The sweet smell of Home Depot

Unexpectedly, it hit me square in the face – like walking by a bakery just as someone opens the door.  I can’t quite identify it….something between new tires and a lumber yard, though I’m sure I’ve encountered it a thousand times.  Walking into the Home Depot store today – I took a big whiff.  What an awesome smell.

Science tells us that the link between what we smell and the emotions and memories brought forward is due to the connection of the olfactory bulb to the amygdala and hippocampus.  Sight, sound and touch do not pass through the same area of our brain – hence the unique ability of smell to take us back in time and drum up a host of feelings along the way.  (For more, see “Smells Ring Bells: How Smell Triggers Memories and Emotions“, Pschology Today, 1/12/15).

Years ago, back in my college days, I used to frequent a small fly fishing shop on the outskirts of town.  The owner was a friendly, bearded fellow who shared his recent tales from the stream as he tied flies at a vise stationed on the front counter.  Being the novice that I was, watching him take bits of yarn and feathers and turn them into art-quality trout bait was magical.  My appreciation was compounded by the fact that each one he tied went for a buck a piece!  Upon opening the door to Fly Fisher’s Paradise in State College, PA you were greeted with the sweet aroma of Steve’s pipe tobacco.  I was transported there just the other day as I passed by a local smoke shop.  Made me want to dust off the old fly rod for some casting practice in the park.

Quite a different experience: a few weeks ago I bought a kitchen sink from for a remodel project.  Never thought that would happen – but they could deliver the same product the next day that would have taken Home Depot two weeks to fulfill.  No brainer.   Prime member…check.   No news that this is happening across the retail spectrum.  But the smell!  When I hit the homepage –   there’s nothing.  No memories of my late father and I rushing into the Depot before it closed so we could work late into the night remodeling the home my wife and I still love and adore.  There’s no new car smell.   Does an Apple Store have a smell?  I think it does!  Pottery Barn candles.  Gap denim.  REI…fleece and tents and kayaks….mmmmm.  It all smells so good…and can’t be replicated online.

The logic is simple but compelling.  Smell is linked to memory and emotion.  Emotion can equate to a powerful customer experience. These experiences drive customer loyalty…which drives revenue.  It’s this level of experience analysis – down to the smell of your stores – that can create an ongoing competitive advantage for bricks & mortar retail.

Clicking to a homepage is one type of experience.  Walking into a store is a different experience.  The bar for the physical retail experience no longer stops at friendly sales associates, neatly stocked shelves and cool jams over the sound system.

Visit a store and take a whiff.  What comes to mind?  How does it make you feel?


Have you ever met a “Gun Barista”?

Barista: “Hi Mike.  Your usual?”.

Customer: “Yes please!”.

Such a simple, beautiful exchange:  the customer receives instant acknowledgement and recognition; the employee a sense of accomplishment.  No long, drawn out order in “coffee-speak”…extra shot, non-fat, blah, blah, blah.  One simple question.

I often wonder why companies can’t replicate this simple exchange?  For that matter, why can’t Starbucks, as big and profitable as they are, consistently replicate this experience?  No doubt this is why much of the customer experience discussion has been devoted to employee experience.   In Australia, it turns out there’s a name for these highly valuable preparers of caffeinated beverages:  Gun baristas.

According to David Gee of the Baristas Basics Coffee Academy (see “How to be a Gun Barista” – Bean Scene Magazine) “Baristas vary in ability but few can claim to be a “Gun Barista”. You have to be energetic, technically proficient, creative and multi-skilled…”  Aside from what you might expect would be included in David’s list of essential skills to become a gun barista (proper training; a love of coffee; knowledge of espresso machines) is Knowing Your Customers:

“Gun baristas know not only what their customers drink but they actually get to know them. For budding baristas just starting out, we advocate starting by memorising the names of five new faces each week. By using their name every day they come in and trying to memorise their standard order, by the end of the week the customers’ names and orders will be part of the barista’s stored memory.”

Getting to know your customers.  Memorization.  The data and technology to replicate “Mike.  The usual?” is available.  When I go to, I’m greeted with “Hello, William” and product recommendations just for me.  Not exactly “gun barista” level stuff, but better than many ecommerce experiences.  There are basically four components necessary to deliver this experience:

  1. Customer data
  2. Data analytics
  3. A method to identify a specific customer at any given touch point (ie. a card, an app, etc,…)
  4. A communication vehicle (ie. a website, an employee, etc,..)

