University of Arkansas

Walton College

The Sam M. Walton College of Business

Ep. 5 | Customer Centrism Starting with the Human with Larry Thomas

Larry Thomas
February 01, 2021

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Is focusing on the employee experience a precursor to focusing on the customer experience What are “need states”? What are some challenges to making a company more customer centric? Larry Thomas, managing director and North America lead of Accenture’s Customer Insight and Growth Practice sits down with host Andy Murray to discuss his answers and insights to these questions and more in Episode 5 of the “It’s a Customer’s World” podcast. Larry has a lot of experience in consumer goods and retail and spent several years working in strategy before his interest turned toward customer centrism. This interest led him to his current role and aligns with the trend toward customer centrism that put Accenture — his employer of about 20 years — on the map. Getting into more detail about what organizations should do to adopt this trend, Larry shares about the need to “start with the human,” the value of focusing on need states, and the challenges businesses face — especially with regard to data. 

Larry Thomas, managing director and North America lead of Accenture’s Customer Insight and Growth Practice sits down with host Andy Murray to discuss his answers and insights to these questions and more in Episode 5 of the “It’s a Customer’s World” podcast. 

Larry has a lot of experience in consumer goods and retail and spent several years working in strategy before his interest turned toward customer centrism. This interest led him to his current role and aligns with the trend toward customer centrism that put Accenture — his employer of about 20 years — on the map. Getting into more detail about what organizations should do to adopt this trend, Larry shares about the need to “start with the human,” the value of focusing on need states, and the challenges businesses face — especially with regard to data.

Continuing in the conversation, Andy and Larry turn to the topic of agility, and Larry describes the role and challenges of becoming agile, the related need for speed, and the role of creativity. He also explains the interconnection between customer experience and employee experience, before Andy shares questions for Larry from some Walton College students. Larry fields questions about data privacy, the new focus on meeting customer needs, the “decade of the home,” and Accenture’s practice of hiring college students. Finally, he offers advice to graduating college students to give them hope as they look to begin their careers.    


Episode Transcript:

Andy Murray: (00:05)

Hi, I'm Andy Murray. Welcome to It's a Customer's World podcast. Now more than ever, retailers and brands are accelerating their quest to be more customer-centric. But to be truly customer-centric, it requires both a shift in mindset and ways of working. Not just in marketing, but in all parts of the organization. In this podcast series, I'll be talking with practitioners, thought leaders, and scholars to hear their thoughts on what it takes to be a leader in today's customer-centric world.

Andy Murray: (00:42)

In this episode, I have with me Larry Thomas. Larry is the managing director and North America lead of Accenture's customer insight and growth practice, where he oversees the development and delivery of digital and marketing transformation services. During this episode, Larry and I discuss the insights he has gained about the customer experience, which include the importance of focusing on need states and data. He gives great advice on how organizations can transition toward customer centricity, and the role and challenges of becoming agile. Larry will also answer some questions from Walton College of Business students. Questions on data privacy, the ever-evolving needs of customers, and the new concept of Decade of the Home.

Andy Murray: (01:43)

Hi Larry. Thank you for coming, and welcome to It's a Customer's World.

Larry Thomas: (01:47)

Thank you Andy. Good to be here.

Andy Murray: (01:49)

Excellent. Well let me start by asking about your role and a bit on your personal and professional journey that's gotten to what you're doing now.

Larry Thomas: (01:59)

Well I'm part of Accenture's newest venture. We started off about 10 years ago trying to become a new version of an agency called Accenture Interactive. So I'm part of that team. We're now in year 10 of that organization, and I run our marketing consulting practice. So we advise CMOs and their colleagues and their team members on how to transform marketing organizations into a better version of themselves over time. I joined Accenture about 20 or so years ago, spent quite a bit of time in what we call strategies, helping our clients figure out how to grow, how to get more growth, how to expand, how to innovate. And then over time, became very intrigued by the idea of more customer-centric organization, the world of marketing, the world of sales, and how do you really help companies shift towards a more... Away from the product focus of the old days and to be more in line with customers' expected need. And I worked most of my career in consumer goods and retail.

Andy Murray: (02:54)

Yeah. That's the perfect sweet spot of what our whole customer-centric leadership initiative is about. When you think about customer experience and how it has come to the forefront of conversations at the exec level now more than ever, how is that trend, and I don't know if you would see it as a three or four or one year explosion in trend, but how has that affected what Accenture Interactive does and thinks about?

