March 28, 2013, 4:15 PM

Rethinking customer service

Retailers respond to the changing ways shoppers seek to get their issues resolved.

Lead Photo

When a customer has a problem she wants it solved fast. And if she complains about a retailer on social networks like Facebook and Twitter, the retailer wants to be sure to resolve her problem quickly. But Yankee Candle Co. was not very efficient at reacting to problems customers raised on social networks, says Brad Wolansky, president of consumer direct and chief marketing officer.

That's because it fell to one member of Yankee Candle's marketing team to both post the retailer's offers and comments on social networks, and to monitor those networks for customer complaints. Each time she found a complaint, she passed the comment to a customer service team member who would try to respond within a day. The process wasn't efficient, Wolansky says, and some issues fell through the cracks. "Speed is of the essence when you're talking about customer service," he says. "You don't want a day to go by before someone checks Facebook and Twitter."

Aiming to respond faster, Yankee Candle is training three of its seasoned customer service staff members to regularly monitor, and respond to, customer service issues posted on social media. As more of Yankee Candle's customers turn to social networks to address service issues, Wolansky may deploy technology that reports when a customer posts about the brand on a social network or blog.

Yankee Candle is hardly alone in rethinking the way its call center responds to consumers' queries, because today those issues arrive from multiple channels. For instance, 98% of retailers in The E-tailing Group Inc.'s Annual Mystery Shopping Study of major web retailers offer customer service over the phone and 56% feature live chat.

And then there's social media, where shoppers post their questions and concerns at any time of the day. All this means retailers have to be ready with astute agents who know how to use, and respond to, consumers through an array of technologies. This requires retailers to take a closer look at the contact center technologies they use and how they hire personnel.

The job of the contact center agent has gotten tougher over the past few years, as consumers have come to expect their issues to be resolved quickly and in the channel they want. And that's forcing retailers to respond. For instance, The E-tailing Group report found that the retailers in the study cut their e-mail response times 31% from 31 hours and 27 minutes in 2011 to 21 hours and 42 minutes last year.

But it's not all about speed. If an agent fails to resolve an issue, that shopper can turn to social media to share the bad experience, Art Schoeller, principal analyst at Forrester Research Inc., says. That means that "everyone has to up their game," he says.

For that's where technology fits in. Working with contact center software vendor Interactive Intelligence Group Inc., the web-only custom window treatment retailer created roughly 30 automated workflows to address common customer service issues. When a consumer calls about a defective blind, for example, the agent can click a single button in the software program and set in motion a series of steps that alerts the factory of the defect, orders a replacement, arranges for the factory to ship the replacement and prompts an agent to follow up with the customer after delivery.

Before it began using Interactive Intelligence's technology four years ago, each of those steps involved a manual process that took up an agent's time and could be mishandled, says Steve Riddell, vice president and chief operating officer.

"When agents are handling calls and attempting to follow up on calls it is easy to miss things," he says. "Automating processes has enabled us to increase the level of customer service we provide and decrease the quantity of people needed to deliver that service."

The proof, he says, is in the retailer's staffing. has 103 call center agents—45 of whom focus strictly on sales. As its sales last year grew about 20% compared to 2011, hired 15 more call center sales agents. But, thanks in part to the automated processes,'s 58 service-focused agents were able to handle the workload those added sales generated and the retailer didn't hire a single additional customer service agent.

About 70% of customers complete their orders online. However, when many of the remaining 30% reach out to a contact center sales agent, they're confused. "That means our job is to walk them through the process," Riddell says.

While the sales skills haven't changed over the years, what has changed is the technology behind making those sales. Agents have to be able to understand when and how to leverage available tools, Riddell says. And that requires training. The retailer has six coaches who work with call center agents every day for 10 or 15 minutes. The sessions focus on the elements of the call—for instance, highlighting the potential benefit of using different wording to present a product or suggesting how the agent could have pointed the customer toward technology.

For instance, offers two-way video chat. The retailer last year launched Face 2 Face, a sales tool that enables agents to have an online face-to-face interaction with a shopper via webcams. Face 2 Face, which uses Apple Inc.'s FaceTime, Skype or Cisco WebEx video-conferencing tools, enables the customer to show the agent where she wants the window treatment to go and for the agent to visually show different product options, such as the difference between light-filtering and room-darkening shades.

comments powered by Disqus




From The IR Blog


Anna Johansson / E-Commerce

Why is social proof big for niche brands?

A small online retailer that lacks brand recognition can get a big boost from high ...


Donn Davis / E-Commerce

Technology takeover: The fashion industry is next

We are now entering the third decade of the Amazon effect, and it is just ...

Research Guides