Unlocking Emotional Intelligence in US Auto Parts with Rick Egan

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In this ground-breaking series, Nichole Kelly, industry thought leader, author and Strategy Director at WebMechanix has taken to the market to ask some really important questions of marketing leaders. Specifically, what role does emotional intelligence play in marketing leadership and does it have any correlation to marketing ROI performance?

To find out she put together a plan to reach out to 19k marketing executives on LinkedIn and asked them to participate in a short survey on emotional intelligence. The response has been far beyond expectations and senior leaders throughout the industry are lining up to share their stories of emotional intelligence.

In our first interview, Nichole speaks with Rick Egan, Senior Vice President of Marketing at US Auto Parts, a $300 million online retailer of after-market auto parts. Rick is an e-commerce juggernaut who in addition to working at US Auto Parts has also worked with brands such as J Brand, Juicy Couture and Frye Boots managing hundreds of millions in online revenue. He shares his perspective on emotional intelligence and the role it played as he developed a digital transformation program at US Auto Parts and overhauled the marketing team, tactics and strategies. Leaders who are brought in to drive transformation face an especially challenging task of building support and excitement for change within a team you’ve just joined and may, in fact, replace. Success requires advanced leadership skills and high levels of emotional intelligence.

P.S. If you’re interested in learning more about WebMechanix’s Emotional Intelligence Benchmark Study or would like to share your perspective please reach out to Nichole Kelly here. The results will be released on 11/11/19.

Now, let’s hear from Rick…


‘- Well Rick, thank you so much for joining today. I’m really excited to have this opportunity to have a conversation. I was just curious just to kinda get started, this happened because we asked you some questions about emotional intelligence in the marketplace, what for you as a leader, what does emotional intelligence mean to you?

– I think it means understanding people just in general whether that, both you’re kind of up, down, and sideways. Trying to understand the needs of the people above you that you’re reporting to or have big stakes in the company as well as your immediate peers that run other parts of the company. And then of course under the people underneath you and then trying to take the time to develop them and trying to be interceptive and learning from the … Constantly learning what you’re doing because I think it’s never something that anybody can say that they’re necessarily great at, every person’s different you’re always going to have to evolve and iterate your thinking.

– That’s interesting you say that, because what I’ve experienced the most with leaders is that one of the biggest things in emotional intelligence that seems to be the struggle is it really requires setting that ego aside and being able to accept feedback and and to really being able to tune into someone else which doesn’t necessarily mean that the ego is a bad thing, it’s a great thing, and in order to tune into someone else it requires us to take a step back to really read between the lines. I was curious for you, what’s a time where you’ve had to kind of read between the lines where maybe something wasn’t obvious on the surface but you kind of had some insight that gave you an opportunity for a great example of leadership for yourself but also for your team members.

– I think one example that always sticks out to me, I think, just trying to be more self-aware. Two companies back when I was at One Stop, we had kind of a combination of agency but then we also ran the entire business for the branch that we worked with. And so we had one branch that was on the fence. They were considering leaving as well as potentially continuing to keep part of their services with us. And I had one person who was really kind of the lead with that and I was really waiting for him to kind of move it along and he kind of wasn’t really able to get any traction, so I stepped in and tried to pitch the client’s name. And I think feedback he gave me, much later, it was probably three, six months after. After it happened was that, to the client I came across as very arrogant, which I think I was pitching marketing services and I’ve pitched those for a long time and I always position myself as, I’m the expert, I know your business as well as you and things like that so that was normal for me or normally how I did it but to him, the feedback that she had given him afterward, and that he took it that I came off as kind of arrogant through the process and so he kind of aired all this at the end of a leadership meeting. So the rest of the leadership team was all there and he reported in to me, so I could’ve handled it a few different ways but what I chose to do was take a step back, listen to him, what he way saying and give some of my reasoning for why I handled the meeting the way that I did. But try to listen to him and hear because his was probably some feedback from her but probably also his own, just frustration with the overall thing. So, I sat there in front of everybody and took the feedback and tried to make it non adversarial and create more of a … Give him some feedback too but not try to not do it in a threatening or his boss kind of way.

– Yeah.

– It was totally uncomfortable, it was really hard and I had to fight above my natural instincts there but I think like I got praise from the CEO afterwards

– Yeah.

– In my one on one with him, he was really impressed with me and the way that I handled that and the way that I was going to listen and take feedback and not just dismiss him.

