Center Stage

by Katie Lee

The evolving role of the retail chain COO: Q&A with Will Powell, COO of Sears Hometown & Outlet Stores.

Interview By Katie Lee

[Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on the cover of the December 2013/January 2014 issue of Retail Facility Business magazine.]

According to Princeton University, a chief operating officer is defined as “the corporate executive responsible for the operations of the firm.” While that definition could be considered accurate at some companies, it appears cursory to Will Powell’s role as COO of Sears Hometown & Outlet Stores, Inc. (SHOS).

Everyone knows that in retail, success hinges on the customer experience. Whether it’s a one-unit or 5,000-unit operation, if a single customer leaves the store unhappy, that means either the merchandise, the customer service or the store environment fell below his or her expectations. Perhaps the store was unkempt, or the discount promised in the ad wasn’t accurate. Maybe the product advertised wasn’t available on shelves, or, worse yet, the store associate was unwilling or unable to assist the customer. No matter what it is, a COO in the retail world realizes that a customer complaint, no matter how big or small, is often a red flag of a potential system-wide problem.

To discover how a nationwide retail brand keeps customer service in check, we spoke to Powell to discuss how SHOS connects the dots between three critical, intersecting branches of a retail operation — merchandising, marketing and operations.

SHOS.ExteriorPowell considers these three legs of the table — or the “triangle” of merchandising, marketing and operations — to be critically intertwined, each relying heavily upon one another. His role and mission as COO is to ensure that everyone involved in each side of the triangle is 100% engaged in delivering a best-in-class customer experience through cross-functional teamwork and communication.

RFB: How do you create synergy between the “three legs of the table” at Sears Hometown & Outlet Stores?

Powell: “It’s my responsibility to ensure that our mission of creating ‘legendary’ customer service is delivered upon every single day. Ensuring we achieve this level of customer experience starts with having capable people in the right positions. I am blessed to have incredibly smart and talented people on my team, particularly in the key executive leadership seats of merchandising, marketing and operations. Next, there must be effective training at all levels and robust communication between all parties on each side of the triangle. If the three legs of the table are not in unison, or not understanding of each other’s function and goal, the table will collapse.

“One way we keep the communication flow healthy at SHOS is to bring all the key stake holders together for weekly meetings so that each party clearly knows what the other is doing. At these sessions, we spend a majority of time determining how to bring merchandise and promotions to life, get customers through the door and ensure we are enabling our stores to deliver a great customer experience. Yet because our owners, franchisees and store managers are ultimately responsible for executing at the store level, we invest significantly in thorough training, as well as creating a culture in which quality customer service can thrive. The clarity, consistency and frequency of our communications to the stores is a key to success.”

RFB: With multiple formats and hundreds of stores under the Sears Hometown & Outlet umbrella, what advice can you give with regard to managing operations at a store level?

Powell: “It’s extremely important not to get so lost in the ‘glass tower’ at the support center that you lose touch with what happens in your stores. Taking the time to consistently visit stores is the only way to monitor operational execution at the ground level. Through unannounced drop-ins, I can see our stores through the eyes of a customer. With four different formats under the SHOS umbrella — Sears Outlet, Sears Appliance & Hardware, Sears Hometown and Sears Home Appliance Showroom — and more than 1,200 stores, we serve a lot of diverse customer groups. Understanding how our strategies and initiatives are connecting with these different customers can be best done by seeing it real-time in a store.

“Visiting individual locations allows me to see first-hand how the marketing, merchandising and operating strategies are being implemented. If I see the same inconsistent execution or problem in several stores, the issue can almost always be traced back to the corporate level. Retailers are known to create complications in their stores from the glass tower. In these instances we have probably created a situation where the stores don’t fully understand what we are trying to accomplish. Our stores don’t try to fail. They want to win.

“It is my and my team’s ultimate responsibility to ensure that all of our systems and programs that support our stores are running smoothly and that problem areas are recognized to prevent negatively impacting our customers.”

RFB: Maintaining customer service is imperative to the success of a retail brand. That said, how does SHOS ensure customer satisfaction?

Powell: “At SHOS, we strive to be known as a friendly, neighborhood store that always finds a way to Say Yes to meet the needs of our customers. This requires we focus on building long term relationships with our customers that are based on trust and consistent high-quality service. As retailers in the big-ticket industry well know, consumers don’t typically purchase a new, large item every year. They may buy a new refrigerator, but then we may not see them again for perhaps 5 years or more until they have a new need. As one way to build a more frequent and loyal customer base, we implemented the system-wide Say Yes customer service program.

“The Say Yes program enables every associate, at any level in our company, to make whatever decision necessary to take care of a customer. No policy handed down from ‘corporate’ will ever stand in their way. Every company must have a set of policies to act as guidelines for how they will operate their business. What we won’t allow is for any of us to hide behind our policies as an excuse for not ‘saying yes’ to a customer’s request. For example, if a customer wants to return an item outside of our standard return policy because it didn’t meet their expectations, even a part-time associate is empowered to make the call on their own. In this way, every employee at the store assumes the role of CEO to ensure that a customer concern can always be resolved on the spot. At our organization, it is my responsibility to oversee this program and ensure it is alive and well as part of our culture.

“On the other end of the spectrum, we like to show our support and acknowledge the associates and owners who go above and beyond to uphold Say Yes. We have a ‘SHO Your Pride’ program that allows employees to share stories of legendary customer service. I personally read every submission and we select the best entry each month and award the submitter $1,000. Our associates like having the power to Say Yes to customers and get excited to share their success stories.”

RFB: What is the most enjoyable aspect of your job as chief operating  officer?

Powell: “There are lots of great things about my job. A personal favorite is when we recognize a hard-working team member with a well-earned promotion. To know that somebody gets to go home that night and tell their family, ‘I got promoted today,’ is a great feeling. On a different level, one of the things I find most gratifying about retail is the report card we receive at the end of every day. The report card tells us, with complete transparency, if we are winning or losing. In the retail industry, we receive immediate results that tell us how our stores are doing, what programs or promotions are excelling and what products are flying off the shelves. There’s no better feeling than to know, multiple days in a row, that SHOS is coming up on the winning side. This is when we know we have merchandising, marketing and operations working in harmony, enabling our stores to delight customers and build long term relationships.” 

— Will Powell is the chief operating officer of Sears Hometown and Outlet Stores, Inc., where he oversees merchandising, marketing, operations, business development and the store organization for the four store formats under the SHOS umbrella. SHOS is a national retailer primarily focused on selling home appliances, lawn and garden equipment, tools and hardware. As of August 3, 2013, Sears Hometown and Outlet Stores, Inc. and its dealers and franchisees operated 1,250 stores across all 50 states as well as in Puerto Rico and Bermuda.

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