Kelley Thornton of Tiege Hanley: “Listen to your customer”

Listen to your customer. Customer feedback comes in many forms: surveys, emails, social posts, reviews, chats, etc. You should derive inspiration from both positive and negative feedback. We have a group of customers that make up our customer advisory board, basically a cohort of very loyal and enthusiastic members who are happy to engage in […]

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Listen to your customer. Customer feedback comes in many forms: surveys, emails, social posts, reviews, chats, etc. You should derive inspiration from both positive and negative feedback. We have a group of customers that make up our customer advisory board, basically a cohort of very loyal and enthusiastic members who are happy to engage in conversation about the direction of our business. Before we do anything big, like develop a new product, develop packaging for the product, develop sustainability programs, etc., we get their advice. It’s incredibly insightful.

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 Kelley Thornton, CEO and Founder of Tiege Hanley LLC, a direct-to-consumer men’s skin care company based in Chicago, IL. A stressful stroll down a department store cosmetics aisle is what inspired Kelley to start his business. Not so subtly encouraged by his wife to spend a little more time on self-care, he arrived to find an overwhelming display of options with big price tags arranged in a confusing manner. He couldn’t help but question the process and the products, which were far from linear in nature.

His mission was clear: Guide men, like himself, across the skin care landscape in a logical way to effective and affordable products that are super easy to use. With that in mind, the Tiege Hanley brand was constructed around three main tenets: Be sensible, be uncomplicated and be affordable.

Fortunately, Kelley had 20 years of professional experience in the consumer-packaged goods industry to lean on. After consistently posting annual sales in the multi-millions, he authored the article The Inadequacy of POP Design and Ways to Improve. Kelley is an alumnus of the University of Connecticut and currently a member of the Economic Club of Chicago.

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?

Great to be here, thanks for having me.

I was born and raised in Towson, MD. My parents divorced when I was very little but they both remained very present throughout my life. I was a pretty outgoing kid. I was that friend coming up with the big ideas, by a child’s standards, to keep us occupied. I loved sports and got pretty good at lacrosse. Not good enough to make a career out of it, but good enough to eventually coach it later in life. I think my experiences both playing and coaching lacrosse contributed greatly to my leadership skills.

In junior high I wound up moving to Brookfield, CT and started getting more serious about my college prospects. I was determined to get a college degree and thought I better start figuring out how to pay for it. It turned out I was pretty good at painting houses and even better at convincing my friends to work for me. We spent six years painting houses and I saved almost every dime I made for my college tuition. That was my first business, my first attempt at being an entrepreneur, and it went pretty well! I kept up the house painting business throughout my four years at The University of Connecticut and I graduated with a degree in economics and zero debt.

After that I did what many New England college grads do — moved to New York City to find work. I landed a gig as a sales rep with Phoenix Display & Packaging in the display and packaging industry and spent my first few years husting around the tri-state area. In 1993, Phoenix asked me to move to Chicago and named me National Accounts Manager, and subsequently, Regional Sales Manager. Life was great, I loved my job, and I did it well for 20 years. Then decided I’d go out on my own.

I founded Purchase Point LLC to encourage consumer-packaged goods companies to think differently about their in-store merchandising platforms. The business grew quickly, eventually serving international customers, and challenging me and my team to bring a creative approach to every situation we encountered. I wound down Purchase Point after 10 years to focus on something new — you guessed it — Tiege Hanley.

A few partners and I started Tiege Hanley in the summer of 2016 to provide effective and affordable skin care products to men. As we approach our five-year anniversary, I couldn’t be more excited about the business. Tiege Hanley is really rocking and rolling — continually developing products, employing more really talented and smart people, and, yes, making money. We’re shipping to 110 countries and right now we’re really trying to grow our strong community of guys who are invested in the way they look and feel.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

The first time we ordered boxes in which to ship our product, I wanted them to be perfect. We chose black as the color of our brand because it’s masculine and it stands out, plus I know it looks great if we ever want to be on retail shelf. I pushed hard to get our new box manufacturer to make the black really rich — after all, I was in the box business and I knew what could be done. Despite my enthusiasm, they remained skeptical.

Well, my wife and I packed all those early boxes, and the ink was so heavy that we would leave the warehouse with our hands completely black! We couldn’t afford to have them reprinted so we just had to hope they would be drier by the time they got to our customers. When I complained to our box company, they said “I told you so.”

The takeaway: don’t think you know everything!

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 have been blessed with friends that are outstanding business advisors. Surrounding yourself with the right people is critical to success. I have never met a successful entrepreneur I didn’t like!

When I started Purchase Point, I was so excited to share my idea with someone I admired for their own success starting, scaling and selling a business. I asked him to go to lunch and give me his feedback on the idea. I took him to my favorite restaurant in Chicago and told him all the details of my plan. He said very little the entire meal but acknowledged my passion and the depth of my plan.

