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North Star Leaders Podcast

Charlie Cole

Season 1 Episode 9 5 Dec 2023

Transcript

Charlie Cole:

The right answer is you have to do right by all three people at all times. And that might sound brutally obvious, but it's rare that the righteous answer towards customer experience also makes you the most money.

Lindsay Pedersen:

The world needs what only your business can bring, and as a leader, it's your job to deliver. But where do you focus? Where do you direct your time, your team, your budget and your emotional energy? We are learning this together on the North Star Leaders Podcast. I'll be talking to purpose-driven leaders about the choices they make to create audacious economic value while also realizing their distinctive purpose. I'm Lindsay Pedersen, brand strategist, author of Forging an Ironclad Brand and host of the North Star Leaders Podcast. Let's get to it.

Today I am so delighted to be joined by my guest, Charlie Cole. Charlie is CEO of Tribute Technologies, which is a tech solution for funeral professionals. In the past, Charlie has also been CEO of FTD, the floral delivery company. He was chief e-commerce officer for Samsonite and also the chief digital officer for TUMI. Charlie, welcome to the show.

Charlie Cole:

Hi, Lindsay. Nice to be here.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Good to be here with you too. To start us off, Charlie, what is your favorite thing about what you do?

Charlie Cole:

I think that question changes every single time I get a new job, honestly, because as you evolve, even if you go from head of e-commerce P&L to another head of e-commerce P&L, your job changes precipitously because of sort of the culture that you inherit. I think that people love to be highfalutin about this sort of thing, but you always inherit a culture, always. It's really easy to say you're there to create a culture. But I think the thing that I like the most about my job, especially now as I've been sort of a private equity CEO a couple of times, is taking the best of the past and invoking new stuff to make it even better.

So what I mean by that is it's not about coming in, and there's so many platitudes, Lindsay, like change agent and stuff like that, they all sound great, but the reality is the best teams are a little bit of the old and a little bit of the new. That's the thing I like the most, and it's probably the thing I've learned the most as well, which is if you over index in one or the other, you're probably going to be either perceived as slow moving, traditional or be perceived as boil the ocean is the cliché, right? So I love that sort of bringing a team along with a new vision is probably my favorite part of my gig.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Yeah, it makes me think when you say that about culture, that it's kind of like an organism. It's a living, breathing thing that has its neural pathways, its habits, good and bad, and that it's made of human beings, and we human beings don't love change automatically. You're coming into something where there might already be kind of a predisposed to not change among some, and then you're brought in for the reason of catalyzing. So there's also this need for change and there are people in the culture who also want it to change, but it's like a delicate leadership undertaking to do that.

Charlie Cole:

Yeah, I'll tell you, I've certainly made mistakes on both sides. FTD was a particularly interesting challenge because the company had literally just come out of a bankruptcy. It's such a unique challenge because I always struggle with how to say this, when you inherit a company that just came out of bankruptcy, the majority of the people who are still working there are the people that helped plunge the company into bankruptcy. Now that probably sounds far more Machiavellian than is intended to, because not like one or two people. It's like it was them, you know what I mean? I don't mean to imply that, but you have this company, they've been just waiting to get fired for weeks or months.

Now there's a new private equity based leader and that comes with its own sort of reputation, and yet there's a lot of good institutional knowledge there that you need to keep, but there also is a lot of things you need to change, and I think that the key is identify the individuals that are willing to change, and I mean fast and see if you can bring them along, and a little harder to say, but equally identify the ones that are not willing to change and you have to make changes fast. It's really that simple.

That's in the thing that I've been so stoked with at Tribute over the last six months now is that this has probably been the team that has craved change the most I've ever worked with. So I really haven't had to worry about sort of this institutionalization. While at FTD, there really was a lot of people that were like, "Well, this is how we do it." Your snap reaction was like, "That's why you went bankrupt." It's very hard to play both sides of that coin, but I think that's kind of how you got to play it.

Lindsay Pedersen:

What do you think your leadership style is that you bring to bear in any of these scenarios, clearly leaning into some atTributes in certain situations than in others?