Larry Thomas: (03:21)

It really put us on the map in a big way, right? So we were always, from day one 10 years ago, about the experience. We defined ourselves as the experience agency, not as an expense agency. So it's really been core to us and our business to help our clients reimagine the experience. And we look at that, as much as the customer experience, as the recipient of the goods and service, but also anybody in between that. So it's the reseller experience in the B2B world, the employee experience, the experience for citizens and humans. So we look at experience as a combination of what you receive or experience as an individual, and the roles you play in your life, being either a parent, being a patient, being a consumer, or being a recommender to somebody else.

Larry Thomas: (04:06)

So we look at that as holistically part of our agenda. How do you redefine the experience of being a customer and being a lot more than that as an organization? So the world we're in now, where experiences really matter more than anything else, really is where we tend to feel like we're at home, or we're doing the right thing for our clients, helping them to get a more experience-based future.

Andy Murray: (04:28)

Well, that's really interesting, and I had not thought about the experience as a framework for all of those different potential stakeholders. Do you use the similar framework when you're designing for experience?

Larry Thomas: (04:41)

We do. We begin with the human. All of us, even the roles we play at work and at home, are ultimately all humans, right? So if I'm a buyer or a merchandiser at a retailer trying to buy products from a manufacturer, or I'm a salesperson in an AT&T store trying to sell a service plan or device, I'm also a human. So what I expect as a human from my experiences with other brands translates into what I do at my job. So we see this great equalizer of experiences happening set by brands like Amazon, like Apple, where the experience is seamless, and omnipresent. That translates into human lives. So we look at that as the same framework. And of course, different values are at stake if you're a consumer versus a patient. One's more around consumption, the other one's more around health. If you're a citizen, you look for other values like certainty and safety and security as opposed to immediate satisfaction through consumption and retail. But ultimately the framework is the same.

Andy Murray: (05:36)

Yeah. And one of the things that troubles me sometimes with customer experience is that customer, by definition, is a transaction. It's a word that describes a transactional event that's occurring. And yet when you say customer experience, really you're talking a human experience. And so I probably should de-emphasize the word customer, when you start saying customer experience because that's a transactional almost experience than actually a human experience, as you would describe it.

Larry Thomas: (06:05)

I think so. That's a good way to summarize it. I mean the customer, indeed, it's a very binary word, right? You're a customer or you're not a customer. And many companies focus on the customers they have, as opposed to those they don't have. And saying, "Why are they not a customer? Why are they not loyal to my brand? Why do they not care about my brand? Why they don't engage with my brand?" Is a more important question than trying to get those who consume to buy more, right? So we think expanding the lens to say, "Looking at all humans and their needs," allows you to find more customers, allows you to find more growth, that allows you to expand what you do to be more relevant to humans across all of their need states.

Larry Thomas: (06:43)

So we see companies like Johnson & Johnson taking a view where they're saying, "We're not focused per se on products, or services, or segments of consumers. But more around need states." A need state as a young mother to take care of your newborn child. The need state of a patient who needs a artificial limb, or needs a medical device to help them. That need state is what we're trying to get after, not just the one-time customer who comes in and buys or doesn't buy.

Andy Murray: (07:11)

When you start talking... You mentioned transforming organizations to be more customer-centric. What are some of the challenges? Because that can be a pretty daunting task by nature of how fluid and liquid, that covers so much breadth inside a company. So what do you run into most often in some of the challenges to transitioning to a more customer-centric leadership?

Larry Thomas: (07:32)

That's a great question. And I've gotten that question from a couple of our clients in the past few days. And so the things we see most commonly is, companies really don't know who the customer is. They see a transaction record, receipts, or they see somebody logging into a website and then there's a trail there of that person visiting the website. They don't really know the customer. They may know what they bought, when they bought it. They may know their interests. But they don't really know them as an individual. So the first big challenge is, how deeply do you understand, and deeply understand, the customer in all his or her facets? Which really is a data challenge, and also a mindset challenge.

Larry Thomas: (08:12)

The second big constraint is, like you pointed out before, the customers are not a one-time thing. There's a loyalty, there's relevance. So how do you think about the journey the customer goes through from evaluation, to consideration, to purchase, to post-purchase. How do you play a role in that life cycle from beginning to end, not just when the purchase is being made? The example I always give is: So a lot of retailers, like CVS, know who you are when you check out. You get a long receipt when you check out at CVS, and they know who you are. That's kind of late. You've already checked out. So how do I really understand the customer and their needs while ahead of the store being entered? So how do you think about the customer across all touchpoints, physical and digital, that you can engage in? That's a big challenge.

