The founder of Hotel Chocolat discusses the importance of his constant desire to go the extra mile for the chocolatier’s loyal customers.
Angus Thirlwell would be forgiven for spending his summer lapping up the golden sands and scorching temperatures of St Lucia, the picturesque West Indian island upon which Hotel Chocolat runs the Boucan Boutique Hotel and Restaurant.
Instead, the chocolatier’s founder and boss travelled with his son to Iceland, trekking 80km up daunting mountains and through bitterly cold valleys in what he dubbed “the strongest physical challenge I’ve ever had in my life”.
But there is a challenge of a much different kind that drives Thirlwell on in business – the constant desire to go the extra mile for his loyal customer base.
The entrepreneur’s legs will have recovered in plenty of time to stand up in front of his retail peers and discuss the importance of that goal at the Retail Week Customer Experience Summit next month, when his main buzzwords will be consumer loyalty.
Thirlwell, who will deliver the keynote speech at the event, dubs that important factor “the starting principle of any profitable business” and believes constant interaction with Hotel Chocolat customers is the retailer’s “secret weapon”.
“Fundamentally, if you’ve got a really great product, the customer will want to buy it and will cross the road to get it or go online and be prepared to wait an extra day to get it,” Thirlwell explains.
“We have 100,000 members who are tasting our new recipes and scoring them. They drive all our new products through”
Angus Thirlwell, Hotel Chocolat
“We read the feedback we get, we have sessions every week poring over the data. Our Tasting Club is our secret weapon, where we have 100,000 members who are tasting our new recipes and scoring them. They drive all our new products through, but are also not shy in coming forward to tell us all sorts of things about our existing range and how we do things.
“That cohort of 100,000 people are right on the inside track of our business and feel like they have a mandate to be able to give us any sort of feedback. So we have the largest qualitative and quantitative feedback machine, I think, in retail.”
Thirlwell says Hotel Chocolat has ploughed “a massive investment” into the Tasting Club, hiring a team of six chocolatiers to create 15 new recipes every month, but the results of “getting the product right, keeping it right and keeping innovation burning bright” have proved priceless.
Acting upon feedback and getting the product right is one thing, but self-confessed marketer Thirlwell believes it is equally important to focus on the in-store customer experience to keep shoppers coming back for more. He reveals Hotel Chocolat has a list of “no go areas” to ensure that shopping with the retailer “puts a smile on their faces”.
“It’s all about making sure the customer experience is optimised, doing all the obvious things that they want when they shop, but also some less obvious things as well”
Angus Thirlwell, Hotel Chocolat
“It’s all about making sure the customer experience is optimised, doing all the obvious things that they want when they shop, but also some less obvious things as well,” Thirlwell says. “For example, at Hotel Chocolat, we never go on Sale in season. We wouldn’t disrespect our customers – who are very loyal and buy early – by doing that.
“There are a host of other ‘no go areas’ that we have, but they are all geared to making sure the customer experience is going to put a smile on their face. Essentially, we are in the pleasure business and we are fortunate that we have got a lot of levers to pull to make sure that even if something goes slightly wrong we can still let our customers leave with a spring in their step and a smile on their face.”
A growing number of retailers have begun to place that responsibility in the hands of chief customer officers, but Thirlwell is wary of making such appointments because he wants his entire workforce to obsess over the customer.
“It sounds corny, but we all have responsibility for the customer,” he adds. “Under the hood, we are lots of things – a cocoa grower, a chocolate maker, we have chocolate shops, cafes, restaurants, bars, a hotel. But the unifying thing is that we are a strong brand with a very loyal customer base who shop across our channels.
“The most loyal and prolific customers are those who shop across the channels, so we haven’t pulled all that together to have one person in charge of the customer experience. We’ve built it up in layers and that responsibility is distributed out.
“Under the hood, we are lots of things – a cocoa grower, a chocolate maker, we have chocolate shops, cafes, restaurants, bars, a hotel”
Angus Thirlwell, Hotel Chocolat
“The good point about the role is that it gives someone responsibility for all channels. But in giving them that title, does it mean that other people drop the reins on the feeling of responsibility for the customer? That’s a risk.”
It’s a risk Thirlwell certainly isn’t willing to take, particularly following Ferrero’s takeover of rival chocolatier Thorntons – a development he admits to watching with interest, if not with trepidation.
“Like a lot of people, we are waiting to see what Ferrero does,” he says. “Ferrero is not a business that will do things lightly. We’ve got enormous respect for them because they’ve created several global brands.
“We don’t have a massive overlap with Thorntons’ customer base, so I don’t spend a lot of time wondering: ‘What are they going to do next?’ But certainly we looked at it and said: ‘I didn’t expect this to happen, I wonder what they’re going to do?’
“But as far as we are concerned, we are focusing on our own business, our own customers and cracking on with it.”
Having climbed mountains of a literal kind already this year, Thirlwell hopes such a single-minded mentality will help Hotel Chocolat reach new sales peaks during the crucial Christmas and Easter trading periods. Sustaining and improving the customer experience will prove vital if the retailer is to keep its place at the summit of the chocolate world.
Customer Experience Summit
To hear Angus Thirlwell talk in more detail about Hotel Chocolat’s secret to success, come to Retail Week’s Customer Experience Summit on October 21, where you can hear from top names in the field including Majestic Wine boss Rowan Gormley.
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