Saving the Sale

A conversation with two fulfillment executives reveals the importance of customer service in reinforcing—and rescuing—DR sales.


Direct response marketers make huge efforts to market and sell their products. Many ingredients go into to a successful campaign: creative, media buying, and product performance, just to name a few. But the back-end function of customer service is often overlooked—and it can be turned into a valuable profit center if managed properly.


A successful “save the sale” customer service program can transform a mediocre campaign into a success by reviving sales, adding incremental revenue, and retaining valuable customers long into the future. Happy customers spend more and are delighted to spread the word about a great customer experience. Remember not to overlook your back end—it is your front end’s biggest supporter.


Two experts in fulfillment—Ayal Latz, president of a2b Fulfillment, Inc., and Andrea Stuhley, executive vice president of Motivational Fulfillment & Logistics Services—recently spoke with Electronic Retailer about the role of customer service in preserving sales that are at risk due to product performance, price, buyer’s remorse, and other reasons.


Electronic Retailer: How important is customer service after the sale?

Andrea Stuhley: For any campaign, a certain percentage of orders will not be viable. Customer service is one tool where we can help save the sale and even sell more.


Ayal Latz: Saving the sale through customer service can protect the revenue stream of lost orders. To illustrate the magnitude, let’s create a hypothetical campaign. The marketer budgets sales of 10,000 units with a loss rate of 2 percent, which represents 200 units.


Stuhley: Suppose the average sales price is $100. If customer service can save 50 percent of those sales, reducing the loss to only 100 units, the savings would be $10,000 in revenue.


ER: What motivates a customer to call customer service?

Stuhley: Buyer’s remorse could cause them to reconsider. They may have questions with an order they already placed, or they may have received the product and have questions about its use or performance. They may not be satisfied with product quality, results, price, or delivery time. This is the ideal time to answer any questions, remind the customer why they placed the order, and reinforce the product benefits.


Latz: Direct response products are often purchased on impulse, which sometimes causes customers to rethink their purchases. They may feel guilty about the cost, see the purchase as excessive, or question the benefits they expect to receive.


ER: How can customer service help?

Stuhley: Customer service can emphasize product benefits, re-create excitement, and give the consumer confidence in their purchase decision. Often, the customer just needs reassurance that they made a good choice.


Latz: Affordability is another reason customers may call shortly after purchase. There are many techniques that customer service can employ to help save the sale if the caller’s issue is price. Each product and campaign has its own special set of parameters that can be used to entice the customer.


Stuhley: One option, if the issue is price, is to change their payment structure by breaking up the total due into monthly installment payments. Making the payment convenient allows the customer flexibility to manage their finances and budget accordingly, while still being able to enjoy the purchase.


ER: Are there strategies that can prevent calls and canceled orders?

Latz: Communication is essential. While all orders placed online have an email address, requesting an email address on an order placed by phone will enable order and shipment confirmation emails to be sent to the customer. These emails are designed to keep the customer informed at appropriate intervals and empower them to check the status of the delivery via online tracking links, thereby eliminating the need to call. This is more convenient for the customer, and also reduces costs for the marketer.


Stuhley: Shipping on time and according to the timeframe the customer was promised is a necessity. Don’t offer rush delivery on a product that will be on backorder for several weeks. If an item is out of stock, make sure to let the customer know at the time of purchase, and give them a realistic window for delivery.


Latz: Customers hate to wait for their orders. Since this is an impulse buy, they are looking for immediate gratification. The longer the delivery time, the more likely the customer is to find a similar product or realize they can do without it.


“Encouraging the customer to keep it may be less expensive than having them return it.”
—Ayal Latz, president, a2b Fulfillment


Stuhley: Customers are usually offered a choice of delivery options. Clearly explain the timeframe for delivery, and explain any additional charges for expedited service. If a customer pays an upcharge for expedited service, make sure the package arrives on time. A customer who opts for standard service should understand that they won’t receive their package immediately. The delivery window should be explained clearly for all service types.


