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Zohar Gilad of InstantSearch+: “Great customer experience is what differentiates a brand”

Great customer experience is what differentiates a brand. One happy customer can be the best word of mouth, while an unhappy customer can cause significant damage. Brands need to assume that their customers are thinking “what have you done for me lately?” Amazon is a great example of customer service, while they are overwhelming in size, […]

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Great customer experience is what differentiates a brand. One happy customer can be the best word of mouth, while an unhappy customer can cause significant damage. Brands need to assume that their customers are thinking “what have you done for me lately?”

Amazon is a great example of customer service, while they are overwhelming in size, they still have a very well thought out customer service experience. With a few clicks, the customer can easily find an answer, talk to someone live, or get a refund. Shoppers are now preconditioned to this level of customer service, this is the standard.


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 Zohar Gilad.

Zohar Gilad and his co-founder, Adar developed InstantSearch+ from an eCommerce search into a full suite of Shopping Optimization for merchants. Previously, Zohar has been an EVP at Precise Software, a transaction performance monitoring company and has served as an executive and officer at Mercury Interactive (Nasdaq: MERQ, acquired by HP).

In his 15 year tenure at Mercury, Zohar served in many leadership roles, including the GM of Application Performance Management (the company’s first business unit), and product marketing leadership roles. Throughout his career, Zohar has been the driving force behind over 20 software products that have since been used by millions of users worldwide.


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 started out as a software engineer in image processing, computer-aided design, and medical imaging. After receiving my MBA, I turned to products, marketing, and business management in Enterprise software. I became an intrapreneur, building stuff and bringing it to market: product lines, business units, cross-company initiatives, M&A — all in the same company. After 20 years in Enterprise software, I switched to eCommerce. In 2013, my co-founder, Adar Greenshpon and I founded Fast Simon and launched InstantSearch+ for eCommerce. Our initial edge back then was a patented lightning-fast search autocomplete for eCommerce.

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?

In 2016, bots were all the rage. At that time, any VC pitch deck had to have a bot in there. Our dilemma was whether we take this seriously, and go in and be ready with a bot product — or not. We had our CTO, Alexandra, build a quick working prototype of a search and recommendation chatbot. We managed our risk while learning what the technology and user experience really were. We learned that despite the hype, the common web browser or mobile app was a much better interface to commerce than a serial text messaging bot. Needless to say, we have never got a request for such a product from a single merchant.

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 wouldn’t say that a single person inspired me throughout my career, rather my experience as a young Officer in the Israeli Air Force had a large part in forming who I am today. I’d say I learned three key components from my time in the Air Force: The first thing I learned was how small, focused teams can achieve success through hard work, innovation, and comradery. The second thing I learned was the importance of briefing and debriefing. It is important to brief everyone, to make sure we are all on the same page and aligned in our goals. And it’s just as important to debrief, so we get the opportunity to learn from our mistakes and replicate our wins. The last thing I learned was how important it is to connect to your teammates on a personal level, and have fun while working together. The friendships you build in high stress working situations that challenge you — are the ones that end up lasting for decades.

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 really enjoy delving into other worlds, real and fantastic. I’m a huge fan of fiction literature, from authors all over the world, such as Haruki Murakami, Jorge Amado or Amos Oz. I also enjoy thought-provoking books like The Big Short, Freakonomics, or Flashpoint that give me an opportunity to explore the inner-workings and human behavior in areas beyond my realm.

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

Fast Simon brings cutting edge technology that, until recently, has only been available for behemoths such as Amazon, to the masses of eCommerce merchants. We started with eCommerce Search, and expanded to AI Merchandising, AI Visual Recommendations, Personalization — all around the same target customer, in a platform that is easy to consume.

Our integrated platform not only replaces point solutions but also delivers superior experience due to the number of data streams fed to its AI engine. It gives us a competitive advantage as we can quickly interleave different signals to produce results that increase sales, margin, AOV, and conversion for merchants. Much like we broadened our customer touchpoint from the eCommerce team to merchandisers and buyers — I see us reaching additional teams within the brands that are serving today and will serve in the future.

