When the coronavirus pandemic forced consumers across the globe to shelter in place, orders came in like a tidal wave at online wine marketplace Vivino, says LaNae Rueda, vice president of global customer experience. And as orders increased, so did questions for Vivino’s customer service team, such as, “Where is my order?”
“The sheer number orders we got when countries were shutting down—it was fantastic—but it certainly brought with it a lot of operational challenges,” Rueda says.
As most retailers know, the government stay-at-home mandates included nonessential businesses. That meant, Vivino had to quickly help employees at its two call centers—in Manila, Philippines, and in Lisbon, Portugal—make the transition to working from home. When the government announced the stay-at-home order in Manila during the first week of April, Vivino had 48 hours to ensure its agents had the necessary equipment to work from home.
Luckily, Vivino agents uses web-based customer service platform Talkdesk to communicate with customers, not landlines. This meant that as long as the agents had access to the internet at home, they could still handle customer service requests using Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) for phone calls, and coudld still handle contacts that came in via email and chat.
But ensuring that agents had the right equipment at home was just the first of many challenges.
“The growth challenges were completely unprecedented,” Rueda says. “There was just no playbook on how to respond to COVID, how long this was going to last and what impact this was going to have long term. We had to throw all of our plans out the window and operate on somewhat of a day-to-day basis.”
More orders, more delays, more agents
When a country or region implemented a shelter-in-place order, Vivino’s sales in that region immediately surged, Rueda says. For example, wine sales in Italy surged in February, whereas sales in the U.S. didn’t surge until the following month.
With no end in sight for the coronavirus, and sales tripling, Vivino quickly tripled its customer service headcount to 200 agents in an effort to handle the surge in customer inquiries, says Jeff Gorham, manager of customer experience. In 2020, the number of inquires its customer service team handled increased 60% year over year, Gorham says.
Customer service inquiries typically increase with elevated sales as more orders mean more opportunities for questions about those orders. However, industry-wide shipping delays due to massive growth in online shopping compounded the issue. Many online retailers had similar ecommerce sales spikes around this time, and so carriers struggled to keep up with the sudden spike in package deliveries. For example, only 72% of ecommerce packages arrived on-time in May 2020, a sharp decrease from 89% of on-time orders in May 2019, according to last-mile technology vendor Convey, which works with 130 retail clients. What’s more, 51% of consumers say they had a delayed order during the COVID-19 period because of inventory or shipping issues, according to an August 2020 Digital Commerce 360 and Bizrate Insights survey of 1,141 online shoppers.
On top of these fulfillment delays, Vivino’s marketplace includes more than 700 independent wine businesses that are often responsible for shipping the order to the customer, adding a layer of complexity for Vivino to track an order. (Similar to the Amazon.com marketplace, some small businesses selling on Vivino ship orders themselves and some outsource shipping to Vivino. The breakdown varies by region.)
The marketplace merchants that ship their own orders also had to adhere to government shutdowns and implement social distancing guidelines, all while order volumes surged. Before the pandemic, a winery may have typically shipped out two to three orders a day and now many are shipping 100 or more orders each day, Gorham says.
In many cases a customer service agent would have to call a winery to find out about a shopper’s order and then call the customer back. After a while, Vivino determined most issues were simply a result of a backlog of orders. And so, Vivino eventually began to cut back on phone calls to the already slammed wineries trying to get orders out the door, Gorham says.
“We empowered the agents to make the decision [on whether or not to call the wineries],” Gorham says. Agents reassured shoppers their orders were coming and had the authority to either send the same or similar bottle from a different merchant, refund the order or send a complimentary bottle.
If a business repeatedly had delays or canceled orders, Vivino temporarily suspended it from selling on the marketplace, Rueda says. It was not as dramatic as it sounds, she says, as often it was a mutual decision, in which businesses realized they couldn’t handle the volume and proactively asked Vivino to pause their account.
“We will always put the customer first,” Rueda says.
Because of the geographic differences in the timing of sales surges—Vivino’s sellers are from 14 different countries—Vivino never had to suspend more than 20 merchants at a time, Rueda says. All merchants that had their accounts paused eventually started selling on the marketplace again once they caught up with their backlog of orders, Rueda says.
Handling the holidays
Given to unpredictable year, Vivino was unsure how to forecast sales and prepare for the holiday season. It kept expecting its sales growth to taper and for consumers to begin visiting store again as areas opened up, Rueda says. But that never happened, and triple-digit growth continued throughout 2020.
“Everything that’s happened throughout the pandemic and in 2020, [has led to] a fundamental shift in consumer behavior,” Rueda says.
As growth continued, Vivino made the decision to keep all the customer service employees it hired earlier in the year through the holidays, Gorham says. And it’s a good thing it did, as sales continued to grow. The marketplace’s Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales were 2.5-times higher than the same days in 2019, Rueda says.
In normal years, Vivino waited until October to hire additional agents for the holidays and then gave them a crash course on everything they needed to know about Vivino, Gorham says.
However, last year, things were different. Vivino onboarded newer agents in Q2 and they were more experienced by the holidays. As a result, Vivino’s customer service ratings improved. Vivino posted its highest customer satisfaction score ever in the fourth quarter of 2020, 4.41 out of 5.
Vivino evaluates how effective its agents are based on weekly random call audits, and customer ratings via a Net Promoter Score (which asks shoppers how likely they are to recommend a business to a friend) and a Customer Satisfaction score (which is a 1 to 5 rating of how happy the customer is after speaking with a customer service agent).
“For the quality to go up and peak in Q4 was amazing,” Gorham says about the 4.41 score. “Often, in 2019 for example, it’s the opposite, where in Q4 a lot of metrics dip.” He attributes the high score in 2020 to the agents having more experience and confidence in how to handle issues.
Vivino’s Net Promoter Score in 2020 and over the holidays remained about flat compared with 2019, which Vivino is still happy with considering all of the challenges it faced, Ruena says without revealing the NPS.
Customer service over the holidays is key. 55% of online consumers say a past experience with a retailer is a factor when choosing to shop with a specific retailer over the holidays, according to a Digital Commerce 360/Bizrate Insights survey of 1,137 online consumers in January 2021. Plus, 37% of consumers say if online retailers offered better customer service, they would buy even more online.