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Q&A with Allison Smith, General Manager, 3INA
08 March 2016
Allison Smith is an executive who has worked in senior positions at some of Australia’s best-known brands across retail, wholesale and service organisations in a career spanning nearly 30 years. Who better then, to discuss the Australian retail market and share thoughts on what it takes and means to be a female executive? We caught up with Allison as she prepared to speak at a Women@Page internal event in Melbourne to mark International Women’s Day.
You’ve worked in senior positions for some of the biggest companies in retail, wholesale and service organisations. What has been your single biggest career learning?
That it’s all in your hands. I know too many people who are unhappy in their roles, who fail to do anything about it. You spend far too much time at work to not love your job. You need to focus on your network, be clear about your personal brand and the value you can add. You need to be out there!
What is your biggest career achievement to date?
Being part of highly functional teams – particularly at Myer, that had a million projects on the go at once. You had to have trust and respect in each other and common vision. We turned around a business that had lacked customer and employee engagement, with poor KPIs. And we all loved doing it.
What have been some of the biggest obstacles to your career growth and how have you overcome them?
It’s an interesting question, as I’m so ‘glass-half-full’ as a person, I’m not sure I’ve considered too many things as obstacles that have not been of my own making, or that have not turned out for the best. I’II give you an example. When my son was 3 weeks old I got a call from the company I worked for at the time to say I had not made the cut for partnership. I’m sure in part, even though I would not have admitted it at the time, that this was a result of both being a woman and a new mother. So firstly let’s say this was 16 years ago and the accounting world, especially the corporate finance arms, have improved significantly in their diversity practices and their view of working mothers. I was devastated. However, I had chosen to work in a very male orientated stream of work – insolvency – because I loved the work rather than a safe role in audit. And as it turns out, this is one of the best things that ever happened to me because of the diverse and interesting career that followed. It now turns out that the little obstacle of being a woman 16 years ago is now a real positive, as female Non-Executive Directors are in high demand!
What do you see as the greatest challenge facing retail at the moment?
Relevance in a crowded market. Understanding what the unique proposition is and delivering on it when our cost structures in Australia are so high. I use the butcher analogy to make the point. There are 3 butchers in my local shopping strip – do they know why someone shops with them vs the competition, do they know how to retain and grow customers by offering something different?
What have been the biggest changes in Australian retail in the past 15 years?
The digital age – if you are not Omni-channel you are not servicing the diverse ways a customer wants to interact with you. This is challenging for established businesses as it challenges the “why things have always been done” which, in turn, means agility is the highest priority for retail. It leaves the door wide open for new entrants who start with digital as their first platform, before considering bricks and mortar.
You have a passion for meaningful and rewarding Customer Engagement. How does a company achieve and sustain it?
You could write a book to give a full answer but, honestly, it’s about a meaningful dialogue with your customer. Either in the way they respond to your offer, their open rates on emails, social media chats or customer focus groups. But you always need a conversation with the customer to exchange information. You need to think of the customer in every internal meeting – start with a “customer moment”. Give your customer a name and get to know them because if you are not, someone else trying to steal your customer is.
It now turns out that the little obstacle of being a woman 16 years ago is now a real positive, as female Non-Executive Directors are in high demand!
What makes good customer service in the modern age?
It’s about personalisation. Reading the customer in how much interaction they want with your team, treating every customer as an individual and giving tailored solutions. Customers are intuitive – they know when there is and when there is not a genuine interest in them as an individual.
How hard is customer loyalty to achieve and maintain when there is so much choice on offer?
It is more complex than it has ever been. However, when a customer transacts with you they give you data. The power of data is enormous. For example, at Borders, when we introduced the loyalty program it was really important to send targeted and triggered product introductions and offers to the customer. Every other book retailer was sending sometimes irrelevant and even alienating offers (e.g. teen adventure titles to 60 year old men). If you delight the customer by using their data intelligently without crossing the stalking line then it creates an emotional connection to your brand. Again the themes of personalisation and agility are important.
What do you look for when you’re hiring staff?
Passion. You can teach technical skills but you can’t teach passion. Also a high degree of self-awareness is important to ensure that in team situations everyone is effective.
What advice would you give to the next generation of Australian women aiming for executive roles?
Have guts, expect to make mistakes. Work on your network and make sure you are in a role that you love. Don’t let anyone other than yourself tell you what you are and aren’t capable of.
Your track record and experience make you a role model for women in the world of work. Who were your career role models and why?
They were both men and their common characteristics were empathy and empowering. I think of them when I find myself not thinking of my team enough. They taught me that focusing on your team will deliver success every time, because they will in turn focus on the customer and feel they can deliver beyond their own expectations. Like most senior women, the title “role model” makes us a little uncomfortable with the spotlight being turned on us. However, we all understand the obligation we have to show other women that anything is possible if you back yourself.