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INTERVIEW Sara Prowse of Hotter on comfort in the customer experience

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Comfort is in the DNA of footwear brand Hotter, says its chief executive Sara Prowse. The brand promises a customer experience that, like its shoes, is free of friction and pain points. Its aim is to enable shoppers who span a range of ages and attitudes to technology – its target audience is aged 50-plus – to buy in the way that they want. Some might choose to buy through the catalogue, others prefer to call the contact centre to buy, while others use its more than 80 stores, shop online – or use a combination spanning any or all of these.

“A comfortable service proposition to a 45-year-old might be very different to a 75-year-old so we try to create a platform of service so you can choose where you want to be on it,” says Prowse. “You can self-serve on the web with web chat, or just transact online. In our contact centre or our stores you can have a human interaction and a much higher degree of service. It’s entirely up to the customer to choose how they want to interact with us, and the service they want. For me the trick is finding the balance between technology and human interaction – that’s where the true connection happens, when you get that balance right for the customer.”

As yet, most Hotter shoppers choose to buy from the store, while older shoppers tend to buy via the contact centre. But the brand commissioned data analysis that found 18% of its shoppers use more than one channel, most often the store and the website, together. Those omnichannel shoppers spend five times more at Hotter than a shoppers buying through one channel alone, while customer retention rates among this group are three times higher.

While smartphone sales are growing, the most-used device is the tablet. Hotter is responding by honing an omnichannel approach to customer service and the customer experience that will put the systems in place to serve those shoppers in future, as shopper behaviour adapts to involve more channels. Already, says Prowse, click and collect is its fastest-growing channel. Speaking at InternetRetailing Conference, in October 2018, she said it has grown by 24% in the last year and currently accounts for around 10% of all sales. “Among the customers coming online, there is a high propensity to want it delivered to store, because there’s free delivery to store, so we really are starting to see from a service proposition those two come together a lot more, through that omnichannel customer.”

Engaging with customers

As well as enabling customers to buy via the channels they want to use, Hotter also enables them to talk to customer service whenever and however they want to. Live chat is enabled, while in the contact centre no measurements are taken to record time spent on a call. “Because we approach service with this tenet of ‘comfortable’ we don’t measure call times – it takes as long as it takes for the sale of that product for that unique customer,” says Prowse. “In some cases it’s very quick if the customer wants to move through the transaction very quickly but in some cases it can be 20 mins because the customer needs more help, wants to discuss the product, and chat about other things. “In our stores and contact centre, too, we very much believe that each interaction with the customer is unique, and it should take whatever amount of time it takes for that particular sale for that unique customer.” 

Social has a role to play too. “Facebook is our biggest social channel though we do have a community on Instagram and Twitter as well,” says Prowse. “What we do on social is much more content-driven, story-driven. Some of this is obviously around product but we’re not hard pushing and selling within the social space, it’s much more about a dialogue about things that are not necessarily related to shoes. We do a lot more content-driven about things our customers are interested in, like walking, cooking or outdoor pursuits, than just talking about our offer.”

Building an omnichannel customer experience

When Prowse started at Hotter, around two and a half years ago, the brand, she says, had a “fuddy duddy” image, of providing shoes for older ladies. Since then it has evolved to target a slightly younger consumer with more stylish products. It couldn’t change overnight, for fear of alienating its core customers. The same might be said for its approach to technology. Its website has run on a legacy system that wasn’t built for the challenges of omnichannel retail. The retailer cannot, for example, see a single view of the customer or its inventory. Similarly, back then the mobile website was essentially the desktop website on a small screen, something that made it “basically unshoppable”. The brand has invested in a fluid, responsive website that adapts to whichever device the shopper is using. “We’ve looked very closely at the journey on the different devices to see if we need to make changes there,” says Prowse. “We look at our product selection via device as well. The full collection is available on the web, but we have more of a personalised approach on mobile to refine the offer to what you’ve previously shopped and browsed. That way, on mobile you get to see more even though there’s less on there.”

Next summer will see the launch of a new enterprise resource planning (ERP) system that will help the retailer to create a seamless customer experience. That will underpin, from the back end, a new upgraded web platform.

“Getting that single view takes friction out of the journey and should attract more customers to shop across the channels,” says Prowse. “The more you can encourage customers to shop in different channels, the more they develop loyalty for the brand. Loyalty and omnichannel are inextricably linked.”

What advice does Prowse have for others looking to go down a similar route? “Think in terms of what it is you want to do and what the end state is that you’re trying to get to,” she says. “At the end of the day we’re not a technology or a digital business but a product business. It really has to come from the product and brand and having a very clear strategy about how you want that presented to your customers.”

This piece first appeared in the IRUK Top500 The Customer 2018 report. Click here to explore the Top500 series further. 

Image courtesy of Hotter

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