How does it feel to be the best in customer service? Just ask apparel merchant L.L. Bean.
For the second consecutive year, the Freeport ME-based multichannel merchant has been named number one in the National Retail Federation/American Express 2008 Customers’ Choice survey.
Rounding out the top ten merchants on the 2008 Customers’ Choice survey are Overstock.com (#2), Zappos.com (#3), Amazon.com (#4), Lands’ End (#5), Newegg (#6), J.C. Penney (#7), QVC (#8), Coldwater Creek (#9) and Nordstrom (#10).
The survey, which polled 8,167 consumers, was conducted Sept. 2-9 by market research firm BIGresearch. It measures customer service across all channels: Retail, Web and catalog. Consumers’ responses were balanced against each retailer’s 2007 revenues to develop the overall rankings.
So what makes L.L. Bean such a superior customer servant? Terry Sutton, vice president of customer satisfaction, attributed the number one ranking to the company’s longstanding culture of putting the customer first.
“That culture is part of the lore of the company – and it’s a critical part of our brand,” she says. “And because we have some long-tenured employees, including the ones handling customer calls, there’s a history that has emphasized the importance of the quality of service.”
“Our frontline employees are just great advocates for the customer,” she adds. “Every now and then marketing will roll out something and the CSRs will say ‘wait a minute, that’s not customer friendly.’ So we have a pretty strong voice at the table, at the corporate level, to influence how customer-facing communications and treatments are handled.”
Central to its customer service are L.L. Bean’s four call centers, all located in Maine. Sutton says having all four close to the corporate headquarters in Freeport is an advantage, because “all our call center employees get to experience what the company culture is like first hand, as opposed to from afar. They can shop at the Freeport store — and they have access to all the benefits — so it’s closer to their heart, and they’re proud to be L.L. Bean employees.”
Having a pool of good agents to draw on also helps. Sutton says L.L. Bean has about 900 agents working year round in its call centers, but at holiday time “we have a big seasonal spike – and we ramp that up to about 3,800 [agents].”
Nearly half of these seasonal workers, she says, are rehires from the year before. “So that really helps, in terms of customer service — because they’re already indoctrinated, in terms of what it means to be an L.L. Bean customer service employee.”
It also helps that the company has a state-of-the-art contact center system, which it developed in-house.
“Four years ago we got an all-new front-end system – we upgraded from an almost 20-year-old, character-based, green-screen system, where you had to memorize all your menu keys, all your F-function keys,” she says. “In order to do what we needed to do to serve our customers, we needed a system that is very flexible. And we couldn’t find a package out there — despite the evolution of all the order management systems out there – that met all our criteria.”
The company’s proprietary contact center system is “geared around bringing as much information to the rep as possible, so they don’t have to spend a lot of time memorizing things.” Not only that, the system gives the agents fast access to each customer’s order history, “which makes it easier for them to reorder things.”
Bean’s customers frequently say things like, “‘I bought this really lovely jacket two years ago and I would really love another one,’” she explains. “And they might not be able to find it in the catalog they have. So we have access to their ordering history so we can find it pretty quickly – which makes it easier to give them what they need.”
The cataloger has also made its order entry system more visual, she adds. “The images we use on the Web are now available on the order entry system, so the rep is looking at the same thing that the customer is, whether it’s in the catalog or on the Website.”
In addition to technology, the company puts a strong emphasis on agent training.
Agents can also transfer more difficult questions to other knowledge workers.
“We have a back-up of product specialists, who are part of the customer satisfaction group,” Sutton explains. “They are specialists in specific product areas — so when we get a more obscure question, or technical question, especially when it comes to gear, we can tap into them. They can help outfit a customer with the right fly fishing gear, or answer a question about cross-country skis – they can even handle specific questions about a piece of apparel … “
Of course, the call center is only one piece of the customer service framework.
“Our Website also gets recognized regularly for the speed of response and the ability to find a product quickly,” Sutton says. “The ease of shopping is something we prize ourselves on. We’ve been working pretty hard, for the past several years, to bring a little more pizzazz to the Website.”
“For example, we’re always trying to get the images more accurate — showing more than just the thumbnail or just a static view of the product,” she says. “So we’re continuously looking for ways to improve that.”
In addition to displaying the toll free number for placing phone orders, the Website also offers live chat.
“The agents handle both phone and Web chat contacts — they’re universal,” Sutton says, adding that the agents also handle e-mail orders. “We respond to e-mails within an hour or less – which is much faster than the industry average. So we try to make it easier for our customers to get their questions answered really quickly.”
L.L. Bean also prides itself on its fast fulfillment and delivery. “We invest in making sure our turnaround time in our DC is super quick,” she says. “And that definitely helps with the overall experience – you order it and you get it fast.”
Although L.L. Bean reported that its holiday sales were down about 10%, compared to last year, Sutton says it could have been a lot worse if the company cut back on customer service
“As things were sort of crumbling this past holiday season, you could look out across the landscape and see that other retailers were cutting back on their returns policies — they weren’t answering the phones as quickly, they weren’t staffing as well in their stores – and that’s just the wrong thing to be doing,” she says.
“It’s the easy thing to do to manage your costs,” Sutton admits. “But boy, it’s like a death spiral. You accelerate your own demise when you do things like that. So we decided we weren’t going to do that. We could have under-staffed and made customers wait longer – we could have scaled back package delivery – but that wasn’t even an option.”