Official Blog of Center10 Consulting

When customization leaves the customer out of the frame

on Wednesday, October 1, 2014
A version of this post was published in Quartz Magazine on September 25th, 2014. Click here for the article.
This year, as our 11-year old twins prepared to go back to school, they convinced my husband and I that they deserved something special for their 5th grade and middle-school entrance test results. Each had set their heart on customized shoes. I had been curious about how these services had evolved in recent years, so I decided to set up an experiment of sorts.

The criteria we established were simple: speed, concept delivery, no spam. The unsaid factor, of course, was customer satisfaction.

We started with a general search for customized soccer cleats for my son and sneakers for my daughter. After some price and value research, we decided to go with Vans for the sneakers and Adidas for the soccer cleats. Among the soccer shoe providers, Nike and Adidas have done the most to offer the greatest level of customization. Vans stood out as the only one, apart from Nike, that seems to provide customized casual keds. Toms, a leading contender provides artist-designed shoes and monogrammed pairs, but don’t get to the level of customization we were looking for. Of course, there’s a lot of speculation around 3-D printable shoes—I looked at a couple of options like the MiMiniFactory and Dezeen shoes, but it wasn’t easy to find anything practical and that didn’t require a lot of work to get set up, printed and tested. But I suspect my next shoe will come hot off a press somewhere near me.

After we selected Vans and Adidas, came the family mix-and-match fun, after which we had a couple of impressive looking shoes designed. Both websites ( and did well as far ease of use goes. However, Adidas won when it came to the types of customization you can incorporate (the player’s name, a country flag, etc.) As we hit the order button, we were surprised at the expected time to delivery – 4 weeks for the MiAdidas, and 7 weeks for the Customized Vans. Not to put too fine a point on it, but given the difference in the types of shoes we’re talking about here – cleats seem to be a slightly more complex product than Vans keds – this seemed a bit off. I get a sense that there’s a huge opportunity to simplify and speed up the process at Vans!

The criteria we established for the experiment were simple: speed, concept delivery, no spam. The unsaid factor, of course, was customer delight and surprise.

Customization Site
Lots of options, including names and initials, flags, jersey number, etc.
Mostly materials, not many true personalization options
Speed of delivery
4 weeks estimated, arrived in less than 3 weeks
7 weeks estimated
Concept delivery
Ongoing engagement (no spam)
17 emails in 19 days , only 2 about my order
9 emails, 2 about my order
Customer delight
Meh – nothing special
Not hitting anything out the park as yet
B+ / A-

At the time of writing this article, we’ve received the customized miAdidas cleats and they are fantastic to look at. They arrived a week earlier than promised, as well. On the other hand, the Vans team responded to my request for a status update to say that they need the full seven weeks.

Unfortunately, Adidas earned my ire by bombarding my email Inbox – 17 emails in 19 days, only 2 of them related to my order. In comparison, Vans restrained themselves to a slightly more modest, but equally irritating, 8 emails in that same time.

My most significant issues, through this experiment with customization, was not the basic execution but the opportunity both companies left on the table. In the midst of all the excitement around customizing their product, these companies seemed to have forgotten their customer.

I was surprised at the many “leaks” in the process there were – so many opportunities to delight and surprise the customer, all left by the wayside.

Let’s look at the information they had, and what they could have done:
  • A “back to school” upsell deal on the shoes I was buying: Start with the date of the order, and the average start of school. It’s possible that once I hit order, they could have taken a look at my web history (I’d logged in at both websites since we had saved designs in each case) and intuited that the order might be for a child, so offering me a special deal to expedite the order would likely have tempted me to spend the additional fractional amount. That’s especially easier once the order button has been pressed, since the big spend decision is out of the way.
  • Engage me in the product I’ve already bought: How easy would it have been to send us a quick snapshot about the 4 to 10 specific elements we’d chosen – over the time it took to bring the shoe together, tell me when the materials came together, what’s great about the soles, where we are in the process, who the designers are…whatever. But make it about the shoes I have bought already.
  • Get me behind the scenes: This doesn’t even need to be hugely personalized. Tell us a little about what it takes to make a personalized shoe – maybe a snippet on how the little flag is sourced. How easy it would be to personalize that email – just pop the picture of the flag we’d chosen into a standard fact-filled email and I’m already hooked, right? Better yet, show me the face of a shoe-smith, or a shot of the machine that’s handling my MiAdidas. I’d have felt like I was somehow getting to be inside the process.
  • Acknowledge the special role of the customized product: So, here’s a customer who took the time and spent the extra money to create their special shoe. What’s the tone you want to set? Not “The wait is over.”  This is not the second coming of Christ. The tone should be “Dear Krishna (they know the name, since it’s printed on the shoe!!), we are delighted you chose us, and we hope these cleats brings you many soccer victories.” How cool would that be?? Why not ask me what I’m hoping to do with the shoe as I check out – it would have been fun to see that played back in some interesting twist. When I’ve been on a site customizing a product, I’m in a mood to share – use that power well.

  • DON’T try to make me buy something right away. I’m not sure why retails miss the opportunity to truly understand their products and their value to the customer. That’s what big data is about – if I buy cleats, maybe you give me a second to breath after plopping all that money on a big tab, and after a decent interval, say a week or so, send me information about great insoles, shin guards, soccer socks that coordinate with the shoe colors…. I’m NOT going to use a 15% discount coupon on another shoe right away, even if you send me that coupon 15 times!!
  • Don’t respond to a query with a rote response: Dear Vans team, if a customer writes in to check on an order status, acknowledge that they are excited and impatient, and explain WHY they need the 7 weeks.
  • Speed is a key element to delight: Timeliness is critical. So, imagine my chagrin when I saw this on the UPS page - the shoes had been ready for pickup 10 days (yes, 10 days) before they were finally picked up to send on to us!!

Putting on my process consultant hat, it seems like these are retailers who have embraced technological advances to provide customization, but didn’t quite bring their teams together around the table. They didn’t use their customer insights folks or strategic marketers to look at how they could make the whole customer experience reflect the promise of customization. Customized retail is not just about the cool product, this is about the customer getting deeply invested in the company that provided them this exciting, deeply personal product.

For now, we’re looking at B+, Adidas. And Vans lags with a B. These are fantastic shoes, and a great idea. A few process tweaks and they’d have a first class, truly customized, customer experiences.


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