Larry Thomas: (08:58)

The third, I think, is, which I think is probably the biggest challenge of all, is many companies are still very product-focused. They take great pride in the product. The product, the service, the thing we sell, or the thing we're known for. And it's really that bit of a pushy kind. I'm pushing up products. I hope you buy them. If you don't buy them, I'll discount them or I'll put out a big ad to tell you, "You really should but this product." As opposed to really being built from the ground up as a customer organization. So many companies are trying to become customer organizations, but have a long heritage of being product and service focused, and that's many times overshadowing the ability to really be customer-centric.

Andy Murray: (09:36)

Yeah. Well said. I agree with that. I think the question I have about your second point, I think, was around getting to know the customer. With today's big data and customer data warehouses and such, and you look at that as the source for finding insights about the customer and really getting to know them, versus more traditional approaches perhaps of consumer research or observational research. How does that balance out in the mix in terms of where you actually find that information, this insight about individuals?

Larry Thomas: (10:08)

So what we've seen, Andy, over time is that what people say they're going to do, which is really part of panels of research, and what they actually do is very different. So while there's still value in consumer panels and research and validation, behaviors are more important than intent. And many of our clients are still in the mindset of, "Oh I asked the customer six months ago what they wanted. I built that thing for them. So why are they not using it? I have no idea. I really don't know what's going on." So the ability to really understand in real time, how are consumers behaving? How can I understand that behavior and adapt to it? Change my promotions, change my assortment, change my flavor profiles, change my pricing, in real-time becomes the key.

Larry Thomas: (10:56)

And how do I do that? With developed content, with the right campaigns, with the right activation, with the right partners, that's really becoming the battleground. So the ability to not only have the data around the consumer, so looking at a consumer holistically and having a data lake that has all that data inside of it, but also being able to activate upon that in real-time is the way to win. And companies who are founded upon the principle of customer centricity, like Warby Parker, other brands, that's for them a first nature, not a second nature. It's a first nature. Many of the legacy organizations are trying to build that muscle and are dealing with the complexity of the IT organization, a marketing organization, the sales organization, the finance team, the inability to spend money. So they tend to be putting Band Aids on solutions as opposed to trying to really reset themselves to a different future. So I think it's in part the inability to understand how real-time data matters more than historical data, or preference data. And the second part is the inability to make that happen given how complex companies have become.

Andy Murray: (12:00)

Yeah. Let's get to complexity here in a minute. But the thing about Warby Parker and other pure play brands, they have a real advantage in almost every touchpoint in the customer journey can be captured in data. Where you look at a physical retail store, that maybe is a more traditional model, they're missing a lot of the touchpoints that inform the customer journey and getting it into those data lakes is still a bit ways off.

Larry Thomas: (12:23)

No I agree. I think those companies that you mentioned have said publicly, "We're a data company. We're a data company first. And we use the data to optimize what we're going to sell, who we're going to sell to, and where we're going to sell from, either retail store, or digital." So those who have data mindset tend to really understand the consumer more holistically and are able to drive activation against that consumer need more quickly than the legacy organizations.

Andy Murray: (12:49)

What I'm seeing also from some of the conversations I've been having around customer centricity is that traditional brick and mortar retail, now with the online sales accelerated so much through what we've seen through COVID in particular, you're starting to get the pure play-ish type digital mindset pushed up against the more physical-based retail mindset. In those two worlds, you've got an agile world and a more hierarchical operational world that are coming together, and it does put some pressure on how you think about agile. And some companies are just, well they just roll out agile everywhere. Others are saying, "You know what? You got to still harmonize the agile technique and methods that are great for product development and iterative and test and learn, but also the Friday payroll bit of the operational side." And so are you running into those challenges somewhat? Because I think you did say, number three, the organizational frameworks for legacy makes it a bit harder to get to customer centricity.

