Innovate & Evolve. Never remain static. An experience has to continuously evolve. The touchpoints need constant innovation and rethinking with the changing world and customer demands and experiences around.
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 Mr. Vikas Agarwal, Chief Executive Officer of Kaya Skin Clinic, Middle East — the largest skin clinic chain in the region.
Since taking over the Chief Executive role at Kaya in May 2018, Vikas, together with his team of over 290 employees, drawn from 16 nationalities, spread across three countries, has steered the brand, in one of the most difficult times for the environment & the category. Living up to its leadership in the category, the brand has been one of the fastest, to pre-empt and adapt to post COVID norms, turning the crisis into an opportunity, and delivering one of the speediest recoveries from COVID, against other businesses. In 10th year of his stint with the brand & category, Vikas believes the brand, though the largest in the category, still has a very small footprint (23 clinics in 3 geographies), and there is an exponential potential awaiting for the brand in the region.
Vikas had joined Kaya Skin Clinic, Middle East in late 2010, as the Head of marketing. During his 7 years tenure, as Marketing Head, in one of his key achievements, he had led the transformation of the brand Kaya, in the Middle East. This involved a refreshed identity for the brand in its positioning, communication and clinics, to enable the brand to continue to lead, with the fast-evolving consumer & category in the region. Before taking up the Chief Executive Role, Vikas was also overseeing Operations and Expansion for the brand in KSA, Oman & Kuwait markets.
Vikas kicked off his career back in 2002, with India’s leading automobile company, Maruti Suzuki. Post Maruti and prior to joining Kaya Skin Clinic in the Middle East, Vikas worked in India at Marico Limited (a group company), one of India’s leading FMCG company, where he held several positions in sales & marketing, and led some of India’s leading brands like Parachute, Saffola and Nihar.
Vikas has graduated with Bachelor of Commerce Degree in 1999, from Shri Ram College of Commerce, Delhi. He has done his MBA in Marketing, from Indian Institute of Foreign Trade, Delhi.
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?
Born in a small town, in the heart of India’s most populous state, I spent most of my schooling years, in a boarding school, in the gorgeous hills of North India. I come from a business family, so my career path seemed very clear to me — join the family business after completing my MBA. But life had different plans!
After graduating in the field of Commerce and completing my MBA in Marketing, I landed my first job, in sales, with one of India’s largest automobile company — Maruti Suzuki. I later joined Marico, a leading FMCG company in India and spent another 16 years (still counting) with the group. During this process, I transcended roles, functions, brands, categories and countries — from sales to marketing, from hair oils to edible oils, and from India to the Middle East.
I joined the Kaya Skin Clinic team in Dubai in 2018, when it was still a division of Marico (now a listed group company). The last 10 years at Kaya have been marvelous, professionally and personally. Personally, while Mumbai will always be close to my heart, Dubai has been quite overwhelming. A flood of experiences, cultures, and travel. Professionally, moving from a big business with large budgets, to a niche premium brand, opened up a completely new era of learning and challenges.
Looking back, it’s a journey that has shaped me professionally and personally, with experiences, learnings and memories I cherish, and instilled enough confidence, that did not let any challenge that came in way intimidate me.
While work has been enriching, life beyond work has been too. The yearning to explore the world, combined with capturing moments with my love for photography, only grew further after coming to a city like Dubai.
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?
When I was starting out, I was tasked with leading a team of 5 people (who were at least 10 years older than me) in one of my first sales role. Fresh out of my MBA, I started throwing jargon and instructions around liberally, not realizing that my team probably had 10 times more experience collectively than me! I had started believing that I had control of my team and the targets.
I realized a few weeks later that both — the team’s feedback to me and my target achievement — was contrary to what I had believed when a team member came up to me and said “Boss, fantastic lessons, we are writing it down, but we will do it our way”.
Key Takeaway — Keep the jargons, theory and logic aside. Learn to connect and manage, beyond what you learn from books!
