Alex Tallman, Director, Retail Experience & Education at Fleet Feet: “As a CX leader, it’s critical to remain connected to the realities of the retail environment”

What do you do when you have a great job at Coca-Cola but have a “quarter-life crisis”? Simple: you get a part-time job in a running store – and then eventually turn into the Director of its Retail Experience & Education division. Or at least, that’s what you do if you’re Alex Tallman, who does precisely that job for Fleet Feet.

For those unfamiliar with Fleet Feet, it opened its first store in 1976, in Sacramento, California. Its aim: to give runners the right gear (and knowledge). It now has over 260 stores in the US. And it’s clearly doing something right, as it featured in Fast Company’s 2022 Brands That Matter List and Inc.’s 2022 Best in Business List.

As you will read below, Alex has played a big part in that recent success and isn’t afraid to embrace technology if it delivers the goods. But, as you will also discover, the human touch remains key in his strategy.

Related reading: Omotenashi in digital customer engagement: openness and sincerity through first-party data

Could you please introduce yourself to our audience? What motivated you to pursue a career in customer experience, and how did you embark on your journey in this field?

I got a great job in a fast-track program with Coca-Cola out of college, but after a couple of years, I realised I just couldn’t get excited about what I was doing. I had what I like to refer to as a quarter-life crisis and decided to give up the safe career and take a chance on something I was passionate about that had some bigger personal meaning.

I had been a frequent customer of the Fleet Feet location in Pittsburgh and approached the owners for a part-time job on the weekends to get my foot in the door of the running industry. I originally thought I’d stick around for a year or so, then go on to work for a footwear brand, but I quickly fell in love with the culture of Fleet Feet and everything it’s about.

During most of my four-year tenure, we were using the old metal Brannock device that you might remember from shoe stores when you were a kid. Then, I had a unique opportunity to help pilot a new 3D foot scanning solution. There weren’t many guidelines, and I was given a full creative licence to play around with the scanner to figure out the best way to integrate it into our in-store experience. This was an incredibly satisfying challenge, and it gave me a foot in the door to eventually join our Store Support Team.

What are your thoughts on the escalating integration of AI in customer experience and its potential influence on the future of customer service at large?

I’m both excited and apprehensive. On one hand, I love that there are more and more tools out there to help reduce some of the friction in delivering an amazing experience. But on the other, I worry about going too far and losing that human connection.

When I talk about the use of AI internally, I often reference the scene from The Office where Michael and Dwight are out doing sales calls, and Michael follows his GPS into a lake. Technology is obviously great, but, especially for our industry, where the personal touch is so critical, it needs to be filtered through a real person with their own knowledge, expertise and personality to lean on. If not, while they won’t end up in a lake, they’re bound to make some wrong turns in creating a great customer experience.

Could you share some of your most noteworthy accomplishments that you take particular pride in?

There is a lot to feel good about with Fleet Feet, but the thing I’m most particularly proud of is that we continue to maintain a Net Promoter Score of over 90. There are a lot of metrics I look at on a regular basis, but to me, that one is the most holistic indicator that we’re doing things right.

What core values have played a pivotal role in shaping your approach to customer experience?

I’ve worked for companies where core values are just some words in an onboarding packet. But at Fleet Feet, we work really hard to always keep them front of mind. Before Covid, when everyone was still based in the office, we even had some travel trophies for each core value that was peer-nominated and presented in a monthly all-team meeting. Now, we recreate it over Zoom.

The one that has been most pivotal in shaping my approach to customer experience is “Create Value with Every Action“. You only get so much of a customer’s time, so I’m always looking at our experience through the lens of how to maximise the things that add value and minimise the friction that gets in the way.

The other that stands out is actually our first one, and that’s “Put People First“. You’re not going to be able to deliver a good customer experience if you’re not thinking about the customer, but it’s equally important that you’re always thinking about your associates who work with them. For something to be successful, it needs to work for the customer and the associate.

The last one I’ll share is “It’s a Privilege to Serve“. What I do in my role doesn’t mean anything without the thousands of associates working face to face with customers every day. By focusing on how I can best support them to create amazing experiences, it keeps me focused on the right things.

Recommended reading: AI in education: how it’s already being used and what’s going to happen next

What major hurdles have you encountered as a customer experience leader, and how did you surmount them?

The biggest hurdle I have faced and will continue to face is simply change management. The world is changing faster and faster every day, yet there is only so much human capacity for change if it’s going to be executed well. Over time, I developed a motto of “implementation over creation,” in which I try to focus on making the important changes as manageable as possible versus pushing a lot of things out, hoping that they stick.

One example of where this shows up is with updates to our sales process, which we call the Outfitting Experience. We used to make updates and minor tweaks to the recommendations periodically, but it was hard for our stores to keep up with all of the changes. Now, we do our best to save any enhancements for big moments and put as much communication and training behind them as possible.

We’re actually gearing up for our big 2024 update right now. Soon, we will be launching some exciting enhancements to the dynamic portion of our fit id® foot scanning technology by incorporating more actionable data for our customers in a way that will be easier to use for our associates.

What piece of advice would you offer to fellow customer experience professionals that has been particularly beneficial to you personally?

As a CX leader, it’s critical to remain connected to the realities of the retail environment.

It has been incredibly helpful that I started my career with Fleet Feet as a part-time store associate, but even with that experience behind me, I still actively work to not lose touch with it. My office sits directly above the cash wrap of our store in Carrboro, NC. So, as I’m testing any new ideas, I’m able to see what it looks like in action by just going down a flight of stairs. And I’m no stranger to working directly with customers when testing new initiatives to see their reactions and identify any potential friction first-hand!

What customer experience technology has your company recently embraced and what difference has it made to your business?

Last year, I led a transition to Chatter by Stingray for our customer feedback tool. I started the conversation with them back at the Shoptalk conference in Las Vegas back in the spring of 2022, and we just rolled it out brand-wide this past summer. Before that, we did have a customer feedback solution, but it was just lines and lines of text without any great way of aggregating it all. Chatter has given my team a better way to pull our themes and identify actionable insights.

We’re just starting to scratch the surface of what we can do with enhanced data, but it has already proven quite useful in cross-departmental conversations internally. Instead of relying on anecdotes and opinions, it has helped to shape a more objective sense of things like where customers perceive that we’re having inventory issues or what customers think of our loyalty program.

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Ricardo Oliveira

Ricardo Oliveira is a Senior Director of Digital Operations at Engage Media Group. He frequently collaborates with TechFinitive's editorial team to create reports, industry analysis and custom content across a myriad of topics. He's based in Sydney, Australia.