– Yeah, I love that. And you know what I appreciate most about that? Is that you saw immediately that this issue that was being brought up wasn’t just what he was saying, there was something brewing under the service that you were able to see that they’re might be something going on with him as well. So I think that’s really great and I see that a lot too where, you know, people will say it’s a projection, right? It’s because I have someone else either on my side or that I can say said something, it gives this opportunity to say some of the things that I’ve been feeling as well. And then obviously, as leaders, we hope that that feedback comes in a short amount of time so that we can apply it. Yeah, excellent. So I have a very interesting kind of market-driven question. I found myself in an interesting position this last week because I just moved so I’m shopping more than I typically would be shopping and I’m going into a bunch of different places and I was in the mall and I found that it was jarring to me being in the mall and it was empty inside the mall. And Macy’s had inventories that were just overflowing. Macy’s always has heavy inventory but I saw, you could barely walk through Macy’s. And then literally the next day, I go into Walmart and the shelves are empty and toothbrushes are being locked up. And so my question for you of, you know, myself being in the market for quite some time and going through changing economic conditions and seeing where we’re protecting things. I’m accustomed to things like high-ticket items being protected. I was very shocked to see something that I would consider a basic need, being protected. And just looking at society and where the emotional state of society is right now, do you have any insights into market conditions and what kind of, what’s keeping you up at night I suppose?

– I don’t know, I mean I work on a digital commerce site, so I guess what’s keeping me up at night, is the site actually working. And are people able to transact that actually want to transact, that’s really probably the bigger thing. I think organizations as a whole, is just kind of general out there in the landscape, that certainly if you’re … If you have an offline presence and an online presence, it is a very difficult time because, you know, because most companies aren’t pivoting quick enough, to try to figure that out. It’s more the ones probably that are excelling today, are the ones starting out as direct consumer digitally, and then as they continue to scale and gain traction, then they move offline and will open a store and things like that. So, it’s difficult because the inventory is all over the place and it’s hard to manage the inventory. I don’t know what would cause something to be locked up and other things to be not locked up. I guess, maybe the only thing I could really think, would be as the offline stores become more of a try on type of … More of a sampling type of facility. So a Macy’s really has to deal with that, where people are going to sample the clothes, or products or anything they’re looking at and then they’re going to go online and they’re going to buy it. Typically, they would buy more online then they would buy in the store. And so they have to try to facilitate all of those things.

– Yeah.

– And so the more they lock stuff up, the more difficult that’s going to be and probably the more it’s going to turn customers off.

– Yeah, I just found it interesting, just kind of in looking at consumer attitudes, right? Just towards spending, that’s where I really found it interesting. Because if we’re not spending in Macy’s and we’re not going to the malls, then that’s a sign that luxury spending is declining in some markets And then if we’re locking up toothbrushes, that’s telling us, at least from my perspective, saying that, hey, consumers are, and I specifically asked because I’m a dork, and I walked in and I was like, “hello, what is going on, explain this to me.” And they flat out said that people were stealing toothbrushes, you know? So as leaders in the market, in digital marketing, I like to look at these signs to say, okay, well what does this mean to us from a business perspective and really into looking at the emotional sentiment of our audiences. So, I’m curious as to what’s going over the next six months to a year, I don’t talk politics, I talk emotions, but you know, just the emotional impact of this election in 2020 and people coming into it and feeling obviously emotional volatile, polarizing emotions happening on both sides, as a leader for you and managing your team, what kind of things are you taking into account, and kind of helping people deal with the emotions of what’s happening in the world right now?

– That’s a tough one, because you know, it is one you have to be super, super sensitive about. I mean, I’m in Southern California, so it tends to be probably more liberal.

– Yeah.

– But you know because that divide is so strong, conservative and progressive right now, there isn’t … You can be a very polarized minority really quick, either way depending on the organization you’re in. So being in Souther California, tends to be generally more progressive, you’re not going to … But any of those people that are big Trump fans right now, they’re very much a minority if you’re in a place like Southern California, or probably, really the majority of California as a whole.

– Yeah

– You’re going to be in that. And I’ve seen the opposite of … You walking into some of those conversations in some places and you realize, okay, in more progressive view point, this isn’t going to be received here very well here at all.

