We ask ourselves: ‘What does the customer want? What problem is that technology solving for the customer?’

Robert Spector, author and co-founder of RSi Consultancy

Robert Spector, author and co-founder of RSi Consultancy

At Nordstrom, exceptional customer service is not limited to a friendly, helpful salesperson creating a meaningful shopping experience. It’s about doing everything possible to put the customer front and center in everything they do.

“If it’s not helping the customer, then it’s not customer service,” is one of the many aphorisms included in my new book, co-authored with breAnne O. Reeves, “The Nordstrom Way to Customer Experience Excellence: Creating a Values-Driven Culture.”

Those values include “Innovation” and “Adaptation.” Nordstrom was founded in 1901 as a single shoe store in downtown Seattle. The company has survived for more than 116 years because four generations of family leadership has always asked itself, when it comes to enhancing the customer experience, “What more can we do?”

“Customer obsession has been a thread all the way through, but how we deliver against that obsession has changed,” says Geevy Thomas, a 35-year Nordstrom veteran, who is now chief innovation officer. “The customer is at the leading edge, not the technology. We ask ourselves: ‘What does the customer want? What problem is that technology solving for the customer?’”

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The number one question received at Nordstrom’s call center is: ‘Can I find the item that I’m looking at online at my local Nordstrom store?’

Nordstrom describes itself as “Customer Obsessed and Digitally Enabled.” All salespeople have electronic access to a single view of all Nordstrom’s inventory in all company-wide stores, Nordstrom.com, and in the distribution centers, which enables a salesperson to locate the item and get it quickly to the customer.

Nordstrom has always been aware of what was going at Amazon, whose Seattle headquarters are just a few blocks away. Early on, the Nordstroms knew that retail was changing and that they better change with it. Nordstrom.com debuted for the Holiday 1998 shopping season, three years after Amazon launched. Nordstrom developed its own website in-house, at a time when most retailers farmed it out. By 2000, Nordstrom.com was selected as having the best online experience, according to the Forrester Group’s PowerRankings.

Nordstrom recognizes that the physical store is not dead; it’s digitized. The company is constantly exploring ways to leverage their 350 brick-and-mortar stores in North America with their digital capabilities, to combine the sensory experience of the physical with the personalization and convenience of digital.

One-third of all new Nordstrom customers come through its website. More than 25 percent of Nordstrom.com orders are fulfilled in the stores. Essentially all of the stores serve as warehouses for the online business.

“Our future is going to allow us to leverage our history but not be held prisoner by it,” said Geevy Thomas. “How do you leverage the newest technology to make retail more relevant, more fun, more connected from a social perspective?”

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Since 2014, Nordstrom salespeople can use their smartphones to communicate and make transactions with customers via secure one-to-one texting. Customers can use their smart phone to scan any item, see the price, decide what size and color they want, and then have their purchases delivered to their home, office, or hotel anywhere in North America. Purchases are completed through the individual’s Nordstrom.com account.

Nordstrom is channel-agnostic. They don’t have brick-and-mortar customers and online customers; they just have customers. One-third of sales come from multichannel shoppers. Customers don’t think in terms of what buying channel they choose, but rather what kind of experience they desire at that moment.

The company continues to increase the number of multichannel customers because those customers spend four times as much as a one-channel shopper.

Some companies view the customer shopping experience as just a linear acquisition of a thing, to be transacted as fast as possible. Nordstrom believes that an in-store shopping experience must also have social and emotional components, to appeal to the customer’s senses. Consequently, Nordstrom has evolved from being a curator primarily of products to being a curator of service and experience, supported by product. That means continually adding value to the store experience in order to attract the customer.

The number one question received at Nordstrom’s call center is: “Can I find the item that I’m looking at online at my local Nordstrom store?’”

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Because return rates are higher on online purchases, Nordstrom offers an app called Reserve & Try that enables a customer to select and reserve items online without having to pay upfront. Within two hours or less (during store hours), the store notifies the customer via text message when the items can be available to be tried on at their nearest Nordstrom. In the store, the customer visits a designated department called Order Pickup where they find their name on the door of a pre-set fitting room that contains the items they reserved. The customer can try on the items, decide what they want to buy and be out of the store in minutes.

Reserve & Try combines the convenience of online shopping with the sensory gratification of in-store shopping, to create a compelling, more seamless experience across stores and online.

“The more we can focus on the customer’s needs and get them done in five or ten minutes—instead of 20 minutes—they’re going to say, ‘Hey, you gave me back 15 minutes of my life. I’ll look around the store,’” says Ken Worzel, president of Nordstrom.com.”

Being “Customer Obsessed and Digitally Enabled,” Nordstrom has found—and will continue to find—ways to innovate and adapt that delight the customer, and motivate employees to enhance the customer experience, create loyalty among customers, and contribute to the bottom line.

That’s what happens when innovation and adaptation are part of a company’s core cultural values.

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Robert Spector is author of “The Nordstrom Way” series, as well as “Amazon.com: Get Big Fast” (2000) and “Anytime, Anywhere” (2002), on multichannel service. He is also co-founder of RSi consultancy.

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