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Retail CRM interview SalesForce's Shelley Bransten

Read about the latest insights from Shelley Bransten on the biggest disruptions in CRM.

Tell us about your role at Salesforce.
I lead the retail industry team. As retail ambassadors to our internal sales, technology and customer success teams’, we help our people speak the language of our retail customers and understand their key pain points. We also assist with designing solutions that are more specific to the retail industry.

You’ve spent most of your career in retail. What first got you interested in the industry?
I was born and raised in San Francisco. My family has been here since the 1800s as part of the gold rush to California. Back in the 1800s, my family started a coffee company called MJB (which is now owned by Nestle). San Francisco is a great port city and many of the household names in ground coffee started here such as Folgers, Hills Brothers and of course MJB. MJB, the B is for Bransten, was my great, great grandfather. As a child, I spent weekends going to grocery stores with my dad and sisters to watch my dad re-arrange the cans on the shelves, asking the store manager about how our coffee was selling and what demographics were buying our family coffee. Since then, retail has been in my blood. I’ve always liked the creative process, and I like having the data underneath to understand what’s working and what’s not. Customer relationship management (CRM) offers both aspects –art and science of retailing.

What has been your most rewarding career experience or accomplishment?
Back in the late 90s, I was working at Banana Republic during the first Internet boom. I was tasked with creating a database that could track our customers. At that time, we had no customer information other than what the sales associates told us. Working with a vendor, I built a database. Slowly but surely, I became the first person in Gap Inc. (owner of Gap, Banana Republic and Old Navy) who could answer questions like, “who is a repeat customer?” or “who is buying khakis, then a button down shirt?” Other brands (Gap, Old Navy) wanted to answer similar questions, but they didn’t have the data. So I ended up leading CRM across the brands. We had the largest database in specialty retail and a team of 86 people when I left. We really saw the value of owning the direct relationship with our consumers.

What has been the biggest disruption to CRM over the past 20 years?
I have been chasing the notion of a 360-degree view of the customer since I started in the industry. Now, technology allows you to have a 360-degree view and closer relationships with customers. To know a customer who browses a website, downloads a loyalty app, comes to a store, “Likes” something on Facebook, we can sense and respond to that now. That’s transformational. We can do what we said we wanted to do 20 years ago. Now, what holds retailers up is the organizational design or legacy mindsets/resource allocation, not the technology.

In a world where building loyalty and relationships with customers is so important, what should retailers be doing differently?
Relationships, by nature, are two-way. Ask someone about loyalty and they may say, “Better access to products and services,” but it’s not a real relationship. I believe leaders think about loyalty as co-creation; they don’t start with the end in mind. Loyalty is about having the ability to personalize along the customer journey—and respond. Sometimes consumer perception wins. I think it’s important to try to put control in the hands of the consumer. Allow them to break rules, let them use a coupon after it has expired. Retail systems haven’t kept up to enable retailers to extend those offers. And it’s not just about discounts. It’s about access to experiences, the brand, great service. That’s loyalty—not a blanket “Save 30%” coupon.

How will CRM evolve in the next five years?
In the early days of retail, CRM was do-it-yourself. Retailers were building their own systems or taking existing systems and making them work for a retail context. The last 10 years has been about experimentation—taking DIY and extending it to ecommerce, social media, emerging technologies. We are crossing the chasm now where it’s a customer first mentality. At Salesforce, we talk about systems of record vs. systems of engagement. The next 10 years are about systems of engagement. This is mission critical. If you don’t do it, will you be around in 10 years? CRM was optional. Now it’s part of the fabric of a retail business.

What are your biggest pet peeves as a customer?
I’m a busy working mom with two young boys. Shopping is not entertainment anymore. Whether getting school supplies or an outfit for a keynote, it’s about getting it done. The fun part is shopping online when the kids are in bed and the house is finally quiet. What’s annoying is when I’m shopping online to get inspired, then I walk into the store to get the item I was inspired by, but I have to start over. The items not there. Or they don’t have it in my size. The store associate can’t access my loyalty reward points. I’ve left this rich digital trail of breadcrumbs, but the store is not taking advantage. That bugs me, especially when time is our most precious commodity.

Do you enjoy shopping, or is it difficult to remove your work hat?
I can completely detach and enjoy the experience. Great retailers, to me, are like a great restaurant or museum. When it’s good, it becomes an emotional experience vs. rational.

How do you define an exceptional customer experience?
I was recently set up with a client specialist at a high-end retailer. I see her twice a year. She knows what I like, what I feel comfortable with. She knows my sizes and has items laid out for me to see. She makes it easy, and I feel like she’s advocating for me. This is why we call it “retail therapy.” It’s not just about the clothes; it’s about the experience.

You are a fluent Spanish speaker. Tell us about that.
As a young child we had a young woman from Nicaragua who lived with my family, so I learned the language at home. Then in high school, I lived in Paraguay as exchange student. I found that learning a new language was an opportunity to make my world bigger; it helped me to understand other cultures. In college, I was a double major in political science and Spanish. In business school, I became interested in international business. It has been a way to understand what a big place the world is. We can all get stuck in our own problems and not see the bigger picture. At Salesforce, my industry lead role is a global role, so I am able to use my Spanish in some of my overseas meetings.

What kinds of activities do you enjoy in your free time?
A mentor once said to me, we all get demoted when we get home. So I’m a soccer mom, at the soccer fields and basketball courts. I like to do Vinyasa yoga to de-stress and reground. I hope in the future we can do more traveling. I’d like to help my children see more of the world. Volunteerism is important to me. I never get to do as much as I’d like, but when we can, we participate at local food kitchens and shelters. I want my kids to know they are part of a bigger community.

If you weren’t working in retail, what do you think you would be doing?
I’ve always wanted to be like Oprah or Terry Gross. I like learning about people. Being an interviewer would be really fun. Going back to the earlier question about what I like about retail. As a little girl, when I would visit stores with my dad, I wondered what people have in their carts—what does that say about them? You get a whole persona and can do your own kind of segmentation. I’m interested in habits and I like to connect with people.