Home improvement retailer Lowe's is in the midst of an ambitious set of data and information management projects aimed at customer loyalty, store efficiency and mobility. Together, the retailer hopes the efforts will mark a new generation of competitive customer service.
The most visible effort to date is now online, and attentive television viewers may have already noticed commercials announcing Lowe's new "home asset management" website, MyLowes.com.
As the ads detail, the site allows registered users to track their purchases, home improvement projects and historic product details like the type and shade of paint. The first rollout offers shopping lists and calculators for room dimensions customers can upload and save to the site.
"In a nutshell, it makes home improvement simple," says the voiceover in the ad. It's a message that is reiterated by Kevin Davis, Lowe's enterprise business intelligence director. "Our model really is about simplicity, to make the customer experience as easy as possible, and 95 percent of that is about data management and project management. These are the things we're working to get better at."
We first met Davis early in 2011 when he was nominated and later named to Information Management's annual 25 Top Information Manager list. At the time, his title was strategic market insights director, where he was working in economics, competitive intelligence, market sizing and a customer data integration project.
Though the roles seemed a hodgepodge, he explained how dependencies emerged as the domains intertwined, and in the end, brought focus to user experience and building a high standard for the customer.
And then there was the raison d'etre for most of what followed. "We have a low price and a great assortment of products, but when others can compete with those things, we need to know what would make a customer drive farther to our store versus someplace else," Davis said at the time.
Though he didn't call them by name, the same roadside experience surely applies to Lowe's primary roadside competitor Home Depot. Like most enterprises, Lowe's can measure extensively at the customer, store or SKU level, but needs the specific indicators related to customers having a good experience online and at the store.
"We have tons of reports and data, but we want to look at things that tell us what to do next," Davis says. "For us, that's trying to pull up nine or 10 measures that mean something to the way we manage the company."
His early strategy role was about measuring the leading indicators of customer behavior, but as he moved to business intelligence and the lagging indicators of financial performance, the questions for Davis, his team and others at Lowe's moved from "what" to "why." That called for measured management and though the customer, market and economic pillars are located in different parts of the company, a balanced scorecard with the customer data quadrant (including the loyalty side) became the way to create it.
One way a retailer can create brand loyalty is to consider the customer's processes for decisions to think up and execute projects, and Lowe's undertook research to understand some of the pain points. A customer's decision to take action might stem from an in-store experience, a television show, a magazine ad or something else. This suggested some of first features for MyLowes and are being planned into future interactions online and in stores, where Lowe's can build loyalty through understanding and sharing data with the customer.
In the future, Davis says, that will put the store in more of a consulting than retailing role, where data integration and information management can again contribute to simplicity for the customer, and for Lowe's employees as well.
"We have good structured data here, but we have gold in our unstructured data," Davis says. "We need to simplify the employee experience to where they can get to the information to answer any question the customer has, a huge knowledge management piece has to come first. The way you do that is to combine structured and unstructured data back together to the associate and we're doing that."
An enterprise 2.0 program at Lowe's is more than a year old, but like the customer experience project, doesn't really have a completion date. The MyLowes rollout could have been more detailed, but despite the research and groundwork that went into it, the company isn't trying to work too far ahead. True to its bid to be a consulting partner, the retailer wants more feedback from forums and blogs to maximize its relevancy.
"We have a strategy set up for this year and next, and after that it starts to get to the point where you know it's going to change," Davis says. "Planning too far out is useless."
Mobile technology is another big focus at Lowe's, where the retailer in distributing more than 42,000 iPhones with an app that lets staff check stock, order products and share how-to videos. It's another way for Lowe's to stay relevant to customers who are using their own devices to shop and differentiate the competition.
"Mobility is huge, to the point where we will not build dashboards on the desktop anymore, and that's at least partly because I can port a mobile dashboard back to a PC a lot easier than the other way around." says Davis.
Mobility has its own governance team to make sure apps aren't being developed and distributed haphazardly, which would not be an unlikely occurrence in any large organization.
The mobile effort is still in what Davis says could be called an alpha phase with a long way to go. The opportunities in mobile and customer engagement seem endless. But in general, as projects roll out to face customers, employees and analysts, the focus will be on straightforward and usable tools.
It's a kind of anti-complexity many organizations are seeking in an Information Age overloaded with data and options. What information managers do behind the scenes is detailed and intricate and pretty complex from a technology point of view, Davis says, but it's done in order to give customers inside and outside the organization the impression that it's easy.