Over 152 Years of Service to the Furniture Industry
 Furniture World Logo

Common Sense Approaches to Customer Service

Furniture World Magazine

on

CUSTOMER SERVICE

 

COMMON SENSE APPROACHES FOR EXCELLENT

CUSTOMER SERVICE


Remove six major roadblocks to providing great customer service that exist in the vast majority of retail furniture stores.

Is there any other term in our industry that rings more hollow than “customer service?” Think back to any time that you’ve had to call a company’s customer service department. Were you excited? Hopeful? If you’re like me, you probably rehearsed your conversation a dozen times, carefully picking out all the sticking points and counter-arguments they might come up with, making it airtight. Bulletproof.

Brick by Brick

Most furniture customers approach customer service in the same way. With trembling hand, they dial the numbers. This is going to work, they convince themselves. I’m in the right and did nothing wrong! Then, just like Pink Floyd’s watershed album, the wall begins to build. Brick by brick customers encounter a wall of e-directs, callbacks, management involvement and promises of return calls.

They commiserate with anyone who will listen. “This is ridiculous,” they argue. “I sat on the sofa you delivered and I heard a crack. Should sofa frames just crack?” As each day passes, they get more angry, more dug in, ready to fight the good fight. “Social media! That’ll make them listen,” they fantasize. When all else fails, they pen an angry complaint to the Better Business Bureau, the final repository for all poorly handled customer service issues.

And then maybe they will get a reply from the store saying, “We give in. We’ll replace your sofa.” There! Was that so hard?

Service Problems


Brick by brick customers encounter a wall of e-directs, callbacks, management involvement and promises of return calls.

Too many furniture store owners and operations managers assume that if they don’t hear from angry customers directly, they don’t have customer service problems. They are under the impression that it’s going OK because customers who are truly angry are able to go right to the top!

I guarantee that they are wrong. My experience has shown that the vast majority of managers who are responsible for customer service haven’t set aside enough time to sit down and dissect the problems and roadblocks that almost certainly exist in their customer service departments.

Roadblocks

Let’s cast a little light on the most likely roadblocks to great customer service:

No matter what program you end up using to help handle customer service, take the time to pay close attention to how it can enhance the customer service your stores provide.
  • Poor Software. The retail furniture industry does not have a lot to choose from if they’re looking for robust, integrated, intuitive customer service operating system software. In fact, programmers seem to be somewhat in denial, because furniture is inherently in need of customer service.

  • No direction. One of the reasons people don’t want to work in customer service is because it is a lot like being the target on a firing range, and these front line employees can’t duck. The complaints they hear are part truth, part lies. Often, CSRs have to figure it out for themselves.

  • No clear rules. CSRs are given lots of rules, only to watch them rolled back when complaints are escalated. Some of these are absolutely insane, putting CSRs in unenviable and illogical positions.

  • No options. Many CSRs are told, for example, that if a customer reports a small rub on the back of a delivered sofa, the only remedies are a service call or to bring it back for repair.

  • Lack of technicians. It’s often impossible for CSRs to get service backlogs resolved due to a lack of service techs who can actually do the work.

  • Lack of training. I’ve been in furniture operations on the service, repair and delivery side for almost 30 years and am willing to bet that your CSRs probably can’t explain what lacquer or a barrel nut is. If that’s the case in your stores, it’s a problem.

Improve Software


CSRs are given lots of rules only to watch them rolled back when complaints are escalated. Some of these are absolutely insane, putting CSRs in unenviable and illogical positions.

Operating systems that handle customer service are usually written by people who are good with numbers, data and code, but not necessarily with people. Until recently, I had only once seen a truly great customer service program, used by Boyles Furniture in Hickory, in the 1990s. It was a powerful program written by John McCloskey and Dave Hess, who took the time to say, “what if?” It wasn’t a typical pre-packaged lackluster subroutine. Instead it was integrated with sales and delivery in real time. Tickets were easy to open, track and close, with triggers helping CSRs stay on top of commitments. Managers were able to easily keep up to date. Involving others in the decision-making process was simple.