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 would have to say the book — ‘7 habits of highly effective people’ had a great impact on me. The chapters “Big Rocks vs Small Rocks” & “Think Win Win” from this have been highly influential in both, my career and personal life.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Kaya’s story is a story of a brand that, for 17 years, has pushed the limits, on what a woman can achieve, in her fearless pursuit of beauty. ‘No Tags’, ‘No Labels’, ‘No Judgements’. Just the fearless pursuit of ‘Beauty’. This is what we believe, what we offer, and what makes us stand out.
We are one of the pioneers, and the largest chain of skin clinics in the Middle East, offering advanced aesthetic treatments and solutions that enhance, correct and repair your skin, hair & body, with faster and longer lasting results, compared to usage of just cosmetic products. Performed by qualified Dermatologists who customize the treatment to an individual’s need, using a variety of tools ranging from laser machines, chemical ingredients, advanced products to prescription drugs, and treatments, that are scientifically/clinically proven, safe & effective.
With every innovation in beauty solutions comes along some fear and some stigma, which holds back many from entering this world, no matter how desirable the destination looks. While ‘Quality’ & ‘Expertise’ can counter the fear, the stigma can only be overcome by finding an ally in this journey. An ally to reassure, to encourage, to empower. We, at Kaya, have been and continue to be that ally to our customers, who are able to choose what they want out of their skin, hair & body, with no boundaries, no stigma, and no judgments. To get that change, big or small, without the stigma or the fear; we have been empowering them and transforming their desires into reality.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
- The pandemic has already struck us with unimaginable contingencies and shocks. It might have disturbed us temporarily, but the fact that we have survived till now, means it has made us a lot more resilient. It is now easier, to keep control of your mind, which is where the burn out starts, before it takes over your body. Do whatever works for you, in keeping your mind calm and positive. Letting go for a while, even if 30mins, when it’s too overwhelming, and coming back recharged, is what works for me the best.
- This is one of those situations, where the biggest and the most powerful leaders of the world, cannot define ‘right’ from ‘wrong’. There is no benchmark or experience available to take decisions on what every business is facing. While it is unnerving at times to not know what the right decision is, it is worse, to sit on it and let them pile on. Take risks, take baby steps, but keep deciding, and keep walking. Take a break from work, but do not take a break from decision making.
- Communicate, Share, Show Empathy, and be human. There are billions of people, going through the same state of mind as any of us. It is a global pandemic that is now impacting mental health more than physical health. ‘Share’ and ‘Seek help’ when you have to, with the ones you trust. Raise the empathy quotient, with the world around you that needs it. Sometimes, giving is receiving. We all need to put ‘Humanity’ before everything else, for the world, and us, to recover fast.
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?
- While the crisis is throwing us off our balance, it is also pushing us and providing us with an opportunity, to re-look, and re-imagine things about the business and P&L, that could have been on our blind spot. Whether it is a business opportunity that we did not think fitted into our core, and was being ignored; whether it was the cost structure that we felt was optimum; or whether it was the strength of our culture that was being taken for granted. This crisis is making us question all of that. There are bound to be opportunities coming out when we are shaken off our comfort zone. At Kaya Skin Clinic Middle East, we have re-opened every norm, every process, every cost, every opportunity, and looked at it afresh in the wake of the changing world post pandemic. We have been able to achieve things we could not have imagined before the pandemic. This has helped us bounce back faster, and with better profitability.
- While doing all of the above, we also need to be conscious that the core of every business is ‘customer experience’. While we push the limits on costs and efficiencies, a compromise on ‘customer experience’, will only mean temporary gains, while putting the business at risk in the long run. The pandemic is going to leave the customer demanding more value from every purchase than ever before. While price is paramount to value, good customer experience has the power to reposition price and value. Therefore, businesses that can balance between driving both, efficiencies and customer experience, are the businesses that will emerge as winners post the pandemic.
