Advice From the Trenches: Better Service Equals Increased Revenues

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For Sara Lee Bakery Group customers, the idea of good service was just pie in the sky. The division of Sara Lee Corp. had no central repository for its customers' problems and complaints, which meant there was no way to track customer satisfaction. Customers--supermarkets--had trouble ordering extra product, reporting missing items, or questioning pricing. "Typically we'd hear 'Your service is terrible,'" says John Shepard, the company's senior zone vice president, Arizona zone. "We had gone to an automated voicemail system and customers could get caught in voicemail hell." Sometimes the company's sales representatives lost calls. Their customers called with gripes, which were swept under the rug or ignored. Other times callers went through multiple channels before they made it to someone who could address their problem. As a result, a turnaround time of two to three days wasn't unusual. Shepard says he started investigating software that would reduce turnaround time to two hours and give Sara Lee a better overall idea of its business practices. At the time everything on the market was either too expensive or would require significant customization. But when Shepard heard about an automated system that a large Dallas hospital was using, he decided to give it a shot. The software, VisionWare's Tele-Scope, was appealing because it addressed all of Sara Lee's needs. It tracks and routes calls, triggers automatic paging, and provides a centralized database that can be sliced and diced into call categories. Tele-Scope took about 45 days to implement. Sara Lee's infrastructure wasn't a perfect fit for it, so the company installed a new server and several new PCs. Sara Lee also focused on several changes to its corporate culture. For example, when the software went live everyone got replacement business cards with the new, nationwide toll-free number. In addition, letters went out to all the company's customers asking them to discard all other contact telephone numbers. But even with all of the proactive preparation, the process didn't go as easily as one might expect, Shepard says. "The lowest common denominator doesn't want the boss to know he or she screwed up, so they still tried to take care of it themselves," he says. "It was really a major culture change for us." Some company employees told their customers to ignore the edict. Shepard helped ease the transition by refusing to let his managers use the new phone system as a disciplinary tool. Instead, it was used as a training tool. The company used what it learned during the implementation and training process to avoid making the same mistakes twice. Slowly, customers and employees came around. The benefits have been impressive. Sara Lee's revenues have increased as a result of the new system, Shepard says. The system paid for itself within 18 months and call volume dropped from more than 200 calls per day to fewer than 75. The company continues making improvements to its customer service process using the software. This quarter a voice recognition feature that lets customers go in and make changes to orders will come online. "Customers don't have time to call in and say they need an extra 100 items," Shepard says. "This is going to make things much easier for customers and for us."
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