Expert advice

June 1, 2016 03:56 PM

Furniture and home goods distributor Deqor believes hiring highly qualified people is the first step to delivering good customer service. Deqor, which has been in business for about a year, hires only interior designers to work in its customer service department. The distributor finds these representatives by posting its jobs at design schools and major universities and recruiting at on-campus job fairs.

The barriers to buying furniture online justify paying more to recruit employees with subject matter expertise, says Deqor CEO Tim Dillworth.

“When a customer is buying a piece of furniture online, she can’t see it or feel the quality of the material and she’s going to have questions about it. So while we may pay [a salary of] about 25% more to have experienced designers on staff, we’re also getting a great return on our investment because those employees often generate more sales activity,” Dillworth says. “Our reps are able to help them minimize the amount of research they have to do before they buy the product online.”

Deqor has four to five customer service representatives on staff and doesn’t provide much formal training. Because they bring with them industry knowledge, Dillworth feels they can find creative solutions for customers on their own. Deqor encourages consumers to call the company to take advantage of what it bills as its Deqor Concierge service, and shows the toll-free number at the top of every page with the prompt: “Have a question? Give us a call.” On the Contact Us page, it also publishes the hours the line is staffed. Representatives take an average of about 30 calls per day, Dillworth says.

For smaller e-retailers with few physical stores, or none at all, often the only human interaction with a customer is a phone call to answer a pre-purchase question or resolve an issue about a product already purchased. Many of these online retailers put a special emphasis on customer service so that these interactions are as good as they can be, whether the conversation begins on a negative or a positive note. By hiring agents with a greater degree of product knowledge up front or by putting new agents through rigorous training, smaller merchants are finding that it’s a wise investment to give agents the information they need to solve customers’ problems.

For example, J.W. Goodliffe & Son Inc., a company that sells welding equipment and accessories at, aims to provide a personal touch to the online buying process. The retailer, which ranks No. 528 in Internet Retailer’s 2016 Second 500 Guide, sold $25.9 million in merchandise online last year. That’s about 88% of its total sales with one physical store accounting for the remaining 12%. Cyberweld CEO Bob Goodliffe says his company’s biggest competition is The Home Depot Inc., which means his eight customer service representatives must provide better, more personalized service than “the guys in the orange smocks.”

“What works in a neighborhood store also works over the phone,” Goodliffe says. “We don’t hide our phone number on our website, and when a customer calls in they get a real person instead of an automated phone menu.” The phone line is staffed from 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Eastern time Monday through Friday. After hours, consumers can fill out an email submission form on the site or email the support team.

He says the agents Cyberweld hires to answer calls have firsthand welding experience. “Every one of our team members has struck an arc and lit a torch,” he says. “They will tell you what you need to know about the product.” Goodliffe says he generally finds new customer service reps through referrals from his existing staff.

Motorcycle gear retailer RevZilla, which generated an Internet Retailer-estimated $87.5 million in online sales last year, relies more on the passion of its customer service representatives who it calls gear geeks. RevZilla head of customer service Patrick Roscoe says that rather than hire people who have previously held jobs in the motorcycle industry, he looks to people who have held other professional positions, but who enjoy riding on the weekends and in their spare time.

RevZilla’s hiring and training processes are rigorous—applicants have to provide writing samples and often hold college degrees. Once hired, they go through 60 days of training at “RevZilla U” before they’re allowed to take customer service calls. The company has just more than 50 of these enthusiast customer service representatives in its Pennsylvania office. The e-retailer’s phone lines are staffed Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Eastern time, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday and 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Sunday.

“Our gear geeks have a high level of knowledge about the gear they are selling,” Roscoe says. “We send out weekly emails telling them about the new products we’re offering on the site and why we selected those brands. If they haven’t seen the product or if they have a question about it, they get a sample sent to them from the fulfillment center to figure out how it works or what might be wrong with it. We try to make sure our customers never have to reach out to the vendor for anything from shipping delays to warranty contracts to returns.”

Empowering customer service agents to resolve issues is important because consumers who aren’t satisfied tend to spread the word, which is simple to do via social media. In fact, 39% of customers who have had a negative customer service experience will talk about it to their families and friends, while 12% will write negative reviews on a website such as Yelp, and 11% will complain about the brand on Facebook, according to Forrester Research Inc. That’s why Daron Horwitz, president of skate and skateboard e-retailers Daddies Board Shop Inc. and CCS (formerly California Cheap Skates), reviews all comments on its Amazon Marketplace store and on Google, and scours social media channels and logs all customer complaints in a database. He follows up on any negative comments with his customer service staff.

