The economy. Mobile. The “new” consumer. Social media. And they’re all brought together by another hot topic in retail: customer ratings and reviews. So for our next Talking With…, we reached out to entrepreneur Brett Hurt, CEO of BazaarVoice, a social commerce technology company that boasts 50 of the top 100 retailers as clients. The company powers ratings and reviews for retailers as diverse as Macy’s, The Home Depot, Cabela’s, PETCO and Overstock.com, to literally name just a few. In his Q&A, Brett shares case studies of retailers that have used reviews to create a better customer experience, how he’d convince a CEO to implement reviews on their website, tips for people who are thinking about starting their own businesses, and his best sales pitch on his hometown of Austin.
This month, Bazaarvoice will celebrate the fourth anniversary of its launch of ratings and review products. There’s no disputing that an incredible amount has happened within that time when it comes to acceptance of and technology behind ratings and reviews. Talk about the differences, then and now.
The crazy thing to think about is that just four years, nine months ago (we started our company on May 2, 2005), only three retailers in the entire United States had customer reviews on their site. Now we serve more than 50 of the top 100 retailers here, and more than 25 of the top 50 in the UK (and equal ratios in France, Germany, Australia, and a number of other countries).
What began as simply product reviews on retailer sites has expanded to a variety of types of consumer-generated content in 17 industries, 25 languages, and 36 countries. At the end of the day, Bazaarvoice is a digital reflection of word of mouth, which has always been with us since the dawn of the original bazaars (think “voice of the marketplace”). So there are many industries where word of mouth works. Today we have manufacturers gathering reviews on their own sites and sharing them with retailers to transform channel advertising on retailer sites in a world where 80% of consumers now seek reviews while shopping. Industries like financial services and health insurance, to name a few, are also increasingly requesting reviews from their consumers. We’ve also seen the quick adoption of community Q&A, where consumers can ask other consumers and brands specific, real-world questions about products or services. Even brands that don’t sell online are gathering reviews, Q&A, and shared experiences to build community on their sites. The implications all of this customer-generated content has for transforming the world of commerce as we knew it are truly profound.
We’ve been hearing for years that reviews and ratings are what the customer wants. That said, in what ways can retailers use this immediate, candid feedback for their own purposes to improve products, experiences or make major company decisions?
I’ve heard literally hundreds of stories from our clients that have used reviews and other content to improve everything from product design to shipping processes. One of the best examples is from Oriental Trading Company. They created an internal team made up of people from all over the organization who read negative reviews and changed more than 700 products to address consumer concerns.
For example, they saw that one of their teaching products, an inflatable solar system, was going “flat” very quickly, so the product had a low overall rating. They worked directly with the manufacturer to improve the product, then took new photos and wrote new website and catalog copy to better set customer expectations. Today the product is rated twice as high as it was before the changes, and earns several rave reviews.
Another good example is from Rubbermaid. They noticed low reviews on their Produce Saver product; however, their product testing had proven it worked the way it should. Reviews helped them understand that consumers didn’t understand how to best use the product, so they wrote an informative blog post and added new, clearer instructions to the package.
Do you feel the recession has impacted how today’s consumers make purchasing decisions?
The recession has definitely made consumers more carefully consider their purchases, making authentic input from other consumers even more important. The emotional pull of buyer’s remorse has never been stronger in an economy where the consumer saving rate is 5%. Yesterday’s consumer may have referenced Consumer Reports. Today’s consumer may look at Consumer Reports, talk to their neighbors, and read online reviews to make the best decisions. Nielsen reported that 81 percent of online shoppers read product or retailer reviews by other customers when doing their holiday shopping. The multichannel implications are very serious, especially when you consider how mobile is accelerating the adoption of browsing the Web to read reviews while shopping in the physical store (or at home, while browsing through a catalog).
With mobile all the buzz in retail right now, talk about MobileVoice, the platform your company launched last year.
We’re excited about MobileVoice, which lets a shopper access reviews anywhere, instantly seeing the input of thousands of consumers in the palms of their hands. Sephora launched MobileVoice and it continues to be popular with in-store shoppers, who can easily access 700,000 reviews at m.sephora.com. We’re looking forward to even more brands adding mobile reviews to help in-store shoppers make purchase decisions. You can see the huge display from 2009, when TurboTax encouraged consumers to read mobile reviews in large retail stores. Each year, they find new ways to help consumers easily access customer reviews to make purchasing decisions, and this had a huge impact.
I’m sure this is not a new question for you, but here it goes: What would you tell a retail CEO who is hesitant about implementing ratings and reviews because they are concerned about negative comments?
“Every day people are coming to your store and having experiences – positive and negative. You’re kidding yourself if you think all customers have great experiences, and the truth is that most unhappy customers won’t ever take the time to write a letter or complain to a manager. So, what happens? You see the negative effects in one way or another – defection to your competitors, high return rates, and decreasing sales. Why guess at what is happening when you can make it easy for consumers to communicate with you, and each other, so you can solve these problems and uncover new opportunities?
“You should also note that our research over the past four years has shown that over 80 percent of all reviews are positive – worldwide. There’s simply no reason to hide from reviews. They are proven to increase sales, decrease returns, lift customer loyalty, and transform the practices of your marketers and merchandisers. To think you can hide from the effects of word of mouth are misguided, and there is no debate about the positive, highly quantifiable effects of embracing it.”
I hear you’re about to add another title to your bio: “author.” Care to confirm/deny/elaborate?
