University of Arkansas

Walton College

The Sam M. Walton College of Business

Ep. 1 | Customer Centricity in Business Schools with Matt Waller

Matt Waller
January 04, 2021

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Welcome to the “It’s a Customer’s World” podcast, where host Andy Murray explores effective leadership within an industry that has become increasingly customer-centric. In this first episode of a twelve-episode series, Andy speaks with Matt Waller, the dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. Matt Waller is a known business leader and writer.

The conversation begins with practical insights into what customer centricity is and why it’s essential. Matt provides context to how he views the role of the customer, pulling from his experience as dean at the Sam M. Walton College of Business. The tables are slightly turned when Matt interviews Andy about the macro insights he’s collected from his research and additional interviews. Andy shares some stories of what has jumped out over the interviews he has done, which are also upcoming episodes of this twelve-episode series. Andy talks about the evolution of shopper marketing and the impact that it has had on what we know now about marketing.


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 of what it takes to be a leader in today's customer-centric world.

Andy Murray: (00:40)

In this very first episode I have with me Matt Waller. Matt is the Dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. Matt began his career at the U of A in 1994 as a visiting assistant professor, and has been the dean of the college since 2016. Matt also co-founded Bentonville Associate Ventures, and has had opinion pieces appearing in The Wall Street Journal and Financial Times. In this first episode, Matt and I will talk about customer-centric leadership, and this new podcast series, how it was started, and some of the things I found most surprising throughout my 12 interviews with different thought leaders in customer-centric industry. Hi Matt. It's great to see you today. How are you?

Matt Waller: (01:28)

I'm really well, Andy. Thank you so much for having me on your podcast. I really appreciate it.

Andy Murray: (01:35)

Well, this is our first one in a series of 12, and I thought it'd be really appropriate to have you be the first to help kick off this series of It's a Customer's World. And it really did start with your vision. And I'd love for you to just talk a bit about why customer-centricity is important, and what you see that as a topic for the Walton College of Business, and perhaps what you see in business today.

Matt Waller: (02:02)

I'll talk about that, but I wanted to mention, I love the title It's a Customer's World. What a great name for this series of podcasts. And I know you've already done the 12 interviews, and so I'm going to want to ask you some questions about that obviously. But Andy, the reason that I really wanted you to help the Walton College make customer-centricity more of a core component of what we're doing, is because it's becoming more important. The consumer and the customer are becoming more important than ever. A long time ago, there used to be more monopolies and it was easier to control the market. But now, nobody can control the market, right? I mean, people can enter the market through e-commerce and they can become well known through social media and many other platforms. Back then, being able to get to the product, it was like the owner of the product, the owner of the patent, the owner of the natural resource, they had all the power. All of that has shifted to the customer, and the consumer.

Matt Waller: (03:17)

So customer-centricity is very important for that reason. One other reason, Andy, that it's important from my perspective as the dean of the Walton College, is today, going forward for business schools and for universities in general, it used to be that universities and colleges had something that was so unique that they could offer, that the only way you get this stamp of approval was from a university or college. But that's changing, and there's more and more certifications. Companies are coming out with their own colleges and universities. There's all kinds of badges and courses that are free. So universities have to be looking at the customer. Now, for a university, the customer isn't just the student, the student is a customer. But the parents are a customer. The companies that hire our students are customers. The state of Arkansas, in our case, is a customer. So we a lot of customers to look at, and if we're not customer-centric, we're going to take our eye off the ball, and we're going to fail [crosstalk 00:04:35] companies that no one ever thought would fail, have failed. So we've got to be on our toes.

Matt Waller: (04:40)

It's very important that we teach our students about customer-centricity. If you think about, Andy, you've been a very successful entrepreneur. You've been a successful entrepreneur at major corporations, including a Fortune One company, but students that are... whether they're wanting to go into working for big companies or startups, they need to understand customer-centricity. If they're going to be working for a startup or starting their own company, the whole path of an entrepreneur begins with solving a problem of a customer.

Andy Murray: (05:18)

That's right.

Matt Waller: (05:18)

And then getting tons of feedback from customers about their minimum viable product until they really start scaling. The same thing's true in industry. So my point is, Andy, I really think what you're doing is of the essence of business right now. We've got to be more focused on the customer.

Andy Murray: (05:42)

That's true.

Matt Waller: (05:43)

So one question I have for you... I'm learning. There's so much, I don't know about customer-centricity. You would think a business school dean would be expert at this, but who is these days? And so one of the reasons I wanted to collaborate with you on the Customer-centric Leadership Initiative is because we need to explore those. And so one question I have for you, you've done these 12 interviews. What are some macro themes that you've seen that have emerged from these?

