A Conversation with Customer Insights Strategist, Sarah Daniels of Kohl’s


“What does that mean? What do I do with that?” was what Sarah Daniels, Customer Insights Strategist at Kohl’s heard about the company’s new purpose: “To inspire and empower families to live fulfilled lives.”

That’s not the type of traditional, bottom-line oriented purpose you might expect from a 55-year old department store retailer. I recently sat down with Daniels to discuss the role of empathy and how Kohl’s evolves the way it utilizes empathy in their workplace.

Customer Insights Strategist, Sarah Daniels gathers game-changing qual data in the field

Customer Insights Strategist, Sarah Daniels gathers game-changing qual data in the field


Build Empathy to Breathe Life into Company Purpose


This new ‘customer first’ approach was part of the adoption of their Greatness Agenda that began in 2014. “Before that, we were this traditional big retailer that’s done things the way we’ve always done things. Focused on sales and market share, do better than the year before, without a customer-focused strategy to drive that,” Daniels acknowledges. “We’re using empathy to drive really customer-focused strategy and shifting the way we think about the word strategy.”

“Our strategy is to drive traffic and sales. It’s difficult to take people out of that. But traffic and sales growth is not a strategy, that’s an outcome. How do we do that? How do we connect with our customers to get them to come to Kohl’s? That’s a definite shift for us and we’re still trying to do it and it’s difficult,” Daniels admits.

To help bring the customer perspective in line with the company’s purpose, Daniels and the Customer Insights team used qualitative research to explore the question of what ‘family’ means and what it means to live a ‘fulfilled life.’

“We got a lot of really rich, emotional language that we brought back. At internal road shows we presented the purpose through the eyes of the customer to the entire company. Now that gets shared with all new hires at corporate. From the moment they arrive, they feel really grounded in who the customer is and why the purpose is important. We’re working with Field HR to figure out how to onboard new store associates as well. It’s important to bring them in too. They are the face of Kohl’s.”

A nearly 10-year veteran of Kohl’s, Sarah Daniels joined the company after receiving her graduate degree in social psychology. “I’m thankful to end up in a spot where I get to use all of what I learned and apply it to my work every day.”

Daniels says Kohl’s views their Greatness Agenda as a long-term journey, not just a 5-year plan. “It’s become the new Kohl’s Way. I’m really proud of that,” she says. “The way we talk about that, our purpose, our values, it inherently lends itself to be fertile ground for empathy.”

As Kohls aligns to their new purpose, more collaboration and cross-functional teamwork is required to address projects and key initiatives. However, the measures of success remain the same, that is, sales to plan, sales to YAGO, market share, and margin.

“The obvious business things, [that are] obviously extremely important to the success of the company, can feel cold and sterile,” Daniels observes. The solve that Kohl’s employs is an evaluation of customer engagement. “We want to be the most engaging retailer in America. What does that look like? When you think about your business, not just the money you are making but how customers feel about you, it helps you take a different approach.”

Human-centered metrics in a business environment? “That’s been tricky. It’s this idea of priority – as important as we think this is, the idea of empathy, at the end of the day we’re still expected to deliver to our shareholders what we predict and that drives the decisions.”


Build Empathy Across the Organization


While Kohl’s works to find the proper balance between their financial bottom line and their human-centric purpose, empathy building techniques are being deployed in other areas of the business. At Kohl’s, empathy is utilized not just with the customer but also with the associates who are the ‘front line’ and impact the customer the most.

To help build empathy with store associates, Kohl’s recently launched a Frontline Mission Program. Employees that don’t currently work at a store or call center are empowered to spend a specific amount of time in the store. During holiday 2016, participants could sign up for a 4-hour shift in a store. Assignments ranged from working the register to putting security tags onto inventory. “That really gives associates working here (at headquarters) a chance to see the successes and challenges with what we are directing our store associates to do.”

