Improving the Employee Experience

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“I was trying to spend a few thousand dollars and no one would talk to me,” recalled my neighbor Sherrie about a recent Home Depot visit. She went on to explain that her only option for information in the vast appliance section came in the form of a touch screen kiosk. There were no employees in sight. “I went to understand the different refrigerators options, but I first need to use a computer? When I finally flagged down an employee, they couldn’t answer any questions,” she said of her experience.

While retailers such as Home Depot seek to understand how technology can improve the customer experience in their physical stores, consumers are struggling to see any benefit. Technology solutions are applied to problems that customers don’t have and often conflict with the purpose of a customer’s in-store visit. There is, however, an opportunity to improve the customer experience by focusing on an often ignored segment: employees.

A technically enabled and informed employee is often at the center of a great customer experience.  It’s one reason why we covet the Apple retail store. At Apple there isn’t a single large technology play but rather a series of relevant moments orchestrated by the staff. Apple employees begin the script by asking a customer “What would you like you to do today?” As pointed out by Apple blogger, Tim Barajin, this is an empowering twist on the classic retail greeting of “How may I help you?”

Apple associates then proceed to direct customers to relevant products, help process payments or transition them to the Genius bar. Another recent example is eyewear disruptor Warby Parker’s, use of physical locations and staff to promote a business model initially rooted in online convenience. Warby Parker is also replacing robot-answering services with, get this, people who answer the phones at their call center.

Technology rooted companies, like Apple and Warby Parker, see employees (along with great products) as a pillar of their retail service design. Traditional retailers however, in a race to embrace technical automation often neglect the employee. This is often at the expense of customers like Sherrie. For some, there’s still time to realign a retail strategy.

Here are some things to consider if you’re looking to improve the customer experience by way of your employees:

Employee Discovery: Learning about customers is important but spending time interviewing and shadowing store level employees can spark some great ideas. This is where your team will get details about customer problems and behaviors along with employee workarounds or “hacks” that speed up tasks.

Concept Solutions and Launch Support: At a minimum, take a two week sprint to concept, create user experience (UX) prototypes and test ideas specifically aimed to make employees more knowledgeable in their role. Even if the ideas don’t initially make it to production, the fact that your team listened to employees and tried to solve their problems will pay off when building launch support.

Feedback Loops and a Learning Culture:User Experience prototypes also help promote the concept of a learning organization. While your team will facilitate and explain the benefits during the initial project, in the long term these feedback loops can channel employee suggestions. Who knows, shining a light on a “hack” that helps one employee save twenty minutes a day can potentially save millions of dollars if scaled to other locations.

Retail executives have an impulse and often a ticking clock to innovate. These decision makers should consider looking internally in order to make a significant impact. Helping build a culture centered around employee contribution and empowerment will not only improve the customer experience but can transform the organization.

Designing Invisible Technology

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252Getting someone’s undivided attention has become a rare luxury, unfortunately. Phones are present at the dinner table, while colleagues tap at laptops during meetings. It seems wherever digital technology exists, it holds the potential to hijack attention, diverting focus away from what matters. Even technology created to enhance specific experiences can serve to distract and interrupt exactly what is was designed to improve.

This thought stuck with me as our team worked with real estate developer World-Wide Group (WWG) to create digital tools for the demo unit of their high-end luxury apartment building in Midtown East. At first, using technology to help sellers communicate the features and feel of their apartments with buyers seemed like a contradiction. Though many new high-end luxury apartment buildings in New York City are implementing cutting edge display technology in their sales spaces, their reliance on digital technology can have the unintended effect of diverting the seller’s attention away from the buyer, creating an undesirable break, while trying to build an interpersonal relationship. Additionally, having too much visible gadgetry can make a apartment unit feel less like a home, and more like a technology demo, preventing the buyer from imagining their life as it would be lived in the space. The technology often employed in similar sales scenarios requires time and focus to wield, and while it sometimes integrates impressive tools, it’s hard not to question whether or not it actually boosts sales or improves buyers’ experiences. In a recent New York Times article, “Selling Condos with a Tap and a Swipe,” author Robin Finn describes one of these tech-bedecked sales spaces as being “dominated by a technological tool known simply as the Table, which resembles an 84-inch iPad on steroids.” This was exactly the impact we didn’t want to have. From this, came the exciting challenge for our project: How do we use technology to help form human connections instead of impede them?

