Business is becoming even more like a mullet than we thought. Bear with me.
As James "JC" Curleigh, then-president of global brands at Levi Strauss & Co., proclaimed at the 2018 National Retail Federation Big Show: “The new brand-and-business mullet should be ‘simple in the front, sophisticated in the back.’ Think of the best brands on Earth... they found a way to deliver simplicity on the front side through a very sophisticated platform on the back side.”
This metaphor translates to a customer easily finding their favorite jeans on an ecommerce website or receiving post-purchase emails that take size, preferences, and previous purchases into account. These types of experiences are still important, but the meaning of “sophisticated” is itself becoming more sophisticated—not just in retail, but across many industries.
A decade ago, dedicated platforms for managing business operations like customer support, IT, HR, or billing may have been impressive at best, an easily dismissed, ‘nice-to-have someday’ at worst. Today, the companies creating those solutions are not merely vendors, but trusted business partners, helping brands link business functions, teams, and communication channels behind the scenes.
Let’s peek behind the curtain to see how this manifests—that is, how companies can continue providing exceptional, seamless experiences as customers raise their expectations.
Build once, deploy everywhere
When it comes to software—which often serves as the sophistication engine supporting your awesome business mullet—disjointed migrations from legacy software, or systems that aren’t integrating as well as they should, can lead to unnecessary complications and result in a confusing experience for customers. By contrast, technologies that can speak to one another can help, as can the “build once, deploy” everywhere model.
Take messaging, for example—one of the fastest-growing ways in which customers interact with brands. If you build a fantastic bot that only works on Facebook Messenger, you then have to build a different, also-fantastic bot to work on your website or with WhatsApp, iOS, Android, Viber, WeChat… everywhere customers interact with you. This can get complicated for everyone, quickly. And it’s not sophisticated, it’s clunky.
Instead, adopting technology that allows you to build once and deploy across multiple platforms or systems enables you to easily provide similar experiences to customers, while allowing them to choose how and where to converse with you. So in the messaging example, a conversation between a support agent and a customer might appear as a chat in a native app on the customer’s phone. Meanwhile, on the back end, a web of translation is happening to deliver that familiarity on the front end.
Earlier in 2019, Warren Levitan, VP of Conversational Business at Zendesk, spoke at an event in New York City about the power of a messaging platform that can connect business software to consumer messaging apps. “We want to strip away that complexity to allow you to worry about one thing: your customers,” Levitan said. To be a frontrunner today, it’s no longer enough to build a single great experience through one channel or point of interaction.
[Read also: Messaging is open for business. Are brands ready?]
Do away with personas in favor of dynamic customer data
We used to think that demographic data like age, gender, and income level are the keys to unlock customer behavior. Today, other digital behavior needs to be taken into account, such as channel preference, whether customers engage via mobile or desktop, or their preferred time of day to engage, according to Redickaa Subrammanian, CEO at Resulticks, who moderated a panel, “The Evolution of Retail: How technology and women are disrupting the way we shop,” at the 2019 NRF Big Show.
Again, it’s sophisticated technology that can help expand your business horizons to include more types of digital behavior. The more conversations your brand has with customers, through a variety of mediums, the more context and information you have about how to make a customer’s experience better. We’ve come a long way from recording phone conversations and putting them in cold storage—“this call may be monitored for training purposes”—and now have more relevant and real-time data, and more opportunities to connect with customers, at our fingertips.
Adopting a data-driven mindset can be a little easier for digital-native brands. Take Bulletin, a retail wholesaler that provides physical shelf space for women-owned businesses. Also speaking on “The Evolution of Retail” panel, Bulletin co-founder and COO Ali Kriegsman explained that a huge part of their B2B services mean providing data analytics and performance metrics on their inventory. Acknowledging that the brand wasn’t initially driven by data—more for a drive to give small businesses more exposure—Kriegsman said they course-corrected after realizing that data provided the backbone behind a seemingly simple but deceptively difficult experience: ensuring the right product was on hand for customers.
Don’t jump on the trend bandwagon
Taken alone, we’d be in a bad place as businesses if we adopted every trend that crossed our paths.
Continuing with the messaging example, in 2016, a Harvard Business Review article said customers were approaching levels of fatigue with brand-specific mobile apps. It was a trend, to be sure—You get an app! You get an app!—but there were bigger trends to come that more closely supported the simple experience customers were seeking. (A home screen littered with 15 apps for 15 different companies, I’d argue, isn’t it.)
The same HBR article said, “Messaging apps...have never been hotter,” explaining that, at the time, six of 10 global apps were messaging apps, used by 1.4 billion people worldwide and growing at a rate of 12 percent annually. The latter trend proved much more than a trend—given the prevalence of messaging in our real lives, it was a short jump from texting with our friends and family to using those same channels to connect with brands we support.
This changes the conversation (as it were), around one key part of back-end sophistication: customer support systems and the people and processes that bring them to life. Part of thinking through customer simplicity is realizing that as customers message your company through their app of choice, the conversation is sometimes ongoing, or picked up and put down in unexpected moments or outside of business hours.
Complex isn’t just another way to say "difficult"
“Complex” can be used to excuse bad behavior or to avoid fixing something altogether. For businesses, that bad behavior might be siloed functions, clunky systems that don’t talk to each other, and people or teams who don’t talk, either. Tearing down those walls for everyone behind the curtain—including outsourced support and other trusted business partners—can be difficult and jarring, but in the age of elevated, sophisticated, and simple customer experiences, it’s necessary.
Complex can just mean that you’ve corralled all the different business processes and systems that it takes to run your business and made them invisible to your customers. In other words, if they don’t want to see the mullet, they don’t have to. So may the best business mullet win.