Most organizations have all of these components – just as all coffee shops have baristas.  The key differentiating factor is leadership: providing and prioritizing (and funding) a “gun barista level” vision of the customer experience.  Keep it simple.  Focus on a few critical customer interactions – in this case, when the customer approaches the counter to place their order.  Visualize what an amazing (ie. gun barista level) experience would be.  Tell that story to the organization (video is a great tool) – and hold them accountable to bring it to fruition.



Innovation fueled by pain

I’ve rented plenty of cars over the last few years, so am quite familiar with the pain Ron Lieber’s article analyzes in today’s NY Times: With Uber and Lyft Nearby, Rental Cars May Be Ripe for a Comeuppance.

As the article walks through the rental car customer’s experience, you can’t help but have empathy thinking about a Mom & Dad traveling with small kids…Dad waiting in line for a shuttle bus – fully aware that he’ll have to drive back to the terminal to load up car seats and luggage at the arrivals curb.  Or consider the exhausted business traveler who didn’t find existing exterior car damage…at midnight as a cold rain pelted down on the dimly lit parking lot.  It makes you wonder if the rental car company ever went through the experience themselves?

I’m certain that companies like Avis and Hertz consider themselves “customer centric”- but as Mr Lieber highlights, the experience can be brutal.  Yes – many pain points in the customer experience they provide are outside of their control.  For example, the location of their facilities is determined by the design of the airport – so a bumpy, lurching bus ride is, by default, built into the experience.  What these companies have missed, however, are important differences in customer scenarios.   Car services and public transportation may not be feasible for car seat toting parents. But for many others, getting from point A to point B doesn’t necessarily require taking temporary ownership of a vehicle.  Uber & Lyft have clearly studied these customer scenarios and have built innovative solutions to cater to them.  Pretty sure the rental car companies just expected that taxis and public transportation would continue to be their only competition.

How could this have played out different for the rental car companies?  They needed to step back from the day-to-day challenges of running a business to consider, not only the current customer experience they’re providing – but the future experience.  This doesn’t have to be a million dollar consulting project.  It just takes a spark to ignite a dialog.  The rest will come naturally – since good ideas always rise to the surface.

This time of year, when there’s not much more we can do to impact the year’s financials, is a great opportunity to take a step back and reflect.  Walk through customer experience scenarios and try to put yourself in the shoes of your customer.  How do you think they feel as they progress through the experience?  What could be changed?  Is there a completely new/different way to help the customer accomplish their intent?

At the core of any innovation is dialog:  people sharing ideas to identify a better way.  It doesn’t take an offsite, venture capital or a Stanford diploma to have meaningful discussions that can positively impact the customer’s experience.  Get a group of people together – people from customer support, product management, finance, marketing (the more diverse the group the better) – and have a conversation to walk through a few customer scenarios.  Infuse data points where you can and, even better, invite a few customers to participate.

Skip the formalities and simply start a customer experience dialog.  If you need some help, contact me ( to learn more about onBelay Consulting’s CX workshop format.  By proactively igniting the conversation, you’ll head into 2017 with a list of new ideas and a team that’s been energized to make them happen.

A Millennial Thanksgiving

Out-of-town houseguests change the Thanksgiving holiday dynamic quite a bit.  After the meal is over, the pies have been sliced, the kitchen restored to some sense of normalcy and only the televised highlights of football remain, family & friends who gathered for the big meal typically start to head back home – gradually restoring quiet and calm to our humble abode.  But like the leftover turkey & stuffing, holiday houseguests remain, in this case for many days.  “They’re my family”, I was sternly reminded, so I did my best to put on the rose colored glasses and think of glasses half full.  Then it hit me:  three of our guests were Millennials.

Yes.  Millennials.  The most feared and largest of the generational segments (see Millennials overtake Baby Boomers as America’s largest generation Pew Research 4/25/16).  Much has been published about this group of 19 to 35 year olds, but I’ve personally only witnessed them from a distance – mainly nieces and nephews for a few hours at a time.  So I decided to do a little research on my own.

Here are 3 things I learned about Millennials over the holiday:

1) They are pragmatic

From the way they choose to be entertained, to how they shop, to how they communicate, they are willing to try new ways of doing things – and will change quickly without hesitation if they think there’s a better way.  Take Facebook for example.  My Millennial houseguest sample rarely posts and mostly “creeps” – or checks out what others are posting.  But they do see value in having a legitimate Facebook profile, as a kind of social id card when meeting new people (particularly in a dating scenario).  But for the most part, they’ve moved on to Snapchat – as it seems many have (see While We Weren’t Looking, Snapchat Revolutionized Social Networks, New York Times 11/30/16).

