This talk was originally presented at Commerce+ in 2019 in London. In this series, we’ve pulled together relevant talks from our past events in Sydney, London, and New York.
What is Commerce+
For the last two years, Shopify Plus has hosted Commerce+, a global thought leadership conference that brought together industry leaders to share their knowledge and best practices in the ever-evolving world of commerce.
During this talk, Matt Vaile, Brand Strategy for Shopify Plus, chats with Ben Farren, CEO of SPOKE, and Joel Jeffery, CEO of Desmond & Dempsey about how their brands prioritize stellar customer service to maintain brand loyalty and appreciation.
This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Vaile: All right. So I mentioned both of your brands briefly in my presentation, but I’ll let you both tell your origin story in your own words.
Farren: So my mom likes to tell people that I sell trousers on the internet, which is a devastatingly accurate description of what I do—but there’s a little bit more to it than that. We’re a direct-to-consumer ecommerce brand selling menswear with a big emphasis on fit. We think fit comes first—fit matters most. And yet, traditional retail does a horrible job of delivering on it. When you spread your stock thin across lots of stores and stockrooms, something’s got to give, and the first thing that gives is sizing. So we’re all hugely accustomed to falling between size gaps. With a digital storefront and 21st century supply chains, we can do better.
And that’s what we do—we deliver 10 times the size range of your average brand. We started with trousers because we thought it was an underserved category, and because it is attended by some of the most acute fit emergencies. So we started there and we’ve remained pretty focused on trousers. We think as a direct-to-consumer brand: It’s quite important to be famous for something, so we’ve tried not to dilute our focus too much on trousers. And just to give you a sense of the journey, we started five years ago, and we have sold about 300,000 pairs to about 100,000 customers. So a good start, lots of traction. Hopefully, a long way to go.
Jeffery: My wife Molly and I started Desmond and Dempsey about five years ago. We make the best cotton pajamas and it all came from basically Molly stealing my shirts and wearing them to bed. We looked at the category and there was really expensive silk—they were beautiful, and the prints were amazing. And then there was kind of the daggy borrowed T-shirt, or in my case, missing shirts. We thought we could do better. We could go in and we can be aspirational and we can really focus on beautiful prints, but make something from cotton, which is absolutely better to sleep in, and way more practical and no expensive dry cleaning bills.
Vaile: I spoke earlier about how to create human experiences for your customers. So how do you figure out the humans that are purchasing from your brand?
Jeffery: That’s the beauty of being mostly online first: You get an amazing amount of information about who your customer is. In the early days especially, it was also just from being on the phone and picking up the phone and speaking to people. So our customers are predominantly women and 25–35 years old. We have this interesting difference between who’s a customer and who’s actually wearing our pajamas, so we have massive gifting products. Lots of people who are our customers aren’t necessarily the person wearing them. Particularly at Christmas, our audience goes from a majority female to mostly men last-minute rushing to get Christmas presents under the tree.
Vaile: Yeah. That sounds about right.
Jeffery: That dynamic is quite interesting to keep an eye on.
Vaile: Cool. Ben?
Farren: In terms of how we discover who our customer is, it’s changed a lot. In the early days, you were answering the phone and now you’re sitting next to the ones answering the phone. I miss some of that. I’m not actually in the same room anymore as the customer service team and I think that’s a shame. Occasionally I’ll rotate around and I’ll take a hot desk in their room just for the purpose of being near the calls and hearing the kinds of conversations that are going on. But increasingly as you scale, you have to formalize it a bit.
We run usually between two to three consumer customer panels every month, just contacting 200 customers and asking them typically about a specific product that they’ve bought. That’s become quite a formal process. We do a lot to manage the database and make sure we don’t hit too many people too hard too many times. But that both qualitative and quantitative feedback is obviously hugely important to the business and a major sort of advantage for direct to consumer. That’s the difference, right? That you are so close to them.
Vaile: So I know you’re both passionate about delivering great customer experiences. How do you approach delivering those experiences across different channels?
Farren: Obviously the customer experience is a huge and incredibly eclectic bundle of stuff.