One of the key jobs in any store is working the register. “Being a corporate associate working the register, thinking about all the things that, at Kohl’s, we direct our associates to say to our customers so thinking about “Would you like to open a Kohl’s charge? What about a rewards card?” so all the things like that, as well as making sure they know to talk about exclusions and circle the receipt, all the things we push on our associates and make sure they get across to the customer – that’s a lot,” Daniels recognizes.

“Not only that,” she continues, “we are also asking them to be friendly with our customers and make a good connection with them.” This creates a decision to be made by the corporate team. “It forces us to think, within that 2 minute interaction, what’s the most important thing our POS associate needs to do. Is it really to circle the receipt and encourage signing up? Or is it really about ‘oh you picked these pajamas, they’re really cute, I think your daughter is going to love them!’ Where are we going to grow that deeper relationship with our customers and how can the store associates help to do that.”

cash register.jpg

Not every job that the associates take on is as customer facing as working the register but that doesn’t mean it’s not important to the success of Kohl’s. One of Sarah’s colleagues was tasked with putting security tags on a shipment of shoes that just arrived in the store. After 4 hours working in the store’s windowless basement, he came away with so much feeling for the store partners that complete that task in every store on a regular basis. “That person’s job seems tedious and not fun, but because of that person’s job, we have less theft in the store.” Daniels said the experience leads them to consider “how can we show appreciation for that associate and for every associate and the work they do – at all levels?”


Engage with Customers to Get Inspired and Co-Create


Kohl’s Market Intelligence team adopted an approach to their research where they bring cross-functional colleagues into the field. The engagement goes both ways. Colleagues sit in on research sessions and directly engage with participants. Meanwhile, participants get to add their voice to the development of new product lines.

Daniels stresses the importance of this human-centric approach. “We severely over-estimate the time and energy our customers put into and want to put into shopping. In reality, they want to be doing more meaningful things, spending time with the people they care about.”

“We’re trying to take the person out of the context of shopping. It’s less about that outcome and more about what’s going on in their life that’s generating a need or what’s going on in this whole retail industry that’s turning people away from one type of store or another. We’re thinking of our customers as human beings, not transactions.”

Sarah getting to know her customers

Sarah getting to know her customers

This empathy-building approach is apparent in the hallways at Kohl’s after a project. Often, when team members come back from a project, Daniels hears them talk about the customer by name. “Team members adopt customers they’ve met and become fiercely protective about them. They refer back to them in conversation. ‘Oh, Chad didn’t say that, that’s not what he wants from us.’ The fact that this happens, it speaks to the influence and the power of having those deep conversations with our customers.”

For example, customers were recently brought in to help Kohl’s build a private label maternity brand from the ground up. Daniels says “every step of the process was informed by insights.” Rather than using consumers to merely react and respond, they informed. “From identifying the customer target, developing product that meets an unmet need, to the brand name and marketing strategy, insights informed the decisions and we had customers with us along the journey.”

She attributes her colleagues’ newfound empathy for customers as “part of the reason why everything stuck so much.” One tip she offers is to focus the use of time in-between consumer sessions. “Make certain to make use of that time to debrief on what was learned, bringing it back to the objectives, and what the customer told you instead of letting the team check email.” This helped the team immediately identify and rally behind a customer-based need and satisfy that need.


Kohl’s a:glow maternity line

Kohl’s a:glow maternity line

a:glow, the new maternity line, was launched in March 2017 and initial results are positive. “It’s exceeding expectations,” Daniels says. Her team is now using a:glow as an insights case study for the entire company. “When we put our customer first and we make decisions based on insights, really great things can happen.”

Sarah expresses excitement that empathy now enters the larger conversation and gains traction both at work and culturally. She does have concern that ‘empathy’ will join the pantheon of once-hot buzzwords that gradually lose their luster through overuse and misconception. Words like ‘nimble’ and ‘agile’ come to mind. “Empathy shouldn’t be a buzzword. It’s common sense.”