Charlie Cole:

It's a timely question because I have a town hall, we do monthly town halls, I have a town hall coming up on Thursday and I've been trying to figure out how to say something and how I've been trying to figure out how to say it's basically the answer to your question, which is I am just ruthlessly transparent to the point where we do monthly town halls and we share monthly results and we have weekly KPI results. I always tell people, "If you feel like you don't know what's going on around here, then you're not trying hard." That's really my style. But here's the thing. I don't know if you've seen the movie The Big Short.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Sure.

Charlie Cole:

They do this brilliant thing where on a couple of scene changes, they'll have a musical interlude and a little still on the page with words on it, and one of the words says, and I'll spare you the F word, truth is a lot like poetry and most people hate poetry. I found that to be really freaking true because when you come in and you've either inherited a bankrupt company, in this case of FTD, or at Tribute, I was replacing the outgoing founder. So what had happened is Matt Frazier, who's still like my boss, he's still the chairman of the company, he had been there for two years and he and Carlisle which started private equity sponsor had mutually agreed that it was kind of time to make a change.

When that happens, you've had the chairman slash founder of the company say it's time to make a change and you've had the principal investor say it's time to make a change, and now it's your job to come into the company and explain and decide what those changes are. I think the only way you can bring people along with that change is to basically show them the playbook like, "This is why I'm doing what I'm doing. This is why we're doing what we're doing. This is how we're representing the company." But eventually you hurt someone's feelings because if you want to change a technology platform, somebody built that that's probably still sitting there and it's like, "Why are you doing that?" Like "Truthfully, it's not very good. You know what I mean? I can prove it to you."

The thing is that it sounds so easy to say that you want to be a transparent leader and you want to speak the truth and you want to bring your company along, but you have to keep in mind sometimes the truth really does hurt, and in this case, especially with developers or brand marketers, I would say, your truth might be dismissing something that they put their blood, sweat and tears into. So it's still very much a nuanced challenge to bring everybody along with change that's rooted in a transparent and truthful point of view.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Yeah, it strikes me that there's your own leadership style and the things that you're bringing to a company that you've built up over the years and that you were born with even. Then there's the culture of the company that you're coming into and there's challenges to that, there's challenges to jumping into that, especially if there's a sick business or if there's a sick product line and there are human beings whose hearts are attached to those things. What do you look to or lean on? Is there an artifact or a statement or a principle that, at least for Tribute, let's say with Tribute for a second, or you can reference FTD or others, is there something that you come back to like, "We're making X decision because," reference North Star, reference mission statement, et cetera? What do you find most useful to lean on?

Charlie Cole:

I would say coincidentally, it was similar at FTD and Tribute, but I'll focus on Tribute and it probably makes sense to sort of explain what we do just briefly. Tribute is the leading provider of software to the entire funeral space. So someone who doesn't know anything about the space, which I'd say most people thankfully, is think of us like toast. You power the store, you power the website. We do the similar things for funeral homes around the United States, and I say that as simply as humanly possible for the sake of everybody listening. It was worth noting that when I joined on March 1st, so I've only been here for six months, I knew nothing about the space, nothing with the exception of being the customer myself.

I was the executor of my father's estate, so I knew, and it was relatively recent. It was about six months before I started. So I kind of knew enough, but the first thing I did, to come back to your question of how do you decide what is that dream force is, I just sat back and learned and learned and learned and learned and learned and learned and learned. Thankfully, I inherited a lot of institutional knowledge including folks in our company that have been in the funeral space their entire career. So what became abundantly clear to me, again through a lot of education and a lot of teaching, is that we really have three principal constituents.

The three principal constituents are, number one, the funeral home slash funeral directors, right? Whether it's the owner, director, the actual business of the funeral home, if you want to call it that. Number two, the family. The family that's planning the funeral, the family that's planning the cremation, they're number two, and this is in no order, by the way. Number three is the friends and family of that family. So now you really have the funeral ecosystem described in a very simple way, and really quickly what we learned, and this is the coolest part about our job, coolest part about this industry, it's coolest part about this profession, the right answer is you have to do right by all three people at all times.

That might sound brutally obvious, but it's rare that the righteous answer towards customer experience also makes you the most money. Let me give you an example. If Amazon went one day Prime on everything, that would be righteous for customer experience, but it'd be wrong if the environment. They'd cost them more money, then it wouldn't be the right thing to do for their shareholders per se. You can make an argument, it wouldn't be the right thing to do for the world, right? We don't have that problem.