Andy Murray: (06:18)

That's a great question, Matt. And I, like you, approach this as a learning journey to go interview different people that have different perspectives. And so where it was informed from was a wide variety of people that you wouldn't normally think would be there to just talk about customer-centricity, but starting from looking at what's the brief at the C-suite for... How does that look for senior leaders today and where does customer show up in that? And so one of the podcast interviews is with a top recruiter at the C-suite level, [Brenda Nalloway 00:06:53], who sent me a brief for a CEO job. And I looked at it and I said, "I think you sent me the wrong one." I sent it back and said, "I think you've got these mixed up. This looks like for a chief customer officer." And she said, "Andy, that's the point. The briefs that you're seeing today, no, that is for the CEO of a large apparel brand."

Andy Murray: (07:15)

And she said, "I'm seeing that very commonly across the briefs from the search committees at the top, where they're looking for leaders that have a real good understanding of what drives customer experience, customer engagement, and how you drive empathy through a culture, all those kinds of things." And I thought that was quite fascinating. So first of all, I think tops of companies see it. And then the second kind of thing I saw the emerge through that, some of the interviews was being customer-centric had three core pillars to it. Method, there's definitely some methodology there, underpinned primarily by agile. So agile is a core technology to be customer-centric from a method standpoint. But then mindset and motivation were the other two elements. And the mindset was so fascinating to hear across the board of what does it mean to have a customer-centric mindset. And that was fascinating to hear.

Andy Murray: (08:12)

And then motivation. How do you look at it as something that crosses the whole company? Because quite honestly, this could have almost been a study on employee engagement as much as it was customer-centricity, because very few people that are making headway with being customer-centric park the employee or colleague or associate topic to the side, because you really end up shifting your organization. And so how connected those two worlds are showed up in those three pillars in a pretty big way.

Matt Waller: (08:45)

Andy, when it comes to customer-centricity, what are some surprises you've come upon through your interviews and your experience?

Andy Murray: (08:56)

Yeah. Well, quite a bit through the interviews for sure. One of the first surprise I got, I interviewed a gentleman, a futurist, a well-known futurist who worked with Publicis Groupe, Rishad Tobaccowala. And the very first thing I said, when I said, "What do you think about with customer-centricity?" And he said, "Well, first of all, you got to kill the name. Customer is a horrible name." And I thought to myself, not out loud, of course, "Well, there goes our initiative, and so we're going to have to start over with renaming it." But he made the point that. Think about it, customer's a transaction. That is a transactional phrase and definition of a relationship. And I'd never thought about it that way. And he said, "We should call it people. It's about people."

Andy Murray: (09:41)

And when you start thinking about customers as people and not customers, then it does do something in the brain that flips that I hadn't thought about before. And so that was a fascinating insight around how we limit ourselves by treating just even the word customer and looking at it through a transactional lens versus how they feel, how they think, and the more human element. And so probably one of the big surprise is how much humanity and being human and the empathy behind that is such a core theme in every thought leader that I've talked to and every practitioner, and then how that could play out in some very powerful ways.

Andy Murray: (10:22)

One of the interviews was with Sarah Friar, the CEO of Nextdoor. And I found that fascinating. But one of the little surprises in there, they were concerned about community, especially with all the social unrest and with COVID. The conversations and the community of Nextdoor app was something they wanted to keep as a clean community. They wanted it to be a good neighborhood and positive and thoughtful and all of that versus some of the other social platforms that it just is almost intolerable at times. And so what they've created, which was genius, using technology and some human thinking, is a little AI module or pop-up that sits inside there. And if you start typing something as a message to your community that may not be the kindest way to put it or has some really aggressive, terrible things you might be thinking in your mind and starting to type, the kindness reminder pops up.

Andy Murray: (11:19)

And it's an app based on AI that says like, "Hey, just want to reinforce our core values. You can send this, just going to remind you that about kindness a little bit," and not in a judgemental way too much, but whatever. And they had tremendous results, up to like 40% of people that were typing something they probably would have regretted later stopped and they re-edited and they thought about it. A small percentage went ahead very, very small. And what I also found is that kindness reminder pop-up stopped coming up once you'd seen it once, it didn't... They learned. They learned about the values. And so I actually thought that was genius. I also asked if I could get that on my work email. That could come in handy for a lot of people beyond the next. But what do you think about that? Isn't that crazy?

