Gartner and 1to1 Customer Award Winners: Customer Service Optimization

Customer Service
Customer Service

Gold Winner:'s Customer Care Drives Growth

I currently sit at my 47th desk in my six years at Overstock." So says Brian Popelka, vice president, customer service, at the online retailer. He uses the statistic to illustrate how much growth-or, to use his term, "hyper-growth"-the company has experienced.
Popelka freely admits that the triple-digit growth that experienced for a few years came at the expense of customer service. "It was simply not a priority," he says. "The focus was entirely on managing the growth. We wanted to take care of our customers, but we were simply not proficient at it."

Outsourcing customer care was a limited success, as has what Popelka terms "an unusual and dynamic business model that makes it difficult for someone even a few miles down the road to really understand how to handle certain situations." Indeed, with distributors ranging from eBay sellers to megadistributors Apple, Sony BMG, and Michael Kors, the stock at varies from hour to hour.

As a result, began experiencing customer attrition. In early 2006 the company began upgrading its customer care division, ultimately leading to an implementation of RightNow Technologies' CRM system, which provides agents with a single view of
all customer interactions across phone, email, and chat; it's also integrated with's Oracle e-commerce system to provide agents with real-time access to order, fulfillment, and returns information.

"I hear lip service from every company about how important the customer is-and we certainly agreed with that-but you really get to show that on how you handle the problems when people call in for returns or some mistake. When we flipped the business model so that customer care was the most important department, rather than the last one budgeted for, it really turned things around for us."

In fact, CEO Patrick Byrne has projected that will achieve a $10 million profit this year-the company's first overall profit since 1999-and has cited customer care and the company's customer-centric transformation as instrumental in helping turn the company around.

The company instituted its own "Customer Pain Score," mapping every possible touch a customer has with and all the processes that impact customers and then identifying the factors that could cause customer pain. While Popelka is loath to share too much detail about the initiative-"We are, after all, faced with a lot of competitors"-he says that "customer pain" as a metric has declined by about 90 percent. Additionally, the company's customer care Net Promoter Score has improved 125 percent.

Agents are urged to "treat every caller like they're your grandmother," Popelka says, adding that any defensive mind-set needs to be eliminated. "A customer didn't order a product to set up a return. Of course," he laughs, "there are some [people] who do that, but we focus more on, 'Gosh, if this was me, how would I feel about it?'"

Popelka says is now fully invested in being "a Kaizen company," referring to the Japanese philosophy that focuses on continuous improvement throughout all aspects of life. "What worked three years ago does not necessarily still work today," he says. "We're constantly looking to improve the customer experience."

Silver Winner: Building Lasting (Customer) Relationships at eHarmony

As the Internet's leading dating service, eHarmony has served more than 20 million registered users in more than 200 countries. But, according to Vice President of Customer Care Scott Ackerman, continued vigilance over how the site's users and visitors are treated remains a critical part of the business.

"We embarked on a proactive customer care improvement strategy," Ackerman says. "Previously, we were reactive in our approach to customer service. We would wait for customers to contact us with an issue and provide a resolution specific to the issue raised. We also wanted to improve in terms of customer satisfaction and retention, response times, and maintaining a single view of the customer."

On average, he says, eHarmony accounts for some 240 people getting married every day, which typically starts with a 90-120 day relationship with the website. Customers calling to cancel before at least 30 days are given such data in an attempt to keep them on the service.

"We know that talking to our customers by phone is the best method to do that," Ackerman says. "So when we were looking for a more dynamic CRM system, we chose RightNow [Technologies] because it allowed us to lower our email interactions using our knowledge base, which allowed us to spend less time on email and more time on the phone."

eHarmony also strives to answer email inquiries while customers are still online. Such quick turnaround helps customer satisfaction scores. "By lowering the [amount of] email, improving our retention, and streamlining our agents' way of going through the call flow, our customer satisfaction has increased about 20 percent," he says, adding that all this has helped to boost customer retention as well. "Before the [RightNow implementation] we were retaining about one in every 10, and now we're close to six in every 10."

Bronze Winner: Cricket Communications' Mantra: Quick Resolution of Customers' Concerns

ireless service Cricket Communications was finding the usual business problems in its sector: churn, a deficit in customer insight, and an inability to monitor and control contact center performance and costs in real time while keeping an organizational focus.

"Operational efficiency was taking away all of the customer care organization's bandwidth, and very little time was spent on customer strategy," says Percy Hoffmann, director, call center operations. "With our customer base growing at a 100 percent rate for each of the past three years, we were facing a lot of challenges not just in subscriber growth but also in the growth of the services we offer and the inclusion of new services like broadband. We knew that we needed to make a fundamental change in our road map for care."

The first phase of Cricket's revamped customer strategy was to create geographically diverse and specialized groups of customer support agents, followed by a more integrated technology platform with features like scalability, remote access and control, unification of customer support components, and other applications, all designed to "take a more customer-centric approach," Hoffmann says.

An enterprisewide computer-telephony integration implementation reduced handle time by 6 percent; enhanced routing methodology reduced the number of misdirected calls by 20 percent; and operational expenses declined by 50 percent. In the process, Hoffmann says, "We gained a better understanding ofhow we were doing in supporting and resolving [customers'] issues, and raising the bar in our entire approach."

The change has been "pretty amazing," he says. "It immediately allowed us to understand at a deeper level why customers were calling us and where we were failing in either having to retransfer them or getting them to the wrong place and frustrating them. It's not just getting them off the phone; it's contacting us and getting to the right person with the right answer, resolving on the first call ideally. That's our mantra, if you will."