Tony Vitali of Zenni: “Your customer is everything”

Tell customers how to share their experience with others, give customers an easy way to share your products, and experience with their friends, family, and social networks. If you make that easy, and encourage it, you’d be shocked at how much that comes back to serve you. Check out the unboxing videos or Zenni on […]

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Tell customers how to share their experience with others, give customers an easy way to share your products, and experience with their friends, family, and social networks. If you make that easy, and encourage it, you’d be shocked at how much that comes back to serve you. Check out the unboxing videos or Zenni on YouTube, or how much user generated content is on our site, it’s incredible!

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 Tony Vitali. He is the Director of Design & Brand Strategy at Zenni.

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?

I happened to grow up exactly when the internet and personal computers became available in everyone’s homes. The web was very basic, and I can remember getting the first iMac and using dial-up internet. I spent a lot of time learning how websites worked, downloading music, and chatting with friends. While in high school, I taught myself how to make a basic HTML website and was endlessly fascinated by mechanical drafting and this brand-new tool called photoshop. I decided to study graphic design in college and minored in business as I had been interested in starting businesses since my days of cutting lawns and working a paper route when I was a kid. At first, I was just making things for myself, and before I knew it, people were asking me to make things for them and their businesses. While still in college, a family friend asked me if I could figure out how to take orders for their chocolate company over the internet. I shot all the product, designed, and built the website and launched my first e-commerce site in 2006.

I played sports my entire life and love being a part of a team. Collaborating as a group and putting our heads together to create something amazing is something I still love today. Over the years, I’ve worked with several creative agencies, developing brands, commercials, and apps before landing at Zenni a little over six years ago. I started as a Senior UX/UI Designer and I now oversee the entire design department including the UX team, and all the brand/marketing creative.

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?

I had grand plans of launching a startup company right out of college. I cobbled together a business plan and had a solid idea of what we wanted to do. Technology was changing fast at the time and I was underprepared for what it actually takes to run a business. My small team and I pitched the concept and raised operating capital but were a little too idealistic about how to make it a successful, sustainable business. I went into the project full steam ahead but looking back I really didn’t have the experience needed to operate a company.

Attempting to launch a startup that ultimately failed taught me countless lessons but the key learning for me: Don’t do too many things at once! While doing everything might make it seem like you are making progress, if you aren’t able to narrow your focus and deliver, you just have a lot of unfinished ideas. If you want to produce great things, you need to work hard and just get it out there. You will always have countless improvements and tweaks to make, but if it’s not live and you aren’t able to collect feedback and apply learnings, you will waste a lot of time, and money in the long run.

None of us can 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?

Chris Denny, the founder of a creative agency called The Engine is Red, has probably impacted my career more than anyone. He’s one of the smartest people I know, and I have learned a lot from him over the years. He’s usually my go-to when I need advice or even just another perspective on things. I’ve learned a lot about pitching ideas, and the importance of “serving customers” as a brand strategy. He is just good at stopping and zooming out to understand the problem better so that you can solve it and make great things that people really care about.

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 started listening to podcasts right as Tim Ferriss put out “The Tim Ferris Show.” I read his book ‘The 4 Hour Work Week’ and loved how he described the benefits of thinking differently and looking for what others are missing. I downloaded the first episode and have been hooked ever since. I also love ‘Start Up Stories’ and the ‘Design Better Podcast’ as well. I love to learn and love the free platform of nearly endless content that I can consume while commuting, exercising, or walking my dog.

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

To me, it’s really the ‘Why.’ Zenni’s founders, Tibor and Julia, are obsessed with providing glasses at a price that everyone can afford. As someone who grew up with really poor vision, I knew how costly it was for my folks to buy me new glasses every year. For a long time, this industry had been price-gouging people, and no one really knew the cost of making glasses. They saw that problem and said, ‘Why does it have to be this way? Don’t you think that is unfair for people who need glasses to see?’. They stand out in my mind as one of the few profitable companies that operates with a conscience and solves a problem that most people weren’t even aware they were playing into. I’m proud to share Zenni with my friends and family and love when they brag to me about getting three pairs of glasses for less than they would have paid for their insurance co-pay for one pair.

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

Learn how to manage your time and stick to a schedule that works for you. It can often feel like you have an endless list of tasks but if you let that seep into your personal life, you will always be working. Setting boundaries will make you more effective with your time when you are actually working.

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 like Zenni?

Shopping online is easier than ever these days. Hire a team or agency to help get you there. It will be an investment well-spent. In general, most customers’ default mode is to check online first, smartphones make it so convenient to do this. Make sure you are visible when they go looking or you will become irrelevant quickly. And it needs to work well on phones!

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?