Matt Waller: (12:09)

What a great application of artificial intelligence, because we all... I mean, people don't want to be rude.

Andy Murray: (12:18)


Matt Waller: (12:19)

In hindsight, after we're rude, we regret it. So to use technology to help us to be notified when we're starting to be rude, that would be quite helpful. You were talking about customer-centricity really being about people, humanity. I think this is an interesting point because business is about people in general. And I think customer-centricity, as you've defined it, and as you're exploring, it is really getting to that kernel. It's getting to the kernel of what business is about. And when you were saying that one thing that it reminded me of, I've had two kids graduate from the University of Arkansas. I have one child who's a senior in the Walton College. I have another child who will be a freshman in the Walton College next fall.

Matt Waller: (13:22)

I've lived in Fayetteville, Arkansas since 1994. And as a result, I know lots of kids in Arkansas. My kids have been very involved in all kinds of things. I know so many kids and so many parents. And so when I walk down the hall as a dean, and we've got 6,600 students, I can't know all of them, but I invariably... It's almost impossible for me to walk down the hall and not see a kid that I know or whose parents I know.

Andy Murray: (13:56)


Matt Waller: (13:57)

And even in 6,600 students. Of course I'm picking them out because I would know them. And some of them I've actually held when they were toddlers. Because we used to work in-

Andy Murray: (14:10)

Gosh, that makes me feel old. But yes. It doesn't make you feel old at all, does it? I know that's not your point, but...

Matt Waller: (14:15)

I know. I find more and more meetings where I'm the oldest one in the meeting. I don't like that. But seriously, that perspective makes me... It's trained me to be a dean that sees every student as an important person, which I really think if you think about it, everyone in business needs to be thinking that way.

Andy Murray: (14:39)


Matt Waller: (14:40)

We need to see every associate, every constituent, every student, every customer as a person.

Andy Murray: (14:49)

Yeah. That is so, so true. And if there's anything I learned or was reinforced is the power of just really connecting with a customer at a human level. You couldn't be more right. Paco Underhill, who we all know and love for all of his great, great work and behavioral, observational behavioral research getting out in stores. I was curious when I talked to him about has data and data science and big data replaced the demand to go out and talk. Can you get everything you need to know through data? And it's not to throw data under the bus because I'm a huge fan of what data analytics can bring to customer insight. But he reinforced to me the power of going out and not just talking to customers, but watching them.

Andy Murray: (15:37)

And he told a story about, he was outside of store and he asked a customer, "Hey, did you see the new cosmetic counter?" and whatever it was. "And did you get [inaudible 00:15:48] the sporting goods?" And they would be saying stuff like, "Yeah, yeah. I shopped there. I think I got something out of that aisle," or whatever. And everything he brought up did not exist in the store. But the person wasn't lying. What they thought was true didn't really happen. And sometimes when you just use surveys or you just use data you miss the bits that what you can actually see.

Andy Murray: (16:12)

And so he just talked to power about going out in stores and watching and observing. And honestly, probably there's two words that sum it up for me, pay attention. It's paying attention to how things really are and how people are feeling, how they're interacting is so powerful. And someone, I can't remember who said it, but they've never seen a human epiphany, a human truth, be revealed from a spreadsheet. There are certain things that you're not going to find it there. You'll find a lot of other great things like patterns and insights, but the human truths don't always reveal themselves that way.

Matt Waller: (16:46)

So, Andy, I have another question for you, because this is really... Again, I find this topic fascinating. You were founder and CEO of ThompsonMurray. That was eventually bought by Saatchi & Saatchi and renamed Saatchi & Saatchi X.

Andy Murray: (17:03)

That's right.

Matt Waller: (17:03)

And you remained on as CEO for a number of years. And of course, Saatchi & Saatchi really was a game changer in the concept of shopper marketing. I had never heard the word shopper marketing until you told me about it a long time ago. And then you eventually started Mercury 11, and within a short period of time, that was purchased as well. And then you became SVP of marketing for Walmart, which is a huge deal. And then you were chief customer officer for Asda in the UK. And of course, now you're really becoming a scholar of customer-centricity and interviewing people and studying it and really trying to think about it. But you've had so many of these experiences. I know you've recommended books to me. This summer you recommended a book. I can't remember the title of it now, but I read it. Which one was it?

Andy Murray: (18:05)

Let me see. I've got a couple there. Uncharted: How to Map the Future Together, Agile Transformation, Alive at Work, Doing Agile Right by Darrell Rigby. There was a few that I've had on my list for us to share.

