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CIO interview: Helena Theakstone, head of digital, Oasis Fashion

Oasis Fashion’s head of digital talks about GDPR preparation, collaboration between digital and IT, and the importance of listening to customers

Helena Theakstone, head of digital at retailer Oasis Fashion, recognises that great customer service relies on a strong understanding of the power of technology, and an even tighter grip on information management and governance.    

“When it comes to data, people aren’t going to be rewarded for doing things well and using information correctly,” she says. “Customers today just expect you to look after their data and to maintain their privacy. The problems will arise for companies that don’t take steps now.” 

Theakstone is currently helping Oasis prepare for the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which comes into force on 24 May, placing new obligations on firms regarding the storage and processing of information. 

Theakstone joined Oasis last February, having previously worked in senior marketing positions at Marks and Spencer and Cancer Research UK. “It’s great,” she says, referring to her current job. “It’s quite different from my previous roles. Oasis is a much smaller organisation than Marks and Spencer, but I’ve got a much broader remit.”  

As head of digital, Theakstone is responsible for a range of activities, including customer services, website analytics, design and development, and digital marketing. “I’ve got an end-to-end view of management processes, which is something I really enjoy,” she says. 

Theakstone reports to the retailer’s customer director. On a day-to-day basis, she works alongside the IT director to ensure that key targets – including those for data, governance and experience – are hit. “My main communication with the technology team is related to back-end concerns,” she says.

“The IT organisation will help me deal with key business issues, such as orders and processing. Our technology team have a strong knowledge of front-end services, so we spend quite a bit of time together. The IT director has also been leading our GDPR preparations, so that’s another area of overlap.” 

Working across departments 

The close interaction between digital and IT at Oasis is part of a growing trend across all businesses. In many cases, the increased organisation-wide awareness of the power of technology means that non-IT specialists, particularly in marketing, are beginning to take responsibility for an ever-growing proportion of the IT budget.   

Decentralised procurement and the rise of the cloud make it easier for individuals in an organisation to buy their own services on-demand, with or without the IT team’s say-so. Analyst Gartner reports that marketing chiefs spend 27% of their budget on technology – equal to 3.24% of overall company revenue – compared with a CIO technology spend of 3.4% of company revenue. 

Theakstone recognises that the move towards decentralisation has ramifications for technology procurement. The digital team at Oasis is careful not to circumnavigate its counterparts in the IT department. Rather than buying cloud-based services in isolation, Theakstone and the digital team help to create a joined-up approach. 

“It is important we communicate when we start thinking about the suppliers we use,” she says, pointing out that care is needed to ensure that a one-sided relationship does not develop. “Any marketing platform – such as those that touch customer data and research – are led by the digital team. We loop in IT where it’s appropriate.” 

“We just have to be transparent and upfront with the information we hold in the digital world”

Helena Theakstone, Oasis Fashion

The tight interaction between the digital and IT teams is just one key business relationship. Legal concerns about services and data are paramount, says Theakstone. Rather than use an internal legal department, Oasis works with law firm Fieldfisher to ensure compliance and governance are prioritised. 

“We work collaboratively, so any new supplier that we’re talking to, we pass the contract to the legal team,” she says. “More recently, they’ve come back a couple of times with reservations because the paperwork doesn’t meet the requirements of GDPR.” 

Theakstone says the lawyers helped her discover that one of the suppliers she was about to work with lacked a satisfactory privacy statement. Fieldfisher worked alongside this smaller provider to develop an appropriate statement. This approach worked for all parties, says Theakstone. 

However, some providers still struggle with data policies. Oasis recently had to back away from one that offered a specialist, mobile-based service but refused to update its privacy statement. “This supplier will have to start doing things differently in the future,” says Theakstone. “You have to be flexible to get deals over the line.” 

Key achievements 

Theakstone points to a range of key achievements during her first 12 months at Oasis. She says her team has spent a considerable time redesigning and redeveloping the firm’s website. Theakstone has appointed an external systems integrator to help the rest of the business make the most of front-end developments. 

