If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you probably know that among the many hats I wear, I am a runner. I’ve run more half marathons and 10K races than I care to count, and I am currently training for the 2019 Chicago Marathon this October. I’ve only run one full marathon (a decade ago), and there’s a good reason for this.

Training for a full 26.2-mile race is no easy task—physically or mentally. There are so many things that must be understood and planned to even get to the starting line: a proven training plan, proper shoes and gear, nutrition and hydration, chafing-prevention, timing, stretching, recovery, and more—and then managing to work all of these elements around career obligations, family adventures, and social events.

Most marathon training plans have short runs (3-9 miles) during the week and one long run (6-22 miles, building gradually) on weekends. My expectations and preparations for the shorter mid-week runs are vastly different than the weekend long run: I can easily run a few miles with little thought or preparation. But for the weekend runs, the difference in my mental expectation is considerable: making the commitment to be running continuously for 2-4 hours is not easy. Trust me on this.

What does this have to do with retail? Preparing to run a marathon means you’re in it for the long haul—and it’s similar to planning your strategy for customer engagement and loyalty. You want your customers to be with you for the long haul and vice versa. And that means you need to take a deep look at what it will take to get you and them to the starting point, as well as through the full race.

Let’s look at some key elements:

Start with expectations. How do you think your customers want to interact with your brand both digitally and in your stores? What types of experiences will keep you top of mind and make them loyal and enthusiastic brand advocates? Is your environment ‘high-touch’ where store associates may be helping customers who are timid about sharing personal details or feel unknowledgeable about your products? Or are you more transactional? Do your in-store business processes and policies support your customer experience vision? What elements of your experience will differentiate you from your competition? What successful (and not-so-successful) strategies are your competitors using to attract customers and build loyalty? Can you leverage what companies are doing outside your industry? After registering for a marathon, typically there are plenty of communications from the race organizers alerting participants about what to expect: the race course, typical weather, hotels, packet pickup, and other logistics.  Most of this is very thorough and well planned, particularly for larger races.

Select and empower your associates. Do you have the proper recruiting, hiring, and onboarding strategies in place to ensure the people you attract and hire not only align with your brand value proposition, but are also loyal advocates? What tools do your store associates need to ensure the customer experience not just meets, but exceeds customer expectations with every interaction? Do your role definitions empower employees to provide (and more so exceed) the service your customers expect? Are employees measured, rewarded, and promoted based on customer experience metrics? There are any number of endurance running training plans out there—including those provided by race organizers—these typically provide LOTS of information to help runners get from their first mile to completing 26.2. The plan I’ve used and trusted for years is by marathon veteran and coach, Hal Higdon. His advice is simple to follow, pragmatic, and (importantly) allows for all different levels and types of athletes.

Equip store management. Do the roles of your store and field management align and empower to support and strengthen your store staff? Are managers equipped with the proper tools and timely information they need to successfully manage operations, drive sales, and keep staff motivated? Have you properly defined career paths and succession plans that make your company a desirable place to work and advance associate and manager careers? It’s key—and very motivating—to receive constant support from race organizers that showcase inspirational running stories or provide tips and tricks about managing nasty weather and other challenges—these help runners get through those often difficult stretches of endurance training.

Manage change appropriately. If you are migrating towards new behaviors, processes, policies, and/or systems, have you properly communicated the changes to your store staff early in the process and ensure they understand? Have you engaged store management as ambassadors to help drive the change? Does your associate learning environment have relevant, engaging content, and does it support desirable, meaningful, and sustainable learning? When school starts after Labor Day, it will still be hot outside for my training runs. I’ve explained to my 15-year old that until mid-October, he’s going to be on his own to get ready for school at 6am because I will be running most days. While he’s certainly old enough and capable of making his own breakfast and packing a lunch, there’s a whole element of time management for him to consider (remember: he’s a teenager).

Get feedback. Are you soliciting feedback from both customers and associates, and are you actively leveraging this feedback to make improvements? Are you providing multiple methods in which this feedback can be provided? Are you rewarding feedback? With any plan, there are typically adjustments made along the way to accommodate any variety of fluctuations or roadblocks. Injuries, weather, emergencies, and the like will happen during training, so the ability to be agile and adjust is critical to maintaining momentum.

Indeed, lots of questions and factors to consider in planning your customer experience. Tons of planning and preparation—beginning with setting expectations. But like training for a marathon, when you reach the finish line, the reward and feeling of success and accomplishment is unparalleled—and totally worth every 5am long run, every drop of sweat, every grueling mile on the pavement, and every freezing cold ice bath.

Shop—or run—on.