Today, we’re doing something a little different; The Chief Customer Officer Human Duct Tape Show is in both video and audio form. I think you’re really going to enjoy this conversation between myself and Ben Steele, Executive Vice President, and Chief Customer Officer at REI. So please do listen to the full interview!
I really admire REI as a brand; I actually featured them in my latest book, Would You Do That to Your Mother? REI is a company that is extremely value-driven, focusing on the needs and interests of its customers. REI is an 80-year-old passion-based business; it’s a co-op with members, rather than shareholders.
As Chief Customer Officer, Ben says he wants to tell the story of this unique company whose members truly love and support it. With the desire to tell this story and further connect with its audience, Ben and his team realized they needed to focus on the customer in a way that would unite the teams across the organization.
Solve Problems for Your Customer
Recognizing the brand’s special DNA, Ben and his team wanted to tell the story that “a life outdoors is a life well-lived.” To REI, this means, fighting for access to the outdoors and fighting against those things that stand in the way.
Ben says he and his team realized they needed to solve problems for their customer. He tells us that they intentionally had to think through the problems that customers face, not necessarily REI. For instance, Ben shares the following example, “what problem are we solving for a 24-year old person living in New York City who didn’t grow up around the outdoors?” To Ben and his team, that meant thinking through: what is the outdoors to this person? What is the role of REI to them? With the research they found that supports the concept that time in the outdoors is a fundamental part of a healthy lifestyle, Ben wanted to know how can they help enable the access to build a relationship between this type of city-dweller person and the outdoors.
Deliberately Serving the MembersBen and I chat about REI’s clarity of purpose and the role it plays in allowing him and his team to be deliberate about what they will and will not do to grow. He shares that somewhere along the way, the REI logo lost the word “co-op,” so they added it back. It was like a part of the brand identity that they needed to reclaim and a visual reminder that REI serves the members.
At REI, they also created a moment that employees and members could rally around, called “Opt Outside.” Opt Outside manifested as a physical concept when REI closed its stores on Black Friday, encouraging people to spend time outdoors; it’s now an ongoing campaign of theirs. On Black Friday, instead of promoting items for sale on the company website, they encouraged people to choose where they’d like REI to donate money to support outdoor places. The company had half a million dollars they were willing to donate to 10 key places. Ben shares that in 32 hours, all of the money was donated.
Ben also explains that his team continuously spends time thinking about “what’s the right thing to do?” in terms of holiday promotions, how to tell their story, how to authentically connect with members and customers—and how to think about gender equity in the outdoors. He notes that they observed that the industry doesn’t look as welcoming to women as it does to men, so they launched an initiative called Force of Nature. This initiative was created to support REI’s commitment to hiring practices, career pathing, and understanding pay equity. They also think about gender equity when it comes to class and product offerings. For example, this would force them to think, do they have enough high-quality performance gear for women as they do for men?
Plan From the Customer’s Point of View
“I think for the people who have the deepest relationships with the co-op, it’s just that, it’s a relationship. It’s about shared sense of values, belief in the set of issues, understanding of the full sort of suite of benefits for membership,” says Ben about the concept of membership as a business model. To embed this philosophy, he and his team have started their planning process from the point of view of the customer.
REI has a travel business that takes people around the world, providing them with life-changing experiences at incredible outdoor spaces. The people who know about this program are incredibly loyal to it, but not enough people know about it. Ben shares that now, REI has a focus to make experiences a big part of what people know them for, the same way they’re known for their goods.
Additionally, with the focus of REI becoming a content and storytelling space, Ben and his team are working hard to use the digital world as a place for them to solve big problems. On REI’s site, you’ll find a section, Expert Advice, which serves as a free online information hub about all outdoor activities. Ben hopes that as more people find value in this section of the website, that REI can continue building their three concepts: content and community, retail, and experience. They’re spending more time thinking through what all of these concepts mean to the next generation of customers and how can they build a membership model that brings it all together in a way that’s beneficial.
What Do You Know Now That You Wish You Knew Then?
“The first one is undervaluing data and true insights because as a creative guy, it’s great when it can’t be measured and all you get to say is it feels right. I probably used that for too many years. I wish I’d had more of a background in understanding just the clarity that can come in looking at true measurable behaviors in the world.”
“I wish I knew how to listen better, how to truly understand how the customers feel, and how to find an answer. I always use the following example: A room full of taxi passengers wasn’t going to invent Uber, but if you listen to what they were telling you and how they felt about their relationship with that business, you might’ve been able to invent something that then became the fastest growing company in American history. That bias or almost that superiority relative to the customer, I wish earlier in my career I would’ve realized I was asking the wrong questions and probably listening to the wrong bias.”
About Ben SteelePrior to his current role at REI, Ben Steele was previously the company’s Chief Creative Officer. His role has been expanded to include that of executive vice president and the company’s first chief customer officer.
Ben leads REI’s marketing, stewardship, digital, and customer insights operations. Ben received his BA from University of Puget Sound, and has long been an outdoors enthusiast.