This also plays out in terms of the brands they use…because they use them all.  Google, Amazon, Apple, etc,…They seek out and reward utility.  For example, Apple’s FaceTime is simply impractical to them given that all of the people they want to interact with must own Apple products in order to use the service.  But they also aren’t Google loyalists: they have Gmail accounts but don’t use Google Assistant – instead favoring Amazon’s Alexa.   Spotify at home; Pandora at work.  FitBit instead of Apple Watch.  Brand loyalty gets you into the consideration set, but utility drives the purchase/adoption decision.

2) They are skilled at operating on a budget

Family life is looming for this group.  Housing costs and school loans are a big weight, so they’ve had to prioritize their spending and become resourceful to stretch their dollars.  Their overall interest in food makes cooking less of a chore – saving on restaurant markups – while shopping a handful of grocery stores (i.e. Trader Joes, Kroger, Sprouts, Price Chopper) reduces their overall food cost.  They’re even willing to make regular trips to the outlet mall to reduce what they have to spend on clothing.

Their frugal side can definitely be seen in their entertainment choices.  No cable.  No dish. Netflix is a no brainer, followed by Amazon Prime Video.  They prefer YouTube Red – since it comes with a Google Play Music subscription – effectively getting video & music at 2 for the price of 1.  No room for Hulu as a stand alone subscription.  They’d much rather play Battlefield 1, Ascension or Civilization 6 than turn on a TV and watch whatever happens to be on.  The age-old movie theater remains as a place to meet friends and see blockbusters like the soon-to-be-released Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

3) They can hunt a deal online…but a physical store still dresses them

Cyber Monday (yes – they were still here on Monday) found our  25 & 27 year old guests side-by-side on the sofa – shopping deals from their iPhones.  To the disappointment of my email marketing friends – the thought of surfing their inboxes never seemed to cross their mind – since, to them, email is just a work & parental thing.  They had previously researched and created a list of things they were interested to buy, so the actual shopping process was very efficient.  This was definitely a social activity, as I heard quite a bit of conferring back & forth on decisions around product specs and color choices.  Much of this was on Amazon, by the way.

Like Netflix, Amazon Prime is also a no brainer – and they outright challenged me to find a Millennial who isn’t a Prime member – so good news for Amazon.  Why walk around a Target store when they can have many of the same items delivered to their door the very next day.  But for clothing – the “try-it-on-before-you-buy” in-store experience still resonates.  Getting clothes via the mail that don’t fit is a hassle to be avoided.

The house is empty.  The bar has been raised.

It’s now been just about a week since Thanksgiving – and our last guest headed back to the east coast this morning (to point #2 above, they took full advantage of our free room & board).  My Millennial guests have left me with an unexpected gift – a unique look into life from their perspective.  I distinctly remember moments like these in the past – when you, the marketer, are suddenly presented with a crystal clear picture of the customer’s perspective.

One December many years ago I helped a young mother, crying baby on her lap, design her family’s first Christmas card over the phone.  She had called Shutterfly customer service just to be sure everything was perfect before clicking to submit her order.  While customer service got some help in answering the phone, it was the marketing team that really came away with a new appreciation for the customer’s needs and challenges.

These small sample, intimate customer moments get ingrained in your memory and energize a marketer’s commitment to do right by the customer.  You can bet I thought of that Shutterfly Mom often in the following months as we crafted the segment messaging strategy.  My Thanksgiving close-up view of a Millennial perspective has had a similar effect, making me once again contemplate what needs to change in order to better deliver impactful experiences that resonate with this unique audience.

Millennials are forcing marketers to up their game.  Following them to the next, yet-to-be-determined social network won’t be enough.  Marketing to “Generation Me” as they establish their place in the world, plant their roots and begin building families will require a tailored approach that probably looks very different than what has worked in the past.


Anonymous @ Starbucks

Coffee is an important part of my day.  I love a good cup of joe – and I’m clearly not alone – as the proliferation of coffee shops in every neighborhood and business district seems to go on unabated (Starbucks now has over 24,000 locations in 70 countries).

I’ve been a  Starbucks customer a long time – from way back when the doubters questioned consumer willingness to pay more than a dollar for a cup of coffee.  Funny that many of those same people now spend $3 and up on a latte.  I’ve enjoyed a Starbucks Venti Americano in San Francisco, LA, Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, Chicago, Dallas, Atlanta, Boston, Pittsburgh, New York, Orlando, @ the Louvre in Paris and the airport in Mexico City.  The Starbucks app is one of my most frequently used.

Imagine the quantity of data Starbucks has on me.  They know if I’m local or traveling.  They know if i’m alone or with my family.  They know that calories now matter, given my switch to a pack of almonds from a (delicious) blueberry scone.  They know if I’m commuting to the city or working from the home office.  I could go on for days – as the insight possibilities seem almost endless.