We will go out of our way to make our merchants succeed. Gone are the days when software vendors would sell a multi-million dollar 3-year contract and move on to the next customer, while their product is collecting dust on the shelf. Well, at least in ecommerce.

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

It is about placing your bets and minimizing your potential losses. The first difficult decision we had to make was selecting our cloud provider when we just started. We are bootstrapped, so selecting the provider was a big deal. We started developing our product on Google Cloud when it was still a Beta, and our developers loved it. However, it was still in Beta, with a chance that Google would pull the plug. We bet on the fact that Google could not afford not to be in the cloud game, so we selected Google Cloud. We certainly like how it played out.

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? Please include examples.

COVID 19 is the terminator of brick and mortar retail as we know it. It is saddening to see retail chains closing for good, including small businesses, knowing it means tens of thousands of lost jobs forever. For eCommerce, however, some say it accelerated adoption 5 years ahead.

Online commerce is its own domain, and if retailers are willing to shift their focus to ecommerce, there are a few ways to increase their success. The first and most important area is to receive and grow inbound traffic. Paid media, influencers, affiliate networks, and word of mouth are a few ways to get this done. Then once you have the traffic, the second area is to optimize it. Make it fun for shoppers to buy, delight them while they explore, and most of all make it easy for them to find what they want. The third area would be personalizing the relationship to each shopper after they’ve visited the store, whether they searched, viewed, carted, or bought. One way to do this is by leveraging email campaigns and SMS marketing to remarket those customers and keep them engaged. This work is easier and cheaper than trying to bring in new shoppers out of the ether.

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 traditional retail shopping experience involves smiling store employees greeting customers and offering assistance or product recommendations based on the shopper’s needs, preferences and likes. In today’s online shopping arena, the helpful greeter is artificial intelligence (AI). Ecommerce personalization makes shopping simpler and more pleasurable for consumers, and it’s a good way to compete with some of the bigger/foreign players.

Companies can use eCommerce personalization to complete several essential tasks in an efficient manner. Smaller and local players need to consider the power and potential that their businesses could harness if they could:

  • Direct shoppers to the exact items and collections they want to see.
  • Adjust the home page to the shopper’s personality.
  • Show category-specific coupons.
  • Eliminate distractions during the shopping experience.
  • Consider the store’s preference and what they want to sell.

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?

The most difficult strategic decisions, which are hard for me, are what not to do. It’s a key dilemma for a startup that is always strapped for resources and always needs to be laser-focused. On the one hand, if you move fast, you get the advantage of being a trailblazer; on the other, what you’re focusing on may prove to be a fad. Timing is everything.

Additionally, you could spend time and money developing your own tools, or turn to a company that’s already done the work for you. Whichever option you choose, make time to evaluate the effective ways it will help your customers and your business.

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?

Great customer experience is what differentiates a brand. One happy customer can be the best word of mouth, while an unhappy customer can cause significant damage. Brands need to assume that their customers are thinking “what have you done for me lately?”

Amazon is a great example of customer service, while they are overwhelming in size, they still have a very well thought out customer service experience. With a few clicks, the customer can easily find an answer, talk to someone live, or get a refund. Shoppers are now preconditioned to this level of customer service, this is the standard.

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 important to realize that there needs to be a clear delineation between “pre” and “post” purchase poor experience moments.

Post-purchase issues can include a damaged item, the customer didn’t like it after all, or the item didn’t show up, etc. The common denominator for all “post” issues, is that you will always hear about the issue a customer had and have an opportunity to fix it. Pre-purchase issues include the experience in the product discovery phase. If the shopper doesn’t find what they are looking for, the competition is just a click away. If the shopper isn’t inspired by the display of products, they will disengage. The worst part is that you won’t hear about your pre-purchase issues from the customer, which means you won’t know what to fix. This is why you need a shopping optimization platform to cover these blind spots.