- Digitize. A word that has almost become a cliché in these times. Every brand is strengthening, launching or preparing to be online. E-Commerce is booming across the world. With safe distancing, and crowds not being encouraged, brands are innovating like never before. To me, the first and foremost digitization for a retail brand should be to digitize the customer journey & experience, to foolproof and make it truly sustainable. Re-craft the journey and build in technology wherever possible. And then capture and use data, to enhance the experience even further.
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?
With the intensity of competition growing day by day, I see only two ways a brand can win. Either be the ‘cheapest’ or be the ‘best’. Being the ‘cheapest’ or the ‘best’ does not necessarily mean, literally having the lowest price or the best quality, but it means how the brand is perceived by the customer in its price and quality. For example, Amazon does not always have the cheapest prices for every product they put out on their site. However, the perception of them being the cheapest overrides many purchases by customers, which might not be the most discounted on Amazon. Similarly, a tag of ‘Amazon’s Best’ might not mean, it is the best quality product. But the tag, gathered by an algorithm of choices that customers are making on their site, has come to stand for ‘best quality’ for millions. So, whatever your core product is, question whether you are perceived as ‘cheapest’ or ‘best’ by your customer, and if not, work towards it, to reach that destination fast. Because everything else in the middle will only get crushed.
Secondly, competition is not a threat all the time. Sometimes, competition can be a blessing in disguise. For example, a category under penetrated with high potential requires good competition to grow and mature fast. If brands in the category realize that, then instead of fighting with each other, on price and claims, they will work towards growing the category together, and benefitting a lot more. We belong to a category of this nature, where we believe more players like us entering this category will only double our efforts of growing it faster and give us more opportunities to learn from.
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?
- Define the customer and the need space, before you even build numbers, or think of putting processes. It is the differentiated space you managed to identify, and the sharp alignment of your target customer to it, that leads to success. Everything else, is then just a build up from there. Also, if you do believe in these definitions, have the resilience to stick to it, persevere, not give up fast, and keep changing.
- Define the culture and values you want to build, which helps you identify the right people, and not just skilled people, to create a reckoning force behind your brand.
- Define the customer journey before you start servicing the customer. You might have a fantastic need space and a bang on customer target segment, but without a clear and sharply defined customer journey, it is all going to be theory.
- Build in technology right from the start. Whether it is the customer journey, or how you capture and use data to drive experience and efficiencies. Technology is a never ending investment. Start early, even if small, have a clear vision, to continuously evolve.
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?
We are now in a world without boundaries. Social Media has removed all borders. A person who has never travelled out of their country, sitting in the remotest corners of their city, can now not only discover the latest innovations happening around the world, but also access them at the click of a button. Such access and demand leads to easy and faster copy of your uniqueness, and makes differentiating your tangible product more and more difficult, and time bound. This is where, the intangible (experience) is growing to play a bigger and important role, in keeping the difference alive. Customers are no longer just buying tangibles, they are buying into the purchase experience along with product usage. And given the vast choice of similar products, customer’s choices/perceptions are getting more defined by the purchase experience.
Retail brands actually have an edge here, because not only do they control the tangible product, but are also able to carve and control the intangible experience through their infrastructure. While investing into brick & mortar is costly, but that investment, if seen as an opportunity to build the most fantastic and differentiated purchase and service experience, can not only keep them a step ahead of other industries, but also not let the online industry completely take over.
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 difference is between intent and execution. Intent is mostly there. However, execution fizzles out over time. Sometimes, the efficiencies in processes and costs, sometimes, the focus on getting more and more volumes. Building and evolving customer experience comes at a cost, and effort. If consciously it is not part of the brand’s core, in every opportunity and conversation, it can be taken for granted over time. Also, the customer is evolving fast, and an experience that was fantastic when the brand launched few years ago, today, could be the most standard, or even behind by years. Therefore, consciously putting it at the core of every conversation, budgeting time & costs to evolve it, and measuring it continuously, can help.
Can you share with us a story from your experience about a customer who was “Wowed” by the experience you provided?