Our local Starbucks has a Clover machine.  If you’ve never had a cup of coffee from one of these – you really should try it.  (here’s a video  from Wired on the $11,000 coffee maker) The Clover machine presents the Starbucks customer with a completely different customer experience – as they can choose from a selection of premium coffee beans and have a cup specially brewed – instead of settling for whatever’s been brewed in the larger vat.  It’s not cheap: $4 vs. $2.45 for a standard grande size coffee.   Probably safe to assume that customers choosing Clover: a) spend more than an average customer; and b) buy more of the higher priced beans to take home.

So given the wealth of customer data I’ve generated over the years and a clear preference that I’ve signaled for a premium coffee experience, I have one simple question:

Why do I get the same marketing content as any other Starbucks customer?

Compare what I’ve described about myself above against a few recent Starbucks communications:

  • I opened my Starbucks app this morning to “A Splash of Spice – New Spiced Cold Brew” and a “Merry Mondays” offer to get 40 bonus stars if I spend $20 or more after 2pm”.
  • Found a similar Starbucks email in my inbox this morning alerting me to “Merry Monday”.

Pretty sure these are national promotions.  Going back through the almost daily email communications I receive from Starbucks & Starbucks Rewards shows a constant focus on “buy this…get x number of reward stars” promotions.  They certainly have nothing to do with the Sumatra I’ve been loving the last few months.

So what?  Why does it matter?  I’ll tell you why:  Starbucks is selling a Reserve Roastery subscription on  For $19 a month you get “rare, small-lot coffees hand-selected exclusively for subscribers”.  What customer profile is most likely to sign-up for a subscription?  My bet: the Clover customer.  I’m a Clover customer.  Have I heard about the Reserve Roastery subscription from Starbucks?  No.

To Starbucks, I’m just like any other “star hungry” loyalty member.  Do X, get Y stars.  Admittedly, if you ask anyone in the loyalty marketing space,  they won’t be able to contain their enthusiasm for the success of the Starbucks Rewards program.  But in ignoring my data and the preferences it signals, a coffee enthusiast like myself can easily be swayed to try, for instance, the unique experience offered at Philz – or other local third wave coffee providers.

Marketers are forever searching for a silver bullet – and from a distance it might look like the Starbucks Rewards is just that (and I’m sure many loyalty marketing vendors adamantly agree).  But to ignore a wealth of customer data in favor of executing a one-size-fits-all national marketing calendar leaves the door open to competitors willing and able to focus on unique customer niches.

Instead of choosing loyalty marketing over a CRM strategy – a better alternative is to have them both compliment each other.  Fine to acknowledge that I’m a Starbucks Rewards member, but then feed me the coffee enthusiast experience that is clearly available and integral to the Starbucks brand.  Go ahead and give me 20 stars for a Reserve Roastery subscription – but learn from my data and understand that, for the coffee enthusiast segment, the experience may be a higher priority than star accumulation.  You don’t have to make a choice between CRM or loyalty.  You get to have them both.


The Importance of a Good Ground Game

Just as NFL teams devise complex blocking schemes to unleash their running game – and political campaigns canvas county by county to harvest every possible vote –  marketing organizations need to develop a good ground game to drive ongoing consumer engagement.

These three areas: football, politics and marketing may at first seem completely unrelated.  Common to each, however, is a less flashy, less sexy and ultimately less expensive way to achieve success.

In American football, success is measured in points scored – which are typically produced by the offensive unit.  In the majority of cases (an exception is the Dan Marino reference below), offensive strategy requires what is referred to as a “balanced attack” – meaning a proportionate number of running to passing plays.  A team who can establish their ground game from the start of a game is able to keep the defensive team on their heels,  as the defense becomes unsure what type of play will be next.  Without a ground game, offensive teams rely entirely on the passing game, which becomes more predictable for the opposing team to defend.  That’s not a problem if you have a Hall of Fame quarterback like Dan Marino – but that type of quarterback is a rare occurrence.

“There is no defense against a perfect pass.  I can throw the perfect pass.”

-Dan Marino

The passing game in football has flair and panache – while the running game is more brutal and punishing.  Putting the ball in the air can achieve large yardage gains – but also increases the risk of an interception by the defense.   In contrast, a good ground game can be almost boring with gains averaging just a few yards for each running play.  When football was described as a “game of inches”, it was the ground game that was surely top of mind.

Ground game capabilities are a vital football team investment.  A playbook of detailed blocking schemes must be created, memorized and practiced.  The offensive line must be big, healthy and strong, and a stable full of fast, elusive and sure handed running backs are needed to carry the ball.

