Navigating retail excellence: Asda's senior director of CX

In the third episode of our rebooted podcast we speak with Asda's senior director of customer experience, Manuela Pifani about the complexity and excitement of leading CX at one of the UK's biggest supermarket chains. 

10th May 2022

We speak with Asda's senior director of customer experience, Manuela Pifani.

Manuela has led CX at some of the UK’s largest organisations, including Direct Line, Kingfisher and RBS.

In this discussion we examined how her current role at Asda differs from that in other sectors, why customer insight and listening plays such an influencial role in informing Asda’s business strategy, and why CX at the supermarket chain is a relatively new concept.

“In retail, you touch the products, you use the products, you eat the products, you return the products, and therefore all of that really creates an always-on customer experience that obviously needs to be managed with CX.”

MYCD UP podcast


MYCUSTOMER: Hi Manuela it’s good to have you here. So yeah, let's kick off by talking about your background. You've headed up CX at some of the biggest organizations in the UK; Kingfisher, Direct Line, RBS and now as to in your current role at Asda, how is the role different -coming into giant supermarket chain such as Asda versus let's say, Direct Line, which is a massive organization, its own right. But what were some of us obvious differences?

MANUELA PIFANI: Yes, differences are obvious. And obviously, they are linked to the sector. So retail is ongoing, things don't stop and your customer shop all the time. So that's a very different type of customer experience compared to customers like an insurance where they will touch the insurance potentially only once a year. So ongoing nature really makes a massive difference. But also, retail is pretty much omnichannel, much more so than financial services, because customers shop online as much as they shop in store. And increasingly, they are really looking for ways of linking the two up. But also probably the biggest difference that it's very, very tangible. Retail, you touch the products, you use the products, you eat the products, you return the products, and therefore all of that really creates an always-on customer experience that obviously needs to be managed, as part of my role. Therefore, linking to that my role differently from other roles is ongoing. So we have a weekly cycles of measurement, assessing the performance, checking where things are and adjusting. So it’s very fast paced, and also change, therefore link to that is constant, there is an ongoing flow of things to adjust based on what our customers buying this week, what are they thinking this week? And how do we react to that, at the same time as looking more strategically to the medium and longer term. So there's a lot to balls to juggle at the same time.

MYCUSTOMER: That's really interesting. I definitely want to come back to that point later in the discussion, but can you give us an idea of sort of what you're specifically working on with Asda in a role such as yours, perhaps from a strategic level, but also the day to day?

MANUELA PIFANI: Well, so there are, as I mentioned, different dynamics. First of all, there's the day to day is what happens on a regular basis on a weekly basis. And therefore those weekly rhythms of performance management, measurement and reporting. We speak weekly to the execs alongside obviously, all of the updates on sales, then we'll look at the customer experience to see why are we selling or not selling and where, and therefore looking at the reasons to then adjust constantly that ongoing flow of sales. So linked to that we also on ongoing basis, we look at customers mindsets, and customer listening to understand what is in their mind now, what is happening in their lives, what is likely to happen in the future in the coming weeks and months, so that we can manage current performance as well as prepare for what is coming. And then there's more the strategic side of it through a number of deep dives and strategic projects to either improve the customer journeys and the customer experience or develop strategic and trading propositions, which are now in my role, all anchored in the customer insight and research that we do on an ongoing basis to then feed into all of the strategic decisions across the organization. So, very broad. And then obviously there is the other part of my team at the moment, which is the CRM team, the team that sends out marketing communications to our customers, primarily via email, but also increasingly feeding into online digital and social channels. So that's an ongoing piece which constantly tries to engage our customers in different ways looking at what kind of customers they are, profiling them through segmentation, but also whether they are new customers to us or they are established or indeed lapsed. So we are tailoring our communications based on individual customer profiles. So lots of bows!

MYCUSTOMER: It sounds like a daunting task to take on. And obviously Asda is a sort of huge machine that’s been sort of at the forefront of the supermarket industry for so many years. How, much of a challenge is it to come into a role such as the one you're in and make an impact? And how much expectation is that you'll make an impact straightaway?

MANUELA PIFANI: I don't find it daunting, I find it exciting. But again, that's how my brain ticks. CX has always been my passion, I say, always, but it's been for a long, long time, my career very quickly moved into the space of customer experience, because I really enjoy doing this work but also because I think it's so essential to an organization to really understand who are our customers? What are they thinking and feeling when they live their own lives, but especially when they interact with our organization? And then turning all of that into specific action across the organization, whether it is customer journey mapping, design and transformation, or whether it is creating strategic or trading propositions or just informing the decisions of other departments. I just love doing all of that. And yes, it's a lot. But then you still learn how to use your time in the best way.

MYCUSTOMER: How much has customer experience played a part at Asda prior to you joining?

MANUELA PIFANI: Well, to be honest, what I really found very appealing in the role was the fact that there wasn't a function in place at the start, there was a team of two who were doing customer experience, and two doing some customer insight. But they were not really plugged properly into what I call the customer experience machine and meaningfully driving, attention, focus and decisions. So So I had the pleasure of bringing different parts of teams together, build in others that were missing, and then changing the way that customer insight and VoC was used across the organization to truly influence decisions. Obviously, it didn't happen overnight, I had to first start working with the teams to share my ways of doing things and upskill them in certain areas and really bring them on the journey with me, following my previous frameworks and the ways I've been doing things before, but also evolving it to really better suit the reality Asda which is very different from any other business. But especially I think the biggest challenge I found was to build credibility within the organization to really demonstrate the value of putting the customer truly at the heart of decisions; everybody gives a lot of lip service to this sentence. So turning this from just saying it to doing it makes a massive difference. We could really start from what's the customer reality to then inform what we were going to do which made a massive difference, because the outcomes were very positive to start with. And then we've moved progressively from a position where I was almost battering the door down to get through and get myself into project to say I can help to a position where he said they'd all come to me to ask for my help. And my backlog is becoming very, very long. So I think that’s an indication of success, that we are doing things in the right way.