If we look at our website solutions, if we look at our software solutions for the funeral home, if we look at the gifts that we can kind of enable for people to send, the right answer is just be right across all three constituents. We've led to calling that within the company like it's our Hippocratic oath where we can do no harm, do no harm, do no harm, and it's so cool that if we just think that way and we pause and we're looking at our tech prioritization or we're looking at our e-commerce prioritization, or what it may be, we can actually say it, which of these is the most righteous for our clients, all three of them. I would say if it comes down to a tiebreaker, it's the family.

The family becomes like they are the brief family, we have to enable a great customer experience, and the best way to enable a great customer experience is to enable great solutions for the funeral home and experience for their friends and family. So it's a bit of a long-winded answer, but that kind of Hippocratic oath of this being purely customer-centric, not just to our end customer, but kind of the entire constituents of a funeral overall is really our north star.

Lindsay Pedersen:

I love it. I don't know how distinctive this is to your category, but it seems like if you're supporting the family, you're also supporting the funeral director, you're also supporting their friends and family. If you're supporting the funeral home, you're also supporting the people who are using the funeral home. They don't want to be, but they are. So it strikes me as like, yeah, it's a false dichotomy to separate them. I don't hear you saying that you're not prioritizing. I hear you saying that you're rejecting the idea that you have to choose one over the other.

Charlie Cole:

Correct. If it doesn't support all three, it goes to the bottom of the list. A really good example is a piece of our software that doesn't save the funeral home time, [inaudible 00:13:23] very tactical. The single best way you can help a family is to be present. If you're more present, because we're creating a software that saves you time, that allows you to spend that time, that allows you to communicate in a efficient way, that sort of halo of righteousness continues to happen and everybody has a better experience.

Simple stuff, digital e-signs, you have to have that because, again, you're the family, right? Do you really want to print something out, sign it while you're going through one of the hardest moments of your life, figure out how to scan it back in, email it back? No. So you can start with this very, very heavy perspective of what does customer centricity mean in the funeral profession and you can bring it down very strategic pathways or you can bring down purely tactical pathways of just being like, "Put yourself in the shoes of the family. What are they going to want to spend time on and what are they not going to want to spend time on?"

That's the thing that this is in some ways one of the most challenging customer-centric professions you're ever going to be in because you're dealing with such an emotive state, you're dealing with such a heightened state. It's nice that it just so happens that the right answer is usually the best emotional answer as well as the best tactical answer.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Yeah, no, the funeral home directors know your brand. Do the families know your brand?

Charlie Cole:

No.

Lindsay Pedersen:

There's awareness of the brand only for the funeral directors.

Charlie Cole:

I'd go one step farther. I think if our brand is perfect, we're invisible to the family and the friends and family.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Wow.

Charlie Cole:

The funeral home should get all the credit, and I think that if we do our job correctly, the funeral home is just perceived as amazing. You think about any real service industry, go back to something that we do in everyday life, like going to a restaurant. If you have a wonderful experience and the music sounds amazing, you're never going to ask what were the speakers. You'll just be like, "The music was great in that restaurant." I think that that's how we have to think ourselves is that if we do our job, we're invisible, but the funeral home is the hero. That's really kind of how we try to position ourselves and I think that that should be true for most SaaS companies, I would think.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Yeah, I can't think of a counter example to that because ultimately, I don't know if it's fair to say, it's like it's B2B2C, and so if you run a funeral business, you're serving families. If you're serving the funeral business, then you're serving the same people that they are since they're the interface with the customer. The customer is not like they don't even want to plan a funeral. They certainly don't want to learn about funeral infrastructure behind the scenes, SaaS companies that support their funeral home. So that's the empathetic, generous way to hold it, and then that serves everybody. That serves you, it serves the family, it serves the funeral director, it serves the people surrounding the family.

