The Sweet Taste of Success

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Ice-cream maker Ben & Jerry's Homemade works diligently to keep its homespun appeal and personal touch. So one priority is making sure callers to the company's in-house customer service center aren't frozen out when they try to get information. According to Lisa Sholk, the company's consumer services coordinator, it's a problem that's been licked. "We only have three people here in consumer services that take phone calls," Sholk says. "With the amount of questions that we were getting, we were on the phone a lot." The volume of calls also created a backlog of customer emails. "People like to chat when they're on the phone," Sholk says, and no one wants to artificially force an end to a consumer interaction. Part of the solution was a package from RightNow Technologies, which includes a knowledge base for consumers visiting the ice-cream maker's Web site. The knowledge base allows for issue resolution without involving one of the agents. "[Consumers] can go to the FAQ section now and either find the answer they need or shoot off a quick email," she says. "Just having the FAQ up there keeps people from calling us." Sholk says that when she joined the division in 2002--after a stint as a tour guide at the company's Waterbury, VT, factory--there was a backlog of about 300 emails. Sholk immediately replied to the questions she knew the answers to, using her personal knowledge base as a guide. But the online knowledge base makes that information, and much more, available to all. Sholk says that the "standard response" option has been particularly sweet. "I put in so many [responses] that we use--it answered about 50 percent of the emails." She now has standard responses built for inquiries ranging from "Where is the ice cream made?" to "Are there any vegan ice creams?" Luckily for Sholk, the company's knowledge base has remained essentially static, aside from a few regular promotional events. "The answers that were posted in 1999 are basically the same as what we have now," she says, which means efforts to maintain or update the FAQ can be kept to a minimum. But when a special event does pop up--such as the company's annual "Free Cone Day" in April--Sholk has to stay nimble. "We couldn't post [details] until the day came closer," she says. "Competitors will jump the date on us if we post too soon." Expanding the knowledge base beyond its plain-vanilla beginnings was a snap, Sholk says: "It was a very easy system to learn, even without any formal training. I can update it whenever I want, and I don't have to involve the IT guys." By January 2003 the email queue was down to 35, and now it's typically under a dozen. Overall, inbound emails have dropped by 90 percent since 1999, and the service department hasn't had to increase headcount at all. One challenge for Sholk is that she can't edit incoming emails that reach her indirectly. "A lot of departments within the company will forward [customer] emails to me," she says. Those emails--with employee comments--would pollute the RightNow database if Sholk didn't take the time to clean them up. "I have to make a whole new incident," she says, "and recreate the true consumer's question. It's much more time consuming for me." She'd also like to see a better spam filter. "I have to enter keywords that may appear in spam emails to stop them from being created [in the knowledge base]," she says. "I'm tired of entering all the new gibberish that comes in." RightNow says it's working to improve the filter. The search function also had been a sticking point until Sholk learned she could automatically block certain keywords that were too generic to be useful. Otherwise, consumers whose searches included ice cream returned thousands of results, most of them unrelated to their interest. Self-service quickly became much more than the flavor of the month, with a success rate of 99.7 percent, even as searches of the FAQ increased from 5,200 in the last three months of 2001 to more than 19,000 in the first three months of 2004. "I'm able to give the consumer a faster response than if they call," Sholk says. "They're so impressed with the quick response. They really appreciate you getting back to them so fast."
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