MYCUSTOMER: It very interesting to hear you say that. How few people were sort of working on CX specifically as to prior to prior to joining us as that team expanded or is it just a case of realigning some of the team’s requirements?

MANUELA PIFANI: My team of people reporting directly to me has expanded a little bit since then. But primarily either repointing them to do things differently. So for example, the CX people were consulting on customer stuff in other projects whereas now we're not just consulting now we are actively leading deep dives and shaping customer experience journey maps designed propositions etc. And the insight team was measuring the voice of the customer, but not particularly reporting on the whys for performance and why we’d see NPS going up or down and all these kinds of things. So again, repointing them to different ways. But then I think primarily, it's not just about what we do through my team, but it's how we feed and engage with other teams across the organization. So we have now very strong ways of working collaboratively with working with, with the retail colleagues, with the online colleagues to really ensure that we have people in those teams to really augment the focus and the impact of what we do. And also we are now working out at the store level with the managers of our stores, they've got their own dashboards, they know what the local customer experience performance is, what makes it good or bad. And, and also, they are actively working towards improving it also, because we linked customer experience to their key performance indicators. And as we know, what gets measured gets done. And suddenly, there's much more focus all the way from head office all the way down to stores and call centre agents on the customer experience.

It’s the classic case we throw the stones in the middle of the pond. And then we need to create those ripples that take ways of thinking all the way across all of the surface of the water, basically. So that's what we're doing at the moment.

MYCUSTOMER: Asda was in the news in February for cutting and then reinstating its Smart Price range. Many customers aired their views about the range being axed and the fact that it was such a necessarily range during a period of financial difficulty for many. I'm not going to ask you to talk about the specifics of that event but it did highlight to me how willing Asda is to listen and take action on customer feedback. You mentioned at the start of the podcast about how passionate you are about customer listening and customer insight leading a lot of decision making. So I was keen to know how much of your role and your team's role was about being involved in analyzing that type of feedback and making sure you’re involved with big decisions or changing big decisions, such as the one I've mentioned?

CX Leader of the Year 2022

MANUELA PIFANI: My team is at the heart of that type of insight. So not only we do the traditional Voice of the Customer measurement in terms of feedback, post-experience; obviously, we have all of that, and we do a lot with that. But also in my team, we do what we call mindset tracking. So we have ongoing programs that are very much about checking where mindsets are in terms of what are the customer thinking/ living, what's happened in the reality and, and from there, we get a lot of insight on how things are evolving on an ongoing basis in their lives, and in the reality where they live. And then in addition, we do a lot of listening. So we have an ongoing program of customer listening, where we have regular customer groups with different segments/ personas, within our customer base, where we discuss different topics obviously linked to strategic priorities of the moment, but very much to get customer input into what we are doing and at very early stages of work, as well as testing concepts with them as we are developing testing propositions before we learn them. So we constantly get customer input into everything. And therefore the role of the customer listening activities that we are doing, we already knew the impact that the rising cost of living was having in our customers lives, and the trade-offs and the coping mechanisms that they had to adopt to really be able to put those meals in front of their family on a weekly basis. So we were already working on solutions and  what we heard from customers helped us finalize what we needed to do and when. That’s what we are doing at the moment to help customers with the rising cost of leaving.

MYCUSTOMER: On a previous podcast that we recorded with the head of CX at Uber we discussed at length the need for a customer experience leader to be able to react and respond quickly to many things that are often out of their control. And that was because of the ever-changing nature of the industry that they were in. But it's strikes me that a supermarket chain such as as yours is pretty similar and obviously, you know only recently there's been the buy-out, talks of expansion through the EEG group and, you know, increasing the workforce by 10s of 1000s. I mean, how much do all these big events affect your CX role? And is that ability to sort of be able to quickly react and respond a trait that you relate to also?

MANUELA PIFANI: I can’t get involved in and I don't get involved in everything that's going on across the organization. And yes, it is massive when you have hundreds of stores scattered across the country, it is very difficult. However, we increasingly inform a lot of decisions or big decisions upfront, whether it's about different operating standards and ways of working within the stores; whether it's new product propositions to land in the stores; whether it's the campaigns and the advertising elements that we run on an ongoing basis; or simply improvements to the online or in store customer experience. So we actively feed customer insights and customer experience analysis and recommendations to the relevant parts of the business for them to then make the right decisions based on customer reality as well as the business need. So yes, it's a massive machine. And sometimes things can be changed fairly quickly, like in product propositions it is amazing how quickly those things can be changed across all our online and physical channels. But others take more time. So it depends obviously, on what we are talking about.

MYCUSTOMER: Just just a wrap up, we're going to ask all of our podcast guests to provide one piece of advice for fellow CX professionals, CX leaders, but what would be yours based on the sort of years of experience that you've had in your time with the different organizations you've worked with?

MANUELA PIFANI: So the biggest piece of advice would be - be prepared to challenge executive decisions based on customer insight. Because very often, we find that what we hear from customers is not quite in line with the decisions that the business takes very often from a perceived profit generation perspective, obviously, but if those are not the right decision for customers, then those profits will never come. So it's very important, therefore, to be prepared to challenge and stick the neck above the water to call things out, constructively and politely, but really to make people aware of potentially different aspects that should not be taken into consideration before. And I've seen that that's a very powerful thing to do first, and one of the key roles probably for the CX leaders in an organization.

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