After lunch we shook hands outside the restaurant, and I asked with crazy anticipation “well what do you think of the idea?” My friend said, “I really know nothing about the industry and the problems you described, but it doesn’t matter, because it’s all about execution and I believe in you so you should do it!”

At the time I didn’t understand the power of his wisdom, but it was all I needed to hear to get started!

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 have been reading Tony Hsieh’s book Delivering Happiness. There is so much to learn from Tony’s journey that led to his sale of Zappos for 1.2 Billion in 2009. He was an unbelievable entrepreneur, son of immigrants, and a creative problem solver. Many will say he was one of the founders of the DTC business model. I am one of them.

I was recently obsessing over one of my competitors who is using our brand name in their advertising, against Google’s terms of service. Instead of sending a letter to them from our lawyers, I decided to reach out directly to their CEO. I was reminded of Tony’s words “pay attention to competition but OBSESS over your CUSTOMERS. Companies that really obsess over their customers beat their competitors”.

At Tiege Hanley, our obsession with our customers started the day we launched.

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

Segue Alert! The Tiege Hanley brand stands out because we make fantastic products and obsess over our customers. We are so transparent that we blog on YouTube each week about what’s going on at the company, including both our losses and our wins. There is a fundamental goodness to this because there are people that will use and abuse our policies, gamers as we call them. Once you control for them, you realize that it’s best to treat customers the way you want to be treated. We are not just talking about customer support here, we are talking about a mentality within the company and going the extra mile in everything we do to make sure our brand is executed in a way that we think the customer will appreciate.

To answer your question more directly, we are one of the few companies dedicated to creating skin care systems because we believe that having a good skin care routine is critical to long-term skin health and feeling good about yourself.

Second, as a subscription company, we make it easy for guys by sending them the products they need every month. As a direct-to-consumer subscription company, we can offer both a low price and ridiculously good products.

Lastly, we are focused on preventing the most common form of cancer — melanoma. With over five million cases of skin cancer diagnosed each year, it’s no surprise that the issue hits close to home for our team members. Several of our products include SPF to protect guys from the sun’s harmful rays. Donating to The Skin Cancer Foundation has been part of Tiege Hanley’s core mission since day one.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Resilience is one of the most important characteristics of an entrepreneur. Some might think that you become more resilient as an entrepreneur and, while that might be true, I think you are either wired to be a business owner or you are not. Nothing is easy, even in companies that have a lot going for them, like Tiege Hanley. You either grow or you die, and you are going to make mistakes along the way, probably a lot of them. But, in my opinion, mistakes don’t upset resilient people. Rather, mistakes fuel resilient people — they learn from them and they get better, faster.

The so-called “Retail Apocalypse” has been going on for about a decade. The Pandemic only made things 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?

It comes down to understanding what you are good at and how you can deliver excellence to your customers. Retailers that are going to make it will adapt and change to meet their customer needs. Many that are thriving deploy strong omni-channel strategies. They also spend a lot of time understanding their customers and are developing experiences for them that are engaging and provide value beyond their trip mission, when they are looking for it.

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?

We have been in a global economy for a long time, but customers are more aware of the consequences of their choices. Consumers are savvy and many of them want to buy goods and services from brands they trust and relate to. There will also be those just looking for a deal and that’s OK. There are many, many more consumers that will be loyal to those companies that deliver quality, price and service, but also have similar values to them.

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?

It’s difficult to speak on behalf of other CEOs, but if they are anything like me, they’ve made too many mistakes to count. Entrepreneurs by nature are very creative and strategic — we’ve got a handful of potential problems and solutions running through our minds at once. That can make it difficult to be laser focused on a singular challenge. You can try to correct for this, but oftentimes, even when you think you are being laser focused, you are sending a lot of mixed messages to your team through your ideation and passion for trial and error. That can make your team a little crazy. My advice is to try your best to stay focused in your actions and words by prioritizing problems, being patient, being decisive and clearly communicating your expectations.

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?

Actually, I don’t think this is intuitive at all because customer service, customer experience and customer centricity are very different. We focus on all three, but it is customer centricity that leads the strategy. We segment our customers and focus on the ones that most engage with Tiege Hanley. These customers are happier and more profitable to us over the long run. Once you set up guidelines about customer centricity and create segmentation you can start thinking about both how to service your customers and what kinds of experiences to provide. Not all customers are the same and we embrace that!

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?

It’s all about execution and thinking about things from the perspective of the customer. Everyone wants to have great customer service, but they think it just magically happens. It’s an active practice. You have to anticipate your customers’ bad experience before it happens, and then prevent it from happening.

Here’s a recent example from — Tiege Hanley is a membership-based company. With membership comes benefits, like a reduced price on one our Skin Care Systems. You can buy that same box without a membership both on or Amazon, but you’ll pay a small premium for it.

