Ben Cooke of Fleet Feet: “Prioritize the Customer”

Prioritize the Customer. It’s in the details. When you get something wrong make it right. We had an instance where someone from out of town did a curbside pickup and we gave them the wrong size. They had taken an Uber 15 miles to pick up that shoe and called disappointed they couldn’t go for […]

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Prioritize the Customer. It’s in the details. When you get something wrong make it right. We had an instance where someone from out of town did a curbside pickup and we gave them the wrong size. They had taken an Uber 15 miles to pick up that shoe and called disappointed they couldn’t go for a run the next morning. Upon hearing the story, an employee immediately drove the shoe to the customer’s hotel and did the exchange in the lobby. Service like this must be reflexive.

As part of my series about the “How To Create A Fantastic Retail Experience That Keeps Bringing Customers Back For More”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ben Cooke, VP of Business Development/Flagship Retail at Fleet Feet. Growing up in Virginia, Ben Cooke developed a strong love for running. In high school, he broke the Virginia State meet record in the 2-mile and eventually, that love for running transcended the sport and crept into his career. After graduating from James Madison University with a degree in interdisciplinary social science, Ben started in the running industry in 2001, first working as a sales associate at a running store in Maryland, before eventually moving up to vice president of operations for RSG. Along the way, Ben worked with industry pioneers, launched RSG’s first e-commerce site, and oversaw retail initiatives across multiple states and communities. Ben joined Fleet Feet in 2013, and over the course of his time as a member of the leadership team has overseen the launch and implementation of several key brand initiatives, including the brand’s first e-commerce platform and the successful spinout of several operators from the brand’s development company into full ownership.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

My background is very typical for our industry. I was a post-collegiate track runner who was attempting to qualify for the USA’s and the Olympic trials. I needed a job to support this habit and a running store seemed like a good fit so I could practice during the week with my coach. I started working at Fleet Feet in 2013 and I quickly discovered I like competing in business as much as on the track.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I’ve been fortunate enough to have several leaders put me in highly autonomous leadership roles at a relatively young age. Autonomy allowed me to learn from failures and wins, while creating an intense sense of ownership. Early in my career, I worked with an entrepreneur who spent 40% of his time overseas. He taught me about structuring an organization around decision rights, encouraging entrepreneurship, and individual accountability, which created an organizational sense of ownership. While a different company, Fleet Feet’s greatest strengths are similar. Our company DNA is rooted in community and ownership. Essentially, you crowdsource greatness across a system.

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

I enjoyed Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. Essentially, the book celebrates people who use reason and individuality to create business value and growth. Many people talk about work-life balance. There is an assumption that work is terrible or the goal is to do less of it. However, when you are fully engaged and feel like you are using your talents to accomplish something meaningful, with a group of people that thrive by working with one another, it can be more rewarding and fun than almost anything else. Particularly when you can see impact and progress.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

There are countless stories of individuals exuding one of Fleet Feet’s Core Values, “It’s a privilege to serve.” Team members helping fit disabled customers in the parking lot with stacks of shoes, putting on a race for a single person to celebrate a life milestone, raising money for local causes, etc. Amazing service and experiences happen every day all over our brand. Service is now what we are known for and what drives our business financially, as well. Fleet Feet offers personalized, individualized service, inclusiveness to different types of people and athletic profiles, and a deep sense of community. We don’t just sell products, we train over 50,000 people a year to achieve a goal around running and walking, and we build and create events and experiences to inspire everyone to participate.

Ok super. Now let’s jump to the main questions of our interview. The so-called “Retail Apocalypse” has been going on for about a decade. The Pandemic only made things much worse for retailers in general. While many retailers are struggling, some retailers, like Lululemon, Kroger, and Costco are quite profitable. Can you share a few lessons that other retailers can learn from the success of profitable retailers?

Any business must remain relevant to its potential customers. Even better is being essential to your customers. We’ve been fortunate to provide services that add value to the product we sell. We’ve had to be creative and hustle and have pivoted 100 times in the last year. From fitting customers on sidewalks and over Zoom, moving to appointment-based scheduling, transitioning events and training programs from in-person to virtual, and creating safe environments for customers to shop, we’ve done it all. Additionally, we have a decentralized e-commerce model where we can offer curbside pickup and same-day home delivery by leveraging local inventory and store personnel.

Amazon is going to exert pressure on all of retail for the foreseeable future. New Direct-To-Consumer companies based in China are emerging that offer prices that are much cheaper than US and European brands. What would you advise retail companies and eCommerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?

My first piece of advice would be to utilize some of these platforms versus fight them. At Fleet Feet, we have an Amazon store and an ecommerce site. We also have 184 stores that depend on walk-in traffic to survive. We want to be everywhere the customer is and we know they shop on a lot of different platforms.

