What could possibly motivate Office Depot North American President Kevin Peters to go undercover and drive to more than 70 stores across the United States? A first-hand understanding of customer experience, a factor ever more critical to brick-and-mortar retail success.
He recently explained his reasons to a packed ballroom of Customer Experience professionals at Forrester Research’s 2012 Customer Experience Forum  in New York City.
Soon after taking the reins of the big box retailer in 2010, Kevin (pictured below) realized that “if [Office Depot] was going to win, it was going to need to differentiate on customer experience.” He wanted to see for himself, through mystery-shopping his own stores, what the experience was like before making any changes.
This journey took him on a four-month road trip with the goal of answering one simple question from customers: What brings you into Office Depot today?
“It may sound like a silly question, but it’s at the very heart of our transformational journey,” he said.
What he found was that Office Depot had good experiences, but they weren’t nearly good enough. What’s more, he believed they had been measuring the wrong things. “They were interesting metrics,” he said, “but who cares, because they were not impacting the customer experience.”
He took all these observations, plus hundreds of thousands of points of feedback from surveys and customer interviews, and boiled it down into three focused areas of improvement: Fix the in-store experience, shrink the size of stores, and add more solutions such as printing centers to its product-led strategy.
After creating two concept stores with the new model, Office Depot is in process of rolling out the new processes, training and methodology to all 1,100 stores by the end of the year.
Office Depot’s story was one of many at the event, which has quickly become one of Forrester’s most in-demand gatherings. The venerable research and advisory firm has staked its ground in the burgeoning customer experience field and has real convening power across vendors, clients and consultants in the space.
Attendees buzzed about customer journey maps, organizational culture, mobile and a new digital first, empowered customer in control of the buying experience from start to finish.
“The world has changed and the balance of power has shifted to the customers,” says Harley Manning, Forrester’s Vice President and Research Director. “We can prove customer experience correlates to loyalty,” he said while sharing stories of companies attributing billions of dollars to customer experience improvements. “That’s billions with a B,” he said, punctuating the point.
As I talked to folks at the event, it was clear there was a shared sense of understanding on the value of customer experience, but a lot of uncertainly on how to actually execute on it, or where to start.
Forrester’s Mora Dorsey spoke to this in keynote. “How many of you have degrees in customer experience?” she asked--to a room that remained motionless. She offered up that while customer expectations are higher than ever, our understanding of the discipline is still very low.
What’s clear is that digital is disrupting the field faster than organizations can begin to wrap their minds around it.
“It’s like skating to a ping-pong ball,” said Phil Bienert, Senior Vice President of Consumer Digital Experiences at AT&T. “Our customer is digital first and wants to do everything with the ease of touching fingertip to a device.”
Depending on which research you read, mobile consumption of media is on pace to overtake the desktop in the next 2 to 4 years. And while customers are interacting across channels and devices, most organizations are not yet equipped to deliver a unified experience.
Bienert’s vision at AT&T is to create an “effortless experience” and has a labs division that is looking to redefine the journey map with a focus on “graceful handoffs between touchpoints.”
Forrester wraps all of this up into a simple concept that it calls “Outside In ,” which is conveniently also the title of its upcoming book on customer experience due out in late August.
The event was an absolute whirlwind of great conversations and inspirational stories, which reinforced the all-in focus our agency has on digital experience strategy  and execution. Brands are lining up to take a step back, look at the overall customer journey, and plot a digital strategy that will help differentiate them online and off.
Manning offered one salient take-away as part of his keynote that had folks scribbling in their notepads.
Write this down, he said: “I need my customers more than they need me.”
[Top image: Flickr user  Chris Blakeley ]