September 28, 2006, 12:00 AM

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

(Page 2 of 3)

On the front end, the system also helps drive a customer loyalty program that’s boosted online sign-ups for Blimpie’s loyalty program by 25% in the first six months of implementation. Customers can submit a complaint or feedback without registering for the program-but those who do register for it get something besides coupons: visibility into a part of the system that allows them to track the status of their complaint as it moves through the company for resolution. More than 70% of the customers who went online to report an incident wound up signing up for the loyalty program.

The process for capturing and making use of customer feedback at Cooking.com has evolved since the early days and that evolution continues. Currently, its multiple feedback collection points include links or text boxes that let customers submit comments from the shopping cart, product detail page or search process. A Contact Us page generates a web form to send an e-mail to customer service. Recipe review allows registered customers to submit comments on posted recipes they’ve tried.

Forms of active feedback solicitation include e-mails to shoppers a few weeks after purchase that let them rate or review the product purchased. The reviews are posted at the bottom of the relevant product page. A post-order survey, implemented in June, is added to the same post-purchase e-mail and allows customers to submit feedback in survey form. The survey captures data on several fronts including whether delivery and product expectations were met, and whether the shopper would shop again at Cooking.com or recommend it to friends. The site also posts BizRate survey banners, giving customers the opportunity to click and submit feedback on their experience immediately post-purchase, while they are still on the site. The company receives e-mailed reports on the data from BizRate daily and actively reviews those comments.

4,000 comments a month
Altogether, apart from BizRate and Amazon reviews generated by its participation in the Home section at Amazon.com, and apart from general e-mail queries or phone calls that come into the company, Cooking.com receives about 4,000 pieces of feedback about the site, the products, and its customers’ experience every month, says Kirk Oshiro, director of customer service. But while it’s striven to cast a wide net over as many collection points as possible, it works just as hard to make the most use of that information once it arrives.

Customer service is generally the first point of contact for feedback received on Cooking.com, with the sole exception being feedback coming in through the site search text box-representing about one-third of the monthly feedback received. That goes directly to the buyers’ team to provide a window on what customers are looking for on the site.

Oshiro estimates that about 25% of the feedback that comes into the site is from e-mail, which goes into an e-mail management system-a web server coupled with a database-and is processed and circulated according to established guidelines. Most of the rest is feedback that’s been entered on web forms, which goes into the regular production database.

Oshiro says feedback is stored in both databases. “It’s easier to review what’s stored in the web form database. We can also look at stored e-mails, but it’s not as convenient,” he says.

How about reconciling comments that come in via e-mail with similar comments that may be entered on the web forms? That’s something Cooking.com is still figuring out. From a standard process perspective, Oshiro says there’s no way to reconcile the two databases. The company does, however, use leads from one database as a reason to search for similar information in the other, a process Oshiro compares to putting together a jigsaw puzzle. For example, a customer might send an e-mail saying she had difficulty checking out, but offering no specific information. Oshiro’s team could handle that by reviewing cart feedback generated by the web form to see if there are any patterns.

No. 1 priority: Checkout
Across all of its multiple feedback collection points, the three web-based forms together are the biggest driver of site improvements currently. Among those, cart feedback issues go to the head of the line. “Anyone having problems or issues while they are in the cart checking out obviously has an effect on conversions, so it’s critical,” says Oshiro. However, the web-based forms may eventually be replaced as the key driver of site changes by the post-order survey instituted in June, given the volume of information the survey’s already generating, Oshiro says. Like most of the rest of Cooking.com’s systems for accepting and processing customer feedback, it’s an internally-written application.

The web and e-mail are easy ways for customers to submit feedback or complaints-but what happens to submitted feedback as it’s received on the back end varies widely from retailer to retailer. And yet, “the most important part of the process is turning feedback into actionable items,” says Oshiro. While retailers attempt to address the issue with the individual customer, if the feedback received isn’t aggregated and centralized on the back end, the retailer has lost an opportunity to spot trends, see areas in need of improvement, or identify ongoing problems with a policy or product.

But with the right processes, smart retailers don’t see feedback, even the negative kind, as failure. Rather, it’s an opportunity to do better, both for the individual customer involved and for how the entire site operates. As the result of customer feedback, for instance, Blue Nile already has made changes to the diamond search function it launched this spring. For example, it’s added parameters to the search and it reinstituted an earlier diamond comparison feature it had removed from the new diamond search design after customer feedback indicated shoppers wanted that feature returned.

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