Local brands versus Amazon: how the very best deliver quality customer service

How will the arrival of the world’s most customer-centric business impact the way local brands serve their customers? Fiona Killackey investigates.

This article originally appeared in The Serve Issue, our October/November 2017 print edition of Marketing magazine.

Fiona KillackeyAt Amazon, the customer is king. From ensuring head office staff have call centre training and regularly visit fulfilment centres, through to making heartfelt apologies when it makes mistakes and using cutting edge technology to personalise every single email, Amazon has consistently placed the customer at the centre of its business.

When the brand started two decades ago, founder Jeff Bezos would keep an empty chair at key meetings to represent the needs and wants of the most important person to the business – the customer. So great is the power the Amazon customer yields, that customer service staff are authorised to pull items off the (virtual) shelf should just a handful of customers complain about the same product.

No negotiation takes place with the category buyers or marketing teams (who may well have scheduled that product to be on homepage banners or in key emails); the item is simply removed until the department and/or brand can adequately respond to the customer complaint. Staff must “consider the customer then work back” when formulating new offers or suggesting changes to policies or procedures, and the brand continues to raise the bar for product innovation, from AI (artificial intelligence) assistant Alexa through to its Dash Button – a Wi-Fi connected device that allows customers to re-order household items without touching their phone or laptop.

Given its reputation as the world’s most innovative and customer-centric business, what impact will Amazon’s arrival have on Australian businesses, many of which have stayed complacent in the face of changing technology and influx of global brands setting up home down under?

 

Actions speak louder than words

MK1017 200You are what you do, not what you say you’ll do.

One of the biggest shifts local businesses may need to make is matching their marketing promise to their real-world delivery. Amazon is an ‘always-on’ business, with staff available around the clock to answer customer complaints via call centres, online chat services, an in-depth FAQ section and email.

The Australian consumer may well compare this level of care to a brand like Officeworks, which has received multiple complaints via social media for not living up to its ‘next day delivery’ promise, with some customers waiting up to five days for products, and complaining of vague and inconsistent contact information on its website.

Earlier this year, Jetstar was voted the worst airline in the world for customer satisfaction, after a study of 11,000 passengers and 73 airlines was conducted. Customer complaints varied from delay times through to lack of transparency between marketing messages (cheap flights) and associated terms and conditions.

 

Adopt a customer-first approach

For some local businesses, Amazon’s arrival will have little impact, as creating a quality offering for their target audience and delivering an impeccable service has been part of their business from day one.

“When we launched in Victoria in 2014, our aim was to provide customers with access to information and choice where it had never been available before,” says Catherine Anderson, head of marketing for Powershop – Australia’s greenest energy provider. In an industry renowned for poor service (lengthy wait times to offshore call centres, excessive late fees and bill shock), Powershop was able to present a new offering. “We were one of the first retailers to have no lock-in contracts or exit fees,” says Anderson, “we were also the first to develop an app and online portal that presented usage information to customers, which enables them to make informed decisions about their electricity consumption to help them save money and reduce their impact on the environment.”

 

Change your thinking

Changing the way you think and talk about your customers is vital in delivering quality service, says Iain Nairn, CEO of stationery brand, kikki.K.

“One of the most recent changes we have made has been transitioning our terminology of ‘customer’ to ‘guest’ to better reflect the way we would like to treat people visiting our stores,” says Nairn. “Rather than viewing them as a customer – someone who pays for goods or services – our entire team has started considering them ‘guests’ – people we welcome into our store like our home. People who visit for an experience, who may take home a product or partake in a service that inspires and empowers them to live their best life every day.”

In the same respect, says Nairn, kikki.K staff refer to ‘sales’ as ‘solutions’, “because that’s really what we’re offering our guests”. Guided by delivering a ‘world class experience’ at every touch point, kikki.K staff are also encouraged to go ‘above and beyond’ for their ‘guests’, which, says Nairn, could be as simple as offering to help them with their bags of shopping or surprising them with a gift. Every store shares an ‘above and beyond’ experience daily in their end-of-day reports and this information is also funnelled into the head office. Tools like Mystery Shopping Surveys and Net Promoter Score are utilised by kikki.K, alongside feedback from the shop floor, social media, emails and “even hand-written letters we receive at our global support office”, which Nairn says guides the brand’s offerings.

“Delivering world-class experiences in-store is more likely to result in stronger guest solutions, and our teams are tracking and measuring these KPIs daily.”

 

Consistent information for all staff

One of the key ways Amazon’s marketing teams are kept informed of all and any customer complaints is through online ticket portals such as JIRA, which account managers and marketing staff can access and to which they can add commentary. Keeping lines of communication open between those who pull your audience in through marketing and those at the coalface is essential in providing consistently high levels of service. Marketing calendars should incorporate customer service activity, whether that’s a series of ‘surprise and delight’ activations, weekly updates to service, retail and CRM teams or pre-scripted response registries for new collections, launches or events.

Most of all, marketing departments – along with everyone else in the business – should understand on a weekly, if not daily, basis what the biggest concerns are for their customers, then focus on addressing them.

“We focus a lot on cross-functional collaboration and communication within The Iconic,” says Anna Lee, COO of Australia’s largest online fashion and sportswear destination (The Iconic boasts a million customers and 10 million site visits per month). “From weekly executive team stand-ups to daily huddles and scrums, we make sure all departments are working together. When everyone in the business has consistent information, they can be empowered to suggest ideas or make changes to ensure customer satisfaction.” One of the tactics Lee and her team utilise to ensure transparent communication is to regularly have head office teams visit their fulfilment centre.

“We recently moved to a new fulfilment centre in Yennora in Western Sydney, taking our capacity floor space from 12,000 square metres to 20,000,” says Lee. “This not only supports our strategy for growth, but was also essential for us to scale our operations to keep up with customer demand. We have team members from various departments – whether it be tech, finance or category management – come to Yennora every week to spend time on the fulfilment centre floor, to understand processes and how we can make improvements.”

 

Meet customers where they are

Despite Australia boasting one of highest rates of smartphone penetration in the world, many local businesses still lack responsive websites or mobile-first email marketing designs. “We’ve had a 42% increase in mobile traffic annually, so we’ve built our digital platforms around that,” says Lee. “We know customers browse and shop across multiple devices and they expect that to be seamless, so we’ve made sure The Iconic has one of the fastest load times in Australian ecommerce.”

Energy provider Powershop adapts its offering according to customers’ needs. “We survey customers and listen to customer feedback so that we can continue to improve our service,” explains Anderson. “Some of our new customer initiatives are a direct response to customer feed- back. For example, we are currently trialling a solar advisory service for our customers after they told us they want more information about how they can benefit from installing solar panels.”

Customer service is no longer a field delegated to an offshore call centre or single in-house department. If Amazon has taught businesses anything it’s that ensuring the customer comes first – from your marketing promises through to logistic processes – makes for sustainable growth. Gone are the days when brands spoke at customers or held the power to push products and services at a time that suited the business. Today, customers expect communication to be tailored and considered, and that products and services are avail- able at a time and on a device that best suits them. It’s this change in power structure that Amazon’s creator, Jeff Bezos, finds exciting. “Our customers are loyal to us right up until the second somebody officers them a better service. And I love that. It’s super motivating for us.”

Fiona Killackey is a Melbourne-based business and marketing consultant and (full disclosure) has worked for Amazon and complained about Officeworks on social media.

 

 

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