In the dynamic of business relationships, being a partner means having the desire and ability to understand your client’s views, their market, their concerns and, perhaps most important of all, the needs of their customers. While understanding customer dynamics is an important part of business in general, in the partnership model that Barnes & Noble College has developed, it has become vital. “I’m finding over the past two or three years, the whole customer understanding piece of my job has played an important role,” admitted Lisa Malat, Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer for Barnes & Noble College, in a recent Marketing News interview. Building that understanding has led the company to invest deeply in building real, passionate, trusted, and enduring relationships with millions of students during a key stage in their lives; their college journey. “We aren’t merely experts in the college market — we live it,” Malat says. “You could say it’s in our DNA.”
Across its network of 770 stores, Barnes & Noble College has been able to build a national insight community of 6.5 million students, faculty, alumni and staff. “We now have the capability, and a better understanding of the implications of that capability, that research can drive our business,” says Steve McSpiritt, Market Research Specialist for Barnes & Noble College, “and we’re finding out, specifically and actionably from those customers, where we could go as a company and what we should be doing next,” he says. How that’s achieved has less to do with the classic backroom research tradition and everything to do with the privileged access the company enjoys with its insight communities. “It’s not just about running numbers,” McSpiritt stresses. “Our research is about the work our Field teams and booksellers put into the customer relationship. Every interaction, any time they get feedback, that’s research ─ it’s about listening, learning and acting,” he says.
Questions, comments or ideas from customers, booksellers and Barnes & Noble College staff are attributed value and used to guide home office policy and direction. In this way, every product or service initiative — and every marketing message the company releases — is in some way sanctioned by its intended audience. How unique is that approach? McSpiritt provides some context. “The nature of our business is in being service oriented — and in being particularly customer centric,” he says. “And our students clearly understand that they can absolutely use their influence to deliver experiences that are unique to them.
As a company, Barnes & Noble College has appreciated the diversity of its customer base — parents, campus administration, faculty, alumni, and even the students themselves — developing the kind of listening versatility and agility that allows individualized responses. “We have the opportunity to capture a transaction and make the experience 100 percent satisfactory,” McSpiritt says, citing the company’s Price Match program as an example where a service opportunity was created from giving the customers what they were asking for.
Unlike companies who might guard their proprietary studies, the research Barnes & Noble College gathers from its insight communities is widely shared within the industry. In addition to recent large-scale programs into the preferences of Millennials, Generation Z and Non-Traditional Students, the company is also packaging its findings in the popular Snackable Insights series, hosted by McSpiritt, which highlights specific topics in a short video format. That research is also being used to offer enhanced campus experiences for partner brands.
Having the kind of research platform that Barnes & Noble College has built isn’t a luxury, Malat believes. “If you’re going to just compete on price, or if you’re going to look at yourself as a retail transaction, you’re going to lose — especially with this generation,” she says. “We’re a strategic partner to the universities we serve, helping them realize their goal of increased student retention, graduation rates and overall student satisfaction. We do that by listening,” she adds, citing the value that Barnes & Noble College can bring with products and service expectations, which are more aligned with students’ values and that can deliver a relevant message at the right time.
It’s a kind of dynamic that is especially appreciated on campus by a generation of savvy students who clearly understand their power and significance, and by customers who know their experiences will be changed based on their feedback. “They’re participating and providing us with this amazingly detailed information because they want their voices to be heard,” says McSpiritt, “and they understand the right company will respond to that — and that they’ll have a voice in the kind of brand or service expectation that they want created around them.”