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Cordless interview series: 17 october 2023

Ben O'Donnell
Head of Customer Service
at Crocus

In this episode of the Cordless Interview Series, Ben O'Donnell, Head of Customer Service at Crocus, talks about how customer service plays a crucial role in turning potentially negative experiences into positive ones, ultimately building brand loyalty.

Prefer to read? Here is the full transcript of the interview:

Luba: [00:00:02] Okay, so hello, welcome to Cordless Interview Series where we talk with Customer Support leaders about the new trends in the Customer Support world and how they're doing things and sharing tips on how to do it better. So today I'm very pleased to introduce Ben O'Donnell, Head of Customer Service at Welcome!

Ben: [00:00:24] Hello! Thank you for having me at the same time!

Luba: [00:00:27] Thanks so much for joining! Really pleased to meet you and talk about customer support today. To get us started, could you introduce yourself and say a couple of words about your career so far?

Ben: [00:00:38] Sure! So I am firstly very passionate about Customer Service and I've been doing it for nearly 15-16 years now. I originally started my career off as a sales person many, many moons ago, but I think some of us sales people always transition into customer service at a particular time of their life. And that was me 15 years ago. The original start for me was like anyone as a customer service agent back in the day and, we can definitely say that customer service has evolved over those 15 years. I think if we went back 15 years ago and thought of half of the stuff we was doing today, we probably would have all been in our defiant knows this could never happen within Customer Service. And here we are 15 years later actually embracing it, which I think is the most important part of, of the change. I started as a customer service agent at DHL International and I was there for 11 years, made my way up the customer service ladder actually all the way up to a Customer Service Supervisor. I think 11 years, whilst DHL was absolutely fantastic, I was there for 11 years. So naturally making a transition into a new business within Customer Service, Crocus really found a place for me. The good part with Crocus was they actually wanted to create a new Customer Service environment, create a new Customer Service culture, bringing new tools, new equipment, and really rebrand and reshape Customer Service as a whole. And I think the positive thing for me in that experience was it was defining a customer service environment in the horti world, which is not very many, is not known for, if I'm completely honest, online garden centers are known for gardening centers, and the Customer Service is probably known as picking your plants out across your garden center floor. So we was really able to adapt and change and bring new ways and dynamics into Crocus and Customer Service by engaging with the customers, but also engaging with the community of Customer Service.

Luba: [00:02:43] Sounds good! Thank you so much for this proper introduction! It sounds like you had a lot of say and you built it up from the ground up the Customer Service team and how you run things at Crocus. So I guess when you were doing it, what were you keeping in mind and like what is the most important thing to make Customer Service a success?

Ben: [00:03:03] So it's interesting because whilst I'm part of a fantastic team that helped build Customer Service and I think that's the important part here is when I, when I arrived at Crocus we already had a fantastic baseline to be able to provide success. I think the experience that I was able to bring is naturally where the forefront of that has led. I think we've got, if I go back to Crocus when I originally started, it was it was four people. We would probably describe them as receptionists if we're completely honest in an admin world. And we used an outsourced contact centre for another half of our Customer Service. What we really did was we really defined the blueprint and we really wanted to sit down and say to ourselves, What do we think great customer service is, but also how do we want to achieve it? And we looked at first of all, we wanted to make sure it was all in-house. So we started that as our forefront. We also wanted to make sure that we gave the customer service agents the right knowledge and the right equipment. For me with Customer Service, it's always a skill or a will, I think we always call it. And when it comes to customer service agents, it's a skill or a will dynamic.

Ben: [00:04:14] Do they have the skills to do it or do they have the will to do it? And I was very lucky that I had a team that completely had the will but just didn't have either the right tools or the right equipment. And for me, it was really starting to build that toolbox for them to really own in on Customer Service. Now, if I go back to the very start of the journey, first of all, we had to create a new Customer Service office. The office sounds silly in the gardening world, but it was kind of two portacabins, but what we did was we created that portacabin into an office and it now holds up to 20 Customer Service agents at any time. We also wanted to make sure that we gave the team the right environment. So we wanted to make sure that we gave them the right equipment and the right software. So what we did was we went out and we acquired a new omnichannel tool. We acquired Freshdesk and Freshworks as an omnichannel tool. And I must say for a business our size, they do exactly what we want them to do. And it really does show in our efficiencies. The last part was we wanted to make sure that we got the right people involved. So naturally we had to do an element of recruitment.