Customer is the most important piece of the puzzle in a retail business, and providing the best customer experience is a surefire way of gaining loyal customers. At Kaya Skin Clinics, our ideology is centered on our customers — and so it’s prevalent in everything we do. From the way our solutions are internally tested by expert dermatologists before offering it to customers, mandatory 500 hours of pre-clinical training that each skin practitioner must undergo, to the design of the new identity clinic rooms that extends uncompromising care, meeting every little preference of our customer.
At Kaya, we measure this ‘Wow’ experience after every single customer visit through our NPS surveys, which I am humbled to share averages every month to an outstanding score of 80.
One such customer in particular, in her mid-30s, walked into one of our clinics and was very nervous about getting any treatment done, but believed her skin definitely needed expert care. She was unsure about doing anything invasive, so we started off with skin treatments which, over the course of the treatment, her skin responded to very well. While she was extremely happy with the treatment and its efficacy, what got her over the moon was an unexpected compliment from an old friend, as she was descending an escalator at her favorite mall. Her friend, who was at a distance on the opposite elevator, couldn’t help notice her youthful glow even at that distance, and ended up complimenting her aloud. I clearly remember what she said to one of our doctors, “That day, I walked into my office 4 inches taller.” We gained yet another loyal customer that day, not just because of the treatment, but because of the overall experience she had at our clinics and our team of experts.
Did that Wow! experience have any long term ripple effects? Can you share the story?
Yes of course! She has not just been a regular at Kaya Skin Clinics, ever since; she even trusts us with invasive treatments now, which was one of her biggest concerns when she visited the clinic. She believes that skin care at Kaya has been one of her best investments, and can’t stop recommending us to her friends, family, and coworkers adding to our list of growing loyal clientele.
This is a two-way win for us, as it not just helps us grow our customer base, but also reflects our ideology and mission in encouraging and empowering women to be fearless in their pursuit of beauty!
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”?
It always starts with what your brand stands for/promises. This promise/positioning then has to translate into the retail identity, infrastructure, offerings and the people that deliver the experience to customers. Every time, the customer steps in, whether he/she ends up buying or not, they need to take away a little more of the brand, through the touchpoints designed and aligned. Usage of ‘technology’ wherever possible, helps bring consistency and sustainability to the experience.
While putting in this experience is critical, measuring, monitoring, and evolving it with immediate actions and course corrections is as important. Nothing can remain static in today’s world. The customer is evolving, in their experiences, and so the experience in retail has to always stay ahead of them.
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.
A few years back, we had embarked on a journey, to re-look & transform the customer experience in our clinics. Taking our learnings from there, I believe the following 5 things are critical to build a fantastic retail experience
- Know your brand. It is your brand that has to reflect in the retail identity & experience. The core strengths have to come alive through the infrastructure and the experience.
- Know your customer and her needs. Can you pre-empt her, and not just service her. Make her feel you know her well. And sometimes, even the smallest moment of truths that you can manage to create with that, might be the most memorable ones.
- Choose the right people that reflect your brand, train them right, with modules stemming out of your brand promise, tone, language, and keep them happy at work. How they conduct themselves, communicate and service, has the biggest impact on what a customer perceives about the experience and the brand. Their ‘Passion’ and ‘Love’ for the brand goes a long way in delivering an authentic experience.
- Craft a customer journey, defining every touch point and your interventions in each of those bridges the gap between intent and execution, and keeps you in control, as well as helps you continuously evolve. In-build digital interventions wherever possible, not to remove the human touch, but to add on, foolproof the human touch.
- Innovate & Evolve. Never remain static. An experience has to continuously evolve. The touchpoints need constant innovation and rethinking with the changing world and customer demands and experiences around.
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. 🙂
No Tags. No Labels. No Judgements. People should be able to follow their heart, without feeling apologetic about it.
How can our readers further follow your work?
You can connect with me on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/vikasmarketing/
And connect with my team on www.kayaskinclinic.com
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!