Get a Better Backend the Multichannel Way
Reducing labor, skimping on training and devaluing the contributions of front-line employees quickly can lead to poor customer service. Make no mistake, says Bill Kuipers, principal of Spaide, Kuipers, & Co. in Haskell, N.J., systems support the human element, not the other way around. Kuipers cites Lands' End as providing exemplary customer service during testing he performed recently. The customer can access support services easily, and reps are trained to provide the same level of care in different channels. "What's incredible about them is their emphasis on training and consistency," Kuipers says. "They've documented every transaction type and no matter who you get, they're all going to handle it the same way."
So-called front-line employees provide the crucial interface between a direct merchant and its customers, and successful merchants are quick to credit them as irreplaceable team members. "Customer service here at NEBS and Deluxe starts with the customer service reps. They're the ones who are really providing the experience that our customers have," says Etten.
John White, executive vice president of operations for Medford, Ore.-based musical gear retailer Musician's Friend, feels that it's vital to customer satisfaction that management supports front-line managers and gives them the freedom to keep customers happy. "That involves a certain amount of risk," White admits, "but we have intelligent people, like every business does, and they won't put you out of business. All your managers have to make the tough choices; that's what you pay them for."
Bolotsky concurs. "If I look at the incremental cost of having a trained, intelligent, motivated human being compared to the cost of acquiring a customer," he says, "then it makes sense to pay to have enough customer service reps to retain customers and keep them from being frustrated."
A Watchful Eye
Strategically, the first step to making sure customers are happy and goods are available to satisfy them is for direct merchants to concentrate on relationships with their vendors. "Know thy supplier," says Stephen Harris, of Harris & Harris consulting in Lincoln, Vt. "There's no one source of a product that you're going to find [that] nobody else knows about. So the only way to maintain your advantage is to have a personal, detailed relationship with somebody supplying this product, so when they have to choose between giving it to you and somebody else, they give it to you."