How a Dell executive learned to plug into what consumers want

June 8, 2016 01:44 PM

If you aren’t focused on the right problems, you’ll end up with the wrong results. That was the foundation of Greg Bowen’s keynote speech Wednesday at the Internet Retailer 2016 Conference & Exhibition in Chicago.

“Up to 80% of IT projects fail to meet expectations,” said Bowen, vice president of Dell Commerce Services. Dell is No. 3 in the Internet Retailer 2016 Top 500 Guide, with $15.70 billion in 2015 web sales. “Often that’s because retailers’ business requirements and objectives overshadow the customer.”

Retailers often fail to think about the customer when they embark upon projects or make decisions. Listening to the customer rather than focusing on business goals or what management wants, is the first step while planning a project, Bowen said. He illustrated his point by pointing to his former role as an, art curator at a museum in central Illinois. 

“My success was not about the art but about the customers—about getting that customer to walk through that door and learn something they didn’t know and come back and experience it again and again,” he said.

He learned this lesson fast when he first tried to display esoteric exhibits that interested him as an art history MBA graduate—but not the nearby community of young Midwesterners. Once he changed his displays to make them psychedelic, entertaining and approachable to meet the interests and wants of his potential customers—who enjoyed “The Simpsons” TV show and whose main worry was where to go out that Saturday—interest in his exhibits soared.  

Bowen took this lesson to the business world, describing an 18-month web platform overhaul by Dell. Dell spent more than a year ripping out back-end systems in an attempt to standardize processes and in response to negative customer, vendor and marketing feedback. The end result, however, was a site with a busy 7,000-pixel home page that took 14 seconds to load. “We found consumers were abandoning the site, and our revenue was off by 45%,” he said.

To change course, Dell focused on the customer. It mined the 1,000 or so customer comments it received each day via its customer feedback vendor iPerceptions, as well as the tweets it collected from shoppers. “We thought about how to prioritize for the mom in France searching for a laptop for her college son, for the procurement agent in Israel and for the person seeking enterprise storage solutions for data centers,” he said.

Dell also implemented what it called a “walk-through store program.” It asked 800 employees to spend 10 minutes a day “walking” the online store, after which they could log defects and suggest ways to simplify the site.

The relaunched site focused on a few priorities customers and employees noted: simple navigation, fast performance, robust site search and an easy way to compare multiple products’ features and functions. The final product was a site that loaded in just over three seconds. “It looked and felt cleaner and delivered relevant results,” Bowen said.

After listening to shoppers and letting them inform design, Dell’s new e-commerce site experienced a 13% lift in revenue per visit in some regions. Exit rates also dropped 39%, Bowen said.

Bowen also recalled a time when he worked with a consumer packaged goods company to enable shoppers to shop on Facebook. “We were seeing not only customers flocking online, but flocking to social media,” he said. “Moms online were turning to social media to ask ‘What’s the best way to transition my child to solid food’?” he said. “And, naturally, we wanted to be where our customers were.”

Bowen and his team went to work enabling browsing and purchasing from within Facebook. The project, which took four months to implement, was a flop. “It launched with great fanfare,” Bowen said. “And we waited and waited. And crickets. Zero customer engagement.”

Soon after, Bowen and his team put together a customer panel. He found that while consumers use Facebook to seek advice, share photos and catch up with friends. But they weren’t interested in making purchases on the social network.

“We sold more diapers in an hour on the e-commerce site than we sold in two months on Facebook,” he said. Bowen and his team pulled the plug on the Facebook project. It was a lesson in learning fast and recognizing when something isn’t worth keeping. The process also led Bowen to move to agile, a technology development approach that constantly tweaks processes and that implements changes in small, digestible bits rather than waiting for one big technology push with major enhancements. Working in this way helps staff tie less emotion to big projects or ideas and enables companies to be more nimble, see when something isn’t working quickly and move on.

“Big annual releases are tied to a lot of emotions,” Bowen said. “With agile, you take risks that are small so there is not a lot of emotions tied to them.”

To keep that customer focus sharp, Bowen said he often places an empty chair at the boardroom table at planning meetings to symbolize the customer.

“Think of the last decision you had to make at your company,” Bowen said. “Who is always missing? The customers. I put that chair there to make sure I remember them. If you start with the right reasons, you will end with the right results.”




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