Ben: [00:05:24] So we knew we had the right software. We knew we had the right environment and for us, it was really finding the right people now to be able to bring that vision along with us. So we recruited quite hard for the first two months and brought in probably another 6 to 8 customer service agents that we knew were going to train as much as we possibly could, not just in Customer Service, but in terms of plant knowledge. And for some of them, they were new to Customer Service. And we all know the challenges of Customer Service. So we have to make sure that we give them the right soft skills along that journey as well. And then the last part of the puzzle was once we we knew that we had the right environment and we had the right skills and we had the right software, it was really just making sure that what were the standards that we wanted to be as a customer service team as well. And we set ourselves some really tough targets. We wanted to make sure our CSATs were extremely high. We wanted to really make sure that our contact-to-order ratio was extremely low. And I'm sure you might ask some questions, but I'm more than happy to go into the numbers as we go through as well.

Luba: [00:06:27] Okay! Sounds good! Thank you for going in-depth! I was actually curious, it sounds like you brought quite a number of people quite quickly and also the knowledge is quite specialized and the team is quite big so it does sound very challenging, scaling up like this, and especially with a large team, it can be quite hard to maintain the quality of support. How did you go about doing this? What is your process?

Ben: [00:06:52] It's actually, in my eyes, quite an easy process for making sure that we have the right people and we give them the right skills and we give them the right knowledge. What you generally find is we all love what we do and if you bring on the people that are passionate about Customer Service and passionate about business, they will naturally alleviate a lot of that pressure away from you because their focus is on the customers and wanting to be the best person they can be every day. And actually it's really for them to be forward thinkers. And I think the only way to progress within a business is to use the experience. And some of them may have only been here one month or two months, but they've all got experience in previous jobs that they can bring to their current role. So what we really wanted to do is we ripped away the blueprint and just said, if you want us to be a fantastic Customer Service, how do you want to do it? Because the first part is getting the customer service agents on board.

Ben: [00:07:50] We wanted to enable them to be the best that they can be, which will enable us to be the best that we can be. From that perspective, it was very easy. I think the challenge that you have with our business is it's seasonal work. So what we have is we have an August till March kind of downturn where we only really need between 5 to 10 agents. And then in the highs of March till June or July, you probably need anywhere between 18 to 20 agents. It's really making sure that the seasonal staff that come on board, we've got the right training plan for them. We give them the right support and we really make sure that we're giving them the quick, easy tasks that remove those tasks from those more experienced agents because we know that it's such a short window to be able to get some results. And I think it's more of our seasonal challenges that we have rather than our outside-of-season challenges because it's such a shift in contact volumes because of the business that we're in.

Luba: [00:08:55] Yeah! Got it! It makes sense! And how do you how do you manage that? I guess you have to onboard like ten people very quickly and train them up. Is there a tiered system that you use in terms of the complexity of questions or something like that?

Ben: [00:09:09] Actually, we like to keep the training very consistent. I think the important message to anyone who's doing training is if you keep it consistent across the whole team, the team will be able to support each other because they know what phrase everyone else is as part of that learning journey. I think the only thing that we do differently in peak is while we keep the same learning journey for everyone, we really hone in on those simple tasks. So like any property business in a peak season track, my order is always their number one question from customers so we specifically target for new starters how to deal with track my order type questions. If we know that 30% of our track, my order queries are going to come from the customers, then actually we can train 30% of our new resources on specifically just track my order and that will really reduce the workload across the rest of the table. We do look at our top ten contact regions regularly, which is the most important part for us, and we do like to pick out the ones that can we simplify and what can we can make it easy, but what can we make a really quick and easy response time to a customer? Because that is naturally what a customer wants. They want to be able to contact us and have it resolved in ideally one contact, one shape or form.

Ben: [00:10:25] And that's really what we do is how we can do that, first of all, because once we know how we can do that, it's quite easy for any Customer Service agent at that particular point to be able to make that decision and resolve it in one email. What you generally find with potentially new starters within any business is because of that unsureness of the role or the knowledge or the task itself, it will always end up in a backwards and forwards conversation with the customer because they're asking the customer, what can I what can I do for you? Or what can we do for each other? And it becomes a conversation rather than a resolution. So we really do try and isolate in our off-season how we can improve and maybe I can broaden into our off-season our next season. This year, we're actually in the process of just updating our IVR system at the moment. A couple of easy, quick training techniques and options we can put in place so they can really take phone calls in a much earlier stage next year because we know that hopefully if the customer presses that particular option correctly, it will find into an agent that will then be able to resolve it but hopefully, that agent will be relatively new as well.