One basic solution could have been to have an iPad that would control content on digital screens or a large touch table or display. However, having as much content as WWG had to navigate would become distracting for the seller. When acting out this interaction, we saw that it created disconnection in the same way an engaging conversation with a friends is killed when they take out their phone. This disruptive action was not going to engender the comfort and warmth sellers want their buyers to experience.

Reflecting on the advantages and disadvantages of both digital and physical solutions, and how each of these tools would impact a seller’s ability to connect with buyers and communicate a feeling of home, we landed on solution that was a blend of the two: a system that combines the warm familiarity of physical objects with the the wealth of potential uses offered by digital displays.

Our solution embedded technology where it naturally existed in the apartments.

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By making the technology disappear, we preserved the space’s primary value, as a place potential buyers could envision as their future home. Our only evident technology was visible in the television screens installed where a homeowner would have them– one in front of the couch in the living room and one in front of a couch in the den. We then created the system to control the content on those screens in the form of letter pressed paper cards that have RFID tags hidden within them (RFID is the same technology used in tapable key cards often used in office buildings, hotels or transit cards) and small custom made boxes with RFID readers within them that fit seamlessly with the other items on the coffee tables. These cards and readers were strategically placed throughout the demo apartment, so that a seller could trigger content and experiences when appropriate, helping the sellers explain the building and the space while not distracting from it. For example, when a sales associate walking a buyer through the space wants to provide details about a specific unit, they can simply place one of the letter pressed paper cards on top of custom made RFID reader box, in one singular motion, and the floor plan for that specific unit will be displayed on the television.

This same card system is used to trigger many interactions throughout the space. In a separate sales room, a seller can place a paper card representing any of the available units onto a reader and the closest television screen will display the floor plan and high-definition photographs of the unit’s views, dim the lights in the room, and rotate a 12 foot tall model of the building to display the side of the building that the unit will be on, and illuminate the specific unit from within, allowing the buyer to visualize the space they are interested in buying, all without ever using a touch screen.

In this highly competitive sales space with apartments selling from $5-$50 million dollars, getting this interaction right can make a big difference in sealing a deal. The problem World Wide Group asked us to solve is not unique to the real estate sphere. Technology has been embraced so enthusiastically, its advances celebrated so widely, that few pause to question whether the solutions being implemented aren’t just cool, but are truly achieving our end goals. By embedding technology through spaces and limiting its visibility to where it’s natural and beneficial, we harness the tremendous power it affords, while ensuring focus stays on human connections, and on completing sales.

NYC Tech Talent Pipeline Funnels Thru Control Group

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learning to hackAs a 14 year old tech company that was born and raised in New York City (making us OGs), supporting and nurturing the NYC tech community is a core value for our company. From working with LaunchLM to grow the innovation community in Lower Manhattan, to hosting hackathons and meetups, to establishing a city-wide Women in Tech initiative, to co-founding a school for future makers and mentoring the Stuyvesant High School robotics team, to volunteering at Per Scholas to help prepare students for a career in tech, we understand that building a strong pipeline of talent with the right combination of skills is key to the future success of all businesses in NYC.

As such, today, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the industry partners who are committed to strengthening New York City’s tech workforce through the Tech Talent Pipeline initiative, a $10 million public-private partnership designed to support the growth of the City’s tech ecosystem and prepare New Yorkers for 21st century jobs. Control Group, among industry cohorts like Google, AppNexus, Stack Exchange, Facebook, and Microsoft, have pledged funding and on-going support of tech education, training, and job opportunities for New Yorkers.

For our part, we’re working with StackOverflow, Trello, Kickstarter, Foursquare, and Tumblr to build and teach a new curriculum of programmer “soft skills” to graduates of public computer science programs – starting with the CUNY system – which will better equip them as professional developers. Since we’re a company that thrives on sharing knowledge, we look forward to sharing our perspectives and best practices with a new set of future colleagues.