Recently we were preparing for a marketing campaign in which our customers and/or followers could “pay it forward” by nominating, i.e., tagging on Instagram, someone essential to their life for a free Skin Care System. When we ran the creative ads through quality assurance, the retail value of the Skin Care System was flagged. It said 60 dollars, which is the price non-members pay for this particular box. Members pay 45 dollars and this marketing campaign was targeted primarily at members. The potential for confusion among our active customers was there and the last thing we wanted was to give them the wrong impression that our prices were increasing.

That’s the type of disconnect that can wreck a promotion. It can break the continuity of a customer experience with your brand. Luckily the team caught it and were able to update it prior to it going live, but it did delay the launch of our campaign by a day. That’s okay, anticipate the problem, then prevent it from happening.

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

Last quarter we launched a pre-sale of a new product that has been in development for almost two years. Due to COVID-19, our supplier didn’t make their production commitment and we missed the promised delivery date to our customers. We sent them an email apologizing and saying we would gladly refund their order, or they could stay with us and we would ship the order as soon as possible. About a third of the pre-sale orders were new customers, so we decided to refund them but ship their order anyway without asking. This is a typical email response we received.

Hi all,

Saw the email about the refund and it is getting processed super quickly. This is my first time ordering from you and have to say this is beyond a great gesture and exceptional customer service. Definitely won’t be my last order and I’ll be telling people how well run you are.



Did that “wow” experience have any long-term ripple effects? Can you share the story?

Our internal data on the customer journey proves that there is a direct correlation between “wowing” a customer and customer loyalty. When you “wow” a customer by giving them a great customer experience they are 7 times more likely to stay with your brand and 4.7 times more likely to promote your company by word of mouth.

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”?

A fantastic experience is never just one thing, it’s every touchpoint in the customer journey. Executing well on every touch point creates a seamless experience, which for us, turns customers into Tiege Hanley members.

It starts with their first experience, whether that is an influencer YouTube video, a Facebook ad, a testimonial or a video they watched about having great skin. Along the way, they touch our website, they might get an email, and they do more research on our brand. Once they order, they get emails, both transactional and informative.

It’s all fluid and never overwhelming — like rowing a canoe down a peaceful river to a final destination.

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.

1. Drive brand continuity across all customer touch points

Every time your customer sees, hears or touches your brand, you have the opportunity to differentiate yourself and make it a good experience. The good news is you can control this. When talking to a banker recently, I asked “what things we should do that would make global consumer product companies jealous?” Their reply: “Work on these three things: The brand, the brand, and the brand.”

2. Listen to your customer

Customer feedback comes in many forms: surveys, emails, social posts, reviews, chats, etc. You should derive inspiration from both positive and negative feedback. We have a group of customers that make up our customer advisory board, basically a cohort of very loyal and enthusiastic members who are happy to engage in conversation about the direction of our business. Before we do anything big, like develop a new product, develop packaging for the product, develop sustainability programs, etc., we get their advice. It’s incredibly insightful.

3. Understand the ask

Not every customer’s ask and input fits into your business strategy and direction, but some are critical to your decision making. I am reminded of Herb Kelleher’s (Southwest Airlines CEO) reply to the dozens of complaint letters he received from a single passenger. In sixty seconds, Kelleher wrote back and said, “Dear Mrs. Crabapple, we will miss you. Love, Herb.”

4. Segment your customers

Not every customer is the same and they shouldn’t be treated the same. Best in class companies understand this and home in on it. At Tiege Hanley, we look at customer engagement, order history, product history and lifetime value of the customer when we make decisions ranging from customer support to refunds to add-on gift products. We gave away a dopp kit for our 2019 holiday thank you program to 17,000 of our best customers. A lot of guys who didn’t receive a dopp kit saw it complained “How can I get one?” Our reply was a nicer version of “become a better customer.”

5. Deliver value to your consumers

There is a lot of competition out there and many competitors don’t play fair, but you can always be better than them by delivering more value to your customer. We try to do it in a way that rewards the types of behaviors we want to encourage. One example of this is not giving more value to a new customer than an existing customer. They both deserve great value, but not at the expense of pissing off the existing customer. I’ll leave you with a real quote from a customer that I love: “As far as I’m concerned. If you would’ve treated me any better, it would have been unfair to the business. I never give 5 stars, but you guys deserve it!”

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.

2020 was a very difficult year for everyone on both a personal and business level. It had a profound effect on the way we feel about ourselves and the way we look. It may sound simple, but if I could start a movement, I’d I want to help as many people as possible feel good about themselves.

Tiege Hanley has always been in the business of helping men look and feel amazing. Taking control of the health and appearance of your skin is something we know can boost a man’s confidence and self-esteem. We are already executing on a movement like this via our Instagram page. You can go to Instagram right now, find our recent post about “paying it forward” and tag someone who could use a boost to start the new year. We are selecting over 20 individuals to receive a free box of skin care.

Whether you want to encourage someone to exercise a little more self-love, stay motivated, reconcile a relationship, or just pay good will forward, tag that person and let’s get a box of handsome into their hands!

How can our readers further follow your work?

Follow me on Linked in Kelley Thornton or Tiege Hanley @tiegehanley

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

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