CUSTOMER SERVICE: Breaking backorder news

Nov 01, 1999 10:30 PM  By

How your reps can better deal with the inevitable out-of-stocks

Let’s face it: You are most likely going to have backorders this holiday season. Because it is neither physically nor economically feasible to keep merchandise 100% in stock at all times, backorders are a way of life.

But preparing for how you will address backorders can reduce some of the stress of the situation, particularly for your order-takers and customer service reps (CSRs). Being on the front lines, your reps bear the brunt of delivering the bad news to customers when goods are out of stock. You can help by providing reps with accurate information about the status of backorders and empowering them to relay that information and an estimated delivery time to customers.

“When CSRs are armed with the facts, they aren’t flinching every time they have to pick up the phone,” says Liz Kislik, a Valley Stream, NY-based telemarketing consultant. Whenever possible, reps should give a specific backorder time frame to customers. “It is more effective and professional when the rep is calmly able to explain to the customer that the product will be available in two weeks, rather than to just say the product is on backorder.”

Most catalog management systems will indicate an item’s stock status when the CSR enters the product’s item number, Kislik says. What’s most important is that reps have enough information about when the item will be restocked – and the authorization to alert the customer. It’s also crucial that your merchandise buyers and rebuyers keep that information current and alert CSRs to any delivery delays or unforeseen problems with backordered stock. CSRs should be able to give the customer an expected delivery date, based upon when the item is due in the warehouse, where the customer lives, and how the order will be shipped out.

At casual apparel cataloger Lands’ End, “we strive for fulfillment the first time, but many times that’s just not possible,” says Jackie Johnson Caygill, call center manager for the Dodgeville, WI-based company. In cases in which an item is out of stock, Lands’ End’s CSRs give customers a specific date as to when the backordered product is expected in.

Licensed to upsell

Some customers will never accept backorders, even if the goods are due in within a short period of time or the rep can provide a precise delivery date. So Lands’ End’s CSRs will always suggest an alternative – a similar item of comparable value – when an item is out of stock. This strategy serves two purposes, Caygill says. For one, the customer gets what she wants – or close to it – without waiting. For another, Lands’ End salvages what could have been a lost sale.

Backorders may be inevitable, but how you handle them can go a long way toward building customer good will. “Any cataloger could write a personal card or a follow up with a phone call to the customer, which doesn’t take a lot of resources,” Caygill says. “Besides, it’s not always about getting new business. It’s about keeping the business you already have.”