CG Coffee Bot (updated 2.2.15)

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coffee mugNobody likes walking all the way to the office kitchen to find out that the coffee is old or, even worse, that no coffee is left. This is especially true right before a meeting when there is no time to make more. No one should have to sit through a late-day meeting without a high octane pick-me-up. Thus the idea of the CG Coffee Bot was born.

Brainstorming for this project landed on this very simple premise: with only three numbers we could tell you in real-time whether the trip across the office for your caffeine fix will be worth it. All we needed was the weight of an empty carafe, the weight of a full cup of coffee, and the current weight of the carafe.

coffee scaleUsing a USB postage scale, a coffee carafe, and a Raspberry Pi we got down to business. We started off by weighing the empty carafe and figuring out the weight of a full cup of coffee (by weighing a full mug and then subtracting the weight of the empty mug). We then used those numbers to calculate how many cups of coffee were held within the carafe at any given time, based on whatever the current weight was.

Although the application was reading the current weight (which gave us the current cups of coffee left) two times per second, we realized that we had to correct for the “jumping weight” that might occur when someone was pumping the carafe, taking it off to refill it, or even just bumped into it. So the system now waits until we see multiple identical weights in a row and then it emits what we call a “stable read” event.

IMG_2553IMG_2556Additionally, we wanted to make sure users could tell how fresh (or old) the coffee in the carafe was. Whenever the scale detected a weight less than that of an empty carafe (because it was removed), the timer would be reset as soon as the full carafe was detected again.

Using all this info, the CG Coffee Bot now updates its fans via website and Twitter whenever the current cup count changes, and also lets them know how fresh it is: “There are ___ cups left, it was brewed ___ minutes ago.” For the real coffee enthusiasts, there is even an email list you can subscribe to that will alert you as to when fresh coffee was brewed. For hardcore developers, we also have a dedicated Slack channel for coffee updates.

CG Coffee Bot has created quite the buzz around the office. We currently have two different user interface designs, and we’ve received a ton of new feature requests. A few features we’re working on now include asking for volunteers to make more coffee, taking a picture of the last person to brew a fresh pot, visualizing historical consumption data, and putting a physical display next to the coffee machine. If only we could add a feature that makes sure the person who took the last cup doesn’t leave the kitchen without making more coffee!

Interested in making your own office Coffee Bot? The open source code as well as more details about the backend development will be on Github soon!

Control Group Adds Two New Partners to Executive Team

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We are excited to announce that Amanda O’Donnell and Max Oglesbee have been promoted to Partners at Control Group.

Amanda O’Donnell has been with Control Group since it was founded in 2001 and has played a key role in helping us grow from a 3-person startup to the 120+ person company we are today. As Chief Financial Officer, Amanda is responsible for financial planning and oversight and continues to be instrumental in the growth and success of the firm. She is a passionate advocate who has helped expand our thinking around talent- leading Control Group’s internal Women in Tech group and establishing our Women in Tech NYC partnership with NY Tech Meetup. As Control Group takes larger strides in enhancing the physical and digital world around us, such as LinkNYC, Amanda’s financial sophistication, creativity and leadership will fuel our ambitions.

Max Oglesbee joined Control Group in 2007 to establish our Account Management group. Since that time he has nurtured and shaped our Client Strategy practice, enabling the extraordinary work that we do. As the head of our Client Strategy team, Max has the unique ability to translate client needs into the best strategy and teams to achieve transformative results. Establishing and leading relationships with clients such as Verizon, Walmart and Gagosian Gallery, Max has helped these brands push the boundaries of what’s possible. As a Partner, Max will build on this success and continue to grow our strength in domains such as retail and real estate, while expanding the reach and expertise of our Client Strategy team.

What’s exciting about this news is that it celebrates what truly makes Control Group great– our amazing colleagues. I am continuously in awe of the passion and dedication that people here bring to the shared accomplishment of helping our clients create things that change the world around us. Today we’re recognizing two leaders who have made, and will make, Control Group a more incredible place to make great work. We wish both Amanda and Max all the best in their new roles!