– Yeah, I’ve see that, like I’ve said, I’ve seen it just all over the board, because I don’t take any stance in particular, so I can see all the different perspectives and what I’m noticing just at work is that there’s this level of stress and anxiety that’s coming from outside that’s finding it’s way inside. And as a result of that, as I’m trying to figure out where this is coming from. Where is the problem? So we can figure out the solution, looking for the core of it, it starts to come up, down to self awareness, honestly. And the kind of the conversation you were having, in terms of being able to look at yourself, understand where your emotions are coming from and then connect them to either the situation at hand, and/or recognize that there might be something behind it that’s bigger than that.

– Yeah, I mean, I think some of it you have to … Probably there’s a certain amount of it in reality you have to take as, it’s really kind of tabloid politics that are happening right now. And that’s kind of where we currently are, looking at history, with the Yellow Press and stuff like that, it’s not like this hasn’t happened before.

– Right.

– It’s happened before and we’re in the middle of it right now. We’re still out there, our primary job is to try and connect with people and tell our brand’s story and show our value proposition of why the products we’re trying to move are good for the customer, and you really have to leave it at that once you get into the other thing, some people can try to play it up and say make America great again, and try to sell things that way, but then you’re really narrowing your audience, you really have to keep it at, I have a product that has value proposition to you and you are a customer with a specific need, in that way, connect those two.

– For sure.

– And that’s truly what I just normally think as marketer and communicate out to my teams that, that’s what were trying to do.

– Yeah, that’s really great.

– Everything else is kind of, it’s your personal life

– Yeah

– And you know that kind of is what it is. _ Yeah, it’s great and I think that that’s exactly what we’re seeing as well, there’s becoming a little bit of a divide so that we can kind of have space and we can all have our opinions and do our thing, but then when we’re coming into work it’s very much about, we’re here for the task at hand, we’re here to connect with our customers, and in connecting with customers, I think that market is changing as well, you know. So as we start looking at digital marketing, you know, it’s been a wild ride. Over the last couple of decades, where we went from, you know, no web presence to all web presence, for many companies now. What kind of tends do you see coming into market that we should be paying attention to?

– The biggest trend happening right now is the walled garden concept, that’s really probably the biggest one because that very much impacts a lot of things that you were able to do in the past that you won’t be able to do as much. It really makes sense, but really to get out of … There’s five or seven web properties that dominate the traffic and the mind share of consumers that are out there. So you have to be in those places, but they’re making it more and more difficult for a person to leave, unless they’re leaving for some kind of paid media app. And so you have to really adapt to your strategies and your thinking, because people are going there and they’re asking their questions, they’re looking for information. So, you have to figure out how to be there and answer those questions without being able to get them to your website and to transact that way. So you have that piece going on, which changes your kind of tactical approach and then it also really puts you in a different position that you really have to focus on your brand and how you get people directly to you.

– Yeah _ And you use to be able to kind of go, okay I’m going to get a bunch of SEO traffic or I’m going to post a bunch of things on Facebook and people will click through and do that. But those things are becoming more difficult, so you have to look at those as branding exercises and then look outside and say what other kinds of branding activities can I do, and the customers that I have, how can I incentivize them to continue to shop and transact with me. So, to me, I think you’d have to be much more customer centric. And that’s kind of forcing you to be better at your job. You probably didn’t have … You probably could be average and still do well before, and that’s getting more and more difficult. And you have to be a more traditional marketer, you can’t be niche marketer which you could for a long time, digitally.

– Yeah, it’s really interesting because I would say, over the last decade, with social coming around, I was one of the people who specialized in social, I went from running marketing teams, to specializing in social and not I’m back in all digital again, because we figured out how to measure social media, we got it all to work and now it’s part of an integrated mix. So, we have some new channels that will be coming in and offering those opportunities. What are your thoughts in terms of, there’s lots of conversation about data privacy, and data integrity and even kind of zero data conversation, what do you think about this whole conversation about how do we honor our customer’s consumer data and protect it, while also using it in a way that designs better experiences for them.

– Lately I’ve been trying to take a step back from that and think more about putting myself in the customers shoes because I think, we as marketers or website providers or even RECOM providers, whatever it may be. Have kind of … We just talked ourselves into the fact that, oh, every customer wants a personalized experience to them, so we have to get as much information as them and that’s what we have to show them. And I think more, is that really actually what the customer wants? Or does the customer want an experience where they can come discover and figure out what they want, and shop like they would, like hey, if I walked into a store, do I necessarily want some buzzer going off and a sales associate goes “okay, Rick just walked in, I know, here’s the 10 things he’s going to want to look at.” And they go run at me. Do I really want to walk in the store and go “Let me look at a few aisles, I know I want to get to this, but lets see what else is here.” And kind of go through my own discovery process on my own vers having it all told to me. I think that the thing that we’ll … I feel like we’ve tried to tilt a little bit too much the other way. And that’s what’s coming up a lot with Facebook results and Google results and Instagram and everything else. We’ve tried to say, “oh, I know exactly what you want and I’m feeding you all the things that I think you want.” And then it becomes what you know.

