Meet a marketing expert: Kelly Nickerson & Epsilon's retail strategic consulting practice

Epsilon’s Retail Strategic Consulting practice counsels clients on CRM and loyalty strategies that help drive profitable growth. Advising on best practices to optimize customer acquisition, retention and personalization, the team helps clients navigate through customer-centric transformation. This Meet a Marketing Expert series is designed to pull the curtain back on new viewpoints from across Epsilon, its affiliates and partners, on deepening customer intelligence and implementing programs with impact.

In the first part of this series Kelly Nickerson, Vice President, Retail Strategy & Analytics, shares her thoughts on the transforming retail landscape and what it takes to put rubber to the road when it comes to delivering superior customer connections.

Meet Kelly Nickerson  

It’s no secret industries are undergoing great change. How can large players adapt, become more agile to remain competitive and grow?

It can be hard to get things done in a large organization. To better adapt and compete with emerging players, big companies need to prototype ideas more quickly and fail faster, creating a rapid path to insight. We believe fostering a culture of experimentation is the quickest way to generating data-driven insight in larger companies. We approach nimble omnichannel test orchestration through what we call the Customer Experience and Insights (CXI) Lab, usually staffed with a blend of client and Epsilon personnel. Developing strategically-focused, actionable learning agendas tied to KPI forecasting is key.

The Retail Strategic Consulting team focuses on what we call the omnichannel ‘first mile to customer' – defining the strategic vision for individual customer messaging to be deployed in synergy across individual channels. We bring together business objectives, customer known truths, segmentation and predictive analytics to inform the customer journey while helping shape it for incremental growth. Brand-enhancing CRM and loyalty strategies that increase customer engagement while delivering measurable business impact.

How do you help organizations embrace customer-centric transformation?

We find it impactful as a strategy team to take a holistic approach in assessing the client landscape across five foundational pillars:

  • Data – A strong understanding of data is central to customer-centricity. The right data helps to orchestrate a personalized ‘next best moment’ (automated via machine learning or analytics-powered interactions) but it may need strategic evaluation to optimize long-term results. Moving towards data ‘democracy’ with multiple stakeholder groups – including finance, real estate and merchandising – able to leverage and feed resulting insights back to the central customer data hub for evolving enterprise intelligence is critical.
  • Technology – What does the martech, adtech, ecommerce and in-store technology IT roadmap look like? What is the client approach to defining future state for real-time personalization, digital CX technologies and machine learning?
  • CRM and Loyalty – We have a ‘CRM 360’ performance scorecard methodology to evaluate both CX (programs & messaging) and business performance (efficiencies & impact) to help close gaps and advance brand journey optimization goals. Crawl-walk-run achievements with quick-win sprints to show ongoing gains while continuing to focus on longer term objectives is an important part of our approach.
  • People and Process – Are people empowered in the right roles to enact change at multiple levels of the organization? Are corporate staff and store associates capable of transforming data into usable information to recognize customers and deliver a relevant, more personalized customer experience?
  • Governance – Being a customer-first organization starts top-down with leadership instilling a culture of putting customers at the center of the brand’s vision. Who owns ‘the customer’ today? Empowering all levels – customer-facing and not – to foster human connections must be part of corporate DNA.

It really does require a significant amount of change across the multiple dimensions to become an agile, insights-orientated organization capable of delivering better customer experiences for growth.

What is required to be a brand of the future?

Experience is becoming the new product; fostering the human part of the experience is critical across both online and offline connections. Pandora draws people through doors with showy mix-and-match jewelry demonstrations; and Sephora drives foot traffic via high-touch product interaction that moves through digital channels, including loyalty and the mobile app. The next digital touchpoint just might be Hx – the human channel. Hyper-personalization tuned to human channel delivery capabilities is a new frontier. In-store and branch-based ‘brand ambassadors’ must increasingly be able synthesize customer information and relevantly extend the digital experience via Hx for complete omnichannel personalization. As stores move towards automated sensors and computer vision checkout, humans will have to deliver  different kinds of assistance and services than ever before.

What prepared you for your role today?

Early experiences with CX delivery in both the retail and hospitality industries paved the way for my customer-centric mindset. My transition to tech with a retail enterprise software company focusing on point-of-sale and merchandising allowed me to evolve along with their emerging CRM practice area. I conducted training around the selling process as part of my role, and through this got a good sense of what it meant to leverage data and technology in support of recognizing customers. I learned early on that the most memorable experiences are person-to-person; customers may return because of great prices, but customer loyalty is earned though how a personal brand interaction made them feel. Data and Hx a big part of developing customer intimacy in a retail setting.

How do you help clients stay focused on the end game – demonstrating top or bottom line results?

Marketing is increasingly under pressure to forecast customer KPI increases and show the incremental impact of marketing spend. We try to stay at the forefront of the client’s competitive set and paint a clear picture of where they can reasonably get to based on organizational factors. We use an ROI calculator methodology to estimate the incremental potential of various CRM levers, tying in multiple swim lanes of effort with both detailed and infographic-style executive reporting. The conversation always comes back to impact – helping clients demonstrate high level customer KPI performance and ROI across various channel efforts with improved planning is what matters most.

Are retailers succeeding at transformation?

Recognized all-stars such as Warby Parker and Bonobos (now purchased by Walmart) are making really good strides in competing against the Amazon effect. But the advice I would offer is to simplify the process; nurture the customer journeys with the highest potential first. If a frustrating returns process is most negatively affecting the customer experience, focus on communications transparency and innovative solutions to relieve stress there. The old saying about turning a disgruntled customer into a loyalist by resolving a complaint effectively is definitely true. As a former Customer Satisfaction Survey analyst, I can personally attest to hundreds of cases where a brand turned a frown upside down!

It ’s fairly straightforward to create a sticky relationship with niche customer segments such as Petites or VIP rewards members; the challenge lies in delivering incremental value at scale across moderate, hard-to-persuade segments. Retailers approaching digital transformation with a view to strong ROI are triangulating in on predicting Value, Potential, Attrition Risk and Digital Engagement level – across digital, offline and human channels – to guide marketing investment decisions and offer strategy for profitable omnichannel personalization.

What inspired you to launch this series, ‘Meet A Marketing Expert’?

We work with a number of subject matter experts, both internally here at Epsilon and in concert with client partners, to deliver strategic CRM thought leadership for retailers undergoing some kind of marketing transformation. Emerging disruptive forces, heightened customer expectations and the constancy of technological change are the new normal; it’s difficult for leaders to navigate the ever changing digital marketing landscape. We wanted to share inventive viewpoints from across our Marketing Expert collaborators in the quest to future-proof client martech investments via profitable exploitation of their greatest asset: customer insight. We peek behind the curtain on what inspires them, both professionally and personally, as we collectively strive for #CustomerSuccess.

Up next in the Meet A Marketing Expert series, Mark Sucrese, VP of Machine Learning and Marketing A.I. at Epsilon, shares what he’s seeing on the bleeding edge of
martech innovation. We get his point of view on critical new practice areas he thinks retailers should be investing in.