Extract from Customer Focus Magazine: Issue 37 (January 2023)
On the face of it, home improvement might be considered a slightly workaday, necessary but dull corner of the retail sector. In fact, since 2020 and 2021’s lockdowns, UK householders have found a new affinity for home improvement, with those otherwise fallow and sometimes frightening periods prompting us to rethink our homes as they evolved into multipurpose spaces for work and leisure.
Wickes CEO David Wood is happy to service an evolving set of ideas around what a home encompasses. And this energetic and enthusiastic leader is committed to customer service as a differentiator against competitors. He’s a regular visitor to Wickes stores, doing the rounds of the company’s 233 stores.
The UK has a home improvement sector worth around £27 billion, of which Wickes takes a £1.5 billion share, and climbing. Its stores serve a mixture of trade, Do It Yourself as well as Do It for Me customers – a term applied to customers who use Wickes’ kitchen and bathroom design and installation service. Revenue splits across those groups roughly equally, with two thirds of sales being via digital channels. The stores play a critical role on digital sales, though, with 98% of orders online being fulfilled through the shops themselves.
So who is the man at the top? Wood spent 15 years of his career with branded goods giants Unilever and Mondelez, and moved into retail when he joined Tesco in 2007. He has run retail businesses in the UK, Europe and North America (as group president of Kmart between 2015 and 2017, for instance). He became CEO of Wickes in 2019 and is emphatically a grass-roots operator with a deep love for the shop floor.
The question for any leader is how to transfer their knowledge and outlook across their organisations. “For me, retail is like a stage where a colleague gets an opportunity to perform. And you do want them to be confident. The first thing I want colleagues to be able to do is approach the customer. The second thing is for them to be curious and find out from that customer what they are doing, what project they are working on. We don’t have to have all the answers, but we do encourage colleagues to work with the customer to find them.”
Wickes stores hold around 9,000 unique items on average, a set up that Wood terms “a lean, highly curated range”. Out of those 9,000 products, around 150 are top sellers, bought mostly by local traders. “Our most strategically valuable customers, who do business most often and have a higher-than-average basket, are our local traders.” The sales proposition for that group is a simple one. “Can you save me time? Can you save me money? They want great value, great availability and great services. Increasingly, what we see with our local traders is the night before they can go online, they can see product availability by store and, through our Trade Pro app, they can shop, transact and
collect the next morning. That level of service for a trade is critical,” he says.
For those of us who have perhaps a bit less knowledge about our DIY needs, Wickes has shopfloor customer service agents who reassuringly know more than we do and importantly aren’t afraid of googling for answers and working alongside the customer to assess their project needs.
While Wood promotes approachability and generous listening skills in shop-floor colleagues, as CEO, his first order of business is to ensure he is listening to the shop floor. “When you are working in branded manufacturing, the customer you are thinking about is the end consumer of the product. ‘How do I understand their needs? How can I be distinctive in the brand and the positioning?’ There is an overwhelming requirement to have large empathy and generous listening skills,” he says.
As you move into retail, there is a shift in perspective. “As a chief executive, my responsibility is almost one of pastoral care. I have to really care for and do the best for my colleagues. At the end of the day, it’s my colleagues who look after the customer.” So, what is his vision for customer service within the business? Inclusivity is top of Wood’s list. “Realistically, everything starts with the culture of our business and how we think and feel about Wickes. And where we start very clearly is: everybody is welcome at Wickes.”
His aspiration is that customers and would-be colleagues alike will be able to look at the business and see people like themselves getting on and moving through the ranks. “If our colleague base reflects the nation at large, that will then reflect our customer base. So that relationship is very important. We have a very strong diversity and inclusion programme in our business.
We have six amazing employee networks, which help make us a more inclusive and open business.” His next ask is that willingness to work with the customer. “Really, my vision for customer service is that we always have the ability to say yes to the customers.” Retail, he believes, is a very supportive environment and great seeding ground for strong customer service skills and outlooks.
“When we think about customer service as a career, it penetrates so many industries, whether it’s health, education, hospitality or retail. There’s a huge service angle there. “The great thing about the retail industry is there’s a wonderfully supportive structure for career development. We are very focused on the ability to get on in our business – 85% of our colleague base is promoted through the business in any one year. So, there is real opportunity to get on,” he says. “I think service within retail is a phenomenal space to be in. I think it’s fun. I think it’s dynamic. I think it offers you all sorts of opportunity and life skills. For most, the ability to get on and progress in the business comes with that.”
As to the wider business world, you could argue that more leaders should heed that lesson. “I think it’s well-evidenced that a business that has true customer-centricity and customer service at its heart is one that performs better than others. We’ve been very purposefully putting customer service at the heart of our business by building a customer experience team, not a customer service team that clears things up when they go wrong. An experience team [is focused on the notion] that they don’t go wrong in the first place.”
Wickes offers employees the opportunity to tune into customer research via recordings of customer research groups and to tap into monthly ‘mood of the nation’ reports, where Wickes talks to its three main customer groups. Those findings are socialised all around the business, says Wood, and right the way up to the board. “The reason that all of this is important is that – look, customers have a choice, don’t they? That’s the basic mandate and the customer can choose to go elsewhere in an increasingly competitive world and in an increasingly transparent world. So, I’d like to think that any leader of a business – anyone who has the privilege of leading a business – absolutely has customer service and customer-centricity at the forefront of their thinking, that they start with their customer and work back into their business.”
It’s clear he puts a premium on empathy and getting close to the customer. “You cannot beat genuine proximity to your customer. Experience it yourself. Spend time with your customers, as I do frequently. Most critically, seek to understand by putting yourself in their shoes. This is all about empathy. The big skill we have to develop here as a truly customer-centred leader is to be a highly empathetic leader, to be someone who is generous in their listening and asks genuine questions.”