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CIO interview: Phil Lewis, director of digital experience, Boden

Fashion retailer Boden is going through a transformation process, using digital elements across the business and fostering innovation

Phil Lewis, director of digital experience at Boden, is helping the fashion retailer embrace business transformation through new customer experiences and fresh operational strategies. 

Lewis joined Boden in May 2016, having previously worked in senior roles for Ralph Lauren and IBM. His time at the firm has coincided with a significant period of change. Boden recently opened its flagship store on London’s King’s Road and has also moved to new offices in the capital, built around agile working principles.  

Lewis, who spoke to Computer Weekly at a recent Adobe customer experience event in London, says these operational changes form part of a wider transformation strategy. “What struck me was the scale of the opportunity,” he says, referring to his decision to join the company two years ago. 

“It’s a great brand with a loyal set of customers. From a digital standpoint, they were functional, but there was clearly an opportunity to go in and make a difference. They’re the sort of things you look for when you’re moving into a new role. There was a momentum and that’s accelerated since I’ve been there, too.” 

Setting business priorities 

Lewis says digital transformation for Boden requires a focus on two key elements: creating a flagship brand; and developing high-quality customer experiences. “We need to find ways to shift from being a broadcaster to a brand that has conversations with its customers,” he says, referring to a challenge that will be familiar to his retail peers. 

“The sector has got caught in a ruthless wind-tunnel of optimisation and convergence, where everything is focused on frictionless service. That’s great but you can start to lose the feeling of personalisation. You must showcase your products in the best possible light, engage with customers while they’re at your site and create enough targeted content to keep people interested.” 

While the theory is simple, the practical elements involved in creating this connection with customers can be tricky. Lewis advises other business leaders to recognise that digital transformation is hard. He says a tight focus on customer experiences requires a high level of engagement with the broader business.  

“You can’t forge this path on your own and you need to bring everyone else with you if you want to create terrific experiences and a strong brand,” says Lewis. “Customers don’t come back for a great checkout experience but they might leave because of a bad one. Focus on high-value activities and give your customers clarity.” 

Joining disparate teams 

As director of digital experience, Lewis manages a team that designs and develops technical solutions to a range of business challenges. He reports to the operations director and works closely with the firm’s IT director. “When I started, there was a firmer line between the two teams,” says Lewis. 

“Our teams have worked hard to ensure there isn’t a difference between technology and digital. In the past 12 months, with a transition to agile, we’ve broken everything down further and created scrum teams that include various elements from across the organisation, such as development, product and user experience.” 

Lewis says this joined-up way of working has made a significant difference. “We’ve gone from giving requirements to IT, and waiting to see what comes back three months later, to an integrated approach where both teams own a project in combination,” he says. 

The move to agile might have been key to operational success but it hasn’t been straightforward. Lewis says use of the method across the business is still in its early days. However, support for the approach continues to grow.  

“The people in the organisation have already seen the benefits and the impetus you need to get people to really buy into your ideas,” says Lewis. “From a leadership standpoint, the fact that I’m seeing new fixes, features and components going in on a fortnightly basis is a massive benefit. Seeing constant improvement is great.”

Investing in technology 

Lewis looks back on his first two years at Boden and suggests the tight relationship between marketing and IT represents a critical change in working practices at the firm. “We need each other to be successful,” he says. 

“The way that teams work together now makes the difference between us being able to get things done or not.” 

In terms of achievements, Lewis points to an overall improvement in customer experiences for online consumers, particularly in terms of mobile platforms. “That's where we’ve really shifted a lot of our attention during the past year,” says Lewis.

“All the improvements we’ve made now mean we know how people are using the Boden site. Being able to make changes to improve our approach has been critical.”

Read more retail CIO interviews

As part of this transformation process, Lewis and his colleagues have invested in Adobe’s Experience Manager technology. He says the content management platform helps push creativity into the hands of workers across the organisation. Lewis says the platform helps staff design tailored experiences for customers. 

However, he also recognises that any system – without the right capability – is just a tool waiting to be used. 

“A large proportion of the transformation project is about technology, but there needs to be a similar investment in people,” he says. “It’s a big change to go from just designing one experience to designing multiple experiences for different customer groups. And there's a lot of work still to be done.” 

Developing creative opportunities 

Lewis says the digital and IT teams at Boden are directing attention to other supporting initiatives. He says current priority projects in the business include a review of enterprise architecture and a tighter grip on product information management. New ways of inspiring creativity are on the agenda, too. 

“The other thing we're trying to create is an innovation space,” says Lewis. “We’re known for being a creative company and we're trying to develop a space where people can bring their ideas, we can view them effectively and we can help them gain proof of concept.” 

Some of these ideas might turn into core products or services, while others might fall by the wayside. The key is that the new venture gives people the chance to embrace innovative thinking without fear of failure. “If you want people to be creative, then you need to give them space,” he says. 

“That’s what we're trying to do – the innovation space is an integrated capability that draws people in from across the organisation. Innovation isn't any single person's job – creativity is everyone’s responsibility. This space is a mechanism for anyone in the business to have an idea, receive funding, push it through and see if it works.” 

Engaging with customers

Priorities over the next 18 to 24 months include ensuring a variety of digital elements are being used to help the business transform. As well as implementing data analysis tools, Lewis and his team will focus on making the most of continued developments in product information management and will push the implementation of Adobe Experience Manager around the globe. 

Boden sells its products in sixty countries and the firm operates in seven markets, so digital transformation is no minor task. Lewis says the kick-off meeting for the introduction of the Adobe platform, for example, involved 50 people out of a head office of 500 members of staff.

“As a marketing organisation, we’ve got to move our approach from designing content for pages to creating content for customers,” says Lewis. “The scale of that transition is massive, so while it will be easier to reach those goals through the tools we’re introducing, a lot of our success will come to down to cross-organisational planning. The tool doesn't create the content, people do.” 

Lewis says the firm must continue to analyse how it markets to and entices customers. “We need to listen to what they want – and that isn't always just about providing special offers,” he says. “There are many different channels through which people will want to be engaged and will respond to our business.” 

Developing multiple channels 

Business transformation at the retailer, therefore, involves much more than a single-minded focus on digital properties. While 95% of the firm’s 1.8 million customers buy products online, Boden is now moving onto the high street, having recently opened its first stores in London.  

Lewis says he will know his multi-channel approach has been successful if customers are happy. “Fundamentally, that’s why we're investing all this money – we want to attract new customers and make the experience for existing clients even better,” he says. 

Whether the firm communicates with its customers through its catalogue, via email or in-store, the aim, says Lewis, is that people see Boden as a consistent brand with a single voice. “We want to get to the point where we operate as one, rather than in silos.” 

What transformation does involve is a significant amount of change for our company. But hopefully, we’ll be able to stand back in a few years, look back on the change and our people will think it’s been special to go through that process.” 

Driving lasting change

Lewis says long-term success will require progress across a range of levels. “Somewhat predictably, a lot of these initiatives come down to people, processes and tools,” he says, before asserting – once again – the crucial role played by in-house capability. 

He advises other digital leaders taking a similar approach to start small and create momentum. Perhaps the best indicator of success so far is that people around the business recognise the potential positive impact of the change process Lewis and his colleagues are trying to initiate. 

“The company’s investing for growth – and in retail, that’s a rare thing,” he says. “We’re able to make changes and we’re empowered to do that. It’s a fun working environment, where we’re able to try a range of interesting things.”

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