Rent-A-Center's 'Inner Circle' is about meeting customer needs and much more

| by Judy Mottl
Rent-A-Center's 'Inner Circle' is about meeting customer needs and much more

Photo courtesy of Rent-A-Center.

Getting to know the customer, anticipating customer needs and proactively boosting product and services to meet those needs, as well as cultivating brand loyalty, are all critical to customer experience and retail success.

Oftentimes, however, making all those quests a reality requires a slew of strategies and typically a slew of tools and technologies. But that isn't the case for Rent-A-Center, a home furnishings retailer with more than 4,000 stores and 20,000 employees in North America.


The 40-plus-year-old retailer is tapping Fuel Cycle's customizable mobile-first community and customer insights platform and finding the technology is delivering more than initially expected — from providing insight on customer needs to spurring a more intuitive product development process to a more meaningful customer interaction.


The initial quest: an interactive customer dialogue


At Rent-A-Center (RAC), customers are "at the heart," of what it does, explained Jennifer Moretti, senior manager, marketing research, in an email interview with Retail Customer Experience.


Two years ago, in a move to expand marketing research capabilities beyond traditional methods such as focus groups and quantitative studies, RAC began looking for a new way to drive an interactive dialogue with customers to learn how it could be best of service.


The retailer realized that in-person focus groups and studies were not suitable for answering day-to-day business questions or support quick decision making.


So, the director of consumer insights at the time identified the need for real-time feedback and began exploring solutions. The retailer wanted to leverage its direct personal connection with customers and determined that an online community could serve both objectives.


The consumer insights leader reached out to Fuel Cycle as she was familiar with online community efforts in her previous roles and the RAC online community, called Inner Circle, was launched with the goal of forging a lifelong partnership with customers and not just one-time, "need it now" connection.


"By sharing what we're doing and getting their feedback, we are engaged in the listening that is so important in building partnerships and relationships," said Moretti.


Deployment no big challenge


The platform's ease of use was impressive from the get-go, recalled Moretti, and its advanced reporting and dashboard features are helping RAC to navigate data so it can focus on leveraging insights across various departments.


"What surprised us most was how easily and rapidly the use spread across the organization. What started as a marketing department initiative is now taking hold in other departments," she said.


Those departments include merchandising teams seeking the best products, pricing teams working to gauge the correct price points, and marketing teams making sure it is sending the right message to the right people at the right time.


For example, merchandising turns to the community to help gauge interest in potential new products and plans for future purchases. The community also plays a role in internal business projects as well.


"Our community helped the public and community relations department select a name for RAC's upcoming fundraising campaign, Fill the Fridge, to benefit Feeding America's nationwide network of food banks," said Moretti. "Our mission is to improve the quality of life for our customers; the RAC Inner Circle community enables us to have an interactive dialogue with customers and learn how we can best be of service," she added.


Return on investment continues to expand


Inner Circle members engage in several ways, from participating in a research activity, to watching a video, to reading content and chatting with other members and sharing experience.


It is bursting with activity given the average Fuel Cycle community experience boasts four to five activities a month, and Inner Circle launches between seven and eight activities a month, noted Moretti.


While the initial goal may have been connecting with the customer, Inner Circle is driving a more customer centric approach to decision making and giving RAC a competitive edge as it's turned the customer-marketer interaction into real-time dialogue, which, in turn, "could yield a leg up on the competition," said Moretti.


The community is also an important member of the RAC Customer Insights team, added Moretti, serving as a go-to resources for answering questions and providing guidance on what RAC does both day-to-day and longer term.


"We no longer have to confine our research to larger and often slower moving projects, but can get the answers we need in a timely manner before the decisions are made," Moretti said, adding "It allows us to incorporate actual customer opinions, not just what we think they are feeling and experiencing, into our decisions. In this way we can confirm that what we are doing benefits, and is of interest to, our customers. If it's not, we know that we have to adjust."


The customer experience impact is expanding


The Inner Circle community is also helping RAC in developing a loyalty program and proving to be a "great cost efficient resource" for gathering opinions on potential reward options in the strategy to build the best program.


In one situation, the community prompted RAC to re-do a design effort regarding price tags after members were asked to provide feedback on three new potential looks.


Members were asked how much they liked and disliked the design overall, if there was anything confusing about the design, if the design answered all questions about cost, and, in a head-to-head comparison, which design was easiest to read, understand, and did the best job sharing pricing information.


"Of the three designs, they had a clear favorite, and it wasn't the one RAC had already decided to move forward with. The customer insight prompted RAC to change direction.


"The price tag now in our stores is the product of this customer research," said Moretti.


Getting the community word out


A key challenge to any online community's success is tied to getting the word out about the community opportunity.


Moretti said RAC has many recruitment channels to tap and has reached out to prospective members through store flyers, blog posts, a monthly newsletter and direct mail initiatives. It's also considering using social channels going forward.


"One of the biggest challenges of the community is providing fresh content for our members on a frequent basis. We want to give them a reason to log on and actively engage with the Inner Circle," she added. "We want the Inner Circle to be a great experience for them and to provide that great experience. We also share news about what's happening at RAC, as well as post videos and content from RAC's official 'Front & Center' blog."


Another challenge is maintaining a solid number of prospective RAC customers as well as active community members.


"Once these members have the opportunity to learn more about us, and chat with current customers, they go out and become customers themselves," said Moretti, noting that in the last update poll over half of the prospects had signed their first agreement since joining the community.


"On one hand, it's wonderful to gain more customers. On the other, it means we need to be constantly recruiting for this important group," she said.


In its two-year history, the community quickly segued from being strictly research focused into a true brand community.


"Relationships are very important to RAC. We want to get to know our customers, welcome them by name to our stores and help them achieve the lifestyle that they dream of without taking on debt or needing credit. Our 'what's next' is to grow the size of the community as we continue this research-to-brand transition," said Moretti.


Photo courtesy of Rent-A-Center.

Topics: Assisted Selling, Consumer Behavior, CRM, Customer Experience, Customer Service, Loyalty Programs, Marketing, Merchandising, Shopper Marketing, Specialty Stores, Technology

Judy Mottl

Judy Mottl is an experienced editor, reporter and blogger who has worked for top media including AOL, InformationWeek and InternetNews. She’s written everything from breaking news to in-depth trends. She loves a great pitch so email here, follow on Twitter and connect on LinkedIn.

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