Luba: [00:11:33] Yeah, got it! I'm actually curious, in terms of seasonal work, it sounds like the number of people that you need is quite large. Do you actually hire new people every season? Do you use outsourcing for this? How do you deal with that?

Ben: [00:11:46] No, we don't. We don't use outsourcing anymore. We really wanted to strip away from outsourcing. We firmly believe that whilst Customer Service is a fantastic option for the business, for me, it's really important to reduce the volume of contacts, not increase the volume of people. And we do really focus on our root causes and our top contact reasons and how we can support that. Two years ago, our contact-to-order ratio - and bear in mind that Crocus is a lovely family-run business of 20 years, that's evolving each year - and what we found was the contact-to-order ratio was set anywhere between 25% to 35%, um, probably two years ago. We're currently trending around 10% to 12%. So it's a massive difference in the space of two years and we do firmly believe that comes off the back of the right tools and the right software and the right efficiencies that we put in place. Now, when we come to our peak season in terms of increasing of staff, we do find it is a challenge. But what I really do find is the challenge for us is having to let them go at the end of the season, because what we do generally find is we have some fantastic workers that we bring on board and we really do try our best to keep them. And we try and find roles in other parts of the business, to be able to support those workers. And we've been very lucky these from the last season that we have been in, in the right position. But for me, it's kind of we want to make sure that people who are great for the business stay within the business and sometimes that is also those seasonal workers as well.

Luba: [00:13:22] Yeah, that makes sense! I guess if the business is growing and it sounds like you are, then of course for everybody.

Ben: [00:13:29] I mean, I must say, the one challenge that we have not just in customer service as a whole is the recruitment process. The one challenge that we have is finding someone that has customer service experience, but also gardening experience. What you will find is if they got gardening experience, it's because they like being in a garden and not like being in an office. So it's trying to find that person that can do both. And that is always been our challenge, but we're very lucky that we've got some support from plant doctors within Crocus. And we really do engage in the plant doctors at Customer Service to represent Customer Service and train them and give them knowledge. But again, also do those root cause exercises of education for not just the customers, but also for the Customer Service guys, too.

Luba: [00:14:14] Speaking of reducing the contact rate, the numbers you mentioned are amazing that you managed to reduce it by so much. From what I've seen in other organizations, very often that requires involvement from the product team or engineers. How do you involve the rest of the business and pass on this feedback to them? Is there any particular process? Again, can you share some tips?

Ben: [00:14:37] Yeah, of course! I'm very keen to have cross-departmental, catch-ups. I think it's important for communication within the business to understand the impact of each other's departments. Just 15-minute quick win catch-ups there, not these long, hourly or daily meetings that some companies have. They are 15 minutes short, sharp, snappy. Give us your free bullet points for the week. Tell us what you're doing and we'll work on that. And I think the important part for me is that a lot of the work that we've done over the last two years is very much the simple stuff. The track my order, we recognize that that was a really high percentage. So we wanted to make sure that our customer journey and lead times were set up correctly, but also our customer communication was set up correctly from not just our dispatch email, but our customer comms that come directly from couriers. We also wanted to make sure that we wanted to have the right information within our order system. We worked very hard with our courier companies for the first six months, making sure that we had the right APIs. We also transitioned into Business Central, which streamlined a lot of our processes overall for our orders, which made our agents more self-sufficient and not needing to be able to ask questions where needed. Training also played a massive part in making sure that the customers and the agents have clear information.

Ben: [00:16:03] We worked on our website to make sure that the item cards had the right information. It didn't lead to questions coming to Customer Service and vice versa. We wanted to make sure that the customer service agents, when they did get those questions, fed that information back to the product buyers or the e-commerce team to make sure that the website site dated so those customers aren't asking more questions again. The thing that we played a part in is our overall strategy within the business, which was let's make sure that what we do is for the customer and, really works on our brand loyalty. We're really fond of that on our Trustpilot at the moment we've got a fantastic Trustpilot score within Crocus and we are really working hard, and we do really put the customers first. And I think we've instilled that not just in customer service but across the whole the whole business because that's what we're here to do. We know that customers come first. They literally are the bread and butter of any business, and without the customers, we wouldn't be here. So it's important that we put them first and understand what the voice of the customer is. And that's what I've enhanced Customer Service to be. Just because we're on an email or just because we're on a phone doesn't mean we can't be the voice of the customer to the rest of the business.