Larry Thomas: (13:50)

Yeah. That's a big, big challenge, right? So many companies that we've come to love and admire over the past decades were built for the economy to scale. They were built for economy to scale, the public companies, quarterly earnings. If there's anything that goes off the rails, the stock market throws up their hands in disarray. So they're built for this machine of predictability and scale. Other companies don't have that problem, right? So they're able to be a bit more focused on doing it the right way. Having said that, so many companies that we're talking to now, it's not per se about just agile and getting to be more responsive. It's about speed. We believe the currency, powered by digital, powered by data, is speed. The ability to predict, and if not predict then reacting to, market developments rapidly, is becoming the way to win.

Larry Thomas: (14:41)

And the challenge companies have is, "How do I get the whole organization to work at a higher speed?" Right? And if you're a multi-branded organization, you have a experience brand, and a commodity brand. So the example I would give you is if you're Johnson & Johnson and you have a skincare brand, which is an experience brand, then you have mouthwash, which really is a commodity brand.

Andy Murray: (15:02)

An essential, yeah.

Larry Thomas: (15:03)

For argument sake. I mean of course, they would argue that.

Andy Murray: (15:06)

Yeah I know what you mean.

Larry Thomas: (15:07)

But how do I work on two speeds? I have a speed of constantly reinventing the experience, making sure I'm relevant, I constantly have to change my offer, my promotions, my engagement. Then I have to produce mouthwash in large quantities, I have to find flavor profiles and sell them at large quantities. So how do I run at two speeds? That's been the challenge. And so the biggest challenge we have is how do companies understand that speed matters? And how do they get between those two bookends of a repeatable slow speed and a high speed organization? How do I get both those companies to move faster?

Larry Thomas: (15:40)

And that comes from, as you said, adopting agile, it comes from experimentation, that comes from being focused on data, what data is telling us and listening to data and then making changes in strategies based on the data. It also comes from talking to consumers. So less guessing, and more knowing allows you to be more responsive and more agile. Many companies are still guessing, right? They're guessing that a client wants this flavor of mouthwash, they want another flavor of lip balm. Consumers don't always want that. So asking and listening is probably the undervalued part of being more agile and being faster.

Andy Murray: (16:16)

Yeah. Two points on that. I think, one, I do see more people applying their customer experience skillsets towards removing dissatisfies, which that's actually pretty easy. I don't want to say it's easy to implement, but I mean it's easier to spot, to know, because the customer's telling you they don't like this. But it's a lot harder to find what is it they don't know, and how do you find out where that customer really wants to go? That's the harder place to play. And so it hasn't really been applied to that as much as eliminating friction or removing hassle and those kind of things, from what I've seen.

Larry Thomas: (16:51)

Yup. Yup.

Andy Murray: (16:53)

One of the things that I'm interested in is creativity, because when you start scaling... Or if you look at industrial, since the Industrial Revolution, really, large organizations have done a great job of scaling efficiency, and becoming more and more efficient as you take cost out of systems and such. And so that includes sometimes the discretionary time and headspace you need to come up with new ideas. That gets compressed quite a bit. What's your thought on creativity plays into agile, customer centricity, responding? It seems like we're going to need a bit more of a different mindset on creativity in larger organizations if we're ever going to get the headspace required to even come up with the hypothesis to go test.

Larry Thomas: (17:38)

Yeah, that's a really good question. I'm not sure if I have the perfect answer, but I'll give you my two cents on that question. So I think creativity, while it's important, has to be in service of a bigger goal, right? So what I've seen one of my clients do really well is apply things like design thinking as a methodology to every business challenge. So putting the customer in front of every business challenge. So if the business challenge is, "How do we minimize the financial close process from four days to two days?" How do you put a human lens to that? And what does that mean to the financial organization, to the control org, to the general managers, to the people in accounts payable? So taking a human lens to all these business challenges I think allows for a different approach to things, a different outcome.

Larry Thomas: (18:29)

And that, I think, is creativity, right? You need a different lens to try to solve things that would probably be viewed as a very mechanical problem or process. So I don't think it's per se about letting the creatives in the organization take over the building, or having those who are engineers suddenly be forced to be creative. It's more around, how do you take a simple mindset around the human you're trying to engage, or the problem you're trying to solve for, and the outcomes you're trying to achieve, and use that technique or that mindset in any problem you're trying to address. And I think design thinking is a good example of that.

Andy Murray: (19:03)

That's great. And how important do you think it is= the employee experience becomes almost integrated with customer experience? Is it a precursor to start working on customer experience to focus on employee experience? A few people I talked to really emphasized, that's your starting point per se.

