With merchants pushing early promotions and a tight labor market, accessories brand Vera Bradley Retail Stores LLC knew the customer service challenges ahead of the 2022 holiday season.
Vera Bradley typically hires seasonal employees in mid-November, with the last day of their two-week training on Black Friday, says Susan Campbell, director of customer experience. But in 2022, it brought in its 18 seasonal agents two weeks earlier, at the start of November, she says.
Even starting earlier, the retailer had challenges with finding qualified candidates who would want to stay until the end of the holiday season.
“You might find they are fantastic, but they might decide after two days of training that the job isn’t for them,” says Campbell about a situation the retailer faced. “It’s definitely a different world than it has been in previous years.”
In addition to industry-wide staffing shortages, the other challenge Vera Bradley has for retaining customer service agents over the holiday season is that it doesn’t have the budget to offer a “stay bonus,” Campbell says. This is extra compensation some merchants offer to seasonal employees who stay until the end of the holiday season. And so, the merchant has to get creative, she says.
Through its customer service software Nice LTD., it uses a gamification program in which agents can earn points for various tasks. For example, representatives earn points if they fill out their time cards promptly, for attendance or having the highest CSAT (customer satisfaction) rating of the day.
Employees can redeem points for $5-$50 gift cards to Target, Starbucks or Vera Bradley or other Vera Bradley products. This is a great motivator, Campbell says, as employees like to use these as stocking stuffers.
This program also keeps employees engaged with their job, she says. Overall, the merchant finds that agents with the highest CSAT score often correlates to the agents with the most points in the program, Campbell says.
Vera Bradley also motivates seasonal employees with the prospect of a full-time position. The merchant typically has 50 full-time customer service agents it employs as well as 20 “overflow agents,” which also represent its brand, to handle even more inquiries. It currently has a few open positions for full-time employment.
Customer service trends for the 2022 holiday season
During the 2022 holiday season, more consumers have texted in their customer service needs than average, Campbell says.
For all of 2022 through Dec. 12, 13% of Vera Bradley’s customer service contacts are from SMS/texting. This is up from 10% of all contacts from SMS in 2021. Campbell says the merchant could finish the year with 15% of contacts from text because it’s been trending so high during the holiday season.
As of Dec. 12, 24% of customer service inquires for 2022 were from email, 23% from live chat, 33% from phone calls, 5% from social media and the remaining percentage from other categories.
Campbell attributes the increase in SMS customer service requests to an increase in younger consumers shopping with the brand. Still, the brand skews older. 46.9% of traffic to its website in 2021 was from shoppers ages 45 and older. That compares with 37.0% on average for all merchants in the Digital Commerce 360 Top 1000, according to data from web measurement vendor SimilarWeb in the Top500Guide.com. Vera Bradley is No. 272 in Top 1000.
Campbell says the No. 1 reason shoppers call customer service is to place an order. When a limited edition product arrives, such as its Christmas ornaments with the year on it, shoppers want to ensure they get the product before it sells out, she says.
Vera Bradley’s customer service channel options and features
Vera Bradley initially launched text as a method to contact customer service in 2018, as it was looking for ways to improve its customer service experience. The brand knew that shoppers don’t want to wait on hold to talk to an agent.
Vera Bradley already had a 1-800 number for customer service and it enabled that number to receive texts. The merchant immediately started receiving texts for customer service help, without it marketing the feature as an option. That meant shoppers had already been trying to text the merchant, but these shoppers were not getting any response because the number was not set up to receive texts and Vera Bradley had no idea.
“You have to be where your customer wants to be,” Campbell says. “The customer is evolving whether you are paying attention or not.”
Other ways Vera Bradley works to keep its call hold time low is to put as much information on the website as possible so shoppers can look for answers themselves, Campbell says.
“A lot of self-service options have helped us tremendously,” Campbell says. “Shoppers will say, ‘I looked on the website, but I didn’t see it.’ They are definitely using the website first, and we are like the second option.’”
And shoppers ask detailed questions. For example, shoppers ask about dimensions of specific pockets to see if their size phone or water bottle will fit. They’ll also ask how many pieces of paper a binder will fit.
To help shoppers, every few days, Vera Bradley creates a ticket for the web team to add these specific questions to the question-and-answer section on product detail pages so other shoppers will know the answer.
Enhanced customer service tools at Vera Bradley
Vera Bradley also allows its VIP shoppers to jump the call queue when they call customer service. For shoppers who spend a high dollar value with the retailer, the Nice In Contact customer service platform can flag those inbound calls and put them to the top of the list.
It also works to reduce call wait times by offering shoppers who call in on a cellphone (as opposed to a landline) the option to switch to live chat. While the shopper is waiting, an automated voice will tell the shopper her current wait time. But if she presses 1, she could immediately chat with one of the available agents. Because Vera Bradley’s agents typically work on three chats at once, there is typically little wait for live chat, she says.
During the year’s slow periods, such as the summer months, Vera Bradley has its agents make “Happy Birthday” calls to its shoppers.
It started these calls on a whim, but it turns out to be a winning initiative, Campbell says. Some of its agents really enjoy doing these calls and will volunteer for them, she says. Shoppers also respond positively and enjoy hearing the message, she says. The merchant also sends a 25% off promotional code via email on shoppers’ birthdays. Those coupons have a 9.6% redemption rate, which is “way higher” than its average redemption rate, Campbell says, without revealing more.
“When a new customer comes to the brand, you want to make sure they are taken care of to the best of your ability,” Campbell says. “You want them to remember that great experience — when it’s your daughter’s birthday or your mom’s birthday — so they are coming back to your brand for those occasions as well.”
And many shoppers do remember. 22% of online shoppers say a past experience with a retailer is one the most important factors when deciding where to shop online for the holiday season, according to a Digital Commerce 360/Bizrate Insights survey of 1,088 online shoppers in September 2022.
Net promoter score improves
Campbell says all these features have helped improve Vera Bradley’s Net Promoter Score, or the number shoppers give when asked, “On a scale of 1 to 10, how likely they are to recommend Vera Bradley to a friend?” While she wouldn’t reveal the actual number, she says it improved by 3.1 points year over year in 2022.
The customer service platform’s features and tools also keep its employees happy, Campbell says. Managers can easily pull reports on how their employees are performing, whereas previously they would have had to ask IT for this request. Agents can also see their customer service rating and how many queries they are responding to in real time and see how it compares to their peers. This real-time data helps create a fun, competitive atmosphere, she says.
After last year’s holiday season, Vera Bradley “took a pulse” on the satisfaction level of its company employees with an engagement score. This metric is sometimes called an E-Sat and measures employees’ engagement level with their job, if they are planning to stay with the company and if they see value in their work. The customer service team E-Sat score improved by five points year over year, which Campbell says was huge.Favorite