If you can’t beat them, join them. Get your stuff available for sale on Amazon; they make it really easy. It is equally important to recognize what you can do outside of Amazon. While Amazon will be nearly impossible to beat for cheap, everyday items, they also completely lack the room for storytelling. If you want to leverage Amazon as your storefront, go for it, but that is not a substitute for engaging new, loyal customers.

Don’t try and play the lowest price game — You will lose because someone somewhere can always undercut you and will even do so at a loss. Work on your brand. Care about the people who buy from you and create loyal customers. Figure out ways to help them share your story, and products and they will. Word of mouth referrals are golden. People tend to listen to their friends, family, and inner circle more than advertisements. Win them over and they will happily work for you.

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

Not caring about your customers as much as profits is a giant mistake. Founders are often good at getting things off the ground, but that skillset often doesn’t translate to scaling and optimizing their business. The best thing they can do is switch gears and focus, or hire people and allow them to do what you hired them to do. Letting go of the reins is very tough but crucial and they need to move out of trying to do everything themselves. Another common mistake founders make is lacking transparency with their team and not reinforcing their vision in a tangible place for their entire teams. Your vision should evolve over time and should include input from the team you’ve chosen to help develop your organization. Your team will follow your vision and it allows them to make decisions without you that ladder up to those goals. You can’t possibly be good at everything, so find people that are, and give them autonomy to thrive.

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?

Your customer is everything. Without them, you just have products. They also change over time, so listen to them and stay current with their needs and make their loyalty work for you. CS is the direct link to customers, so they have the best insight on what will drive your product and business forward. You need to have a great process for them to share their findings with the larger team. If you can solve those problems you will constantly improve as a business.

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?

One thing I have learned is that you can’t please everyone, and not everything that is super intuitive to you may not be intuitive to all people. Listen more than you speak. Help them to learn and do what you can to let them know that you care. Sometimes the best practice is to let certain customer groups go and simply stick to your core customers’ needs and values. It’s really good to identify edge cases and just let it go, and then get back to your core customers and how to improve things for them.

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

Luckily, at Zenni we have this type of experience nearly every day. People have had such terrible experiences with glasses because of the absurd price they pay when doctors and insurance are involved. Things that should be simple and affordable, just aren’t.
People are generally (pleasantly!) shocked at the value and quality of Zenni products after they took the risk of buying something so personal that goes on their face and helps them to see. They often think, ‘How could that cost so much less than I have paid before?!’ That delight goes a long way. The love letters and social messages we receive on a regular basis is truly inspiring.

Did that Wow! experience have any long-term ripple effects? Can you share the story?

It really fires us up internally. We share these messages every week and they drive us to improve our products, and customer experience. Those letters and messages are the lifeblood that push us to tell the Zenni story bigger and better.

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”?

The customer experience is something we look at very closely as we try and improve those touch points every year. People finding out who Zenni is and what we do. Converting them from discoverers to loyal customers, and then learning how we can best serve them over time should be every retailer’s goal. A fantastic retail experience should provide an easy solution to your customer’s problem.

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. The people you are serving must come first. Get them what they are looking for and tell them you appreciate them by constantly getting better. Speak their language, relate, and have fun. 
2. Tell customers how to share their experience with others, give customers an easy way to share your products, and experience with their friends, family, and social networks. If you make that easy, and encourage it, you’d be shocked at how much that comes back to serve you. Check out the unboxing videos or Zenni on YouTube, or how much user generated content is on our site, it’s incredible! 
3. Create a good feedback loop to make improvements. People will call with the big problems, but you can find out a lot more by simply asking. Find out how to give things to your customer (and potential customers) in exchange for asking them how you can improve. We use customer interview, and survey, as well as constantly talking with our customer service team to build an endless list of things to think about and frame up as problems to prioritize and solve. 
4. Leverage data to find out where people are commonly leaving your site or having problems. Dig into that area to look for and define problems. Spin up variant tests as experiments and see what kinds of solutions can change the outcome. Don’t forget to trust your gut and put yourself in your customers shoes. 
5. For the most part, people want to know the money they spend is spent wisely. Most of our job, selling online, is building someone’s confidence in something they can’t hold in their hands. Most of what we are doing is building their interest, and confidence that what they spend their hard-earned money on is worth it. Anything you can do to make them confident in their purchase will go a long way.

If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

I think it would involve getting people to realize that despite our differences we are a lot more alike than we are different. I’m not sure how to do that, but if you can get people to feel that, and truly come together and feel united, we’d be in a much better place as a species, and a planet.

How can our readers further follow Zenni?

Obviously, is the place to go for everything. But we’re on all the typical social channels, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and YouTube. If you need glasses, check us out. If you don’t need eye correction, get a pair of Blokz to protect against blue light.

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

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