Podcast | Customer First Practices around the World

With Grant Steadman, David Ciancio,
11 October '21

David Ciancio (00:12): Welcome everyone to this dunnhumby podcast series. All about the importance of putting your customers first, whatever retail setting that you operate in. My name is David Ciancio. My colleague, Dave Clements and I, are hosting a series of bite size podcasts, with experts from the retail and data world. And we explore the importance of putting customers first, with practical examples, techniques and lessons for retailers and brands.


Today, we’re speaking with Grant Steadman, who is dunnhumby’s President of North American operations. Grant brings a uniquely global view on customer first. Having worked with companies in Russia, the UK, across Europe and Asia, and now in the US. So Grant, please tell us what Customer First means to you, and then more about your experiences of customers first practices around the world.

Grant Steadman (01:10): Well, thank you, David. I’ll be pleased to, and always a pleasure to talk to you. I think about customer first, really, simply put as an approach that says we are going to start the by understanding what customers want, and then we’re going to give them more of that. And for me, beyond the strategy, objectives, the different tactics used, it starts as a philosophy. I mean, I would really think of it as an outside in type of approach, where you are starting, not with what you have, or what you want to sell or do, but you’re starting with the customer and you’re saying we are going to fulfill their needs, delight their needs, and work out how to achieve our objectives from that point, and not the other way around.

Grant Steadman (02:00): And my background is in advertising and marketing, and we used to talk a lot and still do in that space about behavioural change, and our ability, and sometimes grossly exaggerated to get customers to change their behaviour and do something that our business or our clients wanted the customer to do.

Grant Steadman (02:26): And for me, the philosophy behind customer first is that you really start in a different place, which is not that our ability to change customer behaviour and the extent to which we should, is grossly exaggerated. And actually is that our role, if you reframe it as, our role is to delight customers with a fantastic and improved experience or service or product, if that’s truly what you deliver, then customers will change their behaviour because they want to benefit from that.

Grant Steadman (03:01): So I think of it as a philosophical quest that starts that way round, and from a strategic perspective, one where you are already delving into say, make some choiceful decisions around, who are really our target customers? What is most important to them and how are we going to use data to deliver on that in a better way and evaluate the impact of it and adjust and cycle accordingly.

David Ciancio (03:34): Thanks. I quite like that bit about learning about what customers want and then doing more of that. And that puts data in the right place. It puts understanding, it puts activation in the right place. So I quite like that. The other part of the question was, have you seen differences in that philosophy around the world, or is it the same universally, do you think?


Every set of customers is different so how you deliver for them should be too

Grant Steadman (03:57): Yeah, I mean, I’ve been fortunate enough to work with different companies all around the world, and had a variety of experiences of how that’s been implemented and how it’s been expressed in different forms. When I first joined dunnhumby almost 14 years ago now, I worked briefly with Tesco in the UK and they had some in the customer engagement and CRM area. And they had some fantastic expressions of customer first in terms of how they would deliver offers collaboratively between their partners, CPG partners and themselves as a retailer, so that was a fantastic experience. Shell, of course, we work with across multiple markets, Asia, Europe, and over here in North America as well. So it was interesting to see it from that perspective.

Grant Steadman (04:54): And of course, probably the best example, David, that you and I are both intimately familiar with in the Nordics and how particularly Coop Norway there have really embraced customer first as a strategy and a way of working and numerous activations there. So all kinds of different experiences. I think it looks different. In some ways it’s always uniquely different regardless of the market and the sector. If you’re truly following your customers, every set of customers is different and therefore how you deliver for them should be too.

David Ciancio (05:30): Yeah, I think that’s right. I like that very much. So not only have you worked in different geographies, but it occurs to me that you’ve worked across so many different kinds of operating models. Goodness, you mentioned Coop in Norway, so that’s a true customer owned cooperative. You mentioned Shell, so it’s a fairly decentralized, but a big corporation, right. You’ve worked with wholesalers, you’ve worked with centralized control kinds of companies. And so not only thinking about the geography, but are there important similarities or differences around customer first in different operating models?


Embedding from strategy to execution, and everything in between

Grant Steadman (06:09): Yeah, absolutely. And a lot of differences. I mean, I think there’s some key principles of what customer first looks like when it’s done well. And I would say how it’s embedded from strategy all the way down through the execution, across the objectives, the goals, even the values of the business. So, that’s a key principle, I think. If you’re doing customer first, well, it’s truly embedded all the way through the value chain of the company. I think it’s also aligned with your staff, and I know David, this is a passionate area that you talk about as well around, you are focused on your staff, and your people centric first in order to deliver on that. But also in other ways in the values, the rewards, the incentives of your people, in your company are aligned to customer first as well.