Charlie Cole:

I think it's very analogous. One of the things that bugs me being in kind of the e-commerce world for longer than I'd care to admit, I think it's 18, 19 years now, is that there's been sort of these buzzwords that have just become ubiquitous and they kind of don't mean anything. I think the ultimate culprit is omnichannel, but I do think customer experience, which doesn't feel buzz wordy, right? It just feels like two normal words that makes sense. It's important, but it's become almost cliché where everybody could say that they're obsessive over customer experience. It's just not always true.

People cut corners and customer experience all the time, and the reasons they do it is because it saves money. Customer centricity, if you were on... My wife just got back for shopping for shoes for our daughter for kindergarten, it'd be great if there was 17 people on the floor that can help you at any given moment. That'd be truly customer centric experience, but it also makes absolutely no sense. So in our case, we actually get to be that customer centric. We actually get to focus at that level of customer centricity, and I've yet to find a moment, Lindsay, where if the answer is, hey, do we spend a little bit more money or do we not? Usually if we spend a little bit more money, we'll make a little bit more money. It's just that simple.

I'd tell you why I think it is. It's because, and this is where it might be endemic of SaaS overall, we're such a high lifetime value business. That's where you bring it back to kind of the economics of it, which is if you're selling an e-commerce platform, if you're selling a POS solution, you have the luxury of potentially having a customer for life, but you'll only have that customer for life if you do things right. So since it's not a transactional I'm only going to see you once kind of thing, I think it does allow for a more customer-centric type platform. For me, that's how I like to run a business anyway. So it's just nice that those two things happen to coexist.

Lindsay Pedersen:

It makes me think of the tension between short-term and long-term, especially in some business models, not all business models. So the five-year-old shoes example where it really is pretty transactional, you spend more money on the customer experience, and it probably is profit negative, at least in the short term. Spending more money on the customer experience is going to hit your margin. So some categories are more forgiving than others, if there's a larger customer lifetime value, then you can forego that short-term profit bump that you might've gotten by saving money on making a different decision because of the nature of the category that you're in. Some categories are just more forgiving with the customer centricity than others because of the nature of how much long-term horizon they can count on.

Charlie Cole:

Yeah. There's two that I don't think people... Well, they led the front, so one was Amazon with Prime. How long did Amazon lose money? It was a long time. It seems crazy to think about, but it was like a decade, and there was two things going on. Number one, they had a longer term vision, and number two, they were able to at least convince their shareholders or their shareholders believed in that vision. I'll tell you another one that I think flies under the radar. Think about how much Starbucks changed the concept of a build out of a coffee shop. They made investments in the physical space.

Free wifi in a coffee shop, that's ubiquitous now, right? But it was a relatively novel idea for them to partner with Google on that. That whole concept of their third space, that was a big risk. Every other real estate strategy is make it smaller, lower your fixed costs, make things more variable. There are ways that you can invest in a customer-centric lifetime value way, even if the industry doesn't say it's obvious. I think that that's where it just so happens for our space it makes all the sense in the world. But I think the truly brave companies managed to come up with a lifetime value, I don't think anybody once said a coffee shop was an LTV plan until Starbucks came around.

Lindsay Pedersen:

I love that. There's some categories where the whole category is going to be high customer lifetime value, and then there's somewhere you're effectively creating a new category at luxury fast food coffee in the mid-80s, what Howard Schultz did, where you do have to be brave because you're actually treading totally new territory. I can imagine a lot of times where if Starbucks were spending a half a million dollars on a build out of a location, and they could have spent $50,000 and it would've been looked more like a McDonald's than the Starbucks, and they probably in the short term could still charge $4 for a latte for trial, but for repeat, so are people going to come back and are they going to come back multiple times per week?

Then that's a big bet for a literal commodity, I will say it's an addictive commodity, so there's some wind at their back in that sense. But I'm really taking your point too, that yes, there are some worlds where the idea of customer centricity and lifetime value give you more air cover to put the customer first than others, but even when on the surface that looks like it wouldn't be a forgiving world, that's how you really truly create new economic value is by making it so, by doing what Howard Schultz did. It's not to like, oh, we're not in the kind of world where customer centricity pays off. Make it the kind of world where it does.