The second suggestion is creating a value proposition and connection to the brand for the customer that ensures price or convenience won’t be the only factor in where they choose to shop. We all want to feel connected to brands we care about. If the brand makes us feel better about ourselves, we will happily pay more for it. Most retail is underserviced and boring. The focus is only on product, which often isn’t all that differentiated. Take Apple — even with a differentiated and high-quality product they took the time to create high service and experience via their retail associates and stores.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a retail business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

I personally think leaders should work in their business and not just on it. If you understand the value proposition of your brand at the one-foot level, you can build and scale from that understanding. Our CEO, Joey Pointer, has seen the business at every level. We have a store beneath our corporate offices where we see brand initiatives come to life in real time and we are also never too far from our actual customers.

This might be intuitive, but I think it’s helpful to specifically articulate it. In your words, can you share a few reasons why great customer service and a great customer experience is essential for success in business in general and for retail in particular?

Sadly, great experiences and services are hard to find. Stores are now more like warehouses than places to experience things. The rarity of service allows brands like Fleet Feet to create differentiation from competitors. Service connects customers to brands and product. With exceptional experiences almost all retail business metrics can be improved, including lower returns, higher ticket averages, higher items per transactions, higher retention, and word of mouth referrals that lower the cost to acquire customers.

We have all had times either in a store, or online, when we’ve had a very poor experience as a customer or user. If the importance of a good customer experience is so intuitive, and apparent, where is the disconnect? How is it that so many companies do not make this a priority?

I would argue that the primary reason poor service and experience are so pervasive is that people are expensiveand crafting consistently amazing experiences is hard work. Reducing prices or spending money on advertising often delivers faster results and is a seemingly easier path. However, these results don’t lead to differentiation or often brand longevity. It takes vision and courage to build a company where the most important product is service and experience.

Can you share with us a story from your experience about a customer who was “Wowed” by the experience you provided?

At Fleet Feet, we work hand-in-hand with the medical community. There are countless stories of a physical therapist or sports doctor experiencing our brand first as customers and then becoming a tremendous growth-driver for us through patient referrals. They see how we treat their patients and often refer 4–5 customers per week. These simple customer interactions can become annual 24,000 dollars partnerships. Service allows every customer to be a business driver.

We’ve had a professor at Stanford experience our brand and then buy every single student in his class a pair of shoes. But the real experience is the word-of-mouth that happens every day based on great experiences. It’s truly the lifeblood of our brand.

A fantastic retail experience isn’t just one specific thing. It can be a composite of many different subtle elements fused together. Can you help us break down and identify the different ingredients that come together to create a “fantastic retail experience”?

To create a fantastic in-store experience you must, solve problems, personalize the experience, be memorable, teach someone something about themselves through your product or service, make sure all players win or the experience isn’t sustainable, and focus on the details because experience is the totality of all sense and not just human interaction.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a fantastic retail experience that keeps bringing customers back for more? Please share a story or an example for each.

Personalization: People like to be treated well and they like to be treated as an individual. Even with commoditized products you can personalize the experience. At Fleet Feet, we’ve leveraged technology to scan and map pressure of individual customers’ feet. This allows us to build personalized products and create a retail experience that is unique compared to anything else they have experienced.

Data Capture: Personalization, service, and experience require data capture to build purchase history and other characteristics that allow a personalized experience to take shape. You can use the data to create relevant experiences.

People Matter: Invest in your people and trust them. Great service requires committed, engaged employees. Find ways to create earning opportunities for your frontline employees. They deliver the experience. To deliver service, you cannot have employee churn. We have employees who have over 20 years of service. Consistently excellent experience requires employees who honestly believe in the vision and mission of the company.

Prioritize the Customer. It’s in the details. When you get something wrong make it right. We had an instance where someone from out of town did a curbside pickup and we gave them the wrong size. They had taken an Uber 15 miles to pick up that shoe and called disappointed they couldn’t go for a run the next morning. Upon hearing the story, an employee immediately drove the shoe to the customer’s hotel and did the exchange in the lobby. Service like this must be reflexive.

Choose the Right Incentives That Always Reinforce Service. It is easy to send mixed messages to employees about what matters. Today speed matters, tomorrow convenience. However, if you focus on the process of building experiences you will never drift. You may never get to the scale of Walmart, but you will absolutely make an impact on the lives of the people who touch your brand.

Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. Here is our final ‘meaty’ question. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

COVID-19 should have taught us all the power and danger of exponential compounding growth. There is tremendous opportunity to create great business value by solving environmental challenges. Clean air, clean water, clean energy, and reusing consumable items are challenges we need to solve. If I could start a movement, it would be many entrepreneurs working to solve these types of problems.

How can our readers further follow your work?

Come visit our stores and judge for yourselves if we’re getting it right. It’s hard work. You must be on every day, every customer, with all kinds of challenges and pressures coming at you. You’ll see our work reflected in the experiences you feel.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!

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