Larry Thomas: (19:19)

I would normally say it depends. That's what consultants do for a living. So I'm not going to say that, because it doesn't depend. I think the things happen in tandem. So if I am playing out the example of a call I had last week with a client. So if I'm running a large call center for a telecom provider, and I have people who are getting phone calls about their phone bill, or about their plan, or how to add a line to the plan, and I have a shitty employee experience, it's pretty hard to get that person to be really, really good on the phone with a customer. On the other hand, if I don't really care for the customer experience that much, the employee will feel fully empowered because they've been experienced, but they don't know how to channel that passion or energy to a customer, right?

Larry Thomas: (20:00)

So I think you have to do them both at the same time. You have to recognize that the pathway to a world-class customer experience is a better employee experience. But the two of them can't exist without each other. I think you need to reimagine, not only the sales experience. So if I'm a B2B organization, I'm trying to reimagine how I sell to a retailer. I also need to think about how does the salesperson experience his or her job in my company. Do they have all the tools they need in terms of collaboration, in terms of access to information, the ability to work virtually, to be able to play that role with confidence in front of the customer?

Andy Murray: (20:40)

Well I would think that almost any employee that's interacting with customers, the word empathy comes to mind as a real key skillset for doing that well.

Larry Thomas: (20:51)

Empathy. I think back to our opening discussion, a human right? Being a true human. Being a good listener. Being empathetic. Caring about the customer, caring about their needs and trying to solve those needs. That's a human trait. And somehow in the role of, you mentioned before, customers are transactions. We've lost that humanity of how we help each other and serve each other. I think in a world where we're dealing with the aftermath, or the active impacts of COVID, being human, being genuine, caring about each other, is a value that we think is more than ever important in every experience we either shape or we go through.

Andy Murray: (21:27)

Yeah I would love to see if there's a KPI out there... Because we're all driven by KPIs, right? We live and respond to these KPIs. You brought up call centers. I'm not sure I've seen a call center KPI that ranks human empathetic interaction as a KPI. It's typically how fast you get them off the phone, and not even sure how many KPIs are designed around, were they really satisfied with that response? And so do you think human empathy... This is a crazy abstract question, but how would you measure human empathy in perhaps a call center?

Larry Thomas: (22:02)

It's interesting, because you triggered a thought in my head as you were talking. So call centers are incented for you to not call back, right? They want you to stop calling them. That's the incentive. "Can we get the call done quickly. Can we get it done in the first attempt? The goal is to not have you call us back." Which is kind of bizarre. If you do a really good job on a call center environment, and you really have a good conversation and you solve them, you want them to call back and order more, or buy more, or engage more. So this whole reverse objectives for call centers is an interesting thought to ponder on. Do I really want to incent more calls and more human contact, as opposed to trying to minimize the inbound calls and making it through automated response systems or predefined answers to ill-defined questions? It doesn't work that way. That's not how humans are designed to operate.

Andy Murray: (22:53)

Well, I think you'll know if you're a truly customer-centric organization when you start rustling with those questions at the coalface of customer experience in call centers where, man I'll tell you it's a very emotional connection point and you have a high lifetime value customer on the phone and don't even know it because your call center data's not connected to your customer data. You could get into real trouble real fast.

Larry Thomas: (23:16)

Exactly. I mean you and I probably, before COVID, traveled quite a bit. And you have a good experience with an airline agent on the phone to make a change to a ticket, or try to get a schedule change made, people take care of your point balance, you'll call them again. Why would I go online if somebody could solve it for me on the phone and it's much more human, and we have a good chat about it, and they're listening to me, I listen to them. I'd call them again. And again, and again. So I'm loyal to the brand because of the call center experience, not because of I was told to press one for Spanish and two for English.

Andy Murray: (23:50)

100%. Such is the challenges when we get so focused on operational efficiency, then valuing that customer experience. But I do think that's starting to change. Larry, I had the privilege of working with the Walton College of Business, and the always proactive professor, Molly Rapert and the marketing department heard that you and I were going to be speaking today. And so she gathered a few questions from some students. Do you mind if I take a few minutes and play this for you?

Larry Thomas: (24:19)

I would love that. Sounds fantastic.

Andy Murray: (24:22)

Excellent. Well the first question is from Ali. She is a double major in marketing and supply chain. Let's take a listen to her question.

Ali Murtensado: (24:30)

Hi Mr. Thomas. My name's Ali Murtensado. And I really enjoyed-

Andy Murray: (24:35)

Can you hear it?