Some of the supporting initiatives she has helped to launch include Oasis Unlimited, a subscription-based delivery service, and the creation of a click-and-collect strategy for customers. Another ongoing project involves the installation of a new checkout system across the firm’s stores, which is due to go live in March. Theakstone says multi-channel operations are a priority and social media is a key communication platform. 

“We get a huge amount of social feedback in customer services,” she says. “In our company, we sit together and if there is a problem identified by social media, we are quick to flag and manage issues. There’s a lot of dialogue that will only increase going forward as companies use different platforms to encourage those conversations. 

You must listen to your customers. Many of our clients are savvy and ask technical questions. As knowledge grows, we need to make sure we can answer their questions. We have their information, we can share it and we’re not doing things wrong. We just have to be transparent and upfront with the information we hold in the digital world.” 

Boost customer satisfaction

Theakstone’s priority in the next 12 months is to ensure the firm continues to boost customer satisfaction levels. She aims to increase the range of collection options, including enabling consumers to pick up parcels from delivery partners. “That is important to keep in line with competitors and to give customers the choices they demand,” says Theakstone. 

The digital team will also support ongoing product extensions at Oasis, she says. “That has an impact on the way we work. We have to think about how products are displayed online and it involves a significant amount of front-end development.” 

The continued growth of cloud services and the ever-increasing regulatory bind means digital leaders face a potential minefield in terms of data protection. Theakstone recognises that Oasis relies heavily on the recommendations of its legal team, something that was also true at her previous employers. 

“Our work around GDPR so far has focused on privacy statements and terms and conditions, and we haven’t been told to change anything yet,” she says. “But we’re about to get our audit back and that might include remediation as part of an action plan.”  

Preparing for GDPR

Work around the preparations for GDPR is part of a broader strategy to keep customer data safe and secure. Although Theakstone has not had to deal with a data breach at Oasis, she says executives responsible for information in all firms must understand cyber threats and their potential implications. 

“You must have a plan in place before the worst happens,” she says. “React quickly, be transparent and say how you’re going to fix things in the future. That can help quash customer fears about data loss. Our communications strategy is about trying to ensure we put customers and their data first.” 

Computer Weekly spoke with Theakstone at a recent RSA Security event in London, which focused on the role of marketing in an age of risk. The event coincided with the release of research from YouGov, on behalf of the RSA, which surveyed more than 7,500 European consumers. 

More than three-quarters (78%) of respondents said the company reputation relating to data handling had an impact on their buying decisions. More than two-thirds (69%) would boycott a company that repeatedly showed no regard for customer data. Theakstone says she and her colleagues appreciate the strong correlation between information security and client trust.  

“We want to make more money and that comes from great experiences, both in-store and online,” she says. “If we are viewed as a trusted partner – and customers provide their information to us, and we play it back to them in a relevant way – then that’s how we’ll succeed in the future.” 

Read more interviews with IT leaders in retail

  • The CIO of Hobbycraft, Mike Thomas, on the art of digital transformation in retail, the importance of customer experience and getting a good return on investment. 
  • House of Fraser CIO Julian Burnett on his role in the business, key achievements and his plans for long-term and lasting digital transformation.
  • Jim Downing, CTO at digital fashion plugin Metail, believes selling fashion online is still difficult for retailers despite shifts towards omni-channel. 

Theakstone says plans for smarter use of customer data remain a work in progress. “We are always trying to work towards the creation of a single customer view,” she says, suggesting one of the main areas of focus will be to develop closer ties between in-store and online data. 

“We don’t have a loyalty card system but we do offer e-receipts, so customers can receive notification of their purchases electronically,” says Theakstone, who is investigating the potential procurement and introduction of customer relationship management software. 

While Theakstone is keen to exploit technology, she recognises that more haste, less speed is a key philosophy for digital leaders. Big data can create new opportunities, but the widespread use of systems and services must be counterbalanced by an effective understanding of information management and governance. 

“Being cautious makes a lot of sense,” she says. “Don’t take risks – use the support you’ve got and the legal advice you have. The thought of getting something done quickly and satisfying the urgent request of a director shouldn’t mean you avoid best practice business guidelines.”

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