RFID: From Stockroom to Showroom

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At last week’s NRF Big Show 2015 there was a great deal of excitement around in-store customer interactions. Leading that charge was RFID (Radio Frequency Identification), which is enjoying a resurgence as the technology of note for enabling physical in-store interactions. After the past year’s wave of interest surrounding Bluetooth, Wi-Fi geo-fencing, Kinect-based tracking, video tracking and others, the spotlight is now returning to RFID as a reliable and low-cost trigger for customer experiences.

RFID is one of the most mature technologies of those mentioned above and has enjoyed early adoption in other segments of the retail world. Back in the 2000’s, RFID was put into service to add efficiency to the supply chain but little advantage could be recognized as products made their way through the global Just in Time supply chain. With some big retail players betting big on RFID, it brought the technology to the forefront even though its utility was to be found in the background. These big bets created a marketplace that hinted at super low pricing for RFID tags, but still represented a heavy investment for retailers.

Over the years the utility of RFID moved from the supply chain to the inventory shelves, where nimble omni-channel retailers are now leveraging RFID’s capabilities to have real-time, stock-level knowledge that allows them to fulfill products from any channel to any customer, anywhere. This real-time inventory visibility has turned into a competitive advantage for brands and retailers who want to close the sale no matter where it originates. Wholesalers are requesting that brands integrate RFID tagging into their production process to aid in this inventory cycle. With RFID already built into products, how could this technology be leveraged beyond the stock shelves?

You won’t gain a competitive advantage just from using RFID for inventory accuracy, out-of-stocks, locating product and loss detection. It’s what you do above and beyond that, the secondary use cases, that will really benefit retailers.” says Bill Hardgrave, RFID expert and Dean of the Harbert College of Business at Auburn University.

Welcome to the age of RFID-enabled customer interactions! Brands are more likely to invest in selling-floor interactions and since they are already ingestingUGG_Australia_shoe_detail the cost of adding RFID to products per wholesaler directives, they might as well leverage it for improved customer experiences. The advantage to RFID-triggered interactions is that, for the most part, there is no need for an app, mobile device or other pre-assumed customer technology in order to create a useful experience. RFID readers can be subtly installed into retail environments with little to no visual impact and can then serve to trigger various environmental responses.

These sensing systems can be customized to take advantage of consumer’s natural retail behaviors. For example, with our UGG Australia Magic Carpet system, we noticed that the first thing customers do when they try on shoes is walk back and forth in the store to see how they feel. Taking advantage of this behavior, we placed RFID sensors on the floor to pick up the UPC of the footwear that the customer is wearing. Nearby digital signage reacts to that read with relevant and contextual information. Hidden RFID means the customer doesn’t even have to tap or swipe. This non-conscious interface is smoothing the path to purchase in front of the shopper without any perceived ‘interfacing’ or effort on the shopper’s part.

The future is bright for RFID as it continues to find its way from the backroom to the showroom and back again. In addition to using RFID for real-timeUGG_Australia_main_screen (1) inventory awareness, it can supply the contextual and product interaction awareness that serves as fuel for better customer experiences and shopper insight data, like: Which items did they pick up in-store? Which display models did they hold for an extended period of time? Which products did they try on? Or having the digital displays default to a shoppers favorite color.  An example of this contextual experience exists with the UGG Australia Magic Carpet, which not only surfaces information about the shoe a customer is wearing, but also leverages their e-commerce backend to serve up “endless aisle” product variations and related products.

Beyond simply using it as a trigger, RFID movement tracking over time is an exhaust data component that can produce incredibly valuable shopper marketing insights. RFID vendor Impinj demonstrated the xArray Gateway – grid scanning antenna that can track the movements of multiple products as they move around the retail ecosystem. These antennas can track product movement on the selling floor as shoppers pick up the item, move the item to try it on and checkout through the entire purchase process. These movement metrics can serve as valuable insights into product sale “moments of truth” and could be combined with (opt-in) BLE-based customer identity information to create a more complete picture of the shopper’s behavior in-store.

We like to think that innovation doesn’t need to come from invention. Using technology and tools that already exist in new ways can be game-changers in their own right. And it looks like RFID has entered its renaissance.