Luba: [00:17:20] Yeah, I couldn't agree more! I guess I hear very often that the customer support team is perceived as a cost center in the organisation and I was curious, how do you put forward that vision and how important it is for the business actually, for the retention, for the loyalty? How do you make that case?

Ben: [00:17:41] I'll be honest with you, we don't see Customer Service here as a cost for the business. What we do see is we recognize ourselves as ambassadors for the business. First, we know that as soon as something goes wrong, Customer Service are always the first to know and that's the important part here, the fact is that we're able to be able to take a situation that potentially could go fantastically well or fantastically bad and make that situation a positive one for the customer. Naturally, Customer Service is about probably nine times out, maybe not nine times, but probably six times out of ten, a negative experience that's coming from a customer because they've had a bad solution. And the important thing for us is that brand loyalty is made on us, making sure that we can turn that service recovery into a fantastic experience for the customer. And I'm very proud when I read some of our Trustpilot reviews that a lot of the good reviews come off the back of a Customer Service touchpoint, which is great because I think if it wasn't for that customer service touchpoint, it could have been a 1 or 2-star review.

Ben: [00:18:45] The other thing I look at is the value that customer service adds. And I think if I go back two years ago, we were receptionists in a customer service office and we had an outsourced contact centre, working part of Customer Service for them. And now when we look at us, we are all internal, we have other departments asking us for help and support and ideas and ways to improve. And I think that shows there that we're not a cost to the business. We are a direct result of how we can improve a business and how we will continue to improve a business, but I also recognise as being a Head of Customer Service. I also have to bring that as the most efficient way and the cheapest way. But sometimes it's not always about doing it the cheapest. It's the efficiency behind it is what the important part is here and I think, that we recognise that whilst Customer Service is a cost, it is a positive cost to the business because it comes with direct results that will improve a business overall.

Luba: [00:19:45] Yeah! Sounds good! I guess you mentioned in the beginning that you had quite aggressive targets in terms of CSAT, in terms of your reply time but then of course you talk also about the cost and efficiency part of it. How do you balance these two? And I guess you can, there's a spectrum of SLAs, let's say you could decide to target. How did you decide what's right for you?

Ben: [00:20:08] We started with tough targets because we wanted to be the best and we wanted to set ourselves something to aspire to so for our first-time resolution, we wanted to be above 80% first contact resolution, which I'm very happy to say that we are. For our CSAT, we also wanted to be above 80%. And I'll be honest with you, we started out around 72% when we first turned on Freshdesk because it was something that we'd never done before as a business. So we, said we set it high, but we recognized that we might not be achieving it. But we knew that as soon as we weren't achieving it, we could become and know what to recognize from those improvements. I'm very happy to say that we are now achieving 80% or above for CSAT as well. Our contact-to-order ratio is probably my biggest focus because I think that doesn't just tell you how well Customer Service are doing. It also tells you how well a business is doing. Is the overall goal there? The more orders we get through and the less contacts that we're having at Customer Service, that really does tell you how well a business is doing.

Ben: [00:21:12] So when we look at the 25% to 35%, when we first started, I think we were still in a period of transition of investment at Crocus across all departments. And now what we're really seeing is, is that investment coming into play. And that's another leading part of why we are having a 12% to 13% contact-to-order ratio. But I think the important thing here is whilst the contact order ratio is low, we're still striving to improve it more and there are lots of tools that I'm sure you'll ask me questions in a minute about what kind of tools we're bringing into the future to help also reduce that contact-to-order ratio even further. Because I think the important thing here is that it's an important part of a business to be able to have a specific measure for the whole business and not just the Customer Service because in reality that Customer Service measurement is a reflection of the whole business unless you have a target for the whole business, it will naturally be disaligned to a certain degree and that's something that we tried to enhance across the whole of the business, that each department impacts each other.

Luba: [00:22:17] Yeah, makes sense! I guess, as I say, go to the tools that you're trying out. So one of my favourite questions right now, everyone's talking about AI, Chat-GPT, the impact it might or might not have on customer support and what we might expect. What are your thoughts about this very broadly, but also what are you trying out maybe or do you have any experiments planned right now?