Corporate culture is a huge passion of mine, so I’m writing a book about building a great culture. The working title is How to Make Your Company Suck Less. It’s based on my experiences in founding five companies (Bazaarvoice, Coremetrics, and three other smaller endeavors), and I’ve reached out to other CEOs and experts to interview them, too.
I’m really excited about this new endeavor, and I’m donating all of the proceeds to charity. My gift when I speak on this topic, which I’ve done about 25 times now, are CEOs telling me that our ideas made a real difference at their company. We spend most of our waking life working. Make it meaningful (and think of the powerful message in Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl)! Life’s too short…
As a member of Shop.org’s Board of Directors and regular sponsor and attendee of both Shop.org and NRF events, what are you looking forward to most about the inaugural Retail Innovation & Marketing Conference next month?
As you mentioned, this is a new event for Shop.org, and I was happy to be one of the champions for it at a Shop.org Board meeting. We are bringing together many of the most innovative minds in online retail, including the vendors that serve them and the investors that back them, to discuss what the future disruptions will be. It is based in San Francisco, on the north-end of the hub of technology innovation in the U.S., Silicon Valley. I hope this turns into a mainstay for Shop.org, and I expect it to be one of our best events ever.
In your opinion, what’s next in the world of customer-generated content?
I think we’ll see more of what Intuit recently did with TurboTax, with their Friends Like You functionality. As detailed in BrandWeek, TurboTax combined the power of consumer reviews with the influence of your friends – specifically, Facebook friends. With Friendalyzer, you can see which TurboTax products your friends used and read their reviews directly on the TurboTax site, while you’re trying to determine the best product to use. It truly customizes and personalizes reviews for consumers, and I think there is much more of this type of integration to come. You can find people in situations like yours – new baby, bought a house, etc. – and learn about their experience with TurboTax. The mass of reviews will continue to let consumers hone in on opinions that are most relevant to their own. Seth Greenberg, director of national media and digital marketing for Intuit, will share his learning at our upcoming Social Commerce Summit in April.
As a young entrepreneur, you’ve received incredible accolades from the business community. What guidance or tips would you give people who are thinking about starting their own businesses?
You have to have passion and follow your dreams. You have to be 100% committed to reaching your goals. I started programming at age 7 and I’m 38 today. While that may sound cool now, it wasn’t when I was growing up in Texas (in the days where it was football or nothing for boys). But I feel very lucky to have found my passion at such a young age. Find yours!
Also, don’t ever be afraid to surround yourself with people who are smarter than you are – there’s always something new to learn. If you ever reach a feeling of “you know it all,” you are in for a hard fall eventually. Or, worse, you’ll never take risks in life. Several of my mentors are in their 60s and financially they’ve proven a lot, but they are always humble and always learning.
First and foremost, put people and culture first. When you find passionate, smart, energetic people, take care of them and realize that culture needs to be nurtured constantly. Companies have a soul – nourish it. Unless you run a company that is powered 100% by robots (except for yourself, of course), you have to learn how to motivate people.
Give me your best sales pitch on the reasons to visit – or live in – your hometown of Austin, Texas.
What can I say? Austin is so cool – talk about a city that generates great word of mouth (just listen to passengers on a flight to Austin). There’s a vibe in Austin that attracts smart, creative people and lets them be themselves. Cost of living is great here (allowing you to focus on more fulfillment in life than the Maslow hierarchy-driven shelter), and it’s a great environment for entrepreneurs because of the beautiful surroundings, live music, and just a wealth of things to do and see at any time (SXSW, for one, is coming up). I was born here and although I’ve lived in San Francisco and Philadelphia (both great experiences in my life), I’m glad to be back. Even as Austin has grown exponentially, there’s still this laid-back feeling and friendliness to the city that makes it unique. People really help each other here – there is a real sense of community.
I read an interview where you said your first job was working at your parents’ furniture store. What did those experiences teach you about retail?
I read Sam Walton’s book, Made in America, when I was at The Wharton School earning my MBA. He was the leader I chose to do a report on for my Leadership & Teamwork class. Sam’s key to success was that he spent a lot of time in his stores, and his competitors’ stores, observing real-world customer behavior. Growing up in my parents’ store, I did the same. But I also spent over 20,000 hours programming from ages 7 to 21. So I blended my two passions – retail and technology – and never looked back. Coremetrics provided the “eyes” you needed to observe in-store behavior (on the Web). Bazaarvoice provided the “mouth” and “ears.” At the end of the day, most Web innovations can be tied to offline innovations. Google is the world’s biggest and most efficient Yellow Pages. Facebook is the world’s biggest High School Yearbook, cocktail party, conference, or dinner between two friends. Bazaarvoice is the “voice of the marketplace.”
If you could have dinner with six people in the world, who would you pick and why? And where would you take them?
Mahatma Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, Sam Walton, Warren Buffett, Eric Schmidt, and Bill Gates. They are all great leaders and have ultimately served the world, and society, with great humility. Bill may be a controversial choice given some of Microsoft’s past competitive tactics, but I really respect how he is dedicating the entire second phase of his life to serving the global community instead of selfishly bathing in his riches. We only live once, and the ultimate goal is to create Heaven on Earth.
You seem to be constantly moving in a million different directions. How do you unwind?
At the end of the day, my biggest motivation is my family. My daughter, Rachel, is 5 years old and our son, Levi, is 6 months old. My wife, Debra, and I have been married for almost 14 years and she has been an amazing life partner. There is nothing more important to me than the three of them. We often spend vacation time together in Hawaii. There is no better place to unwind with family than Maui. It has it all – varied terrain from beaches to mountains, great food, breathtaking sunsets, perfect weather, and friendly people.