If there are themes, we try and make it as frictionless as it can possibly be. I think that’s especially the opposite for our customers [on other sites] and it’s the kind of shopping experience that he wants. He doesn’t want it any hassle. Getting you as close to an easy purchase as we possibly can is important, and then punctuating that with surprises or maybe more cheesy moments of delight throughout, is obviously a big deal.
Vaile: And how about yourself?
Jeffery: I would echo everything Ben said about customer service—that is absolutely key, obviously at the beginning, but it’s really important that that is always a core part of the experience. We look at our products as a very intimate product. It’s something that you wear around the house or you wear it to bed. It tends to be mostly just the people that you’re very close with and love that see you in it. So we approach most of our customer experience with that in mind, and that plays out across all of our channels.
The approach to it is very intimate: so that’s handwritten notes and getting a physical Sunday paper with your order so you can get the ink on your hands. It’s very tactile and really that is the key theme across all our customer experiences. Both on the website with the unboxing experience and any subsequent emails that you get from us and then in-store in the popups that we’re doing as well.
Vaile: So there’s a debate between whether it’s better to deliver a consistent experience and be steadfast to that, or actually have these moments of surprise and delight and what’s adding value. And you were mentioning that your customer service team actually really loved those surprise and delight moments.
Farren: Yeah, so I don’t think there’s a dichotomy there. I think it’s and/or. You have to have a baseline level of service delivery and not miss that bar. And when you do, apologize a lot and compensate quickly. But I do think it’s important to punctuate it with moments of real genuine delight. So I’ll give an example that comes up a lot: We often have customers coming in buying five pairs for their groomsmen at a wedding. This is always a bad idea—they’ll instruct the groomsmen to purchase the trousers for themselves. Recently, some guy had bought a Pacific pair where he was supposed to buy Riviera, a different shade of blue, and was risking the wrath of the bride in the process—he only discovered this the morning of. And we biked a pair out to him.
I think that people are so impressed by things like that, that you get a lot of reciprocal loyalty back. They’ll probably pay for that bike over the lifetime of their relationship with you. So loyal do they feel to you for bailing them out if the trousers work in some basic sense.
So it pays for itself. And then after that, it’s free marketing because they tell all their friends. These are real referral events.
Vaile: They become a brand storyteller for you.
Farren: It’s not a huge needle mover, but it’s good. Actually, funnily, the thing I value most about moments of delight is that I think it gratifies my customer service people. It is fun to shock people with great service and to have them telling you how wonderful this experience has been and how pleasantly surprised they are by it. That’s it. That’s an endorphin rush, right? And as I say, my customer service team is full of great people who are empathetic and feel those feelings, and also have to spend all day talking to people who start from a position of being unhappy about something.
Jeffery: Yeah, I definitely think that it is an enormous source of gratification for the team. And not just the customer service team, but the entire team to see. Yasmin, who leads the customer team at D&D, went through all the people who’d reviewed us and sent a whole bunch of flowers and handwritten customized notes to them—so it wasn’t necessarily just the people who’d spent loads of money. It was people who genuinely loved the product or had an issue with the product that we were able to fix. We also did the same thing with sending gift cards to people and the response was phenomenal.
Vaile: Yeah totally. Switching into digital channels that enrich the customer experience, what tools are used there? I know we spoke a little bit about chatbots, Twitter and Instagram. What is your strategy around the digital space for customer experience?
Jeffery: Instagram for us is the biggest outside of obviously our website. We actually, we have a Twitter account, but I don’t think we’ve ever really used it. But yeah, I think with that again, it’s just so heavy on time. And the thing that’s really difficult on Instagram is that, unlike the phone, it’s 24/7. But we really focus on extending those digital experiences offline. So our Sunday paper is a good example of that. The easy thing to do for that would have been to create that as a monthly blog and have that only live on the website for the data and all that, which is obviously important.
Vaile: Yeah. The things you want as a brand.
Jeffery: Yeah, which would be really helpful. But we decided actually what we wanted to do is actually take it offline and we’re asking people to relax in their pajamas and actually sit down and read, spend a good amount of time on a Sunday flipping through this amazing piece of content that we produced.
Vaile: Nice. And we were talking about chatbots earlier.