Charlie Cole:

Yeah. It's far easier said than done. Look, some do it just because they almost create a cult of personality, like Apple, but they make great stuff, and Tesla, they've done it. But even you go through other places that have created a platform, think about Meta. Meta created a utility. To your point, Lindsay, the people didn't even know they needed it, and now people access it 10 times a day, 15 times a day, so it can be done. It takes bravery and it takes customer centricity, but it certainly can be done.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Yeah, it's a big swing, but some swings are worth taking.

Charlie Cole:

Indeed.

Lindsay Pedersen:

I want to ask you more about you, and being a leader, what sets you up for being the leader that you are? What kinds of things do you do personally to fill your tank outside of work? What are the things that allow you to have the emotional energy to make the calls that you make?

Charlie Cole:

It's a place that as you get older, you get a little more intentional about it. I'm 41 now, and energy used to be really easy. So it comes a little less easy as you get older. But to me there's a couple of things. One, I've learned how I work the best. For example, my brain is much sharper from 4 AM to noon than noon to 10 or noon to 8. So I intentionally set up my day to I'm out for critical thinking time in the morning. That's something that I do. Then another thing I do, which ironically I did directly before this, I block out time in the middle of the day to work out, not the start of the day, not the end of the day, literally smack dab in the middle of the day.

I do that because it's just like a reset and it kind of gives me that jolt of energy and that jolt of mental freshness that I need to kind of keep going. But then equally important, I do everything in my power to not work from 5 to 8 PM. That's time I sit with my family. That's time I make dinner. It obviously doesn't always work out that way, but it does work out that way more often than not. So you take my typical day, call it 5 AM to 11 AM, work, 11 AM to 12:30, work out, 12:30 to 5, work, and then I'm basically out. I'm basically not working and that works really well for me because I ostensibly work for about 10 and a half hours a day and it doesn't feel like it, and I still kind of get that, I still get exercise.

So I think to kind of put this in advice form, it's like understand what you need to maximize your energy. Then for me, I go to bed at 9:00 at the latest during the week. I get annoyed when I can't. Not everybody needs a routine like that, but I found going back to kind of that mental freshness as you put it, I think that's a great way of putting it, I've learned the best way to keep my own brain and my own attitude positive because say I didn't do that workout, by 2 or 3:00 in the afternoon, I'm going to have a little bit more irritability. I'm going to get more bored easily. I'm going to be a little bit more impatient, and I'm pretty impatient to begin with. Those little things about kind of learning how to optimize your own health and your own energy, I just think become extremely important to be very, very explicit about.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Yeah, I love all of these things. You've given yourself permission to time shift, kind of foregoing an arbitrary 8 to 6 or whatever schedule, you do it around your own circadian rhythms. You fit a workout in in the middle of the day instead of doing it on the margin outside, you are on as dad from 5 to 8, which fills you up and your kids will remember that. It seems like I'm just hearing you also say so much of it is about just knowing yourself and honoring it. I'm an animal, we're all animals. What does this animal need in order to serve the priorities, serve the interests you want to serve and be the person that you want to be?

Charlie Cole:

Yeah, attitude is so important to me. How you come to every question, how you come to every request, how you come to every meeting invite, you just have to be so cognizant of it all. I encourage everyone to do this. Thank God every time you've received an email and it comes in your inbox and you click it or receive a Slack or receive a text message and you say to yourself, "I don't want to deal with this." Every time that happens, just stop and say, "Why? Why do you actually not want to deal with this right now? Is it because you're tired? Is it because you're hungry? Is it because you're bored? Is it because you're worried about how it's going to be perceived?"

The fact of the matter is that when you're trying to help lead other extraordinary people, trying to step up to every single one of those small things in just a clear, simple way, it's much more easier said than done. But it just comes down to having a very consistent and positive attitude, which once you feel it waning and you will catch yourself, just try to figure out why, and usually there's a very simple answer.

Lindsay Pedersen:

That's advice that you just assured with me and with listeners. I have another kind of advice question for you. In a hypothetical world, if you could have been told a piece of advice at age 25 that you 100% would've listened to and that it would've changed your whole life, what would that have been?

Charlie Cole:

I would say work with people who don't think like you. Surround yourself with people who don't think like you. So when I was 25, give or take, I was just starting my first head of e-commerce job. I was the head of e-commerce at Lucky Brands. I just surrounded myself with other Type A analysts. There was not a problem we couldn't analyze, and there was not a problem we couldn't deduce, and there was not a problem we couldn't come up with a scientific hypothesis, but we didn't have a generative creative bone in our body.