– Right

– And that’s the impact, and when we talk about the political side, then that’s impacting … Now your emotions get much stronger the other way and I feel like there will be some kind of course to direct around that, because of the data privacy things then maybe there’ll be some more honest inception, that people really go out and survey their customers and say, do you want a personalized experience, or do you just want a better shopping experience? Where you have better site search and we give you an experience that makes sense to you, not one that we’re trying to guess who you are and then feed you just what we think you want, or in the probably more annoying sense to the consumer is, we just want to feed you the things we want to sell you and we could care less who you are. So somewhere there’s some right way to do that, I think evolving the whole personalization uses, like one of those Holy Grail type things out there that we’ve been trying to do, and I don’t know if it was necessarily the right thing.

– Yeah, it’s interesting it is like the Holy Grail, and interestingly enough, I don’t know if you every read, Doc Searls wrote a book, called the Intention Economy. It is a very technical read that I had a very difficult time getting through, but the point of it is essentially, this theory that we’re moving into an economy where rather than us trying to get in front of the consumer, the consumer is going to raise their hand and say “hey, I’m looking for auto parts this month for my 65 Chevy and I’m in the market for people who are selling that.” And then they accept offers, select and move on and then they don’t need ads anymore for the thing that they were searching for. So using more of intention versus search history

– Yeah, that could be interesting, so I know there’s a company called Fair Trade, they sell coffee and they’ve created, as part of their experience, you go and they ask you a bunch of questions about what kind of coffee drinker you are, so then they can recommend what type of beans that you would want, based on the type of coffee drinker that you are. So, I like the concept of people trying to go out and more directly ask people, like, who are you, what are you looking for, and in the past we’ve always said, oh that’s too many restrictions, we don’t want to do that, we’re going to roll out conversion links, we’re not going to do that, we don’t want to collect that, how can we do this in the most anonymous way possible and gather the most information and then tell you exactly what you want. Maybe that’s the wrong approach, maybe we should be really trying to have conversations with people and say, who are you, I want to know who you are and if you want a personal experience, I want to give it to you. If you don’t, that’s fine.

– Right. And honestly it’s so interesting because that’s the thing that I see so often is that just from being in marketing so often, we spend a lot of time researching our customers and messaging our customers and seeing what’s working and what’s not working and sometimes we feel like we really know the customer and at the end of that we stop shot of asking the customer the actual question, because we think we understand . So, that whole thing of going back, this all happened because we asked some questions of like, how do you feel about this, what’s the topic of today? And then you get this opportunity to start a conversation where you actually get to know somebody and I think that is the Holy Grail because, companies don’t sell things at the end of the day. People do and people buy from people and the more that we can kind of get this human to human connection going, I think that’s going to be a huge differentiator coming into the market, where we have AI kind of taking over, optimizing for ROI. Who knows what’s going to happen to Ad Copy over the next three years. I’m really interested to see what’s going to happen when machines start writing our Ad Copy and how it gets optimized to convert. And I think that’s the difference of the companies that are really going to do great over these next few years, are the ones who are really paying attention to sentiment and the market, aligning to the customers’ need and just addressing it, yeah Awesome.

– Well, what happens when computers start doing it all, on the email side, there’s a company called Persado and they basically have an AI that writes your email subject lines. So what you end up happening, if you use them and you start seeing the patterns of how they’re creating it for you, and then you go back and look at all your emails, you’ll be able to pick out all the ones that are likely using that company to write their headlines. Because then they all start looking the same.

– Right and I think that’s the risk of every marketer, when we’re using formulas that works, right? We know something works and so we keep iterating it and it becomes, all the websites look alike or the landing pages look alike. That’s definitely true. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to chat today, I really appreciate it.

– [Rick] Sure, no problem.

– Your insight is incredibly valuable and insightful for what’s happening in the market and I appreciate it.

Nichole Kelly

Nichole Kelly

Rick Egan

Rick EganSenior Vice President of Marketing at US Auto Parts

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Creative + UX

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