June 16, 2011, 6:56 PM

IRCE 2011 Report: For a rebranding, Hayneedle brought customer care back home

The online retailer ended offshore customer service and developed a new focus.

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There’s no place like home. That axiom inspired Tammy Van Donk, director of customer care at e-retailer Hayneedle Inc., when she arrived at the company three years ago and took a look at its offshore customer care center.

The company, which operates 220 niche online stores including Hammocks.com, was in the process of rebranding itself from NetShops in hopes of pushing the message that web shoppers could find “the needle in the haystack” for specialty products. Part of the rebranding effort focused on the importance of customer service, especially vital because the company offers thousands of niche products that can easily spark consumer requests for help and guidance—for instance, questions about such potential purchases as a $6,000 patio set or a $13,000 telescope.

That meant customer care associates needed to understand products, comprehend how customer care fit into the merchant’s overarching strategy, and become an integral part of the entire Hayneedle team, Van Donk explained at the 2011 Internet Retailer Conference & Exhibition in a session entitled “Why One Retailer Brought Its Customer Service Back to the U.S.”

So Van Donk immediately made the decision to move customer care from an offshore site to Omaha, NE, just 10 miles away from Hayneedle’s corporate headquarters. She hired 150 customer care employees and had them mingle with their corporate counterparts. Training on products and service style was done on-site. And customer care worked with other departments to improve the brand. Customer care agents, for example, regularly provide suggestions to the web development team for improvements to the web site based on the experiences of customers.

Prior to 2008 the company viewed the contact center as a necessary department that was a cost center, Van Donk said. “If you just see it as answering the phone and you’re trying to save money, why not outsource it?” she said. “With rebranding, we wanted to be more than just niche sites, we wanted the opportunity to build relationships with our customers.” And that meant bringing customer care back to the United States where associates could be integrated with the team and the strategy, she added.

To measure success as part of the rebranding effort, Van Donk and management changed the metrics. Rather than measure contacts per hour and cost per contact, they reviewed sales conversions. The change reflected the new focus on enabling customer care associates to become “virtual shopkeepers,” Van Donk said.

“We did an in-house employee survey and found that 91% of our customer care center associates understood their role in the organization, how they connect and make us successful,” Van Donk said. “We were able to make a culture and make that connection. We wouldn’t have been able to make the change from NetShops to Hayneedle if we had not gotten our associates to get it. And that tells me we’re doing something right.”

Hayneedle is No. 77 in the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide.

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