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Subscribing to long-term relationships - Birchbox makes customer support a thing of beauty with Zendesk

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan January 21, 2021
Effective customer support needs to center on building long-term relationships with subscribers at the New York-based beauty products firm.

(What's in the box?)

It's about curating a long-lasting relationship. 

That’s the underlying philosophy of customer support espoused by Leanna Nazzisi, Senior Manager of Customer Operations & Communications at online beauty products firm, Birchbox. Founded in 2010, Birchbox is a New York-based online monthly subscription service that sends a box of four or five personalised samples of beauty items, including skincare items, perfumes and assorted cosmetics from 200 brands, to its one million subscribers worldwide. If people find something they like, they can then buy the full-size version at The Birchbox Shop

Nazzisi heads up customer support and operations, managing around 24 agents on the frontline of answering service tickets, using Zendesk to support this function: 

A lot of the things I do [involve] diving into Zendesk and getting all of the information from solving tickets and bringing it back to other cross [department] teams so we can make changes to our product, to our experience and really giving them a voice in what they are answering and talking about every day.

The past year has presented particular challenges when it comes to Birchbox’s core sales pitch, given that a monthly delivery of beauty samples is ‘nice to have’ rather than ‘need to have’ at a time when the general macro-economic situation has been so adversely impacted by COVID-19. While it’s lovely to treat yourself once a month, this is discretionary spend. The challenge for Birchbox is to make sure that this discretion is exercised in its favor and that, says Nazzisi, comes down to ensuring that the customer experience is compelling: 

This is where we start to play around. Can we send extra samples? Can we waive a fee? Can we really understand what it is that might be preventing someone from leaving Birchbox, especially if they're being impacted by COVID? We’ve been able to get really creative with a lot of the things that we're doing in terms of servicing customers, just getting very personal and human with those interactions.

Human response 

Nazzisi is a big fan of the “human connection” in customer support, something which she argues can’t always be digitised. For Birchbox, that means that the person-to-person phone call remains a major tool in building those sought-after long-term relationships, an aspect of the firm's operating model that COVID isolation has encouraged:

We've actually found that we were spending so much more time on the phone this year, because I think people are just craving human interaction. So being able to shift our scheduling and understand how many people want to actually speak to us, rather than read an email or read a text message, and being able to schedule accordingly so we can talk to everyone for as long as they want to talk to us, that’s been helpful in terms of building a really solid relationship with people, as opposed to just solving an issue, resolving a ticket and moving on to the next one.

The firm has also found that while mobile drives 85% of traffic, the desktop computer remains a powerful customer channel. Nazzisi had expected to see an uptick in SMS activity, but the reality has been somewhat different: 

We're finding that a lot of our help center is being accessed through the desktop. A lot of folks are on their computers and they're reaching out to us [using them] or they're browsing our site. It made it very interesting to understand that maybe let's shift a little bit and focus more on optimising our help center, optimise certain things that customers are looking for in a desktop way, instead of mobile. 

Zendesk research of retail customers has highlighted a 30% increase in help center views, which in turn flags up the need for firms to meet customers where they are in terms of proactive support and reaching out even before they have a need. For Birchbox, understanding how its subscribers engage with its offering is a priority, says Nazzisi: 

One thing that I thought was really helpful for us was seeing how many of our help center articles are resolving issues for themselves, in the sense that customers are coming to our help center, looking through articles, reading things and then saying, 'You know what, this is good' and not waiting to hear back from us. 

We did a lot of that work last year that paid off really well for us, so we're able to understand exactly what pieces of information people are looking for that we can serve to them right away. And then with the pieces that they can't find and they end up reaching out to us for, is there something we can do so they don't have to wait for it? Can we update our experience? Can we update our product? Or can we update our relationships with the brands or the vendors that we work with so that they get that information and the self service [option] is really clear?

