How hotels can learn a lesson from retail call centers

Have you ever wondered why in the retail world, call centers (and contact centers) are considered an important and highly cost-effective "new customer acquisition strategy," while in many hotel companies, call centers are viewed as a dying distribution strategy—or worse yet, a necessary evil?

At Aspire, we did wonder. Throughout 2014, we are conducting research on how the best-in-class retail call centers operate, and what opportunities hospitality oriented call centers might model.

We selected five companies that have demonstrated superior call center results and service; three of the five ranked in J.D. Power's Top 50 Customer Service Champions list in 2012 or 2014, while the others have consistently drawn acclaim for their service practices.

We will be sharing the research findings of our onsite assessments, interviews, and market trends to demonstrate how retailers drive new customer acquisition and wallet share. All of these centers have been able to leverage their voice channel to ensure their customer experience is at the forefront of their loyalty and revenue growth strategies. Hopefully, hospitality call centers will learn a thing or two from the first of our retail case studies: L.L. Bean.

L.L. Bean…Top Ranked for a Reason
The first call center we researched, visited, and analyzed was L.L. Bean's. They ranked in the Top 50 of J.D. Power's list for Customer Service in 2012. Our visit was enlightening, and highlighted why this retailer is both a customer service, profit leader, and model for an effective call center strategy.

Don't Let Normal on the Outside Fool You!
At first nothing seemed that different. The office was nice, staff appeared happy, and their signage and communication clearly indicated that they value their customer. I think many, if not most, hospitality call centers would say the same thing. So what was unique?

After 102 years (yes, they have been around since 1912!), the company still follows their founder Leon Leonwood Bean's own golden rule: "Sell good merchandise at a reasonable profit, treat your customers like human beings and they will always come back for more."

With L.L. Bean, their call center success is a direct result of their service culture and the very active leadership that supports it. They don't just say; they do. This is a company that fanatically values their customer. It is clear that every decision is made with their customer in mind—the question never was, "Will this make customers spend more money?" Rather, it was "How will this decision impact the customer's buying experience?"

Because customer satisfaction is so high at L.L. Bean, we knew the staff had to be knowledgeable. Granted, they have some long-tenured employees, and then again so do many call centers—yet not all see the same success. So, I started with a question around what I suspected must be a long and extensive, onboarding and call center training process: "How long do you train your staff before they are on the phones?"

Much to my surprise, the answer came: "One week…possibly two, with mentoring. Everyone is on their own the third week."

How could that be, when this company prides itself on years of sitting at the top of customer service rankings, and being the subject matter experts? With literally tens of thousands of products, what is their secret? This is what we found:

Keep it Simple. Write product information so the presenter sounds like an expert.
At L.L. Bean, system product content is well defined and designed to answer every question. In addition, the office keeps a sample of every single product onsite, so if a caller wants more details on a jacket's buttons, the agent can physically walk to the product area, hold and handle the item and answer the caller's query. Wow!

How does this same approach apply to a hospitality call center? When selling hotels, the same impact can occur in a virtual environment. Do your agents have easy access to accurate videos and pictures, both of inside and outside the hotel? Do they have small video clips that are labeled so they can view only what is relevant to the information they need for a specific caller? Do they have two monitors, so they can research and sell at the same time?
How easy are you making it for your agents to describe and answer your callers' questions? If experiential product knowledge is readily available, you might be able to train call center agents to be on the floor in one week—just like L.L. Bean—while driving high customer satisfaction and revenue capture. Product knowledge presented in a customer-focused way drives sales conversions.

Of course there must be a process of designing, integrating, and accessing this product information, as well implementing a plan on how to train call center agents around "where to go so you know." Because that's the other thing L.L. Bean teaches us: it isn't knowing all the information…it's knowing where to find it.

Creating a Buying Environment
Our shop call research showed L.L. Bean knows how to engage a customer into buying, without making it feel like a sale. No one wants to be sold. Customers want to buy, and L.L. Bean helped them do it with their approach. There was a clear and proven buying process, allowing each agent to move the customer through the buying in an effective manner.

L.L. Bean agents have learned to listen to their callers, and as a result they upsell what is relevant to the individual. When they are selling a new pair of boots for someone they learned is planning to fish in a cold region, they might offer warm wool socks to go with the boots –the offer feels relevant to the caller and therefore not "sales-y." The same is true in a hospitality call center; you can drive upsell by asking key questions and listening to the answers to create a customer-focused value proposition.

Make it an "I Want to Work There" Place
L.L. Bean has a successful operation where people want to work. For this reason, their recruiting costs are limited. As a primary employer in their community, they have the benefit of being selective, and unlike at many call and contact centers, staff turnover at L.L. Bean is minimal. That said, both retail and hospitality call centers have seasonal staffing challenges, though retail variations are usually much more severe. L.L. Bean's in-season growth can exceed 200%. And yes: the new agents are all still on the floor in one to two weeks. That's impressive.

More impressive is the fact that L.L. Bean has high employee retention, and yet their employees are not paid financial incentives. Another Wow! So…how do they do it?

The staff at L.L. Bean love their jobs because they feel like a part of the organization. The working environment is casual. The ratio of supervisors to agents is high at 1:30, yet all agents get attention. There are open forums with leadership; business information is transparent and employees are empowered to do what is right for the customer.

Incentives that Promote Product Knowledge
L.L. Bean's staff has the opportunity to rent and use many of L.L. Bean's products. If an employee wants to kayak this weekend, they simply sign out a kayak and it is theirs for a day. L.L. Bean believes their employees should experience the same things that their customers value, and this promotes product knowledge as well as engagement and fun! Hotels can do the same thing by offering free rooms based on availability, and deep discounts around hotel amenities like spa, golf, etc. People talk about what they know. Do your agents know your products?

Their Profitability Formula
L.L. Bean knows that happy customers come back and that they also tell their friends. Committing to creating highly satisfied customers keeps their retention and customer loyalty high and their new customer acquisition costs low.

Keeping customers satisfied is L.L. Bean's guiding principle and remains their primary goal. They understand the principle of "what you focus on comes true" and "a satisfied customer" is their primary focus.

Commitment to Engagement…Being Heard
L.L. Bean is committed to training and evolving their organization. They develop engaging leadership meetings to ensure clean communication. Through these meetings they create a deep sense of trust through transparency, and open and honest conversation.

It starts with sessions based on listening. Every few months, an employee has the opportunity in a group session to sit with a key leader and be heard. They also have team days five to six times per year. A team day consists of a full day of training, and coming to understand how each agent impacts the business strategy and cultural alignment. It may include an overview of a new product, or details on employee benefits. It is always engaging and learning focused.

The Technology Component
It may surprise you to learn that L.L. Bean's call center does not operate the latest, state-of-the-art system or technology. In fact, they developed their own system to support their operation, which focuses on customer engagement.

Often we hear about the limitations of older systems, and it's true that technology can assist and enhance many things in business. Yet, here is a company that has proven that having the newest technology is not essential to leveraging a customer's desire to buy through voice. L.L. Bean's tried and true, custom, proprietary system is maintained—not constantly made-over—to continue to meet their customers' needs. Their success is driven by their people, not their technology.

Isn't it time for a call center/voice channel strategy paradigm shift?

Want to learn more on how retail strategies can help improve your hotel's financial performance? For other information on Aspire's research findings and our call center services, please email Christine Brosnahan, our call & contact center expert, at [email protected].