Ali Murtensado: (24:35)

Reading your discussion on LinkedIn where you state, "We believe that immersive experiences such as VR, AR and MR are at the center at the next wave of digital commerce." My honors thesis focuses on privacy concerns related to digital devices. So I would really love to know your views on consumers should expect relative to privacy and digital commerce?

Larry Thomas: (24:58)

Ali, that's a great question. And I love your double major, both marketing and supply chain. You have the supply and demand combined in one major. That's fantastic. Really, really great. That's a fantastic question. So privacy is a big topic. I think there's a shift happening in the world of privacy. This is my opinion. Where consumers are willing to share more if there's a return to that sharing, right? So I think in some countries like in Europe, there are pretty strict GDPR policies in place to protect consumers' privacy. But I think consumers, certainly as the younger generation becomes real consumers and buyers of an array of services, there's a trust exchange, or exchange of privacy happening.

Larry Thomas: (25:36)

So, "I will tell you about me if whatever you give me in return is highly relevant to me, and highly personalized and something I care about. And I trust that you will keep that information safe from others." So I think the question here is about trust and confidence. Do I have confidence that the brand that I'm trusting my data to or with is taking care of that, that data and that content as a good partner? And am I getting a return for that trust, products and services that are relevant to me? I'm not getting ads that don't matter. I'm getting things that are targeted to me, when I care about them. I don't get the random emails. I get focused emails. I get a focused ping on my phone with a promotion that I care about when I care about it, and I trust that brand to fulfill that promise, right?

Larry Thomas: (26:22)

So I think that privacy and trust are becoming more connected, and privacy is a condition by which I will trust a brand. And I think commerce is important. I think if the transaction that we have in e-commerce, or digital commerce, are becoming more immersive, meaning you're involved more in the experience yourself as an individual, you will give more. But then of course you expect in return, that to be safeguarded and used only for the service of you.

Andy Murray: (26:51)

Yeah great answer. Thank you for that. This next question comes from Grace Sugg. She is a marketing major.

Grace Sugg: (26:58)

Just in my lifetime I can think of many ways we, as customers, have changed how we want to shop, the products we want to buy, and everything in between. So when you make the point about meeting the ever-evolving needs of customers, means effectively remaining in a permanent state of change. How have you helped implement this idea at your company?

Larry Thomas: (27:21)

That's another good question, Grace. So we believe that certainly in the world we live in now, after all that's happened since March, human needs are more important than one time desires. So people want to get on Zoom calls, not because they think Zoom's a great tool but because they want to talk and see their friends and family. People are asking for advice around health and wellness because they want to live healthier lifestyles, now that they're stuck in the location that they're in. So we believe that companies who think about the current reality as a health crisis. "How do I help my consumers become healthier and live a healthier lifestyle?" Companies who think about the current situation as a moment in time to really create trust between the brand and the consumer, that the brand is there to take care of them and help them in these uncertain times.

Larry Thomas: (28:12)

So we help companies do that. So we help telco companies shift from making the experience in retail stores, which is important but frustrating. How does that shift into a much more seamless experience online across all touch points? We help retailers faced with a future of pick up only, turn that into an experience, or the ordering of food, the pick up of food, the delivery of food, becomes an immersive experience that you can fulfill across all touch points. We help insurance companies. Where in the past you were forced to work with an insurance agent, would explain to you how complex insurance is, why you need to buy all these things because that's what you have to do, to a world where buying insurance through an online portal becomes natural and seamless. So we're helping, again, people who are dealing these historical perceptions around "Things are hard to get, things are difficult to fulfill," become more human and more experience-led across all touchpoints.

Andy Murray: (29:12)

Great answer. Fascinating. The next question comes from Shelby Hanson, and she is a marketing and finance major.

Shelby Hanson: (29:20)

Mr. Thomas. I read your recent post on LinkedIn where you state that homes are the new hubs. Recent consumer research shows that as a result of COVID-19, 67% of people plan to do most of their socializing at home or virtually. When you think of the impact of COVID on behaviors, how long do you think this particular behavioral change will last? And what factors will impact that longevity?

Larry Thomas: (29:47)

That's a great question. Yes we talk about that as, we use the term cocoon-y. So we believe this is The Decade of the Home. So that implies this will last at least eight to nine years, this reality. So we truly believe that consumers will make decisions on how they live their lives with a home at the core. That was already underway pre-COVID. So if you think about the way the traditional consumer companies, for instance, or car companies would advertise, they would focus heavily on the channel, the retail store or the dealership. You've seen the years leading up COVID that people were engaging with brands through social platforms, or commuting while being at home.

