Every Step of the Way: Three Practices to Consistently Embrace Customer Centricity
BY Michele Levy, Founder & CEO | Melissa Shoes
When we founded Ilhabela Inc. back in 2010, US wholesalers received the Brazilian based Melissa brand with open arms. This was back in the day when Instagram was yet to be launched and Ilhabela Inc was 100% wholesale at the time. As long as our fans were able to find our product beautifully displayed and have truly good customer service, we were happy. How does a company go from 100% wholesale to 65% in just a few years while remaining completely channel agnostic? We became customer centric. The shift from wholesale to other forms of retail is driven by an enhanced need and desire for increased customer focus. We managed to achieve this in the following ways.
Focus on delivering the brand experience –
We always remained focused on delivering our unique brand experience. To reach that level of excellence with our wholesale partners, from large department stores to mom and pop shops, our team conducted more than 1,000 training sessions. We helped them with brand storytelling, product knowledge training, events, and marketing, feeding them as much information as possible about our doings to keep all on brand and on message.
BUT WE ALSO WANTED OUR STORY TO BE DELIVERED IN OTHER FORMS AS WELL, AND WHOM BETTER THAN US TO TELL IT AND GO WITH OUR FANS DIRECTLY THROUGH THAT JOURNEY? AS A BUSINESS, WHATEVER MONIES WE MADE IN WHOLESALE WERE POURED INTO D2C TO CONTINUE THAT EXPERIENCE.
In 2013 we opened our first pop up store in Miami. The beauty of having a sizeable wholesale business is that you know where your business is. The guess work is taken out of the equation since you know where your customers are shopping. Following that first successful pop up in 2013, we built another 12 stores in a record 18-month period. The Melissa stores have our DNA, our sales team has our DNA, everything relates back to the brand, and that allows us to tell our story our way.
Explore new technology and individualize service-
And I was just getting started. This thirst for innovation led me on a two-year journey of finding, funding and deploying some of the most interesting technologies to be created for our industry making business better, faster, cheaper and more fun while we were at it. The industry was bound to change and either we adopted change or we were going to be left behind. For the two years that I spent technology hunting, I learned and constantly shared with our team what technology could do for big companies and why changes were so necessary. To this day, I continue to frequently share with my team, my fears, my dreams, and my desire to be that innovative company in all that we do. This was the admirable new world and the people that I chose to work with and those who chose to go on this journey with me appreciated that the world was changing.
To our wholesalers, we introduced Cymbio, a technology allowing them to order products directly from our omni inventory, giving them the ability to fulfill orders quicker without waiting for one of our sales team members to answer an email or a call. On our end, that freed up time for the sales team to service other clients and open new accounts. We also built a robust in-house IT system linked to all our “best of breed” technologies to bring more transparency, efficiency and accountability to our businesses in a click of a button from any device. Retail, wholesale, online, Cymbio, promotions, budgets, warehousing, delivering, all in one database and accessible in real time to all in our offices.
For our retail stores, the changes were even more ambitious. We introduced FaceNote, an XRC Lab funded technology that recognizes customers’ faces, links them to our systems and allows for a supremely elevated level of customer service. If John has been to the store and used one of our devices to register his face, he will be logged into the system and every time he visits us, we will greet him by name and know when he last came, what he purchased and what his interests are. The in-store devices also offer games, discounts and further incentives to shop at our stores, while capturing customers’ data. We are building communities and families and we want all to feel welcome at our stores, where everybody knows your name and your preferences.
Our website quickly followed this shift, including new features such as our truly integrated omni-inventory system. Whomever is closer to the client delivers the product; be it our warehouse or one of our stand-alone stores. We began to offer in-store pick up and introduced a membership rewards program which in a year gathered more than 3,000 members. With more data, comes better customer service.
And we continued to train and engage our sales associates in all we did. They are the heart of our operation and before any technology is implemented, they test it, give us their feedback and ultimately the go ahead to use it or not. The human touch remains at the core of all we do.
Your team has to change with you and your technology has to deliver ROI –
We have all encountered people that are resistant to change, and in the case of our company, I took every single team member on this journey with me, but a few did not make it. “Does not make sense”, “too risky”, “that’s not how it’s done” were some of the things I heard. What is often overlooked however is the need to make changes within the teams, the mindsets, and the dynamics. Our internal mindset for instance could no be longer a “retail team” vs a “wholesale team” and a “planning team”, but rather a customer centric team.
WE ARE ALL HERE TO PROVIDE BETTER SERVICE TO OUR CUSTOMERS. WHAT’S BEST FOR HER? HOW DO WE MAKE IT BETTER? FASTER? CHEAPER? MORE FUN?
And the leadership has to be transparent, always. I never knew (and still don’t know) where all this was going to end up, but your team has to trust that you will make changes as you go and that, at the end, you will be successful and it will benefit all involved.
One final thing that needs to be said s is that all our initiatives are measured on ROI. Did FaceNote convert more customers into fans? Did they increase their AUR? DPT? The brand experience may be tweaked, new technologies added and teams shuffled around– but everything is ultimately measured against ROI. Technology for the sake of technology is not what we do and many ideas and changes were shut down when we could not see the ROI.
All this said, our business remains more than 65% wholesale and I am honored by the fact that we have so many strong and loyal partners. Customers continue to value the experience that our wholesale partners deliver. And we continue to heavily invest in brand awareness, which is beneficial for us and them. But with all these changes and developments, I believe that our fans ultimately benefit the most. They know more. They have access to more. They appreciate more. They can decide where and how to shop. They can directly dictate our next steps. They can suggest products. They can create products. And we all win together.
We are ready and will always continue to be focused on our customers, every step of the way.
Michele Levy is the private equity investor and banker turned fashion entrepreneur behind the successful growth of the Melissa shoe brand in the US. Through her fashion distribution company Ilhabela Holdings, Michele and her team built the Melissa brand up from relative obscurity into the leading brand in its category in the United States.