Why Bonobos lets its customer service 'ninjas' improvise solutions to complaints

For men's clothing retailer Bonobos, customer service isn't about preserving the sale. It's about creating brand promoters. Their vice president of Customer Experience, John Rote, explains why.
Written by Heather Clancy, Contributor

Online men's clothing retailer Bonobos has gotten plenty of attention for its liberal customer service strategy. That's because it has seen a direct correlation between customer service engagement -- even if someone has had a complaint to resolve -- and a person's willingness to become a brand advocate.

In response, it has taken its customer support team off-script. That's secret  No. 1 from the company's vice president of customer experience, John Rote, who manages not only customer support channels but delivery and fulfillment, returns and e-commerce navigation strategy. Secret No. 2 lies in giving the Bonobos customer support "ninjas" the freedom to resolve issues in whatever way they see fit.

SmartPlanet spoke with Rote about why Bonobos treats customer experience as a business investment, not a cost center, and how the company's Facebook and Twitter activities have helped it proactively collect insights (and demand cues) for new product lines.

SmartPlanet: Define what ninja customer service means.

John Rote: We just want to be as easy as possible to deal with, period. We want to be fast, we don't want to keep you waiting for a day to get a response from us. We also want to be really personable. In terms of being easy, we want to use the easiest policies that we can to make it easy to do business with us. That means the shipping is free on the way out, the shipping is free on the way in. There is really no limit to when you can return a product to us, if it's not working out for you. It doesn't matter if you've worn it, it doesn't matter if it's been more than 30 days, we'll give you a refund at any time. And then in terms of being fast, we just try to organize our operation in a way that we are willing to accept a little bit of inefficiency on the business end in order to be really fast for our customers.

We have also trained a lot of people in our organization that aren't full-time customer service agents in how to do customer service. We call them 'white belt' ninjas. In the event that we have a spike … we have other people that we can flex into the ninja room and make sure we don't let our service level slip too much.

What do you look for in a ninja?

Rote: We want to hire nice, smart, empathetic, friendly people and empower them to do whatever they need to do to take care of someone and turn them into a brand promoter. … We definitely have some things we test for in terms of presence on the phone, writing skills and that sort of thing. But really, the thing that we use to predict whether someone is going to be a good ninja or not is just how empathetic they can be and how they can make a connection with a person or a customer and figure out what they need to do to take care of them.

There are some companies that will prescribe scripts for this situation or that situation. They'll say, 'A delayed package translates into a $10 store credit' and that's the standard credit. What we really say is, 'You can do whatever you think you need to do to take care of the customer.' If that means you don't need to give them anything at all other than a nice apology, that's great. If you think that you need to comp their entire order, that's great too.

Which technologies have been most effective in delivering on this strategy?

Desk.com is a big one. It lets us make sure that nothing falls through the cracks. It lets us assign a priority level to this case or that case and that we're getting everyone taken care of. That's been huge for us. Early on, we didn't really have a great solution for figuring out how to scale that and most of the things that we looked at were fairly static. Our business is growing so quickly and changing so quickly that we needed to be very nimble. If we have a particular promotion on a particular day, we can take a few moments to reconfigure the system to be better configured to handle questions about that particular promotion.

What role does social media, Twitter and Facebook in particular, play in your strategy?

It makes the bar for interacting with our company a lot lower than it would be otherwise. It's really hard to pick up the phone and call, or to email us, but there is a little bit of a time investments. If you prefer Twitter or Facebook, that might be more natural than having to open up an email window or to dial in.

In terms of customer engagement, it has been great. When we started with Facebook and Twitter, they were a pretty small piece of our interactions, maybe 1 or 2 percent. Now, they're about the same volume as we'll typically get over the telephone. When we weren't engaging with people there, it was kind of like not picking up a ringing telephone.

How has feedback collected during the customer experience process affected a policy or a product?

We're vertically integrated. We actually make the product, so we interact with the customers as we make products. If we organize ourselves right, we can channel the feedback back into the people who are responsible. There are two categories of ways that we will do that. One is reactively. It's not that different from what other brands to do, and that's just being able to react. … At a biweekly rate, we will collect all that together and distill it back for the teams. We will also try to be proactive. A great example is what details do we want to put on a particular polo [shirt]. We'll ask whether they like A, B or C. We'll actually hear from people about the kinds of products they want us to make, what they like.

The "Prints of Persia" pants created by Bonobos this summer were 100 percent crowdsourced from its Facebook page.

Two or three weeks ago, we actually took product development far enough so that we had a sample. We photographed several examples and asked people on Facebook what they liked, as well as questions such as, 'Should we make all four of these?' or 'Should we make just two or one?' We did that with a pair of seasonal novelty pants that we have just released (see photo). We were able to get a sense of the demand for each design, and then promote it back through that same channel which is a great thing because we got to make a more informed decision about what we needed to buy. For the people that interacted and told us what they want, we provided a direct benefit to them that reinforces their engagement.

Do you consider customer experience to be an operational expense or a business investment?

We very strongly consider it to be a business investment and a value creator rather than a cost center. Maybe we would do it a little bit differently if the model of our company was different, if we were a large established brand. But from an economics point of view, we are a small growing brand and we want to acquire as many customers as we can, as cheaply as we can. The best way to do that is to give people a good enough experience that they tell their friends and family about us. The cost to serve somebody 2 percent better, 20 percent better, 30 better, whatever it is to give them a reason to tell their friends and family about us, is easily worth the investment as long as we are actually delivering on our promise.

How does this give you a competitive edge?

Our company is still growing, it is still trying to figure out how to scale, we're not perfect operationally, our technology is not perfect, our catalog is always growing, always changing. It is impossible for us to design a static service experience or handbook to deliver service that would account for every scenario that might come up. The way that we have tried to hire and train people, it makes us more nimble and better at figuring out how we scale.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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