Larry Thomas: (30:30)

So the home was already becoming a bit of the central point of consumers' decision around, "What am I going to buy?" Amazon of course helped with that as well. And now we're in the area called cocooning. The home is where everything happens. It's where safety is guaranteed. That's where you take care of your health and wellness, or you take your classes at home virtually, you make your food choices, you have food delivered because you want to be safe and healthy at home. So we think this cocooning will last another eight or nine years. That means that brands need to find a way to enter the home. Not through salesmen knocking on the door saying, "Hey here's an encyclopedia to buy." But it's more around, how do you have the content that's relevant to consumers at their fingertips, and knowing where they are, what they're doing, with that content.

Larry Thomas: (31:18)

So the ability to have a presence in the home. The ability to be in consumers' mind in the home. And even to think about your messaging around marketing and advertising around the home, is super, super important. I don't think people will return to buying things at stores in large quantities. If you did research a few weeks ago for telco companies, of all customers of telco companies, three quarters say, "If the store went away, I wouldn't be sad." Because they believe they can fulfill all their needs in their own environments, and their own conditions and terms. So I think the home is here to stay, and that's a great way to think about the role brands could play in somebody's trusted environment.

Andy Murray: (31:57)

It's a great question, and I think your answer is really interesting. If you look at the mouthwash category, for example. If people can figure out they can get the essentials online pretty easily, think of what that does to brands that you're not the pick of, because basically online's not a great browsing experience. And the one thing about a store shelf in that retail space if you have a chance. You have a chance to be picked versus another brand if there's some browsing behavior that goes on, but if the essential categories go online and stay online, then the purpose of a physical store better deliver some better browsing experiences because... And you can probably do that in some of the categories that you mentioned earlier where it might be cosmetics, or things that are just better for browsing, and it's going to be really hard, probably, to get in the minds of consumers if that category is shifted and you're on autopilot and you're stuck in an essential category.

Larry Thomas: (32:54)

Yeah, we did some work with a client this week and last week, in the middle of this project right now where we're helping this company launch a new nutritional bar with all kind of ingredients into a new market. And as you would know as well, Andy, the strategy of the past was, "Put it on the shelf in as many stores as you can, cull the shelves, put up a big TV ad, and a few promotional coupons or a trade promotional events happening. And then let's hope it all works out for us." Right? We were talking about a different way to launch the brand, which is really around, "How do you launch the brand as part of a health and wellness ecosystem?" So how do you connect consumers with healthcare providers? Think about that as yoga instructors, meditation instructors. And how does the brand become known for the connector between the consumer and the health and wellness providers?

Larry Thomas: (33:43)

And by doing that, could recommend certain products, could sell merchandise, and launch a brand that way. So you launch a brand in a digital health and wellness mindset as opposed to it physically being on shelves and buy one get three promotional events and hoping that the masses just pick it up while they're checking out. So we're seeing companies shift their product launch strategies to be very different, not only different in terms of digital, but different in terms of the intent behind the launch.

Andy Murray: (34:09)

Yeah. I can see that. I mean that's going to be a real challenge, especially for those that are trying to cut through. I think even private brands in... I come from a grocery retail background primarily. That don't have any marketing spend behind them, and in an essential category, you're going to have to really think through the whole customer journey in a different way, I think, to figure out how to get in that consumers mindset through digital or, like you said, the affiliation of health and really moving into that space in a much more intentional way in that discovery phase of buying. So that's good. I have one last question from a student, and this is Matt Barber. And I think you'll enjoy this one too.

Matt Barber: (34:50)

Hi Larry. I've got a question today about Accenture. Accenture is known as a company that really seeks out young talent, and does a good job of hiring recent college graduates as opposed to a company that's more reluctant to do so, and probably focuses more on experience. So I was wondering if Accenture has had to change this strategy at all due to COVID and what you guys are doing differently in terms of recruitment and retention during these times.