Matt Waller: (18:17)

Okay, here it is. You recommended two books to me in the summer and I read them both. One is called How Brands Grow.

Andy Murray: (18:28)

Oh yeah. [inaudible 00:18:28].

Matt Waller: (18:28)

One thing I loved about that book, it's a book written for popular consumption. I mean, anyone can read it, but it's based on research and marketing, especially marketing science research.

Andy Murray: (18:45)

That's right.

Matt Waller: (18:46)

A lot of practitioners don't even know what marketing science is, you know?

Andy Murray: (18:51)


Matt Waller: (18:52)

Because most marketing isn't coming from a marketing science perspective. We actually in the college started building that expertise. But the other book you recommended was what you mentioned earlier by Paco Underhill, Why We Buy. I read both of those books. And my point is, you have seen marketing from many different angles. When did you start realizing that customer-centricity was so important?

Andy Murray: (19:27)

Well, when we look back at the early days of shopper marketing and what that was, that really was a study in understanding the customer journey. And shopper marketing was just to understand that people react differently when they're in a shopping mode than when they're consuming content on a couch watching television. And they can be influenced, they can be met, their needs can be met, they have different needs. And so the whole idea, honestly, of shopper marketing, wasn't called that back then, was basically customer journey work and customer experience, and helping brands become more salient at different touch points or different moments of truth, as P&G coined back in the day. I think [inaudible 00:20:11] talked about the first moment of truth, second moment of truth, that there are moments of truth that happen in the whole customer journey, and it's not just about consuming that.

Andy Murray: (20:19)

So to me, that was the birth of really looking at customers more scientifically, more through a human understanding, a psychology of that and how it works. And so it's just been a continued journey of that. And one of the things that really put a fine point on it for me was being in the UK, because I do think they're probably about four or five years ahead of the US in a lot of different ways in retail when you look at a journey customer, experience work. Chief customer officer, for example, the scope of my remit was much broader, that considered more touch points, and my job was to be the voice of the customer in the executive committee or making sure where key decisions were made the voice of the customer was there and present. My ambition to coming back and doing this is to help the marketing community transform and understand that, because if you don't have the materials and you haven't had those experiences, it can feel quite foreign.

Andy Murray: (21:18)

Most marketers of traditional brands haven't grown up in agile, a key technology to be customer-centric, because that's been the... Unless you're a dot-com pure play because it really came from technology, where they may not be versed in the tech stacks you need today to properly manage customer data. And again, Europe, very early with GDPR and how you develop that data, is typically outside of what a brand manager and a marketing campaign would ever really face. And so I think the roles have transformed and it's transformed rather rapidly. And with omni-channel compression, like at Asda, they hit their eight year targets on the roadmap for grocery home shopping in eight weeks. And it's pushing those two cultures together of a dot-com culture that operates with a different methodology than the physical retail, and those organizations, as they blend merchandising, blend the different components together, you've got to harmonize the ways of working. And the technology side's winning in terms of how you harmonize that. The waterfall days are gone of how you do work and functional silos. It's no silos, no solos. It's really a different type of teamwork.

Andy Murray: (22:28)

And so I don't think most leaders are as prepared and I'm not sure there's a lot of material out there that that helps. And so that's why I'm on this search, trying to find people like Dr. Nick Fine, who's very experienced in customer experience work. And interesting things that are big surprise is that one of the questions is where should customer experience work sit in the organization? I thought it was a no brainer. I thought marketing should have it. He was the first to push back and said, "No, no, no, no, no, no. Marketing is the worst place for it because too many right-brain thinkers over there, and proper customer experience work is scientific method. And the IT and engineering people should be in charge of customer experience because it's about proper test and learn methods."

Andy Murray: (23:12)

And that struck me as something I had never thought about. And so when marketing has it, they might skip the whole testing thing and how you take a hypothesis, test it, prove it, validate it, and then say you've got real proof there that this is what customers want. And again, didn't see that coming, but he made a great point. And I think this left brain, right brain connection is where the magic is. And companies today have been really focused... well, not today. Since the post-industrial era, we've been optimizing and scaling efficiency, and leaders are... They give the direction and the doers do, which makes for great left-brain promotions and left-brain leadership, but the right brain now, when you have to come up with new value propositions that's customer-centric and ideas you hadn't thought of before, the right brain needs to come alive.

