BirchBox gives it part-time workers more hours over the holidays, instead of hiring new agents, so an employee with more experience can handle the issue.

Automation and experienced agents help web-only cosmetics retailer BirchBox maintain a high level of customer service all year, but these factors come in especially handy during the busy holiday season.

Leanna Nazzisi, BirchBox, Senior Manager, Customer Operations

Leanna Nazzisi, BirchBox, senior manager, customer operations

BirchBox uses a Customer Satisfaction score to evaluate its agents, says Leanna Nazzisi, senior manager of customer operations. The score is derived from asking shoppers to provide a 1 to 5 rating of how happy they are after speaking with a customer service agent,

Overall, BirchBox aims to have a score of 4.5-4.7 out of 5, Nazzisi says. In November and December, it maintained a 4.52, Nazzisi says.

One way BirchBox (No. 234 2020 Digital Commerce 360 Top 1000) maintains this high rating is by using experienced agents. Over the holidays, instead of hiring new agents, BirchBox increases the hours of its already trained part-time agents. For example, part-time employees are contracted to work anywhere from 15-30 hours per week, but for most of the year, they average 18 hours per week. As the holidays near, BirchBox increases the number of hours it offers to part-time employees, and many opt to take the extra hours and work closer to 30 hours a week, she says.

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If a customer talks with a BirchBox agent and then rates the experience as a “1,” BirchBox’s customer service platform Zendesk will automatically open a new customer service ticket to resolve that issue. With a 1 rating, it’s clear the customer is not satisfied with the outcome of her interaction, so Nazzisi will assign the newly created customer service ticket back to the agent who received the “1” to try and resolve the issue.

“[Agents] go back and address the concern and maybe rebuild the relationship or give [the customer] something else to make them happy,” says Nazzisi about what its agents are trained to do when they receive a “1” rating.

More automation

In 2020, Birchbox worked to automate customer service and give shoppers more information and tools to solve issues on their own. For example, it beefed up its use of some of Zendesk features, such as a searchable frequently asked questions page.

The customer service team also made more of an effort to work with its other internal teams to help communicate policy changes to consumers. For example, BirchBox made a change to its billing cadence to charge customers for each subscription box once it shipped, instead of charging for a three-month subscription all at once. BirchBox worked with its marketing and website teams to ensure that when the shopper would be billed was clearly spelled out on her account page, on the checkout page and in her order confirmation email.

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“That repetition of the same information, that need-to-know information, was really helpful for us. Those were questions we would always get from new customers,” she says.

These changes helped decrease the retailer’s inbound customer service requests by 30% in 2020 compared with 2019, Nazzisi says.

When looking at the 2020 holiday season months of November and December specifically, inbound customer service requests decreased 43% year over year, she says. To be fair, the 2019 holiday season was rough, Nazzisi says. BirchBox had a few missteps that caused a surge in inquiries to agents. For example, it emailed the millions of consumers in its contact list a discount code that didn’t work, causing thousands of consumers to contact customer service about the promotion not working.

For the 2020 holiday season, BirchBox received 15% more customer service requests than it had forcasted, but she is still happy with the decrease in contacts and the high agent rating.

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A personal touch 

Fewer questions to agents allows agents to spend extra time with each customer who does contact customer service. Over the past year, BirchBox trained its 24 customer service agents to go out of their way to make sure a customer is extremely satisfied. Because BirchBox does not have guidelines for every nuanced issue a customer has, the agents have the flexibility to get creative to make the issue right, she says. Nazzisi knows giving high-touch customer service is hard during the holidays when volume spikes.

“Because a lot of agents are so seasoned and have been here for so many holidays—they have a certain way of doing things—and there is a lot more volume,” Nazzisi says. “In the past, agents’ main priority was to solve as many tickets as possible. In 2020, I set expectations very early that this is not the goal. The goal is to create a great customer experience no matter how long that takes.”

For example, one common issue for BirchBox customers is purchasing the wrong type of gift subscription. Some customers would accidentally buy female friends a male gift subscription. BirchBox does not have gender labels on its gift boxes online, but rather labels them as “grooming” for products that men might enjoy, such as beard shampoo, and “beauty” for products women are more likely to enjoy, such as makeup. In the past, if a shopper were to call and complain about her female friend receiving products designed for men, the agent would apologize and refund the subscription. Now, Nazzisi says agents often explain the nuances, sympathize that it can be confusing, and set up the account to send the correct products to the intended recipient. Then, agents offer to let the customer provide an additional address so BirchBox can send the remainder of the male grooming subscription for free to a person who would enjoy those products, such as her boyfriend.

Because many of BirchBox’s holiday agents weren’t new hires, but had experience dealing with these issues, when November and December rolled around, they were more prepared to handle a large volume of inquiries, she says. “We didn’t have to retrain or teach them how to be creative,” Nazzisi says.

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Weathering the holiday spikes

To help manage surging package volumes during the 2020 holiday season, carriers including UPS Inc. and FedEx Corp. put limits on the number of packages they would accept from some large clients. Often, the United States Postal Service handled the overflow.

“This huge surge for USPS resulted in a pretty significant decline in its on-time performance [for USPS], while FedEx and UPS did fairly well as far as on-time deliveries,” says Carson Krieg, co-founder and director of strategic partnerships at Convey.

This showed up in Convey’s client shipping data as well: For the week of Dec. 11-17, only 55.3% of packages fulfilled by USPS arrived on time, compared with 68.6% of FedEx’s packages, and 85.0% of UPS’s packages, according to Convey data.

BirchBox, which ships most of its packages via USPS, experienced delays in some of its orders, Nazzisi says. In times of normal or expected shipping volumes, BirchBox would receive tracking scans from USPS as its packages moved across the country from facility to facility, she says. However, because USPS is not obligated to provide tracking scans for every step of a package’s journey, many times BirchBox would not receive tracking information for days from USPS during the holidays. That meant it didn’t know where a package was.

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“Any time outside of the holidays, if we didn’t receive a tracking update, we assume the package is lost, and we would replace it,” Nazzisi says. But BirchBox didn’t assume this over the holidays as in many cases USPS skipped scanning packages to save time and keep orders moving.

“We knew that packages were arriving and being delivered, its just that the tracking information was never updated,” she adds.

However, this lack of transparency posed problems when customers called BirchBox’s customer service team asking, “Where is my order?”

“We were going by the same tracking details and information as the customer, so we have no new updates,” Nazzisi says.

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Often, shoppers would call in after five days of a delayed order, which was too early to know for sure if the package was delayed or lost, Nazzisi says. Typically, its agents told the customer to wait and if they had not received their shipment by a certain date—often 12 days or longer after the order was supposed to arrive—to  let BirchBox know and it would offer a refund or send a replacement.

Most times, the order did eventually arrive, she says. On average for the holiday season, 85% of BirchBox’s shipments arrived on time, and only for a one-week period in December was it substantially below that average, Nazzisi says.

For shoppers who experienced delays in orders of physical gift cards, BirchBox offered to create a digital version of the card so the customer could still give it to someone via email. BirchBox did this for about 25% of customers who contacted the retailer about a delayed gift card, she says.

“Our customers were very understanding with shipping delays, and we were able to create a communication and compensation strategy that resonated with them,” she says.

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