Delving intu the customer experience

intu is using ongoing customer surveying to shape the way the shopping centre group delivers service

When Capital Centres Shopping Group, with a portfolio of shopping centres stretching from Braehead in Glasgow to The Cribbs Causeway in Bristol, rebranded as Intu Properties in February 2013, it was determined that the initiative should reflect more than a name change.

As well as providing each shopping centre with a unified identity, intu, the property company embarked on a £25 million investment programme in its teams and digital infrastructure to ensure that its 400 million customers a year received a unique service experience.

‘In the old world, running shopping centres meant providing a clean, safe and secure environment. Customers [and retailers] wanted to see the presence of security guards,’ explains Roger Binks, customer experience director at intu. ‘The intu brand was created for the simple reason that customers were telling us that they wanted a number of things from us, as a shopping centre owner, such as better services, better shops and better leisure facilities. They wanted a house of brands, rather than a branded house.’

The company embarked on ‘customer stalking, with their approval’, following ‘a couple of dozen shoppers’ as they moved around the centres, watching how they planned their journeys and finding out along the way what aspects were important, and which less so. The fabric of the centres was an issue that proved important, leading to an upgrade and extension of seating facilities. They wanted free wifi, which the company installed at a cost of £8 million.

‘One of our tenets then became to create one of the most digitally connected shopping centres,’ explains Binks. ‘We are now adding mobile phone charging and a few other things will be coming later this year.’ A panel of 50 mystery shoppers fed their views back through a closed ‘pseudo Facebook site’, says Binks. ‘They uploaded photos and videos, warts and all.’

Service emerged as an issue that customers felt passionate about, leading intu to create ‘a world class training programme’, says Binks. It involved all staff, not just those manning traditional customer service desks, but also cleaners and security guards. Each had to complete a series of modules and training programmes designed to educate them in how to treat each customer as a guest. ‘We wanted to make our customers feel happy that we were listening to them,’ he adds. More than 1,800 staff were trained in ‘world class service’ in the three months before the the intu brand was launched. ‘It was not The brand’s up, so we’re done. This was very much an embryonic programme, which will continue to develop. We want to ensure that our customer experience is the best it possibly can be.’

The centres launched ‘Moments of surprise and delight’, an initiative that provided opportunities for staff to engage with customers.

Different projects were trialled at various centres to assess which ones resonated with customers. The most successful proved to be intugrams, golden envelopes containing vouchers for free services, such as car washes, or products, such as a cup of coffee, which staff could hand out at will; joy jars, containing toys to keep toddlers amused on the shopping trip; and free ponchos when it rained.

‘Moments of surprise and delight’ also extended into a range of customer events, such as the Elephant Parade which saw more than 100 elephant sculptures visit the centres while on a 375 day tour of the UK. The national tour kicked off with more than two dozen elephants at intu Watford.

As part of its aim to constantly develop customer service, intu embarked on an ongoing customer insight programme Tell intu. In March 2014, in a first for its industry, the company launched a customer satisfaction tracker, using net promoter scores. The first thing customers are asked is how likely they are to recommend the centre to other customers, but the bespoke system also asks customers about all aspects of their experience. ‘We produce a net promoter score for every single centre, and we benchmark across our centres and across our industry,’ says Binks. ‘The system has been designed and built for us.’

There are several ways for customers to participate, including paper questionnaires and online surveys. Dozens of customers are approached every day in each centre for feedback by staff. There are iPads in each centre to register feedback, and the hashtag #tellintu allows shoppers to provide insight over social media. There is also a small feedback icon on the homepage of intu.co.uk, the company’s new transactional, fashion focused site that curates a range of products from each of its retailers.

‘The main survey is qualitative,’ says Binks. ‘Customers are asked How could we have improved your visit?, but then there are sections I want to complain and I have an idea. Complaints are just as useful as positive feedback.

‘We serve nearly 400 million customers a year, so some of the responses are bound to be awkward. We have nearly a year’s worth of data now, and that quantitative data is being used now. But we also have some qualitative data, which are comments about personal experiences, and we look at that and benchmark issues like car parks, loos or selection ` of shops.’

The responses provide real-time insight into what is working and what isn’t working in centres, allowing intu to shape its plans, such as marketing campaigns or customer facilities, accordingly. Feedback about parent and baby toilets, for example, informed the company’s design for new ones, while feedback from a trial of free mobile phone chargers in four centres during November and December last year proved overwhelmingly positive, encouraging a nationwide roll out.

The feedback also indicated that customers carried on shopping or relaxed with a coffee while their phones charged, which added to the all-important dwell times for retailers and restaurants within the centres.

Tell intu also provides staff with the opportunity to deal with issues immediately if required. From a net promoter score of 46 when the scheme launched in March 2014, the score increased by 30 per cent to 60 within nine months.

But the Tell intu programme, as it stood, didn’t offer ‘the why’, so that aspect has now been addressed with the launch of a closed online community whose members will be encouraged to share and comment on their experiences in more depth.

‘We really needed more in-depth qualitative data, so we have created what we call ‘intu Shopper View’. It is an online digital community, featuring 50 shoppers from each centre, who are picked from our database and with the help of our research agency Join the Dots. We have tried to pick a cross section of customers,’ says Binks.

‘The demographics of each of our centres vary – there may be a slightly more affluent community in one centre versus another, for example – so we have picked representative samples to suit each centre.’

Binks and his team are currently ‘warming up the community, and taking them through a number of tasks’, he says. ‘This is exactly the same as an old world focus group, but it is online. We are setting them tasks, such as asking them to visit their local centre and buy a gift card. Then we ask them what was it like? We want them to tell us about their parking experiences, what the seating is like in their local centre, what they think of the events we run, what they think of the stores in our centres, and the service they receive.’

He adds: ‘We asked them about Christmas, and what role do our centres play and what they would like to see? They said that the role of shopping centres was to make it easier for them, which means reducing queues, and not clogging the place with experiential events. They only wanted to get to the shops. It is very exciting. The reality is that we can, through Tell intu, place the customer at the heart of everything we do.’

The new online community ‘puts the customer at the boardroom table’, says Binks. ‘It gives them an equal voice, and is bang on what intu is all about. We have proven through Tell intu that happier customers stay with us longer, and happier customers spend more money in the centres. If they are with us for longer, then that also impacts the retailers in our centres. From a brand point of view, the question is now how to keep our customers happy to enable that to happen. What activities do we do? It is like a scientific experiment.’

The members of the online community will not be paid for their services, ‘although we are looking at that issue through the warm up questions,’ says Binks. ‘We may incentivise them, by offering a prize draw each month. But we have to be careful. This is a research project. It is not about incentivising people to take part.’

The programme is only in its initial stages but already some interesting feedback has emerged. ‘One lady regularly used one of our larger centres, nipping in for a quick visit in her lunch hour. She is now coming to the end of her pregnancy, and is pacing up and down the centre to keep active. She is now interested in the number of parent and child spaces available, and also has asked if we can influence our stores to stock more maternity ranges as she is struggling to find stuff,’ says Binks. ‘Women with children are among the most frequent users of our centres. They want somewhere clean, safe and secure. This is all good insight.’