How AeroGrow Cultivates Customer Service

It’s not easy to get customer service right when you’re a relatively young company. But AeroGrow International has made great strides in improving its service levels in the past year.

Though the company was founded in 2002, it released its core product—the AeroGarden—and mailed its first catalog in 2007. AeroGardens uses dirt-free aeroponic technology to create a rain forest-like growing environment for growing herbs, vegetables and flowers year round on a kitchen counter.

The product is a big holiday item, which makes for a spike in seasonal orders, says John Thompson, manager of customer service operations at AeroGrow International. “It’s taken us a few years to get that right.”
AeroGrow had a great service mentality, “if you could get through to us, but we didn’t make it easy,” Thompson says. The company suffered abandoned call rates of 50%, “with big, big queues on hold all day for customers to get through to us.”

And that would show up in blogs, and Web reviews and elsewhere, he notes. The comments usually centered on multihour hold times and lack of e-mail response. “We were a victim of our own growth and success and seemed to run just a few months behind where we needed to be,” Thompson says.

So how did AeroGrow remedy the service situation?
For staters, it added more seasonal staff to answer calls, and it trained them with an in-house crew, Thompson says. “It is a fairly complicated product to troubleshoot. So we have a good group of folks who really know indoor gardens well.”

A key factor was a technology platform through Oracle that allows the merchant to have its own reps working from home. Thompson says. That’s helped improve service levels because its reps know the product line and can make recommendations. “That is a really good advancement for us, and it’s something we can scale up or down seasonally as we need to,” he says.

Thompson says AeroGrow went from 14 reps in 2008, with unlimited overflow for sales calls with an outsourced vendor, to about 19 reps in house this year, with nine contract phone reps working at home. “We moved from answer rates in the 50% to 60% range for those few months, to answer rates well above 90%,” he says.

Another change this past year was hiring more part-time help, Thompson says. “Our call volume can be double on Monday what it is on Friday, so the use of part-time staff to help handle the Monday loads means that we can fluidly adjust to call spikes early in the week without having reps with nothing to do by Friday,” he explains. “It makes us much more efficient.”

Still, AeroGrow has a ways to go in terms of operational improvements, Thompson admits, especially on the systems front.
“We’re a growing company that’s built kind of on the back of an infomercial IT platform, and it really doesn’t work that well when you expand to hundreds of SKUs,” he notes. “This year we are working on improving those systems to improve back orders and customer communications.”

But it has been gratifying for AeroGrow to see its improved service performance reflected in the blogosphere. The blog comments are “mostly about how good and responsive and expert our team is, and that’s a big, visible change that we’re very happy with,” Thompson says.

In an annuity business such as AeroGrow’s, in which customers keep coming back for seeds, grow-light bulbs and other accessories, “keeping those passionate users engaged and enthused about our product is the best thing we can do for our sales and our word-of-mouth advertising,” Thompson notes.

For more on how AeroGrow International is growing its direct business, see the March issue of MULTICHANNEL MERCHANT.

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