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A talk with Karen Voelker of the Accenture Customer Innovation Network

Read an interview with Accenture’s Global Retail Lead of the Accenture Customer Innovation Network (ACIN).

Karen Voelker, Accenture Customer Innovation Network Global Retail lead, knows about the most disruptive retail technologies. She has toured hundreds of retail stores. She’s also walked many miles in the shoes of a retail customer—just ask her pedometer.

You’ve been with Accenture for 13 years. Where did you get your start at the company?

I started as an intern in 2000, working in business computer systems. One of my projects was coding a UPS tracking return system for a company. I moved over to the retail industry group in 2001, where I did retail consulting for six years. Then I moved over to the Accenture Customer Innovation Network where I started as a workshop lead. That has been my home ever since.

Tell us about the Accenture Customer Innovation Network.

We call it the ACIN [“ace-in”]. It’s set up to explore the future customer experience. Our primary focus is conducting workshops with clients—typically two to three days a week. People love coming to the centers because they can try hands-on demos of the latest and greatest technology, and walk through their business challenges in an environment that stimulates creative problem solving.

Do clients always come to you?

I’d say 80 percent of the 150 or so workshops we do per year is at our locations in Chicago, Milan and Sao Paulo—or our satellites in London, Manila, Singapore and San Jose, at the Accenture Technology Labs. I think it’s better when clients come to us, because they can use our tools and digital apps to experience what it’s like to be a customer today. We might give them a persona—say, “you’re a 25-year-old new mom looking for advice on products.” We tell them what apps to try, and we’ll get them into stores and have them look at the experience through the persona lens, rather than their personal lens.

What are some of the top challenges retailers share at the ACIN?

Everyone is trying to rethink the customer experience across channels. They know they want to be digital, but they don’t know what that means across channels. We help them to look at the entire customer journey—how is it different on a phone, versus a tablet, versus the physical store? Clients are also trying to figure out how to get products to the customer faster. No retailer was set up to deliver direct to consumer, so what requirements need to change in the organizational and operating model to help that?

What are some of the innovations you explore with clients?

I lead a lot of store tours based on what clients are interested in. For example, this week we visited a store in SoHo where they launched a digital wall where you can shop, put items in dressing rooms, change the lighting in the dressing room, etc. It’s a great example of how retailers are beginning to merge digital and physical worlds.

Are there any “ah-ha” moments that stand out in your mind when touring a store?

get really excited when I see stores that are offering more than products—they are offering a lifestyle. You remember brands that are putting stores within stores, offering a complete experience rather than a place to shop for one type of product. When it’s an experience, customers are excited about trying products and learning about them.

What do you personally value most from a brand or a shopping experience?

I need things simple and easy—just a few clicks to make a purchase. I also expect fast shipping, and I get mad when I have to pay for shipping or returns. I want to see reviews and know that someone has bought a product and given their approval. I’ll even ask my social network. Just recently, I bought a pair of snow boots that were highly recommended online, but turned out to be not so great. I asked my social network and now I have three or four new pairs at home, waiting for me to try them on.

Do you share on social networks?

Oh yes. I’m an influencer. I love trying new things because I’m passionate about learning. I take in new experiences or products, and I want to share my thoughts with others. I’ll post my feedback on social networks and I’ll look for feedback from others. I think it’s because I have a fear of missing out.

Do you have any special interests or hobbies?

I am passionate about exercise and learning about new ways to work out. I love yoga and I’ve recently picked up running, which led me to sign up for my first sprint triathlon. I even exercise at work. On my last set of store tours, I had walked 10,000 steps by noon!