Larry Thomas: (35:15)

Matt, that's a great question. So no, we have not changed our strategy. We deeply believe an inclusive and diverse organization powered by young talented people. So our commitments to college recruiting are still very, very strong. We would prefer somebody who comes in fresh with a new mindset than somebody that's been around for a long time, because we believe creativity comes from new mindsets, not from trying to repeat what you've done elsewhere over and over again. So we're very, very, very committed to recruiting globally, and including the US, on campus. We're also changing our profiles a bit in recruiting. So where we used to look for people who had one skill that was really, really deep, we now look for people who have multiple skills. So can somebody be a marketing person and a data scientist? You actually can. Can somebody be a technologist and a creative person? They exist, those people.

Larry Thomas: (36:11)

So we're looking for multi-talented individuals as opposed to the conventional functional box that people were put into very, very early. And we're also committed, for those who enter the Accenture organization, to give people even a wider experience across all things we do. So you come into Accenture and you work in our strategy group, in our technology group, in our interactive group, and you learn all we do and then you can make your career choices in a more informed way as you progress in your career. So we do believe in the rotations across parts of the firm, which are becoming actually easier in a virtual world than they are in the past where you were tied to physical locations. So we're super committed to college recruiting and really growing our firm from the bottom up, not just from the top down

Andy Murray: (36:58)

Well that's a great segue to the last question I have for you. This will get shown to several students, several seniors, that will be graduating in May hopefully and entering the workforce. As you look the future, what's coming the next couple of years or such, what would you say to those students that would give them hope?

Larry Thomas: (37:18)

A few things. I think there is, looking at the clients that I work with, there's still incredible untapped growth in many companies. Companies just have a lot of area of improvement when it comes to being customer-centric, when it comes to using data and technology to identify and serve customer needs. So I think there's quite a bit of untapped growth potential for some of the big US organizations and their customers. The second thing I would say is, the younger people that join the workforce are often better than those that have been here for a long time, including myself, because they come with a different mindset. Using technology is part of who you are. Using data, understanding data, is part of who you are. Being able to be creative and be able to be creative in challenging status quos is who you are.

Larry Thomas: (38:12)

This generation coming into the workforce has a lot to offer to many organizations. The last thing I'll say is, I do think the area that we're talking about today, customer experience, marketing, commerce, sales, are areas where I think the human aspect remains very, very important. So you can see a world where supply chain and manufacturing is run by robots, or run by bots in factories, or run by algorithms. I think the ability to create an experience that's human, the ability to engage customers as humans, the ability to reimagine and constantly change as the world around us changes, is a skill we as humans have. So I think those who are pursuing a career in marketing and sales and commerce and technology, supporting that, will have a wonderful career for many, many years to come. So I look forward to meeting all of you, hopefully at Accenture in the near future.

Andy Murray: (39:05)

Excellent. Thank you Larry. You've been a generous guest, and I really appreciate the experience you bring to this topic, and great success at Accenture Interactive. I'll make sure there's some links for people to get ahold of you in the show notes. So any final comments before we end?

Larry Thomas: (39:23)

No. Just thank you Andy for the chance to be part of your podcast. This was a great conversation. I really enjoyed it. So if you want to do it again and we change topics, I'm happy to be a returning guest if that's something you'd consider. For those who want to know more about Accenture Interactive and the work we do, I guess as Andy said you'll have my contact information to reach out to. And thanks again for all you're doing. I think this is an important movement that you're trying to get going here at the university. Let's hope that other universities and other companies embrace it. We've really become a truly customer-centric society where humans and customers matter more than transactions and events.

Andy Murray: (39:57)

I love it. And you can count on that, me following up with that invite. I think there's some big things ahead we could do to work together in a lot of different areas, leveraging your background and experiences and what Accenture does. So looking forward to the future. And thank you very much.

Larry Thomas: (40:12)

Thank you very much Andy. Talk to you soon.

Andy Murray: (40:18)

Thanks to listening to that insightful conversation with Larry Thomas. Larry has led Accenture Interactive for many years now, and he discussed some incredibly relevant insights about customer-centric leadership. He also some shared some great insights on the role of agile in customer experience, and gave great advice to students getting ready to join the workforce and be change-makers in their organizations. Thank you Larry. That's it for this episode of It's a Customer's World. If you found this helpful and entertaining, I would be so grateful if you could share our show with your friends. And I'd be super happy if you subscribed so you could be updated as we publish new episodes. And if you really want to help, leave us a five-star rating and a positive review on Apple Podcast, or wherever you listened. It's a Customer's World podcast is a product of the University of Arkansas Customer-Centric Leadership Initiative, and a Walton College original production.

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