Feedback, Setting Expectations Key to Customer Experience at Birchbox, Belk

While seeking to make every single customer experience an outstanding one, you have to be careful not to have your company’s approach driven by a few unhappy voices, executives from Birchbox and Belk told attendees at Ecommerce Operations Summit 2019.

Rick Duley, vice president of operations for Belk, said there are a lot of internal discussions about feedback from unhappy customers to determine, are they isolated incidents or indicators of a bigger problem?

“We use a lot of data, analytics, surveys on loyalty and marketing and treat it as the entire voice of the customer vs. getting really hyper sensitive to, today these two customers said this,” Duley said. “It’s not an easy choice. If it’s an indicator you have to run to get ahead of it. But if it’s just two frustrated customers, sure you don’t want any, but are you changing the entire company because they’re frustrated? It’s a great discussion. We take all the inputs available and look at them together, vs. reacting to one particular thing.”

Pooja Agarwal, newly promoted to COO of Birchbox, said overreacting to two unhappy customers was a pitfall early on at the startup.

“We cared so much about the customer experience that if one or two were unhappy, we’d be like, ‘Oh, we have to fix this, it’s a major problem,’” Agarwal said. “But later on, we realized, we just spent three months doing something that only impacted three people. So totally agree having whole set of things to look at.”

While the customer experience and expectation bar has been raised in general due to Amazon and others, Duley said companies also need to avoid the temptation to match everything offered by other retailers. Both he and Agarwal agreed the bar can – and will – be raised higher.

“I think customers will continue to say, ‘I had a great experience (at another retailer) and loved it and want everyone to do that for me,’ so that will continue to put pressure on us,” Duley said. “On the flip side, we have to figure out how to articulate what we can provide and what we do well. That’s tricky, because they’re coming into the experience already assuming everybody can do the same things. It’s hard for us to say, this what we do well, it’s what we want you to know us for. We’d love to be able to do everything but we can’t.”

Both Duley and Agarwal agreed that while everyone in the organization owns a piece of the customer experience, from top to bottom, regardless of title or role, front and back-end operations is where it’s most often brought to life.

“Whether it’s the package you packed, or if it’s customer that’s unhappy or happy with the service they had and you’re the person talking to them, or in a store where they’re seeing your brand in real life, there is a responsibility in that piece,” Agarwal said. “You can have the best intentions in the world and the best ideas, but if you don’t execute it well where a lot of operations live, that idea is prevented.”

“In our world we have to interpret what the message is supposed to be,” Duley said. “If we say you’ll have your order on your doorstep on this day, we have to figure out all the steps to make that happen. Or if you get a nice beautiful package and it’s a gift with a message, we have to make sure what the customer interpreted when they purchased it is what they actually see when it comes to the house. So yes, we don’t have customer in our titles, but we have to make it real for the customer.”

Agarwal said translating the Birchbox experience to Walgreens, where it has opened six store-within-a-store locations in December, required a delicate balance between serving the end customers and providing a level of comfort to its brand partners creating the products.

“There’s a real awareness that customers are buying mass beauty products alongside prestige brands, so let’s not avoid that,” she said. “But how do you allow brands to feel really comfortable in the space but then also provide a real service to your customers? If you lose that trust (with the brands) what are we actually selling to our customers?”

That’s why joint associate training with Walgreens on not only how to interact with live customers but on brand knowledge became critical, Agarwal said. “We led with, let’s talk about who is the consumer we’re selling to, what is the voice? They’re not customers who are going in and know what all the hottest beauty trends are nor do they frankly really care … It’s really important that people creating the products internally or externally come in and share with the people who are selling it, what makes products interesting and unique.”

For Belk, which outsources its call center operations, and Birchbox, which has a 3PL partner, working closely with outside groups is also a key part of ensuring an excellent customer experience.

Duley said Belk spends as much or more effort ensuring consistency with its partner than it did on the front-end selection, which is also critical to ensure alignment with strategy and goals.

“We have to spend a lot of time together with our partner, making sure they understand this is our brand, these are the products customers are going to order, and this is how make them feel on our site or at our store,” Duley said. “There’s a lot of listening on calls, a lot of our team being there together training and rewriting training documents. Those organizations typically have normal staff and peak staff, so we have to make sure when they come in the training is solid and (agents) can come up to speed quickly.”

Agarwal said it’s important to have a sense of being on the same team, with everyone pulling in the same direction.

“We want everyone to feel they’re working for the Geodis and Birchbox team, and there’s never this divide,” she said. “Then it creates space for a healthy tension, which we really value, where they challenge us to be better and we challenge them to be better. The only way to get that healthy tension and debates is having a foundation of trust and alignment that we’re all going after the same thing.”

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