Handbag, backpack and luggage company Vera Bradley may be on a bumpy journey that has seen revenues fall every fiscal year since 2013 - but a small bright spot along the way has been the customer’s core fan base, which remains steadfastly devoted to its bright and busy prints.
As CEO Rob Wallstrom and his team continue with an aggressive three-year turnaround strategy that began last year, it will be vital to keep these most loyal customers on side. At the same time, the Vera Bradley management team must also persuade more fickle, bargain-hunting shoppers to keep spending, even as the company pulls back sharply on discounting products, in a carefully choreographed return to full-price selling.
And to add to this difficult customer-management mix, the company must continue to build a customer base for the future. On this front, retail analyst Neil Saunders of GlobalData sees reason for hope, in Vera Bradley’s increasing appeal among a younger audience:
A few years ago, the brand was seen as being very old-fashioned and was off the radar for many women aged 35 and under. While there is still work to do, the brand now has more traction among college age-students.
Whatever their age or their affinity with the Vera Bradley brand, customers’ communications with Vera Bradley are handled by an in-house team of around 80 call center staff, based at corporate headquarters in Roanoke, Indiana and headed up by Susan Campbell, director of customer experience.
Until recently, Campbell was concerned by the team’s inability to handle text messages from customers, alongside the calls and chat messages that they already received. In looking for a solution to this challenge, she says, there were a number of things that needed taking into consideration:
We wanted to be able to use our existing customer number, because a lot of our customers will already have that entered into their phones, ready to call us. That was really important to us. And besides that, we already have a cloud contact center system [Nice InContact cxOne] in place for phone and chat, so for us, it was important to have something that was fully integrated for our team, so they weren’t having to use a separate system to deal with texts.
Nice InContact was able to propose a solution, Textel - a third-party pre-integrated app available through its app exchange, says Chris Bauserman, vice president of segment and product marketing at Nice InContact. This integration comes into play, he explains, when a text message exchange throws up a problem too complex to handle using that medium, because it allows the conversation to be swiftly moved to another channel, typically a phone call, without the call center agent needing to switch screens or keep a customer waiting.
A question of volumes
But how did Vera Bradley know if the volume of texts it might receive would justify the implementation of Textel? It didn’t, Campbell admits, although recent fast growth in e-commerce sales from mobile devices (which make up around 60% of the e-commerce total), strongly suggested that the Vera Bradley audience is pretty mobile savvy. On top of that, chat is growing at around 30% to 40% per year, so text seemed like a logical avenue to explore, she says:
We didn’t know for sure how text would work out for us, but when we went live with text messaging, we had nearly 1,000 text messages in our slowest month of the year. I think for us it was a moment of, ‘Oh my goodness, we’ve been missing this all along.’ It was an epiphany that blew us away. We had an idea the demand would be there, but we had no idea of the magnitude.
It’s simple for both customers and call center agents, she claims, and the company has so far experienced a zero percent abandonment rate when interacting with customers over text.
When a text message arrives with a call center agent, it appears in a dedicated window on their screen, along with information relating to any previous communication with that customer on a particular issue. Agents can now conduct three text conversations at one time, versus just one over the phone and text now accounts for 7% of inbound communication volumes. Chat, meanwhile, stands at around 40%. Says Campbell:
We know customer service expectations are at an all-time high and each customer service situation needs to be handled as efficiently as possible. We are thrilled that so many of our customers prefer to text with us.
I’m curious to see, as we move into the busy holiday season, how we fare and what will be customers’ preferred methods of communicating with us. It’s really exciting. I’m like, ‘Bring it on, holiday season - we’re ready for you here'.