ER: But customers may still call looking for their product?

Latz: Despite best efforts to set expectations, some customers will call looking for their order. Customer service can handle these calls by understanding that the customer is already frustrated, and that their excitement in the original offer may be waning. This is the time to ensure that the caller’s experience is stellar. It should be courteous, professional, and respectful of their time.


Answer the call quickly and ask just enough questions in order to pull up the customer’s order so that you can provide valuable assistance. With the order details visible (such as tracking number, arrival date, etc.), customer service can provide accurate information on the shipment and explain the customer’s choice of delivery speed. Knowledge of the offer and the product are critical. “I see that you ordered XYZ product—what a fantastic choice!”


ER: What else can customer service do to reinforce the sale when the product arrives?

Stuhley: Customer service has additional tools to use to answer questions and reinforce the sale. Customer service can direct the customer to the packing slip information to see all products purchased, and the prices charged. If the item has installment payments, the amount charged, the balance still due, and the date of the next payment will clarify exactly what to expect for the customer, and eliminate a call to either customer service or their credit card company.


The payment descriptor on the customer’s credit card statement should be the name of the product purchased (if different than the name of the company that sold the product), so that the customer recognizes exactly what the charge was for. The customer service number should also be printed.


ER: How important is it for call center agents to know the product?

Latz: Customers also call with questions about use, benefits, additional complementary products, etc. This is where the agent’s product knowledge has a direct correlation to how the customer views the experience with the product and company. Educating agents about the product and offer before the launch is very important. Watching the infomercial, clicking through to the Web page, or listening to the radio spot allows the agents to experience the product from the customer’s perspective.


Additionally, be sure to send samples to the contact center so that agents can touch, feel, and even try them out. The better the agents understand and relate to the product, the easier it will be for them to sell it, or save the sale. A rep that is confident about the product they are selling is much more likely to connect with a customer. Our ongoing training includes daily discussions about problem calls and common questions customers are asking. Calls are reviewed in a group setting, so all agents can give feedback or offer suggestions as to how to best handle the issues.


Stuhley: Marketers can benefit from agent training and feedback. This is the front line between the marketer and the consumer on all aspects of the campaign: product, offer, pricing, shipping, targeting, etc. We find that if several customers call with the same question, it may mean that something in the offer isn’t clear to the buyer.


ER: What strategies come into play when the customer is dissatisfied?

Latz: The last segment of the cycle is if the customer is not happy with the product. Regardless of the reason for the call, the customer service agent has the ability to save the sale by offering a variety of options. Each product and campaign has unique characteristics that drive the decision process.


Stuhley: When applicable, encourage the customer to take advantage of the entire trial period, allowing time for the product to start working and for the customer to get comfortable using it. Explain that the product represents a lifestyle change. Something new may require time before it becomes routine. Motivate the customer to invest in the new behavior in order to receive the advertised benefits. Offer additional time on the guarantee period. Since everyone’s body responds differently, they may need more time to see or feel results.


ER: What can agents do to when the customer still isn’t satisfied?

Latz: Adjust the price to encourage the customer to retain the product. A general guideline takes into consideration the cost of the return and the usability of the returned item. For low-value items, the cost of return may be excessive. Encouraging the customer to keep it may be less expensive than having them return it. For opened items that can’t be reused such as supplements and cosmetics, there is no value in taking a return. In these cases, enticing the customer to keep the product—even at a reduced price—is more cost effective than taking back the product and disposing of it.


Stuhley: Some programs provide the customer with several months of product supply at once. Customer service agents can get creative to enable the customer to continue using the product. If price is the issue, perhaps they can offer a reduced price or take a single payment and switch them to monthly installments. If they are not using the product up, the agent can offer to change the shipping frequency to accommodate their usage. If the order comes with multiple products and the customer only likes some of them, the agent can offer to customize their order so that they only receive the products they enjoy.

Conversation facilitated by Gary Latz, vice president of marketing, a2b Fulfillment.