Why J. Crew's CEO Turned to My Wife for Fashion Advice

"Sorry, I couldn't answer your call earlier. I just hung up with the CEO of J. Crew." So began an entirely unexpected conversation with my wife, who proceeded to share that Millard "Mickey" Drexler had shocked her with his call in response to an email she sent to the company's anonymous "J. Crew 24-7" address.
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"Sorry, I couldn't answer your call earlier. I just hung up with the CEO of J. Crew." So began an entirely unexpected conversation with my wife, Elizabeth. It had been 15 years since my wife made the decision to leave the advertising world to stay home with our children, so her CEO chat caught me entirely off guard. My wife proceeded to share that Millard "Mickey" Drexler, J. Crew's chief and famed retailer, had shocked her with his call in response to an email she sent to the company's anonymous "J. Crew 24-7" address.

Drexler had gone to some effort to talk with my wife. After emailing a response note in less than 24 hours, he and J. Crew president Libby Wadle left a voicemail with cellphone numbers and then took her call when she rang back. In other words, Mickey Drexler went out of his way to do what an unfortunately small number of CEOs practice -- he went the extra mile to get direct customer feedback.

It's worth noting, for those who haven't paid attention to retail for the last 35 years, that Drexler is not simply a busy CEO. He's a retailing legend, alternately known as the "merchant prince" and "the man who dressed America." Since first becoming a CEO in 1980 at age 36, Drexler's credits include turnarounds of Ann Taylor and Banana Republic and, most famously, taking the Gap from $400 million in annual revenues to $14 billion during his 19 years as CEO. After an unceremonious exit there in 2002, Drexler has gone on to reinvent J. Crew as a "cult brand" that has been worn by the first family during inauguration festivities and showcased by Oprah. Although he could have long ago rested on his laurels and coasted into the business hall of fame, here he was calling an unknown customer from his New York office on a summertime Friday afternoon.

The email from my wife that set this in motion was clearly well-intentioned but had a stinging critique of the company's fall/holiday collection that she had seen in a preview sent to certain customers. She had written the kind of email you assume goes into a black box and will never be read by an actual decision maker. Perhaps that was why my wife let fly some of the pointed candor usually reserved just for me. "I am so disheartened and disappointed that you are leaving your core values and styling and abandoning your loyal customers," she wrote. "I would have thought you had learned your lesson at the Gap!! Why mess with these iconic brands and change them into something they're not?" Ouch.

Regardless of what fashionistas may make of my wife's review, Drexler and Wadle embraced the criticism, phoning her back with the heads of marketing and personal shopping on the line. Drexler soon apologized that Jenna Lyons, the company's executive ceative director (and currently one of the most influential people in the fashion world), would have joined too if not for her vacation. The call started pleasantly with some get-to-know-you questions covering my wife's shopping habits and personal history.

J. Crew's leadership team proceeded to ask what my wife liked and didn't like about the company's styling, as well as what was missing in her opinion. They listened intently and respectfully while politely noting that the preview photos my wife had seen had been taken from a fashion show so gave a different brand impression than regular customers may have anticipated. Drexler also stood his ground on the need to continue evolving the company's style as competitors attempt to copy its success. He went on to say, however, that in the company's desire to embrace change, the team also shared the view that some of the styling had perhaps strayed too far from the classics and brand messaging for which J. Crew had become known. Drexler's views had been shaped, in part, by his recent trip to stores with Wadle so he could hear firsthand from customers and frontline sales associates. "We are on it for sure," he later emailed my wife. "I hope you see a difference this fall."

Drexler's passionate pursuit of customer feedback is an inspiration to any of us who have written an irritated letter after a bad service experience or disappointing product purchase. Hopefully, Drexler will also serve as a role model for senior executives stuck in their headquarter offices to get out and interact with customers on the front line. Sure, such phone calls provide only one data point. But sometimes an emotional customer anecdote can give the impetus for making a judgment call that no spreadsheet can provide.

Drexler not only pays attention to what customers are saying but also unabashedly acts on it, never apologizing for getting involved in the minutia of business operations. He will be the first to say that attention to detail is crucial for creating a product and brand experience that makes customers care enough to write those nasty letters in the first place. "Ask your customers if they'd like you to micromanage," he once said in response to those who criticize his hands-on style. Yes, Mickey, we like it.

Chris DeRose is co-author of "Judgment on the Front Line: How Smart Companies Win By Trusting Their People." This post first appeared on Forbes.com.

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