Roger Andelin believes in the power of storytelling — so much that even an e-commerce business composed of people from the impersonal sales and technology fields can benefit from the skills of a good storyteller.
Andelin had served as the CIO of Internet retailer Buy.com for six years before leaving to take the same position with The Washington Post, one of the most famous and influential newspapers in the country. It was during his stint with the newspaper that Andelin, an executive with a commerce and technology background, discovered how to take good storytelling and apply it in the world of commerce.
“I became a lot more aware of the power of storytelling and the power that can have in a business, especially on the commerce side,” Andelin says. “Commerce was missing that.”
When the opportunity arose for Andelin to return to what had, in the interim, been renamed Rakuten Buy.com, he felt he could utilize the sum total of his experience as an executive, splicing together his e-commerce background with a newfound knowledge and appreciation of storytelling to open new doors for the company.
“When I sat down for the first time and heard about our chairman’s vision, it resonated through and through,” Andelin says. “The idea was [that] we want to give merchants a voice in our marketplace. Let’s connect our merchants with their customers; let’s bring a new shopping experience to the table.
“It was very different from the typical model in our space, which is you come in and search for a product, put it in your cart and check out. It really brought back a lot of the nostalgia in the commerce business, which was missing on the Internet and electronic side. We had a chance to bring that back to the whole process.”
After accepting the president’s role at Rakuten Buy.com — which was rebranded as Rakuten.com Shopping in January — Andelin set out to tell the story of the company’s new vision and how it would be realized. He wanted to get every executive, manager and associate in the Rakuten system to believe in the vision and to feel motivated to carry out the plans that would make the vision a reality.
Define your drivers
Any retail business — whether in the e-commerce space or reliant on a bricks-and-mortar network of stores — will always be driven by the numbers. The number of customers you can get to your site or store will convert to a number of sales, which will convert to a number of repeat customers.
But to realize the new vision for Rakuten.com Shopping, Andelin needed to promote something else. He needed to promote loyalty. It’s something that can’t be directly quantified on a balance sheet, but Andelin realized, soon after he took over, that it would be an essential ingredient in the success of the vision. It would be, in short, a primary driver of the business moving forward.
“The business really boils down to the number of visitors that come to our site and our conversion rate to how many of those visitors buy from us and what the average value of that order is,” Andelin says. “So once you look at those drivers, those KPIs [key performance indicators], you look into it and see what is it that drives that component. Traffic, or visits, are driven a lot by advertising but also by loyalty.”
As such, Andelin wanted his team at Rakuten.com Shopping to focus on driving customer loyalty and merchant loyalty. Since the staff at the company is, in large part, composed of people with technology backgrounds, it was a different concept.
“What happens is that technology departments often get focused on a feature,” Andelin says. “They’ve been asked to deliver A, B and C, and at the end of the day, they deliver that, but it doesn’t always yield the business value that was expected. So by shifting the emphasis away from the actual feature we’re delivering and getting the teams focused on delivering business value, it fundamentally shifts the whole project pattern in a very meaningful way.”
Andelin and his team began to implement initiatives, such as a reward points program, as a formalized way of building merchant and customer loyalty. But he also wanted to see his team deliver value in more fundamental forms.
“One of our objectives, for instance, is to increase the voice of our merchants online, to help them connect more with their customer base,” he says. “That is one of the main things that is going to separate us in a meaningful way from our competition. That technology stepping in and facilitating that communication is something that would be pretty unique for a merchant.”
Give people a voice
You can craft a well-thought-out vision that aims the company toward new heights of prosperity, but none of it will matter if you can’t achieve buy-in from everyone in your company.
It’s something that Andelin acknowledged early in his tenure, and it’s why he embraced the role of storyteller from his first day on the job. Employees can hear about the vision, they can learn the drivers, but until they see tangible ways that the vision will lead to a better, more profitable company — and by extension, more earning potential and job stability at their level — they won’t completely buy in.
“Alignment can be challenging,” Andelin says. “But I have found the best way to do it is to very clearly articulate the problem or very clearly articulate the vision and then explain why the solution we’re all working toward will resolve that.
“You start to get individuals to understand the vision or the problem by articulating it very clearly. They see it and recognize what you are doing and why you’re doing it. People generally get that. It’s when the communication isn’t there that the team starts to falter and lose the passion for what they’re doing.”
In order to tell a story, you need a means of communication. Authors have books, journalists have mass media and directors have the cinema. At Rakuten.com Shopping, Andelin has, among other things, weekly “asakai” meetings that utilize technology to bring together people from Rakuten’s U.S. operations and beyond.
During the weekly meetings, senior management reinforces the vision and values of the organization to employees throughout Rakuten’s footprint. The meetings are another way Andelin is using technology for storytelling.
“What we say at the weekly asakai meetings goes all the way down to daily huddles, where each department will get together and talk about their departmental issues,” Andelin says. “The thing to remember is the teams you are leading have to get it. The business leader has to be open enough and accessible enough, to the point where if the team has questions, they feel able to ask those questions.
“If they have concerns, they have to get those concerns out on the table and walk through them.
“One of the most powerful ways to reach consensus is not by reducing the conversation but by increasing it. It is through conversation that leaders and managers are able to convey the vision and get individuals to come on board with the direction of the organization. Communication is absolutely key.”
Show your wins
Every story has a beginning, middle and end. In Rakuten.com Shopping’s case, the story is still in progress. If you don’t have final results to show your people, you need to show them progress and trends. Keeping employees in the loop is another essential way to bring them on board with your vision. You have to demonstrate the wins you are tallying and the progress you are making toward realizing your vision.
“As an example, we ran one of our summer sales at the end of August, right after I started,” Andelin says. “We measured the sale based on year-over-year performance — so, how we did on these days versus the same days the prior year? That event ended up giving us a fairly sizeable increase in our number of orders, in visitors coming to the site, all of the key metrics that we’re looking at. Those wins really help focus the team.”
If you’re going to tell a story that it’s going to serve as a motivator for your people, the story has to inspire. That doesn’t mean your people have to leave the meeting or conference call ready to climb Mount Everest, but it does mean that they leave as believers in what the company is doing.
“It’s a fairly basic idea that winning is contagious,” Andelin says. “It builds confidence; it helps you to solidify a repeatable process. It shows us what we need to do to drive sales during a particular event. If we get really good and learn those things, we can repeat it, and we can grow our business to improve step-by-step, by improving those processes. Everybody gets excited, and it really becomes a companywide initiative, because everybody has a little piece of it. So when you start to achieve your vision, everybody feels good.”
How to reach: Rakuten.com Shopping,
(949) 389-2000 or www.rakuten.com
The Andelin file
What is the best business lesson you’ve learned? You want to take accountability for when things don’t go smoothly and perfect. At the end of the day, if you screwed up, take responsibility for it, figure out what happened and move forward. That is one of the most relieving principles in business. It’s a liberating principle for all leaders, as opposed to passing blame and making excuses.
What traits or skills are essential for a leader? Having a vision and being able to communicate it on both an individual and group level. Leaders have to be approachable, accept criticism and be able to defend their positions with logical, rational arguments backed by data and facts. Authoritarian leadership doesn’t fly nowadays. You have to win the minds of intelligent people who are used to thinking for themselves, are well-educated and have fabulous opinions.
What is your definition of success? There is a sense of irony around it, because as soon as you start to define success, you limit yourself. If you define success as you see it, you just cut yourself off from other areas where you could be a success. You have to kind of know success when you see it, just like knowing what art is, or knowing what sounds good in music. So many things drive success, to define it is almost impossible.
Tell a great story.
Communicate it to your people.
Show evidence of success.