This e-commerce company doesn’t have customer service reps, it hires problem solvers

This e-commerce company doesn’t have customer service reps, it hires problem solvers
Image: Maxime Francout for Quartz
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In this series, Perfect Company, we are examining pockets of excellence in the corporate world. No single company is perfect, but together they show what the corporate ideal could look like.

The platonic ideal

“Customers don’t expect you to be perfect. They do expect you to fix things when they go wrong.” —Donald Porter, vice president of British Airways 

The practice

The experience of making a return is inherently challenging for businesses. If an item was broken or didn’t work, the customer is probably disappointed. And now they have navigate the task of returning or replacing that item. Do they make a phone call? Compose an email? How long will it take to reach customer service and will they need an aspirin along the way? It’s the type of experience that can send a customer running away forever. Or perhaps running to leave a scathing review on Yelp. A 2011 survey by Oracle showed that 85% of people who had a negative customer service experience wanted to share it with other people.

That’s why companies like Amazon and Wayfair, an online furniture and home goods retailer, believe investing in backend customer service operations is just as valuable as building a seamless shopping experience. If you can delight a customer when she’s trying to return an item, you can build real brand loyalty.

“It’s always weird when you hear that companies are investing in an experience where customers are asking for their money back,” said Kevon Hills, a researcher at StellaService, which ranks customer service experiences. But it makes sense.

There are plenty of horror stories of customer service gone wrong. Comcast made national headlines in July 2014 when one of its customers tried to cancel his service. Airlines have long been go-to punching bags for so-called “customer disservice.”

So then, how does a company do it right? For Wayfair, it began with hiring the right person. Liz Graham joined the Boston-based company in May 2015 as vice president of sales and service, and she’s using her previous experience at Comcast and HubSpot to shape what’s happening at the rapidly expanding company. In 14 years, Wayfair has grown to employ more than 5,000 people worldwide, bringing in more than $1.3 billion in revenue. A full fifth of its employees work in the customer service division.

Where a massive general interest retailer like Amazon might get a lot of complaints, it’s mostly for smaller ticket items. But for Wayfair, which deals specifically in home goods and has an average order price of more than $250, handling complaints and returns can be trickier. That’s made even tougher by virtue of the fact that some of its products—such as sofas and tables—can weigh hundreds of pounds.

For a long time, companies have sought to hire a very specific personality—”the empathizer”—to fill customer service roles. These types are good at defusing situations by calming and reassuring customers. But Wayfair has deviated from that method, instead seeking out ”problem solver” personalities. And it’s started recruiting them from unlikely places, including Comic-Con. Millennials and gamers, in particular, often have extensive online communication skills, an ability to think creatively, and possess quick problem-solving skills, the company has found. Wayfair went to its first Comic-Con in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 2015. A spokeswoman said three people from that event later applied for jobs and were hired. The plan is to continuing going back.

Customer service reps at Wayfair are broken into specialized teams that can solve and explain things on the fly. The company has set up a way to resolve issues by cutting out all the customer service fat. Where people might normally go through multiple layers of company representatives to return a defective piece of furniture and spend an hour of their time, Wayfair customers get a direct line and email address to a specific person to help them. Even if it’s an issue with a bathroom shower or sink, the company is building out easy paths for quick solutions like having plumbers and electricians ready to address issues.

The average phone support response time is 45 to 90 seconds. The company puts complete trust in representatives to figure out how to best resolve a situation, be it sending a repair person, arranging for a replacement, or offering full refund.

“If they [representatives] want to do a full return for a customer, they don’t have to go to a manager for approval,” Graham said. “They can make decisions right then and there, and take care of that customer.”

Whereas some companies measure success by the average amount of time representatives spend with customers on the phone, Wayfair focuses on the rate of first-contact resolution. Personalized service and giving employees more control over fixing a customer problem costs more money for the company, Graham said, but it’s paying off because it leaves customers with good impressions, which increases the chances they’ll be return shoppers and speak positively of the brand.

The takeaways

Hills of StellaService says companies like Wayfair and Amazon are setting the bar for online retail customer service. For companies betting their future on online shopping, it’s crucial that they make positive customer interaction a cornerstone of their models.

“What you’ll notice is that companies that were born on the web are typically better at service,” Hills said. “They are always thinking about efficiencies … where as brick-and-mortar are always thinking about the store experience.”

Wayfair knows that to stay on top, it will take more investment. Since Graham was hired to lead the company’s customer service operation, she’s overseen a 66% year-over-year increase in the number of new hires and has created more senior positions on the team to allow room for advancement.

The autonomy that Wayfair gives those service representatives shows how core they are to the company’s mission. It places trust in the hands of its employees, which translates into a more seamless interaction with consumers. To the company’s credit, it’s working.