Grant Steadman (07:11): And I think there’s a cultural aspect to it, and around language, values as I mentioned, ways of working and principles. So I think those are some common themes we’ve done well, but the model of how it works is obviously in different sectors. I have worked with financial services clients where the context has been one that’s very un-customer centric, if you like. I mean, if you, if you take general insurance as an example. It seems like all the incentives, all the delightful experiences are designed to attract new customers. And then, typically when customers come to renew, they have a less appealing experience as some of those incentives disappear. So, the model for how customer first looks in a financial services business, is very different from retailers and to see stores and so on and so forth. So some real variability on how it gets expressed, but I think there’s some key principles there, as I mentioned, that are common for what good looks like.

David Ciancio (08:23): Sure. Yeah. It feels to me like the starting line is different depending on the industry. And you mentioned financial services, which is starting by our view quite far back versus a really customer service centric operator. And we work a lot with grocery, but they tend to be at least customer interested or customer service oriented in the first place. So different starting points. I can imagine listeners to this podcast thinking, well, that’s a tall order to embed customer first throughout every part of the value chain. And I wonder what it is that keeps more organisations from becoming customer first. What do you think?


Demystifying Customer First

Grant Steadman (09:07): Yeah, I agree. And there’s a tall order, there’s some uphill initiatives and aspects of it. I think, first of all though, it’s misunderstood and it’s confused. And I think it’s often used as a buzzword or a phrase to attract attention and sound appealing without having too much tangible action behind it. But it’s also gets confused with other things, that the people talk a lot about digital transformation. And I think sometimes being customer first gets confused with that. I mean, you can be a customer first business that operates very well digitally, or you can be a customer first business that perhaps doesn’t need to have a very digital focus for your customers.

Grant Steadman (09:52): So, that’s kind of incidental for me. So I think it’s often misunderstood. It’s sometimes confused with other things., And it is hard to do. It’s a strategic top-down push, which involves a lot of change as well. And change management is hard. Some people do not enjoy change. Some people react emotionally to that. I think everyone likes to believe that they are focused on customers. So having to accept and admit, and face into the fact that maybe we don’t do that in the purest and the best ways that we could. I think that’s a hard, starting point to get to.

Grant Steadman (10:32): And a lot of change management along the way, and it’s a long term commitment and it’s easier to be more focused on the short term, and hitting some KPIs next month, next quarter, and it takes discipline to really keep to that, keep focused on that long term goal, and use data to course correct along the way. So those are some of the reasons I think it’s hard and there are perhaps barriers in the way for folks to really get the best out of it. How do you see it, David? Is that your experience as well?


Being fluent in the customer language

David Ciancio (11:15): I agree with those, I’ll add a few other. I think for a number of organisations, starting with the data itself, it’s difficult to get data that’s intimate enough, if you will, to really understand customers and understand your clients, with the kind of degree of certainty that says, if we bring those customers into our decisions, we know we’re making better choices. So the data itself, and then following from the data, it’s getting the right kind of data science.

David Ciancio (11:48): When I was at Kroger, I had access to all of the shopper card data and was applying a kind of a science, but it didn’t turn out to be as effective. It wasn’t aimed at making the right kind of changes in store. So I would just say that the science approach wasn’t adequate for the complexities there in retail.

David Ciancio (12:12): Third, I’m going to agree with your change management. That’s hard to do. And to me, where that falls down is what I call managing the middle, or the middle layer of the cake. The middle layer of management. Often we see we can get senior leaders committed and they love the vision of customer first, but the folks that really have to add activate it are less engaged somehow. The fourth one that I put on my list has to do with, many times an organization will really not adequately engage the operators. The people there in the stores, or the folks closest to the customer, whatever the channel is. And I call that the army of your people.

David Ciancio (12:58): In most organisations, that’s about 97% of the organization that faces customers, and that group has to understand the language about customers. It has to be fluent and comfort and comfortable with the language, and it has to understand what the customer priorities are. We call those the customer promises. It’s that translation layer that some sometimes gets lost just in the change management. So good. Okay. I mean, it’s an interesting discussion. I’d like to talk with you more and again, in another podcast like this one, I think we’ve just scraped into some really interesting ideas, like this transition piece, and like the change management piece, and I know you’ve led that for a number of clients.

Grant Steadman (13:49): Yeah. Well, David, it’s been great talking to you and I’ll be delighted to come back again, fantastic that we’re doing this customer first radio, and I think it’d be great to get some of our clients and associates here to tell more of the stories and their experiences of this as well.

David Ciancio (14:07): Yeah. We’ll certainly do that, but in the interest of keeping this bite size, I think I’ll thank the audience. So please everyone, thank you for listening today. I hope that you found this helpful in thinking about how your organisation can activate and practice customer first. There’s many more of these conversations to come. So please join us next time, we want to explore a concept called the value core, which is really about the balance between price and quality perceptions, how those affect overall value perceptions of a store and how those affect store and brand choices. So grant thanks. Thank you again, audience. Thank you again until next time.

Grant Steadman (14:48): Thank you, David.