Here is a great piece from Leanna Nazzisi, Senior Manager of Customer Operations at BirchBox, via Digital Commerce 360. In the article, Leanna lays out some must do’s for brands in order to cultivate top notch customer service the whole year round, but especially during the busy holiday season. 

Upon further analysis of Ms. Nazzisi’s top tips, it’s clear that for BirchBox, customer satisfaction falls into two main categories: automation and experience. 

The online only cosmetics retailer’s focus on automation makes sense, especially around holiday time for a budding company like BirchBox. Overall, providing more information and tools to shoppers that would allow for a more self-directed customer service infrastructure saw a 30% decrease in the retailer’s inbound customer service requests when compared to 2019. During the holiday peak season, that number climbed to roughly 43%.

The company also beefed up its use of Zendesk features, such as searchable answers to frequently asked questions. The FAQ tool empowers shoppers to seek out solutions to problems they are experiencing with brand products that are likely easily remedied. In doing so, the FAQ search function heads off some of those time consuming, quick fixes from reaching live customer service reps – time that could now be reallocated to larger, more robust issues. 

This automated subscriber interface was extended even further to parts of the BirchBox operation like billing. When the brand made changes to the billing cadence, charging per box at shipment rather than for three-months of continuity all at once, communication of the change and its implications was also automated. 

BirchBox’s marketing and website teams worked to ensure that the nuances of when a shopper would be billed “was clearly spelled out on her account page, on the checkout page and in her order confirmation email.” Like the build out of FAQ search, this lean towards automated communication proved to be a massive time saver and Nazzisi says “that repetition of the same information, that need-to-know information, was really helpful for us. Those were questions we would always get from new customers.”

Another factor that Nazzisi attributes to improved customer relations, and something she recommends to all brands building towards scale, is instituting any and all systems possible that might help to encourage a personal touch. Now this might seem to run counter to the push towards automation, but quite the contrary. At BirchBox, fewer inbound customer service requests allowed brand agents to spend more time with individual customers who felt they had expended use of the self-directed tools. And when a customer did end up on the line with a customer service representative, that agent was not confined to a set of standard problem solving procedures. In doing so “agents have the flexibility to get creative to make the issue right.”

But how does a Customer Relations lead reframe the mindsets of the agents who for years shared the sole priority of solving as many tickets as possible? With new automated infrastructure in place, Nazzisi says that she reset expectations, insisting that volume is not the be all, end all. Rather. “the goal is to create a great customer experience no matter how long that takes.”

One example of this is seek in the common problem customers had previously experienced around purchasing the wrong type of gift subscription. Though BirchBox does not label subscription types by gender, there is a distinction between box types. Products men might enjoy like beard shampoo are included in a “grooming” box, while makeup is featured as a part of the “beauty” box. 

In the past, when a customer mistakenly ordered a beauty box as a gift for a male friend or family member, the solution was almost always to refund the subscription and apologize. These days, Nazzisi encourages agents to “explain the nuances, sympathize that it can be confusing, and set up the account to send the correct products to the intended recipient. Then, agents offer to let the customer provide an additional address so BirchBox can send the remainder of the male grooming subscription for free to a person who would enjoy those products…”

Any DTC company, as well as the many vendor supply chain services in the business of holiday fulfillment, know too well how surging package volumes can take a toll. This was especially true of 2020 as UPS and FedEx put limits on the number of packages they would accept from high volume companies utilizing parcel carriers. This meant the USPS would have to step up and take on any overflow. 

Let’s think back to the peak season, especially around election day: the combination of the pandemic ecommerce surge, the controversial volume of absentee ballots creating bottlenecks in the mail system, etc. Needless to say, by holiday time, the USPS was already operating at capacity, and BirchBox, which ships mostly via USPS, experienced subsequent delays. 

Nazzisi says “BirchBox would receive tracking scans from USPS as its packages moved across the country from facility to facility…” however “because USPS is not obligated to provide tracking scans for every step of a package’s journey, many times BirchBox would not receive tracking information for days.”

Outside of the holiday season, this lack of tracking typically meant a package was lost, and so BirchBox would just replace it. But the company also knew that with the combination of factors working to slow postal service operations, one way for the USPS to save time was to skip the package scanning process. 

In response, Nazzisi and BirchBox chose to trust the process and control what they could control: namely the barrage of inquiries on customer service agents asking “where is my package?”

This is where the personal touch of the BirchBox customer service team really paid off. Agents were able to participate in an open dialogue with customers, speaking honestly about what was going on, and checking in regularly on the status of an order (on the customer’s end), as well as the amount of time that had passed in transit. If after 12 days, the location of the order was still unknown, BirchBox would issue a refund, but generally, packages did arrive at their intended location. In fact, on average, “85% of BirchBox’s shipments arrived on time, and only for a one-week period in December was it substantially below average.”

For issues where physical gift card orders were delayed, BirchBox innovated by offering to create a digital version of the card so the customer could still give it to someone via email. This was the case for about 25% of customers who contacted the retailer about a delayed gift card, Nazzisi says.

“Our customers were very understanding with shipping delays, and we were able to create a communication and compensation strategy that resonated with them.”