Make your presentation gorgeous and delicious. We make sure everything that Territory Foods offers is gorgeous and delicious. Food is really emotional and is about passion. Nobody wants to eat something that they know they are going to be disappointed by. So, we keep it simple and offer beautiful, healthy delicious food and that is our winning combination.
As part of our series about the five things a business should do to create a Wow! customer experience, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ellis McCue.
Ellis McCue is the CEO of Territory Foods, a venture-backed, fresh food platform that brings artisan crafted healthy food from local chefs and restaurants directly to customers. Territory marries Ellis’ belief that consumer led design yields disruptive growth to traditional industries with her personal belief that delicious food should be healthy. Recently, Ellis has been featured as a top 25 Consumer Health Tech Executive for her foundational work in the Food as Medicine space, E&Y Entrepreneur of the Year Finalist for 2021, and top 15 CEO’s of start-ups and small / midsize businesses, with Territory being featured as one of the top places for women to work in the US.
Thank you so much for joining us! 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?
I’m Ellis McCue, CEO of Territory Foods, a nutritionist designed chef-crafted meal delivery serving thousands of customers healthy prepared meals from a network of over 40 chefs and restaurants each week. My background is in finance, supply chain and technology, and I have 10+ years of experience developing end-to-end strategies designed to evolve global businesses and drive innovation for CPG, food, high tech and retail companies.
After years working in large corporations, I knew I wanted to pivot my career into the health and wellness space. I have an extensive family history of cancer-related illnesses which led me to research prevention in my early 20’s, and I found very little information or reliable data. This inspired me to find a career where I could arm people with the knowledge and tools to take preventative steps to make lifestyle changes to manage their health — and at Territory, we get to do it with delicious food. My goal has always been to make an impact; to create a way for healthy food to be accessible, convenient and easy to understand.
At Territory Foods, we partner with a network of local chefs and health-forward restaurants across the country to provide consumers with responsibly sourced, nutrient-rich meals from scratch that taste as good as they are for you. Territory’s ever-rotating, regionally curated menus always feature fresh non-inflammatory ingredients that optimize whole body health, support a wide variety of dietary preferences, and have minimal to zero environmental impact.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Territory really is a place where we believe that food can change your health. We are a bunch of believers in food as medicine, but we also know balance is key. Because we were born out of the performance fitness world, when I first came to the company my biggest guffaw was professing my love of takeout, coffee and baked goods. I think the whole team was shocked that I could be passionate about food as medicine and fitness, but also order late night tacos when we are working hard!
Territory was initially founded with deep roots in the performance fitness world — think heavy lifting, traditional Paleo, etc. When I first interviewed with the leadership team, I walked right in and couldn’t stop talking about my love of late-night snacks and dessert! Luckily, I still landed the part, love of 4th meal tacos and all! As a company and team, we’ve grown tremendously since then. The cultural zeitgeist around healthy eating has evolved and has become much more mainstream, so has Territory’s approach to health and wellness. Here at Territory, we believe food is our best medicine and the key to wellness, but we also believe that delicious is the most important macro! And yes, we do have amazing tacos on our menu now.
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?
When I was working at Deloitte, I had a mentor who was helping me at a critical pinnacle moment in my career. As a total type-A high performer, I was always pushing to be promoted early and drive faster on the path to becoming a partner. My mentor said: “being a partner at a consulting firm is like being in a pie eating contest. You eat as much pie as fast as you can for as long as you can take it. You keep eating to please everyone around you, and to beat the people next to you. But at the end of the contest, the winner gets more pie. So, you better like what you are eating. “
Hearing that metaphor made me realize that I was probably going to be successful no matter what I did, but also made me wonder if I was going to be happy on the other side of that success too. I needed to stop thinking of success as a job or as a flag I was going toward, and instead I needed to start thinking of success as each part of the journey. This was a huge moment for me and something that I continue to pass on to anyone I’ve mentored, especially those who are early on in their careers, because oftentimes Type-A, high-performer individuals like myself have a tendency to be focused on reaching the next milestone without enjoying the value of the journey along the way.
Thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main focus of our interview. 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?
First off: Customer experience is everything. If they don’t like the product, don’t like the brand, don’t like the service — you don’t have a business. So, customer experience should flow through every function of your business. The experience has to be very personal to the customer. This means that companies need to understand who their customers are and really be able to take a walk in their shoes. Personally, I am a huge fan of customer surveys and interviewing customers one-on-one. I use the real feedback from customers as a learning opportunity to keep me on the pulse of where we are meeting their needs and where we are falling short.
Next, simplicity is always best when it comes to customer experience. When thinking of customer experience, I ask myself “how do we make every interaction feel as easy as possible and explain our story in the most-simple way.”
In addition to providing simplicity, your customer experience also has to be positive and make the customer feel loved. It all flows together, but if you do not have that positive experience the customer will not want to shop with you again. Even if you have an amazing product, you will always be fighting that negative customer experience.
It is important to think about the customer experience as a complete journey from one end to the other. The customer experience journey begins the first time a customer hears about your brand and goes through their final purchase. Today’s user views brands as living creatures that they often interact with. An example of today’s customer experience could be as simple as a brand partnership and how that makes the customer feel. Customer experience has to be the end-to-end view of how we create the full journey that brings them through the purchase experience. It’s our job to make sure that everything we do really reinforces the core values of the brand to the customer, is hyper-personal and ultimately makes them feel loved.
Lastly, great customer experience has to be always innovating, incrementally changing and staying true to the customer. Customers and the world around them are always changing, and brands need to be changing with them to meet their needs.
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?
The disconnect is because innovation is really hard. Oftentimes, companies are not set up to innovate; they’re designed for an operating model that has been around since the company first started. Having self-awareness to innovate and change the way that the business operates is difficult. I don’t think any company says they don’t want to make customer experience their priority; it’s just not the way they are structured. A company needs executives at the top who want to drive innovation through more than just new products. Executives need to also focus on innovating through customer findings and challenging their assumptions.
Do you think that more competition helps force companies to improve the customer experience they offer? Are there other external pressures that can force a company to improve the customer experience?
The number one thing that forces companies to innovate is the competitor market. We have seen this a lot in the emergence of direct to consumer food brands in the last few years, especially with the rapid growth that occurred as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The biggest thing that can happen is that suddenly competitors who have similar products to you are now providing a better experience. This happens because competitors are listening to customers in a different way. To stay competitive, companies need to adapt.
Another external factor to consider is massive generational change in what your customers want. There has been well publicized information about the differences in what millennial consumers vs Gen Z consumers vs Baby Boomers. In general, Gen Z consumers have a completely different set of customer priorities than millennials do. For example, being able to authentically communicate with Gen Z consumers involves understanding their needs. Gen Z is known to be passionate about brand missions and sustainability, which allows us at Territory to pull our value through in a different way.
In addition to analyzing the competitive marketplace, it’s important to keep lifting your head up to see who are my emerging customers, what’s important to them and determine how you can communicate with them effectively.
Can you share with us a story from your experience about a customer who was “Wowed” by the experience you provided?
Territory Foods is a multinational company which means we operate in multiple different states instead of one central hub. Although we are the third largest company in our industry, we make it a priority to continue having that small company feel. We had a customer who wrote into customer service and shared that they were going to be out of town for Valentine’s Day and wanted to see if Territory could help them do something nice for their partner. So, we worked with that customer to do a special Valentine’s Day delivery and included a note from him to his partner with a full week of meals to make their life easier. Although it was simple to execute, the response from the customer was so amazing. Surprise and delights are hugely important in keeping us nimble and a reminder that customers are individual people with individual preferences. The more we can remember that and build relationships on a one-to-one level, we can continue to build practices that we can apply to much larger sets.
Did that Wow! experience have any long-term ripple effects? Can you share the story?
Yes, it caused us to reflect and think about how we could replicate surprise and delight moments to make our customers feel more special at scale. That “wow” experience about Valentine’s Day ultimately led us to launching our sampling program.