“When we have a problem, we work enthusiastically and aggressively to fix things. That’s how we create our most loyal customers,” Horwitz says.

While the web and social media provide some feedback on how well an e-retailer’s customer service team is doing, many companies use surveys to find out what customers really think.

Two customer service ratings vendors that track online retailer service performance are StellaService Inc. and Bizrate, which is a division of Connexity Inc. StellaService produces an annual report ranking the top 25 retailers for customer service overall and in the categories of phone, chat, shipping, email and returns. The list includes many big name retailers such as L.L. Bean Inc., Burberry Group PLC and Best Buy Co Inc., but RevZilla came in at No. 11 overall on this year’s list. Bizrate provides a service survey after each transaction to customers of merchants that use its service, and lists retailers who earn scores of 9.0/10 or higher in its Platinum Circle of Excellence. Just 85 retailers have made that list since 2000. Daddies Board Shop, with a 9.4 rating, has made the list the last two years.

Fairytale Brownies, meanwhile, has been a platinum winner for the past 13 years. Company co-founder Eileen Spitalny and call center team leader Ellie Perry say the key to their good service is allowing their team autonomy to fix customers’ issues. Representatives are allowed to spend up to $100 to fix any problem, whether that means sending a box of apology brownies, waiving a shipping fee or giving a discount on a future order. 

“When they feel empowered, they go out of their way to really wow a customer,” Spitalny says. “We find that if they do that, we’re more likely to get a repeat customer or a referral.” The e-retailer declined to provide repeat customer data for customers who’d interacted with service reps.

For most of the year, Fairytale Brownies, which sold $5.9 million online last year, according to the Second 500, has four customer service representatives on hand taking orders and responding to issues during standard weekday business hours. But the team expands to 15 during the holiday season, when both personal and business gift-giving are at peak level.

Keeping its service score up depends upon Fairytale Brownies making sure seasonal employees feel like part of the year-round team. That means giving them the same training, feedback and insight into the products the rest of the staff receives. New representatives get about three weeks of training before taking a live call. Training includes employees shadowing experienced reps, watching bakers make the brownies, daily quizzes, weekly tests and a final exam.

Seasonal employees are also eligible for the same kinds of individual recognition and bonuses as year-round representatives. Perry says this has encouraged several seasonal employees to return year after year, and Fairytale Brownies has hired several seasonal employees to work full-time.

“60% of our business comes from orders shipped after Dec. 15, so during that few weeks, everyone needs to be all-in, able to make decisions and pitch in wherever they can,” Perry says. “Everyone feels like a part-owner.”

Customers respond to the level of effort that goes into a customer service transaction, says Andy Milk, chief operating officer of Novica United Inc. Novica is an e-retailer associated with the National Geographic Society that sells artisan-made clothing, jewelry and home goods from around the world. Milk finds that when a customer has an issue, she can often be won back after having a positive interaction with a representative who resolves the issue in a timely manner.

“It doesn’t matter what the level of upset is, we can earn back their business if we respond to emails and calls quickly and let them get back to their business,” Milk says.

Novica also has a lenient return policy that allows customers to return items with no questions asked within 60 days of purchase. Milk says the policy has helped Novica keep customers.

“Many customers are expecting a long list of [phone] prompts, so when they get a real person on the phone or via email right away, they’re already more receptive,” he says. “We get repeat business from many customers who have called in with issues because they were happy with how their problem was resolved.”

For more complicated inquiries RevZilla agents will sometimes move from the phone or keyboard to video. This is done on a limited basis today, but Roscoe hopes to expand interactions via FaceTime or Skype to make them a standard service option. Because RevZilla’s agents can locate and examine any product a customer needs help with in the fulfillment center, they can in a video session show the customer how to properly use the product.

“We like to be very hands on,” Roscoe says. “We like to provide a level of service that sets us apart from other motorcycle retailers, and we feel like our customer service capabilities really do that well.”

Today’s small and midsized web retailers may not have the opportunity to interact face to face with consumers, but they still must find a way to make shopping pleasant and satisfying for their customers. Many are accomplishing that by hiring employees with a passion for their product or by training agents so they become passionate advocates committed to solving every customer’s problem.

Maureen Wilkey is a freelance reporter based outside Chicago.




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