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Takeaways From 2018 – What Business Leaders Can Learn From Serena Williams

Now that the dust has settled, I finally had some time to go through my notes from the conference and share my takeaways with you., which ran from September 12-14 in Las Vegas, is THE e-commerce event for practical and usable insights, and this year it didn’t disappoint once again.

Personalization: The demanding elephant in the room

Personalization dominated most presentations I attended and conversations I had. More businesses have realized that they need to take their personalization efforts beyond remembering a customer’s name and purchase history. Customers expect nothing less than personal, quick, and easy interactions. Today, comprehensive personalization gives them just that.

This means you will have to start tailoring recommended products and marketing email content to the needs of the specific customer and not to the products you want to sell.

Kiran Mani, Managing Director of Retail at Google, made it clear:

“Over the next few years, $800 billion in sales will shift to e-retailers that use site personalization and away from those that don’t.”

Tip: Explore solutions that help you collect the necessary data to facilitate these experiences and build on technologies, such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, conversational interfaces.

Apart from interesting conversations, what stuck out to me the most was the interview with Serena Williams on the main stage at The Venetian. She explained how she established her legacy as the greatest women’s tennis player in history and one of the best athletes of all time. She also gave some insight into how she ventured into the world of entrepreneurship.

While Williams didn’t take any questions from the audience (I may have had a few), there are three takeaways that may help you refocus your businesses.

1) Lead with a purpose

“I feel it’s really important to stand up for what you believe in, especially if it can affect the future and affect a lot of people in the future. That’s what it’s all about.” – Serena Williams

As business leaders, it’s easy to get drawn away from our core motivation and only look at the numbers. This isn’t bad, per se, but at the same time, it’s important to always remember why you are doing what you’re doing.

Successful businesses are the ones with a clear purpose and a greater goal: making lives better for people. There is non-deniable power in a customer-first mindset.

So, what is your purpose?

Kevin Hourican, President of CVS Pharmacy, shared how his company leads with a purpose through customer-focused innovation. He stressed that innovating while putting the customers at the heart of what they do is critical.

“Unless we’re bringing forward solutions that solve customer problems, we become stale.”

The company’s purpose is “Helping people on their path to better health” wherever, whenever and however. And this premise defines and guides how CVS operates and in which initiatives they invest in:

  • Stop selling tobacco
  • Making health easier across our isles. Healthier food, removing chemicals from store brands
  • Launch an initiative to combat the opioid epidemic
  • Innovate solutions to help patients afford medication

Having a clear purpose allows CVS to consistently stay true to its core values, meet customers needs and respond to changing expectations, such as with 24-hour store locations, drive-thru pharmacies, and their new Pharmacy Savings Finder.

cvs pharmacy
CVS Pharmacy 24 hour location

In line with CVS’ commitment to innovation as a vehicle to help consumers, the company also recently launched a new prescription labeling and scheduling system. As half of Americans are confused about how and when to take their medications, this new solution helps customers understand medicine combinations — what can and can’t be taken together, what needs to be taken with or without food, what needs to be taken in the morning and at night.

This customer-centric mindset aims at being a customer’s trusted advisor who identifies problems customers face in time to offer just the right solutions. It’s clearly a key reason why CVS is the clear winner in many competitive analysis assessments.


2) Embrace feedback

“I’ve been taking feedback since I was like 3 years old. I’m really good at taking feedback. You have to just be extremely humble. It’s not easy. The second I get off the court, I don’t want anyone telling me how I played well. I want to know what I did wrong. What can I do better the next time?”  – Serena Williams

Receiving feedback is sometimes the hardest thing to do. We may take it personally, and being criticized is often an unpleasant feeling after you’ve worked on what you see as a great product or proposition.

The savviest entrepreneurs know better and use feedback, especially negative, as their fuel. It is your golden ticket to improving the business performance.

Brands and retailers selling online have a disadvantage over brick-and-mortar stores since receiving feedback from online customers is not as straightforward. While customers in a store can speak to a salesperson to share their feedback, clarify questions or even just exchange pleasantries, this is more difficult online.

The online purchase process can be quite alienating.

This is why e-commerce companies need to put their best foot forward to provide an excellent, human-friendly online customer experience, and the best way to do this is not by working off assumptions but listening to the voice of your customers. They are your best resource to find the friction points in the online journey and to understand what you are doing wrong or right.

But when we talk about embracing feedback, we’re not only talking about customer reviews or testimonials.

Feedback in an online environment means collecting and analyzing the implicit and explicit feedback users leave as they navigate and interact with your site. This can help you understand your customers better – their context, their needs, their motivations – to build a customer journey that adds value.

For example, if I’m shopping for furniture, do you know whether I’m furnishing a new home or just buying a gift for my mom?

Collecting data points and information like this and adjusting your message accordingly will ultimately help differentiate you as a retailer or brand that understands the customer and makes an effort to personalize and streamline their shopping experience.

ai digital sales assistant home
AI digital sales assistants like the one in the image above replicate the offline sales experience and allow you to learn more about your customers’ motivations and feelings to provide the best service. Send me a note on LinkedIn if you’re curious.  I’m happy to share how you can use digital sales assistants to capture the intelligence you need to create truly personal experiences.

The conference showed that bringing a personalized experience to the customer journey is not something to be ignored by retailers seeking to stay ahead of the pack.

“Personalization is the necessary component to handling the shift from a world of information — answering customer questions — to a world of assistance, which involves anticipating customer questions. In this new world, machine learning technologies would be responsible for creating frictionless experiences,” according to Kiran Mani, Managing Director of Retail at Google, who spoke in the session, titled: How Machine Learning Can Help You Deliver Better Customer Experiences.


3) Dare to reinvent yourself

“There’s always someone behind you that can do it better, so every couple years, I reassess my game and see what has changed.” – Serena Williams

Adopting new technology can be daunting, but at, I saw that many companies are facing this challenge head-on and are willing to move away from the status quo, build a very different type of retail experience and leave old, useless practices behind.

They are not only talking about new things, they are doing new things.

It’s clear that customer demands and expectations are changing, and businesses that want to remain around in the next decade know that they need to find effective ways to keep up. They are investing in technology to help redefine the industry in tune with consumer and market trends.

“The way to ensure success in retail today is to be tech-first and then closely aligning online and offline channels. It comes down to how you manage your inventory, your channel attribution, how you think about in-store analytics. Technology is a much more integral part of the business when it comes to building brands and products today.” — Graham Brown, a partner at Lerer Hippeau.


See you next year at 2019 🙂


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Markus Linder is entrepreneur and co-founder of SMARTASSISTANT, now zoovu.