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How Sephora Builds Confidence into the Customer Experience

Executive Summary

With every customer comes different pain points and different needs. Could an integrative and tailored approach be just the thing you need to inspire a confidence that will bring your customers back?

  • In a world full of endless options, it’s customer confidence that closes the sale. To buy your product, a customer needs to feel confident in your expertise, and that the product they’re purchasing will fit their needs.
  • Customer service doesn’t have to be commonplace. Sephora established its success by utilizing a combination of technology, atmosphere, and expertise to obtain their customer’s confidence.
  • Focus on delivering a customer experience that empowers your customers if you want to win their confidence and boost your sales.

At the most high-profile speaking engagement of my career, I had the kind of confidence crisis most male speakers never have to worry about. I was in Las Vegas, and an hour before my presentation, I was led backstage to meet a makeup artist who’d been assigned to make all the speakers look fabulous for their big moment onstage.

As I sat in a chair, the artist began applying makeup, and I quickly realized there was no mirror for me to watch what was happening: we were in a windowless room with bare walls. I sat for forty-five minutes while she put on what felt like thousands of products. Normally, I don’t wear much makeup, and I became increasingly uncomfortable as my presentation time drew nearer. “What is she doing to me?” I thought.

When she finally finished, I stood up and walked over to a mirror on the other side of the room for the “reveal.” I didn’t recognize myself. There was more makeup on my face than I’d ever worn in my life. Bright red lipstick, thick black eyeliner . . . the look screamed “Las Vegas showgirl” instead of “competent business executive.” The next ten minutes were spent in a panic as I asked the makeup artist to scrape everything off my face before I walked onstage. I was rattled by the experience.

Instead of bolstering my confidence, the makeover had shaken it. I thought to myself, “I bet this never happens at Sephora.” Why did Sephora come to mind in that moment? Because feeling confident with beauty products is something I associate with that brand. I’m not alone. Owned by French luxury group LVMH, Sephora has more than twenty-five hundred stores in thirty-four countries and is the number one specialty beauty retailer in the world. It got there by building customer confidence in both the products it sells and the experience it delivers.

BEST PRACTICES TO ESTABLISH CUSTOMER CONFIDENCE    

The entire beauty industry is built on selling confidence. My nightmare makeover in Las Vegas could have been someone else’s dream look, but it sure wasn’t mine. How does any retailer drive customer confidence in an industry that’s so wildly subjective?

Sephora has the key, and its innovative strategies provide valuable insights for any brand. Because no matter what product or service you represent, confidence closes sales.

UTILIZE TECHNOLOGY TO COMPLEMENT EXPERTISE

Sephora sales associates—the company calls them beauty advisors—help customers feel confident about their product choices through a blend of technology and “analog” customer experiences. “Our stores are a stage, and our beauty advisors provide performance and real interaction with our clients, not just transactions,” says Mary Beth Laughton, Sephora executive vice president of Omni retail for the US market. “We use technology to complement the beauty advisors’ expertise . . . and to make them even more powerful.”

Sephora stores carry more than two hundred brands, and beauty advisors must cater to the full spectrum of customer needs, from self-service product replenishment (“I’m out of my favorite lipstick and need a new one”) to beauty transformations (“I’m ready for a whole new look”) to playful experimentation (“I want to try one of those glowing highlighters”). They do it using tools the company has built to help with different customer paths. These tools help beauty advisors curate the brand’s vast number of products in a way that makes customers feel more certain they’re buying the right ones for their needs.

PAY ATTENTION TO CUSTOMER PAIN POINTS

Every industry has customer pain points, and in beauty, one issue rises above the rest: finding products that perfectly match someone’s skin tone. This is especially difficult with foundation, the product serving as the makeup “base,” which is applied to the face before anything else. The number of choices is overwhelming: Sephora alone offers more than 130 different foundation collections and 3,000 different shades. Women can tell you that it’s easy to buy the wrong shade of foundation because it might look great under a store’s fluorescent lights, but terrible under different lighting.

To solve this pain point and help customers feel confident about their choice, Sephora partnered with Pantone, the company best known for its color-matching system, to create a tool called Color iQ. Here’s how it works: a Sephora beauty advisor holds up a handheld device, about the size of a phone, to a customer’s face, capturing several different images of her skin. Once the images are captured, the digital tool assigns the customer a Color iQ number. Armed with her personalized Color iQ number, the customer can identify all the products that will match her skin tone across every brand Sephora carries. The technology has taken the concept of product curation to a whole new level and has been expanded to include additional product categories such as skincare and even fragrance.

HELP CUSTOMERS VISUALIZE THE END RESULT

Another area of the business that’s designed to drive customer confidence is the beauty makeover, a staple of the industry. Nobody wants a customer to walk away unhappy from a makeover, as I did in Las Vegas, because if she doesn’t feel great about the way she looks, there’s little chance she’ll buy the products that were used on her.

To increase customers’ confidence, Sephora created an augmented reality tool called Sephora Virtual Artist, which lets customers see photos of themselves “wearing” different makeup looks and products. Beauty advisors use this tool to allow customers to choose their favorite look before the makeover begins.

“It helps Beauty Advisors talk to clients about what they’re aiming for in advance,” says Laughton. “There’s this meeting of the minds . . . and it increases the client’s confidence.” This tool is also available directly to consumers through the Sephora website and app, allowing people to “try on” different looks and makeup colors at home, with augmented reality.

CLOSE SALES BY COLLECTING DATA

Sephora also has transformed the classic makeover experience into an opportunity to collect customer data. Beauty advisors scan information on the products applied during a makeover, and at the end of the session they send that information to the customer so she can buy the products and replicate the look. In this way and many others, Sephora is using technology to drive customer confidence in what was once the most analog of businesses.

IDENTIFY THE NEED BEFORE THE MEANS

The company operates an innovation lab in San Francisco and is constantly testing new strategies. When I ask Laughton about what lies ahead for the company’s digital strategy, she tells me there is no digital strategy: there is only a customer strategy.

“We start with the customer need,” says Laughton. “We don’t start with technology. We’ll look at the need and ask, is there a role that technology or innovation can play to address this? For example, we don’t have an AI [artificial intelligence] strategy. We have experiences that we’re designing to meet consumer needs that may happen to use AI technology. That’s the way we’ve got to think about it. We’re really careful that we’re not adding technology for the sake of introducing something new and shiny.”

Excerpted with permission from Winning Her Business: How to Transform the Customer Experience for the World’s Most Powerful Consumer by Bridget Brennan, copyright Bridget Brennan.

Bring It Home

A few days ago, I called my bank to ask about an account. Not only did the customer service representative not have the technology she needed to find my account, but she never took the time to understand my needs. Instead of feeling like a valued customer, I hung up feeling like I’d been a number in a queue—just one more call for her to get through. Needless to say, that experience did not inspire this customer’s confidence. Sound familiar?

How can you improve your customers’ confidence? What are they telling you that they need? Comment below with one way you’ve been able to inspire a confidence that closes sales by simply focusing on providing a great customer experience.

Bridget Brennan author of the book  Winning Her  Business

Bridget Brennan

Bridget Brennan is the CEO of Female Factor, the world’s top consultancy firm on marketing and selling to women, and the leading professional speaker on the subject of women consumers. She is also the author of the book Why She Buys: The New Strategy for Reaching the World’s Most Powerful Consumers (Crown Business, 2011).

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