Farren: Only in the sense that because we’re not very sophisticated about this. So certainly in terms of inbound customer inquiries through digital channels, it’s pretty basic. They’re all hooked up. They all come through Zendesk. They all create a new Zendesk ticket. We focus on clearing those tickets as fast as we can. We actually turned chat off because we felt like chat has just got to be a zero latency channel. If somebody starts chatting with you, you need to respond in 30 seconds. We were falling off that pace and I thought if we can’t do it in 30 seconds, we shouldn’t do it at all. So I don’t rule that out, bringing chat back.
If we did, what would it be? Would it be, oh, like would it be WhatsApp? Would it be Facebook Messenger? Honestly we’ve parked those issues for now. I think when the customer service team gets a little bit bigger, maybe it does come back into the frame, but I do think it needs to meet that test. If you’re promising to start a conversation with people, then you have to answer when they speak. And we can do that in five minutes via email, but we think that’s too long for a chatbot.
Vaile: Nice. So Ben, you’ve taken a different approach to sizing at Spoke, creating a very inclusive customer experience. Can you share more about why that’s important to your brand?
Farren: In a narrow sense, the brand is predicated on the idea that fit matters most if it comes first, that it’s hard to do and most people aren’t doing it. Where that led us to was obviously cutting our clothes in more sizes. Anybody who sells you the idea that it’s possible to solve fit by creating a specially curved waistband, it’s not something I’d buy. You can’t patent a cloth patent. And so any such benefit would get competed away immediately. The only way to really deliver on fit is to increase the granularity or the resolution of your sizing rubric.
And so that’s a slightly pretentious way of saying we offer 210 sizes of trousers. That creates a navigation problem for our customers: They need to be able to find the right size for them. The last thing in the world you want to do is ask a man to wield a tape measure because the idea that 10 men are going to come back with the same measurements for any particular part of their body is, well, let’s say it doesn’t bear out in practice.
Farren: So instead, as you mentioned earlier, we ask them a series of questions they know the answer to: like their height, their weight, how tightly they do their strap, and so on. And it turns out that these things are quite predictive of what size they’ll be. We started using a machine learning algorithm now that we have lots of data to make those predictions. I would say that the navigation of helping guys find which one of the 200 sizes is about 20% of it, and the rest of it is some combination of lead generation because drawing people in with that questionnaire and convincing them to make a small investment in this website is actually a great way of warming them up. And it’s also branding, right? It’s making this really clear point right from the outset that these guys care about fit and are doing it differently.
So yeah, the lead generation was what’s really important. We’re all sick of those 10% off your email address pop-up modals—that we do too, by the way. But everyone screens them out now. And having a better reason to ask somebody for their email address, like sending them the results to that fit survey, is a great thing in terms of getting GDPR-compliant email addresses.
Vaile: Yeah. I know we have two minutes left, so I’m going to switch into some audience questions. And then just rapid fire answers for these. So what app do you use for customer service inquiries on your platform?
Jeffery: Zendesk as well.
Vaile: How do you train your staff to deliver the same brand values and tone across the various channels of customer service? That’s a big one.
Jeffery: The quickest way to answer that, get them to truly understand the product.
Farren: Our customer service agents grade each other’s tickets every month. And they had these round tables every month where they pick 10 of their colleagues’ tickets around them and talk about what was great about them.
Vaile: Yeah, like group learning.
Farren: Yeah, absolutely. Just lots of transparent and open discussion.
Vaile: Which also empowers them to make the correct decisions.
Vaile: Nice. So how do you balance the investment in your brand with other activities that are more directly ROI-measurable?
Jeffery: I think it all starts with brand, so it’s very difficult to measure the ROI. But it’s also very hard to have a great performance marketing campaign if you have no brand equity.
Farren: Yeah, if you have no brand equity and you’re a crap creative, you’re not going to get good CPA’s (cost per action). So the two are joined at the hip.
Vaile: What metrics do you use to measure the health of your customer relationships?
Farren: NPS. 10 days after purchase.
Vaile: Roughly what percentage of cost do you allocate to digital marketing?
Farren: It varies a lot month by month. Let’s call it 20 to 30%.
Jeffery: Yeah, I was yeah, bout 30%.
Vaile: Thank you both for joining me on stage.
This article originally appeared in the Shopify Plus blog and has been published here with permission.