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

Recently a customer thanked us for all the work we did to improve InstantSearch+ capabilities per their many requests. He said: “You really gave me your ears and followed through on it.” This is exactly our priority as a company, we not only listen carefully to our customers’ needs — we actually follow through and make things happen.

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

There are customers who know what they’re doing and can articulate well what they want — not details down to the feature function, but more what they would like to achieve with Instant Search+. Being able to spot this kind of customer and work with them to achieve their goals while improving your product has a long term impact on the product roadmap. We started from merely a feature rich autocomplete, and through our focus on ecommerce merchants we evolved into a complete shopping automation for merchants including autocomplete, AI-based merchandising, visual and textual search, personalization capabilities, cross selling and upselling, “complete the look” and more. Thanks to all the customers that asked us what else we can do, we created more necessary capabilities in different avenues and were able to be more strategic.

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”?

See above.

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.

The benefit to eCommerce is being able to take advantage of all the newest tools and software out there and applying it to your business and customer. Whether you create it in-house or use a third party vendor, staying up to date and trendy is much easier in the digital realm than it is in brick and mortar.

Here are some key components that customers expect to see when they want a fantastic retail experience:

  1. Personalization — BrightMinds searched for a long time for a search solution that will not only deliver relevant, fast results but also will supply advanced filtering options that give an extra layer of search and navigation. Using personalization gives shoppers a tailor-made shopping experience based on their shopping history, demographics, and personal preference. After bringing on InstantSearch+, BrightMinds conversion rate for personalized shoppers is over 25%, shoppers not only get extremely relevant information which helps them purchase, but they also purchase additional products.
  2. Seamlessly Integrated On-Site Search — Steve Madden is a leading eCommerce company in the fashion industry, operating several owned brands powered by InstantSearch+ (Steve Madden, Betsey Johnson, Superga and Dolce Vita). Like most retailers with an online presence, Steve Madden is always on the lookout for a better online shopping experience, allowing shoppers to find what they want quickly and get to checkout faster. When it comes to the autocomplete dropdown menu, Steve Madden chose a horizontal design on desktop, allowing them to showcase their product images at first glance, while keeping a vertical design on mobile. Since bringing on InstantSearch+ their conversion rate from search has doubled compared to non-search shopping sessions, across all the brand stores.
  3. Personalized Predictive Search — Targus wanted a lightning fast predictive site search, and chose InstantSearch+ to engage shoppers from the very first character typed. This essentially allowed consumers to start narrowing down the results in the drop-down itself, even before arriving at the actual search results collection page. The ability to search by meta fields was also important, as it is an advanced capability that generates better results and improves engagement. Since the shift to InstantSearch+, their conversion rate from search has increased by 84%.
  4. Harness the search data — Zachys had so much data about the shoppers searching and browsing preference, they needed an efficient way to analyze it. The move to InstantSearch+ analytics reports quadrupled the search conversion rate to 10.74%. Now, 78% of the store revenue comes from shoppers who searched or navigated the site.
  5. Relevant Product Recommendations — Product recommendations and our refined smart collections pages enabled RCPlanet to create a fully complete website catered right to the customer. As a result, about 30% of the site’s revenue comes from using the Product Recommendation feature. When shoppers see products related to what they have searched for or added to their cart, they are 3x more likely to buy additional items.

All five examples I have given are only a few that InstantSearch+ provides, and are all very important in making the shopping experience as easy as possible for the customer.

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. 🙂

Save the Planet, it is pretty clear that as the human population booms we are exhausting the resources this planet has to offer. Ecommerce is accelerating that too with product waste and supply chain inefficiencies. We need to be creative in finding ways to make sure our consumption does not further destabilize our already fragile ecosystem.

How can our readers further follow your work?

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


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