Service Is the New Flagship Storefront

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In March 2020, homebound by COVID-19 lockdowns, two women discussed how to redesign a living room over the phone. One was a customer of Crate & Barrel, the other a service adviser who works for Crate & Barrel. They were tapping away on chat when the service adviser suggested hopping on the phone instead. As the customer poured a glass of wine they browsed the catalog together, and texted photos back and forth.

Was this allowed, the service adviser wondered? Not only was it allowed, it was encouraged. At Crate & Barrel, the COVID-19 pandemic was turning an already strong service department into the new storefront.

Increasingly, consumer brands have tossed out the case management approach to service and adopted a new mind-set: that service is about people and can generate revenue, drive satisfaction, and build consumer trust. Let’s discuss why service has evolved in this direction and how your brand can turn its service center into your flagship storefront.

From Cases to People

Historically, service was a post-sales role. Service advisers/agents were accustomed to handling issues, returns, exchanges, shipping delays, and warranties. Customers only called service centers when something bad happened.

Service advisers handled “cases” because that is what customer service software demanded of them. Their performance was judged based on “average handle time.” A “resolution” meant getting the customer off the phone and not receiving a call back about the same issue. Empathetic, patient support advisers were under pressure to rush calls and sacrifice human connection to efficiency.

This system was tolerable because in-store sales associates remained the face of the brand and handled the bulk of interactions. As commerce shifted from brick-and-mortar to online, this reversed. And once the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the shift to e-commerce by an estimated five years, the opportunity to build human connection increasingly landed with service advisers. 

Digital but Interactive

Today, e-commerce shoppers reach out to service centers for help with decisions. If a customer wants to buy a $2,000 sofa online and can’t test it personally, that makes sense. The customer wants to speak with someone who can bring the storefront to their home. And they want to complete their purchase during the service exchange rather than hang up and hunt down the product online.

Crate & Barrel understands this. They built a model store inside their call centers featuring the spaces in a typical home and the goods that often fill them. When a customer calls Crate & Barrel with a question about a sofa, the service adviser focuses on having a conversation to help the customer with their purchase. How soft or firm is it? Do the bottom cushions stay in place when you recline? Would dog hairs stick to the surface? Would it match better with a light oak table or a dark cherrywood one? The service advisers can answer these questions interactively, showing the customer what it’s like to use the sofa. And they then take payment securely over chat.

In other words, e-commerce customers now depend on service advisers to touch, taste, smell, see, hear, and buy products on their behalf. They help customers trust in purchases made with greater convenience but less information.

How to Make Service Your Storefront

The contact center is transforming from the problem hotline into a storefront that drives revenue, satisfaction, and trust. However, experienced service advisers may be nervous about selling to customers. To help them succeed in this new model, try the following:

Expand service training. Contact center agents normally train in resolving issues like product exchanges, refunds, and shipping delays. To sell goods, they need to master your product line as well. In verticals like home décor, they may benefit from training in interior design. Similarly, support agents selling eyeglasses, luggage, or beauty products need enough training to be knowledgeable, helpful advisers. Normally, this training is reserved for in-store associates. At brands where e-commerce is exploding, this training needs to be extended into contact centers.

Use software designed with people at the center, not cases. It’s called customer service, not case service. If your service software is designed as a workflow tool for resolving cases as fast as possible, that is how support advisers will use it. Software shapes our habits and beliefs more than we realize. But when the software is designed for having natural conversations, examining products together, and selling goods, it will turn your support advisers into support heroes.

Incentivize human connection, revenue generation, and satisfaction instead of rapid resolution times. Chatting for 30 minutes with a glass of wine isn’t the norm in customer service. But maybe it should be. Rather than reward service agents for minimizing time on the phone or chat line, reward those who maximize human connection. A lot of commerce is about social and emotional needs, not optimizing every dollar spent. That is why many people go to coffee shops rather than make coffee at home for a tenth of the price. The experience of being recognized as a person, by another human being who knows your name and order, is rewarding. Quick surveys can tell you how customers feel after a service interaction. Use those surveys to recognize, reward, and promote service advisers who make customers feel good.

If these ideas resonate with you, I have a suggestion. Call one of your colleagues. Pour a glass of wine (or something). And instead of redesigning a living room, redesign the future of your contact center. It is your new storefront.

Joseph Ansanelli is cofounder and CEO of Gladly, a company he incubated at Greylock Partners with Dirk Kessler and Michael Wolfe. At Gladly, he’s working to empower customer service agents with a platform that turns them into heroes. This role builds on his customer service experience as a cofounder and CEO of Connectify. He also cofounded and was CEO of Vontu, the leader in data loss prevention, which was acquired by Symantec in 2007. In addition to his role at Gladly, Ansanelli is a partner at Greylock Partners and on the Board of Directors of Sumo Logic, Grand Rounds, and Trifacta.

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