We incorporated education and research to find out what makes our customers feel special. We found that people love to feel that they are being taken care of and we incorporated new ideas to ensure that Territory makes them feel that way. The heart behind it. We don’t just want to show customers products. We want them to know that we care about them and want to show them something that we believe will change their lives. That’s when customers feel that surprise and delight that comes from our sampling program and it lets us extend our influence with them even further, which I think is really beautiful.
Ok, here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience. Please share a story or an example for each.
- Make it deeply personal and make it real. Having real humans behind the brand is very important. Any time customers interact with customer service who are human, they feel more appreciated and valued by the brand.
- Keeping it simple and making the experience as easy as possible is best. This is a cultural shift from companies at our stage where all of a sudden customer experience is not about the business; it’s about the customer and how you put the customer hat on in everything that you do.
- Make your presentation gorgeous and delicious. We make sure everything that Territory Foods offers is gorgeous and delicious. Food is really emotional and is about passion. Nobody wants to eat something that they know they are going to be disappointed by. So, we keep it simple and offer beautiful, healthy delicious food and that is our winning combination.
- Always be innovating. Brands need to always be thinking about how they can change the customer experience, make it more dynamic, and evolve it. Ask yourself the question of how do we challenge our own assumptions instead of defaulting to the “this is the way we do things” mindset?
- Viewing the customer experience as a full journey. Many companies view customer experience as their website and their customer service. It is from the first touchpoint a potential customer has with the brand during their discovery phase all the way through the product reaching that person’s doorstep. That last mile of a physical product is where the CX breaks down. You want to think about how you guarantee the best possible experience from end to end. And then think about how you place resources and continue to innovate in each of those spaces.
Are there a few things that can be done so that when a customer or client has a Wow! experience, they inspire others to reach out to you as well?
First and foremost, I have an open email address that allows customers to contact me. I love receiving the wow and positive stories. Overall, the best thing you can do as a company is to create a really great customer referral program that is user-friendly. The key here is giving the customer something that is both easy to share with their friends through posting on social media or sharing a gift of the product with their friends. When a customer has a great experience, they want to share that experience with other people in a way that is authentic to them and as close to the product as possible.
My particular expertise is in retail, so I’d like to ask a question about that. 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?
The number one thing I would advise to retail and direct-to-consumer companies is to build an authentic brand. In the world of digital commoditization, where Amazon is pushing all prices lower, there is a natural supply and demand function that happens. For example, if you create a bunch of products at a lower cost then the demand is going to go toward the lower price product. So, it is up to brands to communicate authentically to their consumer so that the consumer understands why they should buy from you instead.
To educate a consumer on why they should buy a product or one that is not from Amazon is to talk to them about your brand authenticity. Brand is really just a promise of quality, whether that is product, service or sourcing quality. The authenticity part comes from authentic communication about your service, product or mission that allows the customer to understand why they are buying from you instead and is excited to do so.
At the end of the day, customers want to believe in the brands they buy from and have a trust-based economy. Without that trust, they will always go to the lowest price product because that’s human nature. That’s why it’s our job as product people to get products in front of people in a meaningful way.
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. 🙂
My dream movement would be conscious consumerism and to create more structure and reason for shopping locally to support small businesses. This means talking to people about why people should care about where their products, services and things in their life come from. I am personally a big believer in small businesses. My parents ran a small business and were incredibly involved in their community. That’s why I am so proud to be at the helm of Territory because we effectively are a series of different small businesses that work to support other small businesses in numerous communities.
I really believe that when you have highly diversified small businesses, you can drive dollars to other parts of the economy that would otherwise be left out. I’m very proud that 38% of our business partners are BIPOC-owned and 42% are women-owned businesses. If we were a vertically integrated business that would never be the case and that would mean those culinary entrepreneurs would be looking for work elsewhere. You want diversity and to build rich culture across communities. So, if I could start one movement it would be that consumers would understand how to be good to their community.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
My personal Instagram is @ellis.mccue or you can follow Territory Foods @territoryfoods.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!