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Express, Pilot share ‘remarkably similar’ path

NRF 2023: CEOs Tim Baxter and Shameek Konar on building superior customer experiences

It wouldn’t seem that fashion retailer Express Inc. and Pilot Company, a leading provider of fuel and the largest operator of travel centers in North America, would have that much in common.

And yet, when it comes to efforts to enhance customer and associate experience — especially with the use of tech — the companies’ CEOs can practically finish each other’s sentences. They even share humor on the priority of keeping bathrooms and fitting rooms clean.

At NRF 2023: Retail’s Big Show, Express Inc. CEO Tim Baxter and Pilot Company CEO Shameek Konar spoke about building superior customer experiences in a conversation moderated by David Wilkinson, EVP, president and GM – global retail for NCR Corporation.

NRF 2023

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“We sell fuel, and we sell food, and we sell merchandise, and everybody is selling that stuff,” Konar said. “So, the only way we can really compete is by creating a great experience for our customers.” In 2022, the company launched a $1 billion, three-year initiative to modernize and equip stores for the future of travel. It includes interior and exterior overhauls, new tech, redesigned store layouts, improved team member areas and electric charging stations.

But the customer experience, he said, really begins with the team member experience. “If our associates, our team members, are feeling good about where they work and feeling good about what they do, we automatically get a much better customer experience.”

The company’s “cycle of excellence,” Konar said, is that putting team experience first and guest experience second leads to financial results, “which allows you to continue funding the team experience.”

Baxter, meanwhile, noted his company’s “remarkably similar” priorities. Express has spent the last year focused on bringing the brand purpose to life through its associates. “We create confidence,” he said. “We inspire self-expression. And by really bringing that brand purpose to life, our associates understand that they truly have an impact on the customers’ lives that they serve. It begins with their experience, and that translates to the consumer experience, and ultimately that builds loyalty and allow us to reinvest.”

"If our associates, our team members, are feeling good about where they work and feeling good about what they do, we automatically get a much better customer experience."

Shameek Konar, Pilot Company

The two also align in their efforts to create personalized experiences and save their customers time through technology. With ecommerce, Baxter said, it’s been “crystal clear that personalization and time matter. They drive conversion.” But until recently, Express hadn’t applied those learnings to the in-store experience. There’s been added emphasis for customers to use the company app in-store, for example, aiding in navigation and personalization, and freeing up employees to help in other ways.

Pilot, meanwhile, has been slowly incorporating self-checkout, also freeing up employees to focus on guest experience, and it has migrated everything to the cloud to better use data.

As for the challenges the leaders face, both put consistency at the top of the list. Even if there have been 10 good experiences with a company, Konar said, “you have one bad experience, and you associate the name with the bad experience.” Pilot has begun working to improve its “brand-destroying stores,” or those with performance below the company’s various guest experience standards.

One element is simple interaction with the guest; the more that technology can be used to free up the associate’s time, the more a personal touch is possible. “People forgive a lot of things that happen to you in a store if somebody is just being nice to you,” he said.

They agreed on the importance of change management in adopting technology, and the challenges of switching from “what’s comfortable to something that’s better,” Konar said. Wilkinson asked the CEOs about being stuck in a “legacy trap,” or using incrementalism in technology rather than breaking free to launch new innovations.

Leaders tend to hang on to the way things have been done, Baxter said. “There’s that quote: ‘Change is good — you go first.’” Leaders can be very good at introducing technology, he said, “but not very good at saying, ‘Don’t do this anymore’ … or taking old tasks off the table.”

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