So we were really good at A/B testing and we were really good at SEO and we were really good at SEM, but we were a fashion brand, and I just thought when you make great teams, you just need a bunch of people like you, and I just didn't understand that that was the worst team. So one of the things I've said before is that I don't care. Pick your persona, right? The Faltech rocket scientist, the Harvard MBA, the MIT computer science PhD and the RISD valedictorian designer. You give me a team of all of one of those, and it's going to be a terrible team, but a team full of Harvard MBAs, a team full of comp sci at MIT, it doesn't matter, they're a terrible team.

You give me one, one and one and one, you're going to get a pretty good start as long as they're encouraged to think the way they think. Don't try to change people into something else. If I was at Lucky brand, the smartest thing they could have done was to let me keep on being an analytical type because they're going to surround me with creative types, but it's something that I had to learn the hard way, that basically surrounding yourself with people who don't work like you, don't think like you, don't approach problems like you, building teams like that are going to be your best teams.

It's going to make for some super frustrating times, but progress is usually seen through a bunch of frustration. I think that that's something that I did not understand at 25, and I probably didn't understand at 28, and I probably started to understand at 30, but it would've been great to just have it shot into my brain earlier than it was.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Lessons don't work that way though, do they either?

Charlie Cole:

They sure don't.

Lindsay Pedersen:

This has been so fun. Okay, are you ready for some rapid fire questions? One word answer. I've got five for you.

Charlie Cole:

I think so.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Okay. Your favorite trait in a person?

Charlie Cole:

Humor.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Favorite kind of candy?

Charlie Cole:

Skittles.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Would you rather have one wish granted today or 10 wishes granted 20 years from now?

Charlie Cole:

10 wishes 20 years from now.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Favorite movie?

Charlie Cole:

Space Balls. I was just trying to pick between a Mel Brooks movie. I knew it was a Mel Brooks movie.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Oh my God, I love that you picked Space Balls, Charlie.

Charlie Cole:

I love Space Balls.

Lindsay Pedersen:

If you had given me a hundred guesses as to what you would've said, I don't think I would've gotten to that, so I love that. Okay, last but not least. Favorite way to spend the Monday of a three day weekend?

Charlie Cole:

Oh man. I'm going to say reset. So working out, spending time with my kids, spending time with my wife. Just basically resetting to get yourself back to level par. So my one word answer is a reset.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Boom. I love it. Charlie, thank you so much for joining me today. This has been a real joy. How can our listeners find out more about you online? What's your presence?

Charlie Cole:

I love LinkedIn. I'm a big fan of LinkedIn. I'm a big open networker on LinkedIn. If you just want to sell me something that's not open networking, but if you want to actually talk to me and like to change ideas, I love doing that. So I'm on LinkedIn. Then my email is my name. So charlie.cole@tributetech.com. Reach out. Always happy to chat with people.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Wonderful. Thank you so much. Have a good rest of your day.

Charlie Cole:

You too, Lindsay.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Thanks for listening to this episode of North Star Leaders. Make sure you don't miss an episode by subscribing on your favorite podcast app. For show notes, transcripts and newsletter signup, visit ironcladcloneeight.com. Please join us again for another episode of North Star Leaders.

Lindsay speaking

About Lindsay

Lindsay Pedersen is a bestselling author and brand strategist with a scientific, growth-oriented approach to brand building. She has advised companies from burgeoning startups to national corporations, including Zulily, Starbucks, T-Mobile, Coinstar, and IMDb.

Her background as a P&L owner at Clorox fostered in Lindsay a deep appreciation for the executive’s charge: increasing the company’s value. There, she led mature, billion-dollar businesses and newly-launched categories, from Clorox Bleach to Armor All to Brita. In each case, she was solely responsible for increasing the business’s value.

Thanks to this executive perspective, Lindsay demands that brands be hard-working, disciplined and rigorous in growing a business. Her brand strategies are tested in the crucible of her proprietary Ironclad Method. Lindsay arms leaders with an empowering understanding of brand, and an ironclad brand strategy to guide choices as they grow.