Recently, I met with Amitesh Sinha, the CIO of iConnect Group. His customer service module is easily as intuitive and robust as Boyles’. And it comes with the option to integrate essential third-party programs like door counters and dispatching. There may be others that are similarly good, but no matter what program you end up using to help handle customer service, take the time to pay close attention to how it can enhance the customer service your stores provide.

Importance of Clear Rules

CSRs are natural problem solvers. So, when there is a leadership void, they can become incredibly frustrated. It’s a combination of them not being high up the organizational chart, but at the same time being tasked with making difficult decisions (interpreting store policy and manufacturer’s warranties, for example).

In many retail operations the most frustrating part of a CSR’s job is having to cobble solutions together on the fly in the absence of clear rules to follow. This is magnified when management is purposefully vague about how to handle service issues. When I was a QC manager I recall how difficult it was to reconcile customer complaints regarding goods from many different manufacturers—each with their own rules and warranties—with store policies.

Think Outside the Box

Thinking outside the box is important. For example, a lot of furniture retailers simply say that “The company reserves the right to repair or replace at their discretion.” But, they haven’t considered simple solutions like giving a little money off. I understand why retailers don’t want to consider this option. Giving money back erodes margins, but so do the less tangible but very real costs of providing service. A service call can cost $200 or more depending on the time involved, the distance traveled, and materials needed. Bringing damaged goods back for repair eliminates two revenue-producing stops plus the added costs of shop time and materials. Replacing an item, in my opinion is even worse, wasting a revenue-producing stop and bringing back a product that still has to be repaired. If you don’t have the replacement item in stock, then by the time the damaged item is picked up, it may smell like smoke, have pet hair on it, or be worn. That’s why offering some money off or giving a gift card can be an efficient solution and is often what the customer wanted all along.

An alternative to the money-off solution is to develop the capability to send out technicians on 911 calls.
That means freeing up a tech to literally jump into a Sprinter, make a quick house call, and take care of the problem.

An alternative to the money-off solution is to develop the capability to send out technicians on 911 calls. That means freeing up a tech to literally jump into a Sprinter, make a quick house call, then take care of the problem. Or, as in the case of Ashley, a replacement part (if applicable) can be sent directly to the customer’s home. Ashley has made that exceedingly easy to do.

The Right Repair Techs

Naturally, if you are short on repair, technicians, your whole service operation will grind to a halt. I maintain that it is much cheaper, and sometimes preferable, to train people to be technicians in-house rather than hiring someone who is already trained. Training your own techs means that you can standardize training, teach them what they really need to know and keep them on task. From a financial standpoint, a fully-trained technician can make several hundred dollars a day on their own versus $15 an hour working a job, so they’ll demand more money. If there’s no need for their skills, you’re better off training someone who will simply be removing damaged parts and installing new parts. Sort of like someone who is qualified to tune-up a Lamborghini but works in a garage that only fixes Hondas. A newbie might only cost you $12 an hour, but depending on your operational needs you won’t be paying for a lot of skill you’ll probably never need.

Upgrade CSR Training

Finally, train your CSRs to understand what they need to know to do their jobs well. If they don’t understand how a sofa is put together or how a finish is built, how can they intelligently help customers with their complaints, or adequately process their tickets? Your shop and customer service department should work in harmony, integrating their efforts to supply customers with quick, efficient resolutions. The same relationship should exist between your warehouse staff and salespeople. Arbitrary divisions found at retail between departments that should be working closely together is often counterproductive.

Conclusion

When starting to think about how your company handles post-delivery customer service, put yourself in your customer’s shoes and remember the last time you had to call a company for service. I guarantee that those same thoughts and strategies play out in the minds of your customers every day.

Your goal should be to make their experiences as easy and fast as possible, while still protecting your bottom line with common-sense approaches that deal with the issues that arise within our industry.


 

Peter Schlosser is a backend furniture consultant based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. His focus is repair, quality control, exceptional customer service, and all things operational.  He is a contributing editor to Furniture World. To see all his articles Click Here.  Questions on any aspect of this article or furniture repair can be directed to Peter Schlossser at pschlosser@furninfo.com.