The “Alternative” Customer Experience

Personal, genuine connections can help marketers craft the most intimate and positive customer experiences. Marketers at Alternative Apparel say they’ve built an entire brand on being real with its customers—with no scripted calls in customer service, a plethora of blogs from artists and activists, and an authentic commitment to sustainability and community involvement. It’s a formula that Alternative says bolsters consumers’ connection to the brand.

“A positive customer experience is when the customer has an emotional connection with your brand. But we do more than that,” says Mary Kathryn Dean, director of customer experience for Alternative. “We empower individuals—our customers—to catalyze change. We give them what we call an ‘alternative’ experience.”

Alternative intertwines what matters most to customers throughout the business. Dean says Alternative markets to potential customers by enabling them to change their communities—mainly through grants, sustainable products, and giving consumers a voice via a popular blog. “This all translates to our products, which consumers then want to buy,” she says. And the results have been growth in sales, social following, and positive customer experiences.

The goal

Marketers at Alternative saw an opportunity to tap into the zeitgeist of a customer base that wants to be aware, impactful, responsible, simple, and—most important—genuine. “It’s about understanding what customers value and what’s meaningful to them,” Dean says.

Alternative customers, she continues, expect the company to share their beliefs, both in social and environmental causes. Marketers at the company determined that if it could show a real passion for consumers’ personal interest and create a platform, it would have a winning strategy for positive customer experiences. “It’s really about creating a community,” Dean says. “Then sales happen organically.”

So Alternative decided to get strategic about building trust, engaging in real conversations, and providing a platform to buyers who want to fuel change in their communities.

The plan

Alternative set out to ensure that the focus for all employees is customer experience. That’s everyone from store associates and customer service reps to those with no direct customer contact—such as the design team, human resources, and operations. “We went through an internal brand campaign, called Reason for Being,” Dean says. “We recruited people from all areas of the company, not just leaders.”

The campaign was multifaceted. Alternative rolled out its Brand Style Guide, which laid out everything from the company’s creed to which fonts to use on designs. More important, the guide established a voice, made clear the company values—ideals that align with the consumers’—and, of course, outlined how the company defines a customer-centric culture.

“The experience feels the same from merchandise to customer service and marketing,” Dean says.

Alternative doesn’t draft scripts for phone conversations with customers, which encourages employees to be genuine.

The retailer put in place an internal team, Brand Mafia, which sought out volunteer opportunities and established customer-focused initiatives, such as increasing sustainability within the company—a core value of the company and its customers. “All of these internal efforts got our employees walking the walk,” Dean explains. “When employees are connected to the brand it directly affects the customer.”

The efforts didn’t stop there. Alternative set up a grant program, typically giving $1,000 awards, for entrepreneurs with “do-good” ideas, many of which are eco-friendly. Adding to the momentum is CommonThread, the company’s lifestyle blog, which features personal stories from artists, activists, entrepreneurs, and innovators.

The blog, Dean says, gives the brand a customer-focused voice and gives customers an outlet. “All of these things are authentic and genuine. You can feel if someone is fake or real,” she says. “Authenticity is helping us connect with customers.”

She adds that all of these elements are crafting a stellar customer experience. “We understand and share the values of our customers,” Dean continues. “By helping them create impactful solutions in their communities, we’ve connected them to the brand. It’s a great marketing opportunity.”

The results

The outcome, Dean says, has been exponential growth in brand followers, revenue, and positive customer experiences.

“Since we launched Reason for Being, Alternative’s sales have grown 121% from 2006 to 2013,” she says, adding that in just one year the company’s Facebook page grew from 167,000 followers to more than 210,000—a 26% increase. And even more tangible evidence of Alternative’s growth is the projected opening of the brand’s SoHo store in late spring 2014. “Bottom line,” Dean says, “if employees understand the mission, and they care, we see it in sales growth.”

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