both play a large part in the company’s CX strategy.

Conyers explains how First Retail Group’s Founder and Managing Director, Omar Hadeed, is a strong advocate for the “eat your own dog food” business philosophy.

Despite the organization having grown from one brand in 2016 to currently encompassing 18 brands and 65 locations across Trinidad and Tobago, Hadeed continues to be a physical presence in the stores:

There’s not a day that the team, Omar and Nadine (Head of Operations) do not have contact with the end consumer. He is in our stores every single day, and Nadine is running the day-to-day.

“As you would imagine, that’s getting a lot more difficult. So that’s one of the reasons I was brought on board, to assist in implementing tools and technologies, systems and procedures that allow the management team to be hands on without actually having to be physically hands on at all times.”

In order to ensure the company retains the insights that its hands on approach has been so effective at garnering while the number of brands and stores under its umbrella grows, Conyers has been keen to test a number of customer feedback solutions in stores.

The CXO explains how these in person initiatives are essential to a Caribbean, brick-and-mortar retail customer base:

“I’ve done a lot of voice of the customer work, in the past where we would do surveys via SMS, or WhatsApp, or e-mail for B2B consumers.

“But when you think of our brick-and-mortar stores, you have to be mindful of our environment where people are not as willing to share their e-mail address and some may not have one to share. Additionally, I am not convinced that survey’s are the solution”

Amongst her recent initiatives, a mystery shopping exercise has proved to be particularly insightful.

When asked about what advice she might give to other CX professionals who are considering running a feedback program, Conyers biggest tip was to avoid any exercise that adopts a “generic, blanket approach.”

Given her role involves working across a disparate range of brands, it is not hard to see why Conyers is so against a generic strategy.

Instead, she encourages companies to take both a local and international approach to discerning their customers’ habits and categorize them accordingly.

For example, Conyers used data and insights from international brands to instruct how she designed the mystery shopping experience – as she explains:

“Cole Haan provides us with training on how to get a customer to try on a shoe, as the data shows they are far more likely to actually buy it, because what differentiates Cole Haan is comfort!

“Similarly, for Levi’s we have data from the brand that shows that 67% of customers that actually get in the fitting room are more likely to purchase, versus about 10% of customers who just sort of browse the store floor.”

These insights are then coupled with local observations on how customers react to customer service representatives on the shop floor, with Conyers championing what she terms the ‘more helping hand than hawk’ approach:

“Nobody wants you flying in and sitting on their shoulder while they’re trying to buy something. Particularly when you think of some of our brands, like Victoria’s Secret.”

While it’s great to come into a new customer experience department full of ideas and initiatives to help improve things, those of you at the coalface of the CX space will be all too aware of how resistant some organizations can be to change.

But how can CX professionals gain the buy-in to introduce new systems and strategies without alienating their colleagues?

Where Is the Love?

“We all know the customer experience team member is not always the most loved team member, because we’re often the ones that are challenging the status quo.”

Here, Conyers perfectly sums up the issue that so many CX leaders face when trying to bring about meaningful change to an organization.

Unfortunately, the First Retail Group CXO does not see that changing any time soon, as the very nature of a CX role is to come into an organization and act as an “agent of change” and that certainly has its ups and downs…

Instead, in an attempt to win over the team and achieve buy-in, Conyers believes that is essential that CX professionals can back up actions with facts, stats, and data:

I think from a CX management perspective, what has empowered me and what has really helped me be successful in my career across so many different industries, is data.

“I always TRY to back my decisions, my feedback, and my proposals with the data. I’m not really much of a gut feeling kind of girl when it comes to how I make decisions. Everything I do tends to have some facts or research behind it.”

But it isn’t enough to just show how something works on paper, Conyers also emphasizes the need to quantify the results and highlight the value that your initiatives have added – and, wherever possible, make your colleagues jobs a little easier.

While it may appear to be a fairly straightforward process to outline to your team why you are making changes and showing them the benefits of said changes, with a larger organization it can be difficult to circulate this message across the entire team – from customer service agents to senior management.

So, how did Conyers attempting to spread these CX insights across locations and differing levels of management to make sure that the entire company is pulling in the same direction?

Inside Out

Despite being early into her CXO tenure, Conyers has clearly wasted no time in making her mark on First Retail Group’s CX strategy.

Despite the changes and initiatives that she has brought in to enhance the customer experience, she actually identifies her biggest success so far as the work she has done more behind the scenes on a strategic level.

Conyers felt that the most effective way to support the company’s frontline teams was to ensure that the senior management team was aligned with and supported the overall strategic direction.

In order to achieve this, Conyers is currently in the process of working through objectives and key results with all senior management team members with a focus of experiences – inside and out!

And while she admits to encountering some resistance, with people thinking that she is there “to make their lives more difficult,” she believes that the exercise has also “really empowered teams in terms of decision making.”

By introducing these initiatives higher up the chain, Conyers hopes that it will trickle down into the store environment and really help to create a company-wide CX ethos.

In discussing this strategy in more detail, Conyers outlines how it is part of an inside out approach:

I strongly believe in getting it right from the inside-out

“I don’t believe in traditional ‘Customer Service Training’ or penalizing team members for poor service. MY first step is setting up teams for success: creating policies, designing experiences, and implementing effective measures. Without data-driven decisions, follow-up processes, and performance metrics in place, training or incentives are merely band-aids, not sustainable solutions.”

While Conyers’ position of working across such a diverse range of brands may not be comparable to every CX professional, there are undeniably lessons that can be applied throughout the customer experience sector.

Being able to prove the worth of your CX initiatives and bring about change without alienating team members are universal struggles, which Conyers unpacks in a relatable and beneficial manner.

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