Rethinking customer service

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

Zak Stambor

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 Blinds.com 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, Blinds.com 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. Blinds.com has 103 call center agents—45 of whom focus strictly on sales. As its sales last year grew about 20% compared to 2011, Blinds.com hired 15 more call center sales agents. But, thanks in part to the automated processes, Blinds.com'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 Blinds.com customers complete their orders online. However, when many of the remaining 30% reach out to a Blinds.com 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, Blinds.com 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.

Being on a video chat is a more difficult job than talking about a product on the phone or via live chat because it requires an agent to make eye contact and demonstrate how the product looks and operates, Benny Holliday, Blinds.com's Face 2 Face coordinator, says. That's why Blinds.com promoted six of its "very best" agents who each had sold at least $1 million worth of products the previous year and who were also comfortable transferring their sales skills to selling via a webcam. Most of those agents had experience working as in-home blinds salesmen, Holliday says. "These were people who were used to selling on a face-to-face basis and possessed expertise to come into someone's home, assess their needs and make expert recommendations on the spot based on what they see," he says. For those who didn't have that experience, the retailer trained them how to present themselves and their products while on camera. Riddell credits the face-to-face consults for driving average order values for shoppers who use video chat that are roughly 300% greater than shoppers who don't video chat.

New call center technologies are an important part of the customer service equation, but technology isn't everything, Forrester's Schoeller says. Retailers have to hire capable agents and then provide training that'll help them excel.

To find qualified agents, San Francisco-based SquareTrade Inc., which sells warranties and protection plans for consumer products like iPads and cameras, turned to outsourced call center firm Arise Virtual Solutions Inc. to handle its U.K. customer service operations when it moved into the British market.

The retailer didn't want agents to rely on scripts, which it believes can come across as stilted, so that required Arise Virtual Solutions to find agents with problem-solving skills who were comfortable following more general guidelines. "We want to get the right person to answer the call," says Dave Quillin, director warranty operations, Europe, at SquareTrade.

Arise contracts with home-based agents who undergo a three-week training process for SquareTrade, plus another two weeks when agents are supervised. Because agents can be located anywhere, Arise can cast a wide net to find the skills that its retailer clients' need, Quillin says.

The best-performing agents, determined by each business's goals, such as call length or customer satisfaction score, get first crack at picking their hours. Agents aren't paid by the hour they're available—they are paid for the time they're on the phone with customers. Thus, top-performing agents typically choose the busiest hours, an Arise spokeswoman says. If those agents get overwhelmed with calls, the Arise system contacts other trained agents via e-mail and automated calls to see if they can log on. "That enables us to meet demand quickly," he says.

Social media is also transforming the way SquareTrade resolves customer service issues. "To believe that customer service only happens on the phone is unrealistic," Quillin says. "Facebook is one place where you have to respond. That doesn't mean that every agent has to be a Facebook expert, but it does mean that some have to know what they're doing and have to pay attention to it."

SquareTrade has a four-person internal team that uses a listening platform that it declined to name to find and address consumers' comments on social media. Listening platforms comb through social media posts, and the broader web, for mentions of a particular brand or product category.

It takes a different skill set to respond to consumers on social media than it does to handle phone calls, live chat or even respond to e-mails, Forrester's Schoeller says. Consumers may post anything at any time on many online social networks and forums, and they won't necessarily respond immediately to an agent the way they would in a phone call or live chat. Plus, an agent's responses are typically public, so they have to clearly address the customer's concerns and provide a resolution. "They have to be thoughtful in how they manage their responses," he says.

That's why Yankee Candle promoted its most experienced agents, who are used to handling difficult cases, to post its responses on Facebook. The retailer is training the agents both in the technical ins and outs of how the social network works, and how to ensure that they convey an appropriate brand message. "The challenge is to have the right people involved, who know how to present the brand and who know what to say and what not to say," Wolansky says. "It's not rocket science, but you have to do it right."



Customer service via an app

As the ways in which shoppers browse the web changes, improving technology for consumers using a desktop or laptop computer isn’t enough anymore. The rapid ascent of mobile commerce—the Internet Retailer Mobile 400 estimates that 2012 mobile commerce sales, including the $13 billion sold on eBay, topped $25.14 million last year—is causing retailers to add technology to better serve shoppers on mobile devices.

For instance, ticket broker software vendor and retailer Mobile Ticket App LLC is working with Radish Systems LLC to enable contact center agents to push information like a seat’s location to a consumer via a mobile app.

Mobile Ticket App builds mobile apps for ticket brokers and also operates its own site, StubNut.com LLC. When a consumer calls the retailer’s call center, which is operated by TicketNetwork Inc., for help placing a ticket order or to ask about an event an agent can direct the consumer to open the StubNut app (or download it), then click a ShowMe button. The agent can then show the consumer the view from various seat locations, where the seats are on the venue’s seating chart and nearly anything else that will help make the sale, Steve Nutt, president at Mobile Ticket App, says.

The technology is still new and has yet to gain much traction, he says. However, the consumers who have used the technology have a higher conversion rate than other consumers.