How 1-800-Flowers CEO Jim McCann relies on innovation Featured

8:00pm EDT August 26, 2010

Every morning, Jim McCann awakens with one goal in mind: to move his company, 1-800-Flowers.com, forward.

“We are in a constant state of reinvention,” says McCann, the company’s CEO. “It’s like Andy Grove’s book, ‘Only the Paranoid Survive’; we’re very uncomfortable when we’re not moving forward. The most uncomfortable state for us is if we’re status quo. If we’re status quo, the world is continuing to change and we’re just not changing.”

That’s because innovation seems to come naturally for McCann, who parlayed a single flower shop in Manhattan into the world’s premier florist and gift shop. He accomplished this by thinking differently about how to interact with his customers and employees, along the way rewriting the definition of what a flower shop looks like.

In the 30-plus years since McCann started the company, he and his brother, Chris, who serves as president, have expanded through organic growth and acquisitions to become a public company with thousands of employees and annual revenue in excess of $700 million.

Beyond the well-known 1-800-Flowers.com brand, McCann’s holdings are widespread and include Cheryl & Co., The Popcorn Factory, Fannie May, Harry London, Ambrosia, BloomNet and 1-800-Baskets.com.

Smart Business sat down with McCann to discuss the power of innovation and how to build meaningful relationships with customers.

Q: What are some of the ways you applied innovation to adapt during the recent economic downturn?

We looked at this as a great opportunity, especially to find talent, but we did some other things as well that helped the company. We made sure that we were able to know the customer and serve them well. We took care of the finances and preserved our cash position. And we decided to invest for the future. The investments we made were in talent, technology and new business lines.

What a great opportunity to attract people that we otherwise might not have been able to attract. We also put money into video, social networking and mobile applications. And, we launched new businesses — Celebrations.com, a social network, and 1-800-Baskets.com. People thought we were crazy to do this in the midst of a recession, but they’ve proven successful.

Q: You’ve also been on an acquisition spree, not just in recent years but over the past decade. What’s been your strategy there?

The idea of following a strategic planning process is important to building your business. There may be things that are easier and quicker, but they don’t fit into the diagram that we’re developing to build 1-800-Flowers.com. We’re a public company, so the challenge is that the outside world may not understand why we’d buy rather than build. At that point, we tell them to trust us. We can’t detail the whole plan, but we explain to them that this piece isn’t just willy-nilly; it’s part of something larger.

That may scare away some investors in the short term, but those longer-term investors who have seen us make moves and watched them come to fruition will make their own judgment and, hopefully, trust us that we know what we’re doing.

We can’t not do things because some people don’t understand. We have to keep thinking ahead and looking at good opportunities for the company to grow and become better.

Q: How do relationships fit into the equation of interacting and serving your customers?

We have 30 million customers, and we still spend a lot of time trying to create relationships. You can measure relationships, but it comes down to the quality. You’re measuring the quality of a relationship. When we look at a relationship with a customer, the more engaged we can be with a customer, the better the relationship is.

I need a lot of help running our gift shop at 1-800-Flowers.com, and if I get the help from customers, that makes my job easier. It makes my input better, and I think it makes it more interesting and more fun for our customers to be part of the process.

I’ve been trying to do that for my entire life. Today, we’re doing this through technology, and it’s been getting easier every day because of the evolution of the new technologies. Whether that’s Facebook or Twitter, it makes that engagement not only easier and possible, but if you’re not doing it, you’re missing the boat. I want my life to be fun, more interesting. I want to have more and better relationships, and technology allows me to expand the realm and depth of relationships with vendors, staff people and customers. It’s all about the relationships.

Q: So how do you build those relationships?

Here’s one practical example of how we do things. About two years ago, a lady in Ohio wrote to me and said, ‘My sister tried to make this floral arrangement for my other sister’s bridal shower. You can see from the photographs [that] it’s a mess. But I bet you can figure this out.’

So I worked with some of our talented florists and we came up with a terrific design for a margarita bouquet. We took one of those 2-foot-tall margarita glasses and we did a flower arrangement, color appropriate, with attachments, and made a margarita display for the wedding shower.

Well, as we did this, other people both inside and outside the company heard about it, including friends of the bride, friends of the woman who asked for our help, members of our staff and several of our customers. They all got involved to help. When we were done, there ended up being this whole group of people conspiring and collaborating on these designs. And it was a great success.

So we saw an opportunity for a new product, and when we decided to take it to market as another idea for the company, I went back to the same group of people and engaged them. I said, ‘How should we market this? What should our advertising be? What should we say on the ads?’ So our customers suggested the product, designed the product, suggested the marketing platforms, designed them, contributed to copy and made the single biggest floral introduction in the flower business. And it was all customer-generated.

Q: In what ways have the customer service systems you’ve built played a part?

First, I challenged our people who were dealing with our customers to handle any issue that comes up in such a way that the customer is inspired to write to me about you and what you did and how you did it.

It’s not so much what you do as much as how you do it and how you empathize and directly connect with that customer. So I tell our people to handle it like you want to inspire that customer to, on their own, write to me about how you handled their issue.

The second thing I tell employees is that if you aren’t sure what to do, read this book, and I hand them a book that’s a set of binders filled with letters customers had written to me about the wonderful customer service treatment they received from a driver who brought a package, for a telephone customer service person or online help service person who helped them with something. It’s not like it hasn’t happened before, so I tell our people to read through this ledger and it will inspire you to do something above and beyond for the customers.

Q: You’re known for your innovation. Technology certainly is an area where the company has flourished. So how do you use social media and Internet marketing to push the company forward?

We’re using technology to get more intimate and personal with other customers. It sounds like a contradiction, but it isn’t. It’s true. How else can we get to know our customers well and learn how to serve them better? How can we recreate the personal relationship I had with our first 30 customers in our 700-square-foot store in Manhattan that we had 30 years ago? Thirty years later, we have 30 million customers, and the only way we can learn about them, to serve them better, to engage them, to get them to help us, is to use technology.

(A customer) might not be that interested in helping us design a new product and she might not be interested in helping us to come up with a new saying, but she really has an interest in promotional things because it’s an area of work she’s interested in. If we give her the opportunity to not be bombarded in the areas she’s not interested in but tickle her to see if she’d like to get involved in helping with promotional pushes, we engage her on something she’s already told us she might be interested in and benefit from her thoughts and outside-the-box thinking. It’s a good way to engage a customer without having to sit down across the table from her in her kitchen and talk about the ideas.

Every day we figure it out a little bit better; we take three steps forward and, hopefully, take only one or two steps back. We weren’t part of Twitter two years ago, but it’s a big part of our life today. What a great opportunity we all have to interact with our audience and find out what’s going on in their world while sharing what’s going on in our world.

Q: Let’s talk about being entrepreneurial. In what ways have you kept a culture of entrepreneurship in the company even as it has grown?

When people think about entrepreneurial cultures, it’s difficult for us to get our arms around that. But as I think about that and some of the more entrepreneurial people and organizations I know, such as the Ted Turners and Ted Waites (Gateway) or Wayne Huizengas of the world, those entrepreneurial heroes of mine, did they make (fewer) mistakes than other people? No, they probably made a lot more. The remarkable quality they had and that we try to embody is, when we take that shot to the stomach, it hurts, we fall down, but we dust (ourselves) off and get back up. That’s what it’s all about. We don’t worry about a mistake we made four years ago but instead worry about whether the mistake we make tomorrow is one we don’t get up from and learn from. We just have to keep moving forward.

How to reach: 1-800-Flowers.com, www.1800flowers.com