Andy Murray: (24:02)

And that takes so much more making sure people feel they're doing meaningful work because you got to be in a creative head space, giving people the chance to think a bit more deeply about things and to go spot across different domains, lots of things that probably you teach or have taught around how to explore and think about new things. But we've not had the capacity or the training or promotion. We've been promoting achievement based on doing things that work and do it quickly. So it's a mindset shift that I'm pretty excited about because I think it'll end up in more meaningful work for more people.

Matt Waller: (24:36)

So Andy, you've seen the evolution of marketing technology. Because I forgot to mention that you started your career as a computer programmer at Procter & Gamble and then moved into marketing, but you've seen the progression of marketing technology and marketing technology, and now customer-centricity. What do you think is next?

Andy Murray: (24:59)

Well, on this particular journey, it became really clear to me that just like in the early days of shopper marketing, there's a lot of confusion, a lot of perceptions about what agile even means. What is a product manager? What's a CX designer versus a customer user expert? And these terms are a bit muddled at times. And so I think that hurts the adoption and the speed of adoption. So what I'm working on with the Walton College is a checklist of the essentials of what does it mean to be customer-centric, to at least have... There are about 12 things that can provide some simple definition, and we're creating it as a checklist that can be downloaded off the Walton College site, that people that are interested in this journey and maybe at the beginning stages can understand the core, simple things like have all your customer data in one place. And that's the starting point, and a lot of people don't have that. That could be in hundreds of different places.

Andy Murray: (25:58)

But there's ways to get on this journey, and once you start on the journey, you begin to learn and go, and I think it's been missing that element of that. So I'll be working with the faculty advisory team and getting this checklist there that feels like there's some starting points to bring the language together. And then honestly, I think there's some initiatives that we could... sub-initiatives that could be looked at in terms of one of the biggest barriers is measurement. How do you measure success? And one of the pieces of research that I looked at was in the top two things that cause customer-centricity to stumble or is the hardest, biggest barrier is lack of being able to create a business case.

Andy Murray: (26:36)

And so when you're looking at ROI and short-term ROI, it doesn't always reflect where the value really comes from on this journey. And so it might come from lifetime value of a customer or some other metrics that we traditionally don't use in finance to build the business case for funding and all the things that go with that. So I think measurement is one that a lot of people are struggling with.

Andy Murray: (26:58)

And if you're talking about... Especially in retail, if you're talking about doing four or five things in a store to improve that customer experience and give it that wow factor or engage people differently, when you talk about scaling that to a couple thousand, 3,000 stores, there's a real desire to break it apart and find attribution points on which pieces are really driving that performance when it actually works together in a holistic way, and we don't have the measurement tools really to provide that kind of clarity so that the finance guys can pencil that properly and weigh that against other potential investments. And so that's probably one of the biggest barriers that I see, that would be nice to have a sub team maybe jump on and see if we can bring some light to that.

Matt Waller: (27:39)

That's great.

Andy Murray: (27:40)

Okay, Matt. Well, this has been awesome. Thank you for giving me the freedom to go exploring and looking for ideas and insights. And be glad to... looking forward to the upcoming 11 or 12 episodes. The last episode is a summary with four students that tracked all of the episodes together in a little panel discussion with those four students. And they were great and it's a nice way to recap. And by the way, quick shout out to Molly and her team. They did a great job. She's done a great job of supporting it.

Andy Murray: (28:11)

So on almost every episode, we have students that will pop in and ask a question of whoever I'm talking to. And they have great questions. And every guest loved answering the student questions and providing that type of advice. So the students have been very engaged, and some great support by Kaitlin Brink, the product manager at Modthink who's been tirelessly working behind the scenes. Matt, this is a lot of work putting these podcasts together, as you know.

Matt Waller: (28:36)

Oh, it is.

Andy Murray: (28:37)

The learning curve was huge.

Matt Waller: (28:38)

It is.

Andy Murray: (28:39)

And you do a great job. I didn't really appreciate how well you do those and how much work you probably had to put into getting to the level you're at with it. But it's a bit of work. It takes a team, and I love the team I've got helping. They're all great people.

Matt Waller: (28:53)

Well, thank you, Andy, for all you're doing. We are very fortunate to be able to collaborate with you on customer-centricity. I'm so glad you moved back to Northwest Arkansas from London.

Andy Murray: (29:05)

I love it here.

Matt Waller: (29:06)

Welcome home.

Andy Murray: (29:07)

Thanks, Matt. I'll talk to you soon. Look forward to the first episode.

Matt Waller: (29:11)

Sounds good. Take care. Bye-bye.

Andy Murray: (29:16)

Thanks. That's it 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 subscribe so you can 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 Podcasts or wherever you listen. 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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