September 28, 2006, 12:00 AM

From the customer`s mouth to the retailer`s ear

Lots of sites gather customer feedback, but only a few really know what to do with it.

With the average engagement ring at its site priced at a hefty $5,600, and referrals a key source of new business, online jeweler Blue Nile Inc. wants to deliver a perfect customer experience every time. So it’s continuously digging for customer feedback, including, since March, a link that solicits comments from customers on how their search experience is going while they are in the middle of doing the search.

A click on the link at the top of Blue Nile’s diamond search page pops up a window in which shoppers can enter their comments. Those comments generate an e-mail that is automatically routed to customer service, technical staff, or whichever group in the organization is charged with responding to that specific query. The submitted comments also get a wider e-mail distribution in the organization. And they reside permanently in the common repository of Blue Nile’s order management system, into which departments such as merchandising and fulfillment also have visibility.

The right time
This method of capturing feedback from customers live, while they are using the recently overhauled diamond search, has proven so useful that Blue Nile has since rolled out the internally written application to capture feedback on other site functions. And it’s already made changes to its diamond search tool based on the feedback it’s gathered.

Seeking feedback from a customer while he’s intent on something else-completing the search and deciding on the ring-might seem counterintuitive. But it’s precisely because the customer is so invested in the effort at that point that Blue Nile finds it a perfect place to display the feedback link and it’s one of a number of ways that Blue Nile seeks to measure how it’s faring among shoppers. “Our customers are very involved in the process of buying a diamond engagement ring. They’re spending thousands, and they’re emotionally attached to the purchase. So they are very open to giving us both critical and positive feedback on what’s working for them, or isn’t,” says Darrell Cavens, Blue Nile’s senior vice president of marketing.

Blue Nile’s story shows what creativity, forethought and some handy web developers can do to make the most of customer feedback. The challenge attached to handling customer feedback effectively is steep. There’s first of all the problem of gathering it and resolving customer-specific incidents or complaints in a timely fashion, and then of pushing it out beyond customer service to drive longer-range site improvements. To do that, feedback from shoppers must be stored in such a way that history can be easily mined for patterns, and an internal process created that turns those patterns into action items for the relevant departments in the organization, ranging from IT to buyers and merchandisers.

A number of third-party providers offer online customer satisfaction surveys. While useful from a quantitative perspective, they may not zero in on a specific customer complaint quickly enough to foster an immediate resolution. E-mails from individual customers may be incident-specific, but aggregating and reviewing their content to spot ongoing problems or trends is manual and time consuming.

Enterprise CRM systems offer much of the functionality needed to drive responses to specific incidents and save that history for future reference. But at multi-thousands of dollars, such high-powered software is beyond the budget of some online retailers. So as another way to make the most of customer feedback, some retailers are looking beyond these options for solutions.

Knocking down the silo
“Companies have been deploying independent software and services to manage different aspects of customer feedback,” says Customer Feedback Solutions CEO Dustin Ruge, noting that customer feedback may come in through different areas of a web site, such as a Contact Us page, a service or support page or a customer e-mail. “The independent systems are running on independent databases, so they are siloed and limited in scope in terms of what they can do with all the customer feedback that comes in.”

A hosted system-read “lower entry cost”-from Customer Feedback Solutions helped solve that problem for sandwich shop chain Blimpie, while serving as an effective customer e-mail acquisition tool. With more than 1,500 franchise locations nationwide, Blimpie had been using a web-based form on its site that allowed customers to submit feedback or complaints. While earning high marks for making it easy for Blimpie’s customers to submit comments, the process flunked when it came to handling the comments on the back end. Unless the customer’s report included information on store location, Blimpie didn’t know which location the customer’s feedback was about. The form enabled Blimpie to reach out and placate the customer, but not to effect changes in the store at issue.

The previous system gathered customers’ comments and information and pushed it into an e-mail for distribution within the company, but it didn’t capture it in a way that lent itself to reports. “It was elementary and didn’t hit on all of what’s necessary in managing customer feedback, which is to understand where our problems are,” says Janet Rhodes, formerly manager of guest experience at Blimpie and now director of regional sales for Customer Feedback Solutions. Rhodes notes that with the average sales of a Blimpie shop about $250,000 a year, there wasn’t a big budget, by restaurant, to manage feedback. Outsourced solutions such as call centers and toll-free lines weren’t in the budget, nor were enterprise CRM systems.

Rewarding operators
Ruge says the company’s hosted system combines the most commonly used customer feedback capabilities online into a single system running off a central database. The centralized system, branded to look to consumers like the retailer’s site, replaces whatever the retailer has in place for contact pages, support pages and web forms. “It aggregates all the communication that takes place between the company and the customer,” Ruge says.

Beyond making it possible to identify, communicate with and send a coupon to the customer reporting an incident, the system also pushes the feedback out dynamically to the local operator who can fix the problem. On the back end, the stored feedback has been used to support rewards to franchise operators turning in a good performance and in some cases to terminate franchises with ongoing problems.

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