The Direct Path to Positive Customer Experience
Last month, I attended my first cabi event at the home of a friend. If you aren’t familiar with it, cabi (Carol Anderson by invitation) is a direct home sales business — like Pampered Chef, but with women’s apparel instead of kitchen gadgets.
I’ve always been a bit skeptical of these events, believing that they were successful primarily because of a sense of obligation built into the business model. To wit: a friend of a sales rep hosts a party at which the rep shows her wares, and the friends, who’ve essentially been invited to a party, purchase those wares to show their appreciation and to support their friend (who, typically, as host, receives some benefit for hosting, a small gift, or points toward merchandise).
In the apparel industry, and in selling in general, customer experience may be the holy grail of retailing, and since attending the cabi event, I’ve come away with a new appreciation of the direct home sales model as a master blueprint for a stellar customer experience. When we talk about perfecting the customer experience along the path to purchase, we touch on many things, including: 1) Product — without merchandise the customer wants, nothing else is of much importance. The product itself is at the core of the customer experience; 2) Ease — whether online or in-store, making it easy to find what she needs and pay for it in a timely fashion are critical, as is a seamless returns and exchanges program; 3) Personalization and Customization — knowing your consumer’s habits, lifestyle, past purchases, preferred style and curating to her desires goes a long way toward capturing loyalty; and 4) Delight — pleasing the customer, surpassing her expectations and if possible providing a fun experience and meaningful social engagement, with other shoppers, with friends, with brand representatives, both in-store and online.
The direct sales model, if my cabi experience is representative, has all of this in spades. As I came to realize, the ladies in the crowd — all cabi regulars — were not gathered out of any sense of obligation, but because they love the clothing. cabi produces two seasons annually of about 90 pieces each, and the entire line is shown at each event. This allows customers not only to view the full range, says cabi stylist Susan Sullivan, but also to see the continuity from season to season, so that they can match items to those already in their closets.
As for ease, how much more convenient can you get than having what is essentially your own personal shopper, presenting a private browsing session in your friend’s living room? cabi stylists take orders, handle deliveries, deal with returns and make the entire experience smooth. When it comes to customization, while this is no mom-and-pop operation — stylists are connected to corporate software systems for tracking clients and corporate web pages dedicated to each stylist — the real activity takes place at a local, personal level. Sullivan knows her customers’ tastes and styles, what pieces they will gravitate toward, and can give them the kind of hands-on guidance often lacking in-store and online, she says.
Finally — and this is really where direct-selling stands out when it comes to creating unique experiences — it is pure fun. Start with a group of friends, throw in some wine and food and starting viewing and trying on clothes (while trying not to spill wine on them). What’s not to like? “It certainly builds community,” says Sullivan.
And here’s another tough retailing nut that the model has cracked — a happy workforce. The company was launched with a goal of both improving the shopping experience and providing a flexible and fun career path for women. Its stated mission is “to affect lives through relationships.” Sullivan says she was drawn to the engaging atmosphere first as a customer and hostess, and then took the career plunge. “It has allowed me to meet all kinds of women that I never would have met,” she says. She loves that she can work on her own schedule as well as help women around the world through the cabi foundation.
The direct home sales channel isn’t for everyone — companies or customers — but it’s instructive to be reminded of the success you can reap when you raise shopping to the level of social activity. Today, many retailers are making incredible progress in achieving connectivity with their consumers. In this issue alone, you can read about technologies ranging from RFID to assortment planning software to personalized marketing that are allowing apparel companies — and their workforces — to get closer to the customer. That’s a really good thing.
But even as technology enables companies to gain ever more granular views into the fine points and desires of customers’ lives so as to serve them better, it’s important not to lose sight of the power of personal touch.
Jordan K. Speer is editor in chief of Apparel.
She can be reached at [email protected]