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How I Overhauled Our Customer Service to Up the Wow Factor

By Kevin Sproles, Founder, Volusion, Austin, Tex.
In 2008 I realized that after nine years of tremendous growth, my company, Volusion, had outstripped its customer service capabilities. We provide ecommerce software to large and small companies that want to set up and operate an online store. Customer service had always been a way to differentiate ourselves from our competition, but we had grown so rapidly -- from just over $100,000 in sales in 2003 to $15.7 million in 2008 -- that our capabilities hadn't kept pace. I knew if we dropped the ball in the customer service department it would really hurt the business.

We were responding to customer calls and emails -- and nothing more. I realized that customers were sending in all kinds of ideas, but we weren't doing anything with them. We needed to use that feedback to create new features, eliminate bugs, and simply better educate customers about how to use our software.

But we had about 10,000 customers, so sorting through that volume of information wouldn't be easy. At the same time we were hearing from customers that their overall experience could be a lot better. It was clear to me that we needed to raise our game.

A simple question
Figuring all this out seemed daunting, so Clay Olivier, Volusion's chief operating officer and chief marketing officer, and I decided to start doing research on the topic. We came across an approach based on Net Promoter Score -- a straightforward and effective measure of customer satisfaction based on a simple question: Would your customers recommend you to a friend or colleague?

We liked it. It's easy to explain to our customer service representatives that the most important thing for customer satisfaction is to end a call in such a way that the customer will want to recommend us to someone else. It's no longer about how quickly you can get someone off the phone, but whether they are happy when they hang up.

Clay and I decided we wanted an expert in the net promoter approach -- we found David Mitzenmacher, who at the time was the Director of Customer Experience at Rackspace Hosting. He'd built a customer service operation around the net promoter score. We really liked that he didn't just go by the book, and he made it clear that he had real insight on what would work at Volusion, and why it would work.

Feedback puzzle
While the net promoter score is based on a very simple question, the job of figuring out what customers really want isn't quite that simple. One thing David put in place is a monthly customer survey. The survey asks the basic question of whether customers would recommend us, but it also asks open-ended questions about what customers like and don't like about the service. That information is critical to helping us improve our products and our services. Some of our best product enhancements came directly from the forum: mobile commerce, which enables our clients' customers to shop via their smartphone, and Fraud Score, which helps merchants spot fraudulent transactions before payments are processed.

To help us make sense of everything, we created a new 22-person customer experience team. This is a group of analysts that funnel ideas from those surveys -- or from anywhere else in the company -- into improving our customer satisfaction. They figure out what new features or changes are most in demand, what bugs are plaguing users or what new training might be needed. And then they help us implement those changes.

The wow factor
For example, a frequent complaint we heard was that customers found it confusing to set up their online store using our software. So we created "onboarding coaches" who are customer service representatives who only work with new software users. They walk customers through the process of getting started and advise them on everything from how to do shipping and payment, to how to present their brand online.

The customer experience team also picked up on the fact that clients thought our customer service representatives were lacking when it came to providing help on ecommerce strategies. Our representatives now complete a new six-week training program and must pass four written exams before they take their first call from a customer. That training helps them give customers great insights on things like how to drive more traffic to their websites.

We also give our representatives more freedom. We used to measure how long it took them to resolve a call and provided incentives to keep that time short. We've done away with that. We now believe that by focusing on making a customer happy, it may lead to a longer call, but will lead to fewer return calls for the same problem. We also give our representatives a $100 monthly budget to send flowers and t-shirts to customers. We want them to wow the customer.

We're continuing to grow -- in 2009, we ended the year with 200 employees and $22.4 million in sales and our customers processed $2 billion in online revenue. But just as important, our customers are happier. When David started here two years ago, our surveys showed three out of five customers would recommend us to a friend. Now that number is four out of five.

When Kevin Sproles isn't hunting for new ways to wow his customers he is planning his next travel adventure. Among his favorite trips: traveling through Italy and a safari in Africa.
-- As told to Amy Barrett

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