Best Buy's Employees Are Its Voice of the Customer

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Customer Experience
Customer Experience
The retail behemoth uses text analytics to taps into employees' knowledge of its <br>in-store customers.

With 180,000 employees, Best Buy estimates that it has some 1.5 billion conversations with its customers every year. These conversations take place in stores, on the phone, and on the Web.

The challenge has been to capture, share, and act on as many of these conversations as possible. And that's exactly what the company is doing. "We're building out a robust capability to listen to customers," says Matt Smith, vice president of marketing. "We want to understand what they're saying and doing and then be able to speak to them relevantly, and to do that at scale."

To listen to customers "at scale" in a retail behemoth like Best Buy is no easy task. "It actually requires an enormous amount of technology," Smith says. The technology includes tools for monitoring consumer conversation on Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks, as well as tools for actively soliciting customer feedback through online surveys and other vehicles across multiple channels.

Even with these technologies and analytic capabilities in place, the company still lacked a systematic approach for capturing the voice of the customer in the actual retail store environment. While customer interactions with "blue shirt" sales reps could potentially yield the richest treasure trove of insights given the sheer volume and nature of these interactions, the insights tended to go into a black hole.

The key, then, was to mobilize and empower employees to serve as the conduit for customer communications. In spearheading the new initiative, called the Voice of the Customer through the Employee (VOCE) program, the Customer Insights Unit determined that the tool would need to be fast, easy, and readily accessible. "Going from one customer to another, employees don't have time to sit down and complete a lengthy form," explains Steve Wallin, senior director of Best Buy's Consumer Insights Unit.

For the VOCE program, which rolled out to a test market in October 2010, store employees gather customer information using two approaches. The first is solicited feedback, which means gathering responses to specific questions provided by corporate marketing, merchandising, or other departments in the company. The questions may be open-ended or more specific. For example: "Should we bundle our HD cables with a certain TV product?" "Are we doing a good job in terms of price matching?" "Is the Best Buy buy-back program meeting your needs?"

The second approach is unsolicited feedback, which simply refers to anything the blue shirts are hearing from customers on a day-to-day basis that they believe may be of interest at the corporate, district, or even store management level. What are customers complaining about? What suggestions are they making? These insights often prove to be the most valuable.

For unsolicited submissions, employees log in and use a drop-down menu to select from category options that include product, service, store layout, policies, and competitors, and then type the information in an open text box; solicited responses to "hot topic" questions are entered beneath a separate tab.Today most employees access the VOCE application using in-store terminals, although the plan is to also soon make it available on tablets and other mobile devices.

Far more complex than entering observations and verbatims that accumulate into terabytes of unstructured data is the ability to make sense of it. To that end, Best Buy uses natural language processing capabilities from Clarabridge. The technology uses a mix of rules and dictionaries to break down each customer quote, or verbatim, by concept, to score it for positive or negative sentiment, and to assign it to the most appropriate category model. Analytic models make it possible to do correlation, regression, and others types of analysis to reveal additional insights.

Best Buy can also engage in cross-channel analysis. "We can know if our customer reps are hearing the same information via the phone channel that we're hearing in the physical store," Wallin says. The same is true of the online channel. "The Best Buy Facebook page shows interactions between customers and employees, so we can bring that in," he says, noting that customer insights are also embedded in Twitter technical support. "Now we can generate a more robust report, one that combines VOCE data with data from other channels that customers are using to interact with employees."

With the implementation of the VOCE system, Best Buy has transformed itself into a true listening organization. "There was a lot of cynicism around whether we could nail this," says Wallin. With thousands of blue shirts now entering submissions on a daily basis and a steady stream of customer insights flowing to all parts of the organization, the initiative has proven itself to be an unqualified success.

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EXPERT OPINION