FEATURE1 December 2010

In partnership

Rob Weston is head of strategy at UK retailer John Lewis. Robert Bain spoke to him about how the firm keeps on top of customer needs and how its shared ownership model helps it keep a finger on the pulse.


“We’re all interested in the long-term success of the company and the customer is at the heart of that”

Research: How does John Lewis make sure it understands its customers and keeps up with what they want?
RW: One of the things that struck me when I joined John Lewis was the fact that you’ve got such long-serving partners here [every employee is a partner in the business] who’ve been on the shop floor dealing with customers for ages, but also then cross-fertilised into head office – that gives people a tremendous customer intuition. I’ve worked in consumer goods companies where you don’t have that one-on-one customer experience. The experience that people have working 15 or 20 years actually talking to customers is a tremendous hidden advantage that other organisations just don’t have. The longevity of partners, and the responsibility they take in focusing on the customer experience, is incredibly important. We’re all interested in the long-term success of the company and the customer is at the heart of that, so if you’re not meeting their needs you’re not looking after the company or yourself.

We use the Net Promoter Score, at store exit and in street interviews and online. That has really struck well with the business because it’s very easily understood. We’ve been pretty good in terms of our understanding behaviour on JohnLewis.com using web analytics, but marrying electronic point of sale data with that is something we’re just beginning to see the fruits of.

We use more traditional qual and quant market research quite strategically. In the past I’ve worked for organisations that pretty much blanket-bomb research, but we’re much more strategic in aligning very specific questions around very core business priorities.

What’s the biggest challenge you face in understanding customers?
Nobody today is short of insight; if anything there’s almost too much out there. The big challenge is you’ve got it coming from so many different sources – traditionally you’d have had your standard qual and quant surveys, now of course you’ve got a wealth of purchase data, more than you can ever imagine, both from stores and online, you’ve got social media… So the challenge for us is making sense of all those pieces and bringing them together into a story that the business can use to inform its broader strategy, its marketing strategy and its buying decisions. I see that as the biggest challenge, and the biggest opportunity, that we have.

One important point is that there’s a pull from various stakeholders in the business. Throwing stuff against a wall and trying to make sure it sticks is a lost cause. We try and focus research on areas where we’re not sure of the answers. That means a lot of new business decisions in areas where we haven’t necessarily built up that intuition but which are core business priorities. Multi-channel forays, understanding how the web links in with our stores, new business opportunities – these are areas the business is exploring, and which we need to understand a bit more to inform our strategy.

The other side of things is just the quality of the research and the way you disseminate it. You need strongly backed up research and quality data, but it also needs to be presented in a way that isn’t just pure research language that bombards people with everything we found out. You’re not just presenting about information but insight, and I think there’s an important difference between the two. You need the ‘so what’.

What’s the key to getting that right?
I think without a doubt it’s driven by relationships in the organisation. It’s about people having confidence in research in general, that it can help answer their questions, that the team themselves can help answer their needs. A key measure of success for me is seeing work that my team has done played back in someone else’s presentation. So they’ve taken it on board and they’re using it on their own to support their own decisions.

Would you say research is treated well at John Lewis compared to other organisations?
In all organisations I’ve worked with, the jury on research in some areas of the business, or among some individuals, is always out. I don’t think John Lewis is necessarily any different. Some people lap it up. There are always terrific proponents, and there are always people who will reserve judgement. But I think everyone in the organisation will recognise that in certain areas that are new, where we don’t have inherent expertise, listening to consumers is the most important starting point you have.

What trends do you see taking place in customers’ behaviour and priorities?
Look at what the internet has done in opening up a broader shopping experience. You can shop at home in front of the TV with your slippers on; you don’t need to go and research the high street with three kids in tow. Already we’re experiencing a culture where people have so much more choice in the way they shop that the way we can fit into their lives becomes really important. That’s going to remain the challenge in the future – not just understanding what customers want in terms of products and what fits their home, but also the way they shop and how we can best meet those needs. I think one key trend will be convenience for customers. Therefore we need to make sure that we can deliver on that, whether that’s through the experience you have in-store, whether it’s simply through opening hours, or through delivery options online. We ignore that at our peril. It’s us fitting in around them rather than them fitting in around us. That’s one of the dynamics we see changing.

What challenges have the recession and recovery thrown up for you?
Clearly the recession has meant we’ve had to look very carefully, understand what our customers are thinking and feeling and adapt appropriately. But it comes back to the core offer we have of great service, strong value for money and quality product. They’ve all been criteria that have been relevant to customers, and we’ve had it played back in all the research we’ve done. That has stood us in excellent stead throughout the recession. We found ourselves needing to think even harder about what the customer wants and needs, and acting appropriately – clearly in a recession as a responsible business you need to look very hard, and when times are tough you need to make decisions in the most informed way possible.

What insights lay behind the Always a woman ad?

This was a phenomenally successful campaign, and in the research results we saw it came off the scale on some of the standard measures. The insight that resonated most with customers was this lifelong commitment and the emotional bond that people build with the brand. It’s the idea that John Lewis is there throughout all key stages of your life – a birth, a wedding, moving home. They’re events that stir strong emotion, and I think the ad was able to reflect that. Part of the foundation of what we believe John Lewis offers is trust. The ability to come back over all those stages of your life and get the same level of service, the same quality of goods, is important. The emotional affinity people felt with the ad made it the success it was.

I think we knew we had those strengths. As to the extent to which we had been able to pinpoint them before or translate them into a piece of advertising, clearly we’d never talked about it before. This campaign was able to bring that out and talk to customers about it.