Customer Care: Magellan’s Travels the Distance to Get Personal

Friends and relatives aren’t the only ones who receive postcards, photos, and letters from travelers on vacation. Numerous customers have sent such correspondence to travel accessories cataloger Magellan’s — proof that the company connects with its market.

“We know how tough travel can be, so our corporate philosophy is to put a hand around the shoulders of these travelers and make sure their travel is safe and comfortable, and that they have a good experience and come back to us,” says president John McManus. “That’s the philosophy we started out with when we were founded in 1989, even before we plugged in the first telephone or started mailing catalogs.”

The challenge for Santa Barbara, CA-based Magellan’s has been to sustain this corporate philosophy across the technical revolution of the past 12 years, says Bob Manning, vice president/chief operating officer.

Take the company’s customer contact center (CCC). It’s broken into four areas: phone sales, e-commerce, customer service, and quality assurance, and Magellan’s strives to provide the personal touch in each.

Magellan’s customer service reps (CSRs) cultivate a relationship and develop a detailed contact history in the database with each customer. The CSRs ask each customer about his travel destination in order to offer relevant products and assess his needs.

As a result, the average call length is four minutes. Each CSR handles an average of 10 calls an hour; the other 20 minutes an hour are for CSRs to follow up on miscellaneous customer service issues. “For example, many times customers call and say, I’d like to take such and such appliances to the following countries. What do I need?” says Cindy Arshadi, director of the CCC.

Magellan’s reinforces its relationships by typing notes on every invoice. “These invoices are personally typed in, not preformatted. We don’t say something generic like ‘Have a nice trip’ but rather something like ‘We hope your grandmother enjoys her trip to Spain’ or ‘We hope your mother enjoys her new luggage,’” says McManus.

High-touch online

Magellan’s carries its emphasis on personalization over to the Internet. “I’m proud to say that we rarely use preformatted e-mail responses,” Manning declares. “It’s pretty easy to type up a standard response and alter each slightly — but we approach each individually. It’s not done on autopilot.”

The cataloger has at least one person to respond to e-mails at all times, and three or four people during peak times. Magellan’s also uses e-mail to constantly update consumers on the status of their orders. “We send three e-mails: one to confirm the order was taken, a second to confirm the order was entered into the system, and a third confirming the order shipped,” says Manning.

Knowing that customers may have time constraints due to travel, Magellan’s prioritizes its responses to e-mails by urgency. Say Ms. Jones’s e-mail came in seven hours ago, but she’s leaving for a trip next week, while Mr. Smith’s e-mail just came in but he’s leaving tomorrow. “We’d deal with Smith first. In general, e-mail response time varies from two minutes to two hours,” Manning says.

This expediency also applies to chat: As a question comes in over the chat line, Magellan’s answers it with the customer’s best interests in mind — even if it means directing shoppers to another Website or pushing a competitor’s Web pages to a customer for an item Magellan’s doesn’t carry. “Customers are getting a highly personal experience — they know they’re literally chatting with someone” via keystrokes, Manning says.

Magellan’s also adds a personal touch to customer service issues: paying shipping and handling for exchanges or defective returns, honoring a lifetime guarantee on products sold in its catalog, working to fulfill special orders, calling customers when an item is out of stock, and confirming rush orders. Magellan’s makes at least 100-150 such calls daily (and the CCC takes 1,500-2,000 calls each weekday).

To continually improve customer service, Magellan’s also seeks customer feedback on a regular basis. “Oftentimes complaints are constructive — this helps us keep track of merchandising issues,” Manning says. “We try to find out what went wrong. And if we need to return an item, we will sometimes send a thank-you or a gift.”

Ultimately, adds McManus, “our customer care starts with our choice of merchandise. For example, we know a lot of pensiones in Europe do not include a sink stopper. At $1.85, this is hardly a profitable item, but we carry it because we have our customers’ needs in mind.”

A labor-intensive proposition

Magellan’s may seem to have the human element of customer service down to a science. But delivering on this customer service promise is no easy task.

For one, it’s very labor-intensive. Of the 40 people who work in the CCC, 30 are “phone travel gear specialists”; the rest are management and clerical support. And many of these employees are cross-trained to handle both the phones and e-mail.

Hiring reps who can deliver high-quality service is another challenge. “There are two issues in employing qualified reps: finding them in the first place and training them,” Manning says.

“We screen them for their knowledge of geography,” McManus adds. “It’s too big a job to train them if they’re not familiar with this.”

Training requires a significant investment and is done on an ongoing daily basis. “We have people who work full-time on training, and Cindy also devotes a significant amount of her time to training,” Manning says. The reps pay Magellan’s back for the training with loyalty: The turnover rate is 20%-30% for part-time workers and less than 5% for full-time employees.

To continue to streamline its customer care, Magellan’s is looking at new software to help it better track customer orders, modify the returns process, create better workflow, and automate certain processes. For instance, reps now take customer information received via e-mail and manually type it into the customer database, a time-consuming task that the company hopes to eliminate. Magellan’s aims to have a new system in place by spring — in time for the busiest travel season.

While incorporating a human element into a profitable business is hard work, the staff at Magellan’s agree it’s well worth the effort. For one thing, the attention cultivates loyal buyers — some have been customers since the company was founded.

And then there’s the nonmonetary payback. “Where else do you get vacation pictures on a daily basis?” says Arshadi. “The personal touch comes back to us.”

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