Adventuring into the unknown with REI and CRM

Perhaps the best known adventure retail brand out there was, until recently, using some paper systems that were in need of technology help.

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REI Adventures is the division of the REI outdoor equipment cooperative that is focused on offering customers adventures across the globe. The company, which has been around for almost 30 years, offers adventures to every continent. Across 170 itineraries it offers everything from hiking to cycling, paddling to trekking. Both traditional single-activity event and multi-sport adventure fests are covered.

REI Adventures is an interesting organization to look at from a technology perspective -- it has to work in a remote context, is complex and is often selling to people who aren't at the leading edge of technology adoption. At the same time, it has to capture online tools in order to remain relevant and build its brand.

I spent some time talking to Kristen Lund from REI Adventures to get a sense of their business, and the challenges they face from a technology perspective.

REIA has around 40 people planning and arranging adventures for its customers, and over the past few years it has seen the adventure travel industry become ever more competitive. Everyone needs a good product and the best information. They also need a solution which strengthens the relationships with its customers -- the challenge is to deliver an intimate experience, reminiscent of the in-store one, from a distance.

At the same time, with increasing complexity comes an increasing need to adopt technology systems which help increase the transparency around the product -- imagine the complexities around arranging a multi-week adventure on the other side of the globe in a developing economy with language barriers between the end-customers and the local provders. All of a sudden the opportunity for things to fail increases exponentially. Small communication failures at the early stages of planning a trip can end up making a big difference months down the line.

REIA had, until a couple of years ago, been using a back office system that was essentially a glorified Access database. The system had questionable data integrity, limited or nonexistent reporting and relied on paper-based processes. Customer service representatives had to physically fill out paper forms that were both inefficient and prone to errors. REIA needed better systems.

The company turned to Salesforce's Customer Relationship Management (CRM) solution. Salesforce has, until now, been used as a CRM tool only and, according to Lund, has delivered some immediate wins -- REIA was previously handling some 75,000 pieces of physical paperwork per year. That has all moved to electronic systems and in the process has saved an estimated 3,000 hours per annum of data entry and maintenance.

This is an impressive saving and I wanted to talk to Lund about her views on the next steps for their solution -- while cost savings and efficiency gains are a natural first port of call for a technology roll-out, there is a higher value add that connected systems can bring. Lund admitted that, at this stage, Salesforce isn't being connected to the outside world and is purely an internal system, other than some use of the Community Cloud for support. Despite this seemingly limited usage, Lund reports that the insights that Salesforce offers mean that REIA has gotten to know their customers on a deeper basis. Before customer demographic reporting was mainly conjecture, now it can be empirically shown via the CRM system.

Lund expressed a desire, however, to get to know REIA customers on a deeper basis and really engage with customers (and, perhaps more importantly, prospects) on the broader web. She explained that there is, at this stage, no external voice for the company and hence the opportunity to leverage other tools to engage with prospects before they become actual customers is attractive. REIA can, it has to be said, rest on its laurels a little bit. As a co-operative organization, it has an existing customer base which already know of its existence, hence REIA can, to an extent, at least, wait for people to contact it and rely on word of mouth.

I suspect that, based on the initial success of the roll out, REIA will start to think about a much deeper process-driven approach to its business. I'd expect to see more connected tools paying dividends for the co-op over time.

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