Culture and COVID

While a lot of customer support teams are focused solely on solving tickets and hitting KPIs [Key Performance Indicators] with little awareness of what’s happening elsewhere in the organization, Birchbox has encouraged its team to think differently about their roles. Nazzisi explains: 

I personally think that in order for them to feel the value and the impact that they're having on the business, they need to understand how they shape the metrics and how they shape the KPIs that we measure. 

To that end, team meetings have become a weekly event at which each full-time staffer picks out a topic from a KPI report that they want to dive into, such as the number of touches per ticket or how much time is being spent on tickets of a certain type. This enables them to understand in more depth how certain actions can influence those KPIs, explains Nazzisi: 

From there, they're starting to make suggestions that are really helpful. There's an empowering thing there where they can identify trends, they can see how their work could affect it on a larger scale and then they feel, 'This is something that we can change and here's how I think we should do it. This is something that I've already tried with my customers' and then sharing it to the broader team. Everyone gets on board, so it's not only just management making changes and structuring the workflow; it’s the agents themselves now. And because they are doing the bulk of the work, it gives them a great sense of empowerment that they're able to shape exactly how they want the customer experience to be.

It’s also important for the team to understand that while metrics do matter, success isn’t always measured quantitively, something that Nazzisi herself has come to terms with: 

I'm such a data-driven person and I really love all of the insights and analytics I collect, but at the end of the day you really can't put some sort of KPI or a number on the happiness factor or the sentiment in the conversations that you're having with customers. It's more about listening to QA [Quality Assurance] phone calls or reading through positive C-Sat [Customer Satisfaction] ratings and and getting that qualitative view on things. 

This also means getting support agents to understand that it’s OK to take time to achieve a better customer experience, she adds: 

It's OK to slow down, it's OK to take a little bit longer on the phone or take a little bit longer to fully resolve something, because again you want to keep this good relationship. What we've done is shift a little bit of what our KPIs are. We previously had something like '12 tickets an hour equals success' and now it's like, ‘No, success is how the customer is feeling. It's the C-Sat. It is how many times the ticket re-opens if they're asking more questions? Are they being escalated to a manager?'.Those little things have been helpful in being able to retrain [agents] in the sense where it's like, 'You don't have to push out as many responses as possible'. 

As with so many other organizations, COVID has meant that the Birchbox support team has been working remotely through most of the past year, which has led a need to encourage staff to maintain a healthy work/life balance, remembering to take time out for themselves. As Nazzisi puts it: 

That's what the [Birchbox] box is, your time for yourself, so we try to bring that [idea] back into the customer support side. It's 30 minutes of no ticket time, no work time, once a week…I think they'll do that much better work if they're not spending all of those hours solely focused on tickets.

It’s important to get this balance right as the current home working situation is likely to remain the norm for some time to come. That said, one upside to remote working and using collaborative tech for meetings has been increased clarity of communication, according to Nazzisi:

We have no choice now. We are looking at each other through Zoom, through Slack or through Google Hangouts and we need to better phrase our words and our missions and our visions and all of the things that we're working on, because we can't sit in a meeting and discuss and brainstorm. That's something that's always been very important to me, because we have such a strong and large part-time staff that has always been remote and it felt in the past that sometimes they were excluded or they just didn't understand what was going on in the full scale of the business because they weren't in the office every day. 

Now they get the exact same information that everyone else is getting and there's this public knowledge-sharing, a cohesion that's happening, where everyone is starting to know who the other person is, what department they work for and how they can help. And they're getting information that they can then pass on to each other, can share with customers and it really again empowers them to make decisions in the moment, rather than wait for the information from someone who is on the full-time staff.

Looking ahead, the question is how much further the long-term customer relationship can be extended and this is an objective about which Nazzisi has some thoughts:

Something that I would really love to explore is trying to figure out a way to talk to [customers] when they're not thinking about Birchbox and utilising maybe something like the USPS [US Postal Service], where we can proactively communicate to a customer after their box has shipped and check on it and check on them and see if we could again maintain that long lasting relationship, even if we're not talking to them directly or waiting for them to reach out to us.

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