Debra Alliegro is Accenture’s Boston lead and managing director, overseeing more than 1,290 employees.
I was 17 and it was my first job, and I sold shoes in a boutique shoe store that focused on men's shoes. And it was there that I really learned about creating a customer experience that ensures repeat business.
Today what I do, healthcare consulting, is very dependent on repeat business and trust. So what I learned very early is that you can attract a lot of customers and first-time buyers with marketing, but return customers are very different because they have endless choices and you have to create a customer experience that equals value to that customer, which starts by really knowing your customer and being knowledgeable about your product or service.
The shoe store was in Virginia. It was more of a mom-and-pop specialty men's shoes store. It doesn't exist anymore. I took the job because I needed a job and it was in my town. I walked in and I said, “I love shoes.” I didn't actually realize it focused on men's shoes at the time. I ended up selling shoes all the way through college—I worked my way through college.
Customers come in and oftentimes they have something in mind, especially when they walk into more of a boutique store, and rather than complicate the sales process, you have to say, “Do you have a particular shoe in mind that you were looking for?” And if they did you needed to be very efficient—go get the shoe, make sure it was the right size, offer them polish and shoe trees, get them to the register and then check them out, write your first name on their receipt and say thank you. And then they would come back because the experience met their expectations: you're quick and efficient.
Other customers are not as articulate about what they want. And then your job is to be knowledgeable enough about what you're doing—the service you're providing or the product—to ask enough questions, to be a very active listener and to help them with their options. As opposed to saying, "We have 100 pairs of black wing tips," come up with two or three options that might work. And then you had to be knowledgeable enough to explain for example, if it was some kind of very expensive high-end leather that that may fit like like a kid's gloves but it will quickly stretch out.
It's not about chitchat. It was more about listening actively, being knowledgeable about what your product or service was and how it might serve their needs, and then making sure that you're easy to do business with.
I think what I do best right now is problem solve. That's what consulting really is. And if you want repeat business, it's got to be more than just an experience—you have to be knowledgeable and add value on top of the product or service.
I did not think about that job as part of a career. But now some of the skills I use today, I think it's almost exactly the same. The Holy Grail in our business is getting clients' trust and getting repeat customers. That's what everybody wants: customer loyalty. We're spending a lot of money in advanced analytics, artificial intelligence, we're trying to predict our customers' behavior, but if you think about it, it does boil down to something simple: you first have to know the customer, so you have to ask them questions. You have to understand what they're trying to achieve, and you have to be knowledgeable about your industry so that you can add value to them and help them curate their options.
Right now I do very large-scale transformation projects that are very complex, but it's the same kind of thing. You have to make sure your customers understand their options, you have to understand what they're trying to achieve, you have to be efficient and knowledgeable about what you're doing, and you have to deliver.
In the beginning, any kind of marketing or sale can get clients in the door. But clients won't come back unless they actually got the product they wanted and it served them well.
Later on when I was at the shoe store, I went on to do commission sales, which is how I worked my way through college, and I witnessed people that would tell customers, “Oh, that shoe's not too small for you, it will stretch and it will fit.” To myself I would say, “that's not true—they're not going to be satisfied. Why would you do that?” Those are the very customers when you write your name on the top of your receipt, they don't come back and ask for you. Customers remember many different aspects about that relationship.