Ben: [00:22:39] Oh, I think AI is a wonderful support tool and I think that's the important part here. It is a support tool for us within any industry. I think it will naturally grow. We use not just Chat-GPT, but we also use Claude quite a lot as well. I don't know if you've heard of Claude, but Claude we use quite a lot as well. At the moment. AI is very good for us on reporting. What we would say is as we know, you've got Trustpilot feedback, you've got CSAT feedback. There's nothing worse than exporting that in Excel and reading through word for word the comments and trying to understand the trends. So AI is playing a really important part for us across that particular line. We're able to upload and import and use different analytics than what those necessary reports say to us. And we're able to ask questions. Now naturally it doesn't give you the resolutions. I think that's the important part to stress here. The resolution is still to come from us. It works as a fantastic funnel technique to really understand what the business needs are and what the customer's voice is. And that's currently what we're using AI reporting for at the moment is really to understand the overall business requirement of customer feedback.

Ben: [00:24:00] The other things that we are currently in the process of, and it's very new and I'm very passionate about it, is we're trying to create a virtual gardener and that virtual gardener will be an element of a chatbot that will have AI intelligence. So for example, if you ask the question of how do I plant my rose or what season is the best time to plant? Currently, all of those questions go to my Customer Service agents, which is fantastic for them to see and gain experience on. But as we know, AI and the technology there is to take away those simple tasks. So I have to recognize that those simple tasks should be done by an automation of some form. The other thing that we're looking at is how we use that virtual gardener to upsell. So for example, if you say to it, how do I plant my rose in October, we naturally want it to go into the website and show them a large variety of roses and also promote sales and potentially other discounts that come with it. Our long-term strategy and we don't really know how we get there is we want to use AI to design people's gardens. It would be fantastic for us at Crocus if you put on a VR headset and you could pick Crocus products and you could put them in your garden, that would be absolutely wonderful for us that would be the dream.

Ben: [00:25:20] It's a bit like when you go to Ikea and you can plot out your living room. We would love to be able to do that for a garden using Crocus products because we feel that there is a lot of customers out there. There's a lot of people out there that probably want to know how their garden looks without purchasing just yet because once you purchase and you put it in your garden, it might not look right. And if we can help and assist in that, not only does it bring added value to us as a business, it would naturally bring additional sales because what they're only going to do is they're only going to use us each and every year. They would recommend it to their friend or help me to design my garden. So that's our long-term strategy is where we're trying to get to. We're starting small with a virtual gardener that you can chat with. Our long-term strategy would be absolutely great to be able to design an AI virtual garden for you in your own home. That would naturally be wonderful!

Luba: [00:26:13] That's a very impressive vision, I have to say. I speak to a lot of people about this and this is like very well thought through.

Ben: [00:26:21] Of course!

Ben: [00:26:24] I mean, at Crocus we're very respectful in the fact that we know where we want to get to and you're only really going to get there with a plan. And I think we, we are very lucky that we have some fantastic leaders within Crocus and we've got the right team to be able to take us forward, not just in customer service, but other departments and with the right vision and the right team, then you're only really going to be able to drive to success from that point.

Luba: [00:26:50] One last question from me. It sounds like you're very much on top of things. What is your biggest challenge right now? What keeps you up at night?

Ben: [00:27:01] My biggest challenge right now, and it always is for us every year because we are seasonal. The question is, when does our season start? So naturally we are weather-dependent. If we go back to last year, the weather really didn't kick in till May, so our sales really kicked off in May last year. So when we come to forecasting and budgeting, we go, what season is it going to be next year? So if we go to this year, our season started in April. Now naturally, if our season starts in March, then what we generally find is we might not have the people already up to speed or trained enough to be able to cope with that particular demand. And the flip side of that is if we say the season started in April, but this next year, it didn't start till May, I then have too many resources for a small period. So when we talk about costs, that's really where my challenge is at the moment, trying to be proactive but also not making sure that we're spending at the wrong time because the last thing we want to spend £20 to £30,000 on resource on a month where we don't need it because it naturally just eats away at our overall revenue. It's one thing that always plays on our minds, but it's one thing that we also can't control or what we try to control is it as best as possible. So making sure that we don't bring in too many at one time and we really do try and make sure that again, with this virtual gardener, it will hopefully be a resource function that will reduce overall contacts that are going into a manual process, but it will naturally work weekends for us as well so hopefully we will come into less on a Monday. So lots of positives! But yeah, that's probably the one thing that we always worry about when does the season start, but also when does the season end?

Luba: [00:28:51] Yeah, forecasting is always hard! I found! Well, thank you so much for sharing all of this. This was incredibly interesting. Thank you for joining me today! That's it!

Ben: [00:29:02] That's all right! Thank you! And enjoy the rest of your day!
Luba Chudnovets
Co-Founder and CEO