In politics, a good ground game means having an extensive network of grass roots organizers who can reach out at the local level, voter by voter.  Phone banks are manned by volunteers who do their best to sway individual voter opinions.  Compared to expensive television ads that are broadcast to millions of potential voters instantaneously, a political ground game is labor intensive and relies upon a database of voter profile and contact information.

In the 2016 presidential campaign, Democrat Bernie Sanders is using his reliance on grass roots organizing as an opportunity to distinguish himself from the Clinton campaign, which is more reliant upon big donor contributions to Super Pacs to fund campaign efforts.  With essentially a tie in Iowa and a win yesterday in New Hampshire, it looks like Senator Sander’s ground game is paying off.

So what does this all have to do with marketing?  Well compared to Super Bowl TV ads, building grass roots brand engagement can seem downright old fashioned.  No doubt, big creative ideas can attract plenty of attention (#puppymonkeybaby), but creating ongoing interest and interaction with a brand requires a consistent and personalized approach that TV campaigns can’t deliver.  Moreover, it wouldn’t be outrageous to say that you can pretty much fund your entire marketing ground game for a year with the $5 million cost of a 30 second Super Bowl ad spot.  Engaging at the ground level requires a few basics:

1) Non-Anonymous Data:

The reason so many companies want you to join their loyalty program is to get past this hurdle: being able to attribute consumer behavior data to a specific customer.  This is much easier if you’re Costco, REI or Kroger’s than for a CPG brand sold on retailers’ shelves.

2) Insight:

Data, in and of itself, is of limited value unless it can be turned into knowledge that can inform marketing strategies & tactics.  For example, insight into how your most valuable customers differ in profile and behavior from less valuable ones is a good starting point.

3) Content:

Here’s the customer’s payoff for allowing you to collect and store their data: an experience that is tailored to their situation.  Now that you know something about your customers, the question is: what are you going to deliver that’s unique & different?

4) Customer Touchpoints:

This is where it can get expensive.   To reach your customers within walled communities (like Facebook) or on search engines or external media properties requires a sufficient ad budget.  The reason email marketing persists as a popular marketing channel is it’s relatively low cost per touch and high response rates relative to other channels.  Even configuring owned touch points like commerce sites to deliver a tailored customer experience can involve expensive redesign and even replatforming efforts.

As in football, investment in a ground game gives the marketer a balanced attack, as lower cost, targeted engagement tactics are able to drive action and awareness during periods of low air cover (i.e. mass media spend).   And like grass roots political organizing, a marketing ground game enables stronger, more personal connections to be made and leveraged for years to come.

A marketing ground game is a workhouse that delivers each and every day.  It may not be as sexy as the big creative idea, but it will still be producing when brief flashes of attention have long been forgotten.

CX Wallpaper: Putting your office walls to good use

Many years ago I walked into a client’s office to find it completely plastered with sheets of paper.  Apparently there was an ongoing internal debate happening amongst various product groups and the centralized marketing organization as to who owned the customer and how frequently a customer could/should be contacted.  To prove a point, our marketing client had her team pull two real life customer profiles from the database.  Then, starting on the left side of her office, the team taped to the wall every company communication sent to each of the two customers.

Somewhat shockingly, they found that the first customer, a retiree, was being sent offers geared toward first-time home buyers – to which he (for obvious reasons) did not respond.  The communication frequency was also alarming, as a month’s worth of communications could barely fit on an entire length of wall.  Here, for anyone to see, was an actual customer communication experience.

I couldn’t help but notice how often we collectively referred to the wall in the course of our discussions over the next few days.  The sudden infusion of objectivity – a real customer’s communication experience up on the wall – fundamentally changed the dynamic of our conversations.  No longer was the need to change being debated.  Instead, the focus turned to how fast change could happen.

CX Wallpaper

Here are a few suggestions to make this exercise most useful:

  • While the above example was focused on communication strategy, other touch-points can easily (or maybe not so easily, depending on your access to customer data) be incorporated to expand the CX perspective.  This exercise is a great way to gauge where holes in your customer data exist.
  • Contain the scope of the exercise to just a few days.  A long, drawn out exercise can actually work against you and sap team momentum and energy.  Also, the more frequently you can iterate and re-wallpaper your office, the more opportunities you’ll have to explore different customer profiles.
  • Expect that you’re going to find some less-than-stellar customer scenarios – but resist the temptation to make this a “wall of shame”.  Communicate both the good and not so good experience aspects to build trust and fuel the organization’s commitment to ongoing CX improvement.

Don’t be surprised if your wallpapered walls become a popular office destination – and take heart in the fact that your “redecorating” is actually helping to bring the customer’s perspective into better view.