How leadership impacts customer experience: RedBalloon founder Naomi Simson

The founder of gift experience online business and former marketer talks to CMO about why wellbeing and employee engagement lie at the heart of customer experience

A well-articulated leadership vision and employee engagement lie at the heart of customer experience and brand success, according to the founder of Australia’s RedBalloon and well-respected entrepreneur, Naomi Simson.

Simson is one of a variety of speakers lined up for the inaugural Wired for Wonder conference in Sydney on 31 July and 1 August. The event is being driven by the Commonwealth Bank’s ‘CAN’ initiative and aims to provoke insight and innovative thinking through an eclectic mix of presenters including entrepreneurs, business chiefs, artists, actors, scientists and community leaders.

Simson will draw on her experience both as a senior marketer and business leader to discuss how to build a workplace that people actually want to work in, and why it’s vital for long-term success. It’s something the entrepreneur is well versed in. She’s not only produced a book on the subject (Five thanks a day, a collection of stories on the ‘how-to’ and science of saying thank you) but also secured a place in the list of Australia’s Best Places to Work produced by BRW four years in a row.

Customer smarts

Simson started her marketer career in traditional corporate roles, working her way up over a 15-year period from marketing officer to product manager, marketing manager and director with well-known companies such as Ansett, IBM, KPMG and Apple. After leaving corporate life to become a mother, she worked as a freelancer marketer, but found the experience an uneasy blend of “feast or famine”.

Simson began searching for a new business opportunity, taking her lead from the array of online brands popping up worldwide.

“The dot com boom was just building, and although I knew nothing about the Internet I believed the fundamentals of marketing still applied, such as building relationships and emotion around brands, listening to customers and responding,” she told CMO.

“I looked at all sorts of online business opportunities, but one thing I did note was that it needed to be revolutionary. Most things at that time were evolutionary, like What was it you couldn’t do without online?”

One of Simson’s clients suggested a partnership, taking a lead from the UK’s Red Letter Day online gift experience business. The partnership didn’t eventuate but Simspon opted to launch on her own anyway.

RedBalloon was established in October 2001, and Simson gave up her Bright Marketing consulting business the following May. “I could see RedBalloon had massive potential, but needed a lot more work and lots of dedication and love,” she said.

In its first year, RedBalloon chalked up 300 sales. Today, the business has delivered more than 1.7 million experiences, and during Christmas 2012, record a transaction every 3.3 seconds.

“I always believed customers would be our greatest source of growth – clearly the product lends itself to people talking about it,” Simson said of RedBalloon’s growth trajectory. “If people could say it best, then we were a step ahead.

“Looking after the customer experience was looking after the customer conversations, and that was looking after the brand experience.”

Another factor in RedBalloon’s success was utilising customer data. Simson said her early experience helping to launch Ansett’s frequent flyer loyalty program taught her the value of customer data. With the volume of data rising and big data analytics now taking centre stage in all marketing and IT function, it was important marketers kept their eye on what it is they are trying to achieve, she said.

“Big data is completely useless unless you know the questions you want answered,” Simson claimed. “There is a massive trend around the changing skill sets required by marketers – things like analytics skills, and business analyst skills – and what questions we need to ask.

“We have also moved away from the ‘big idea’ – long gone are the days of those advertising agencies in Madison Avenue leading strategy. What is most important in marketing is consistency, transparency and authenticity. Customers are so much more savvy and cynical, but also so much more likely to be a deep advocate for you if you get it right.

“People know you make mistakes in business, but if you’re really straight about it, they’ll respect you.”

The exponential growth in social media has also ensured beloved brands have more voices working towards the deepness of those relationships, she said. However, Simson was adamant social be used primarily as a listening tool.

“It’s important as marketers that we don’t abuse certain channels. People today want to pick and choose and be able to drop into the conversations they want to listen to,” she said. “We must be a listener, not a pusher. There is a massive shift towards the customer/consumer/potential customer taking information when they want it.”

For retailers like RedBalloon, meeting this challenge is about delivering on a consumer’s product and service expectations by offering up the right content when those interactions happen.

“Customers expect to be served what they want to be served,” Simson added. “Don’t waste a customer’s time – it’s the most precious resource we’ve all got.”

Leading from the front

Simson’s Wired for Wonder talk is entitled ‘It all began with leadership’, and will focus on how employer behaviour is a reflection of the customer experience. She added leaders have a duty of care and corporate responsibility to promote well-being in their workplace.

RedBalloon was voted as one of Australia’s Best Places to Work in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012, and had a Hewitt employee engagement score of 97 per cent. The company also compiles the annual RedBalloon and AltusQ Employee Engagement Capability Report, which will be in its third year this year.

“If we’re not having fun, how can our customers have fun?” Simson asked. “This concept led us to actually dig deeper and look at what well-being looks like inside businesses, and how we can work on getting those elements of well-being in line.”

One of Simson’s focuses is on ensuring the happiness of every employee around the country, not just within RedBalloon. She pointed out only 32 per cent of Australian businesses have a formal recognition program, and that many staff work remotely.

“It’s up to us as customers to acknowledge them and thank them for a good job so they feel good about ourselves,” she claimed.

“Where the leadership team goes fuels innovation. And you can’t fake it until you make it. It sounds like two platitudes, but it actually works.”

For Simson, the key leadership attributes for any c-suite executive including the CMO include clearly articulating your vision, values and modus operandi. “It’s absolutely imperative in uniting and aligning people to whatever your program is,” she said.

“Look at the Commonwealth Bank’s ‘CAN’ program – they couldn’t have done that without everyone in that business being aligned. That’s when you’ve got your marketing people working hand-in-hand with your people-facing people, and that will trigger success.

“Unless you have your people completely aligned to your messages, they have no resonance and you won’t build a relationship with customers and ultimately create sales growth for the business. We will see more and more employer branding and internal and external marketing working become the best friends inside the organisation.”

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