A customer service retrospective on the Covid ecommerce flood

by

 Spotlight on Gorgias  

If you’re flailing amid a flood of ecommerce orders, software tools promise a solution. You hope they’ll make it more manageable, efficient. That’s good.

But be careful. If your business prides itself on customer service, efficiency isn’t the highest goal. Maybe a higher goal ought be customer retention. And maybe that means you prioritize a certain warmth towards the customer. So you make the extra effort, extend a personal touch that takes more time. And still you try for efficiency.

In this article we’ll recount how a Shopify merchant with 7 years of Direct-to-Consumer (DTC) experience balanced these competing goals while growing rapidly during the 2020-2021 Covid crisis.

(To preserve its privacy and share sometimes uncomfortable observations, we’ll keep the company anonymous. Let’s call them Acme Shop, although they also manufacture their products.)

Read our chronological breakdown of insights and lessons learned. We’ll focus in this article on what we learned implementing Gorgias, a customer service help desk tool.  

In future articles in this series, we’ll examine how other tools like Klaviyo, CallRail and Frase aided the response to overwhelming growth pressure. (These matter, too!)

We’ll also observe where coaching people matters more than adding new tools. Throughout this unique year+ Covid period in ecommerce history, events at Acme Shop demonstrated that tools alone are never “the solution.” Tools are limited by the team that wields them. People, for good and bad, are an ever-present ‘X’ factor. Leadership matters.

Now, to the story:

 A flood of orders: Spring 2020 

Acme Shop created a retail Shopify ecommerce store 7 years earlier, and had operated in marketplaces like ebay and Amazon even longer. At the time that Covid became a crisis in spring 2020, they already had all the basic operational components in place. So this is not a story of an offline business rapidly shifting operations online, scrambling to become an ‘ebusiness’ and figure out ‘ecommerce’. Instead, Acme Shop was rockin’ and rollin’ with a confidence earned through years of ebusiness experience. How quickly that confidence would be shaken…

Shopify orders rose as consumer spending shifted in April 2020 online. Amazon orders rose faster. It seemed busy but manageable until Amazon FBA pushed delivery dates out 30+ days as Amazon prioritized delivery of critical items. All at once, shoppers found Acme Shop’s backup Seller Central account on Amazon as the preferred choice. The proverbial in-box notifications of new orders rang out. Ding. Ding. Ding.

Acme Shop’s Seller Central account was swamped, so pushed out delivery days to lower expectations, which prompted shoppers to seek out their Shopify store to order directly. When it rains, it pours.

Now flooded with more orders than ever before, Acme Shop also needed to take extra responsibility for fulfillment in ways they had relied on Amazon FBA. The fulfillment burden ballooned. Every Saturday and some Sundays became all about packing orders.

For safety, the front-office ‘closed’ for Covid prevention. Everyone not in a critical manufacturing or fulfillment role had been sent home. Competitors responded also. One big, long-time competitor temporarily suspended all operations as its Covid response. This sent even more new customers to Acme Shop, searching for timely delivery.

Ding. Ding. Ring. Ring.

With nobody at their stations in the front-office and all phones being land-lines, there seemed no alternative but to turn off the ringer and send all calls to voice mail. The desktop phones’ red lights silently flashed ‘new message’, and kept flashing for months….

Exasperated with shipping delays, customers phoned seeking a resolution. Returning voice mails? Nice idea. Relaying Post-It Note messages to a customer service team scattered across the city at makeshift kitchen tables, seemed hopeless.

Check messages or pack another order? Hmm, pack the order.  Flash. Flash.

(In Austin, Texas ebusiness pros knows a thing or two about flooding, as people die here every year from them. When the ground gets saturated, a thousand trickles converge into a hundred streams. All the swirling wash suddenly becomes an impromptu river. It’s no joke! Here’s the psychological challenge about flooding: it doesn’t seem so bad (“I can drive across that road, no problem”). It seems manageable until it’s not, all of a sudden. Flash floods are deadly because of the mind trick it plays upon us. We’re poor judges of flow, depth, velocity and hidden swirling eddies. There’s parallels to how we respond to business changes.)

At Acme Shop, a sentiment of anger arose as customers sent repeated emails to no avail. The help desk that seemed good enough a couple years ago strained at the load. Unused tool features that never mattered before now offered some hope.

But it’s hard enough for people to learn new ways of working in ‘normal times,’ even harder when growth pressure builds. In the middle of all this mess, I’ve got to learn a new way of working, use new features? Staying ‘friendly’ as a customer-facing person in this situation asks a lot. Sometimes the ‘friendly’ tone flashed to a ‘fuck you‘ tone. In times like this, it’s not so much about team members learning to swim a new stroke as it is about staying afloat.

Pro tip if you find yourself in a raging river: bob along, head up, and keep your feet pointed downstream. Avoid rocks. Pretend smile at customers. Reach for a branch.

Acme Shop called ebusiness pros.

Salvage the  service help desk: Apr – Jul 2020 

A first step in fixing a broken system is to identify all the parts. What’s leaking? Importantly, what’s not leaking, still functional?

Here’s another good question:

What parts of the system that you already have in place are unintentionally unused or intentionally ignored?

(Often this happens more than leaders realize, ouch.)

This process and utilization problem is famously true of software: key features remain a mystery for years.

It’s also true for what you imagine are your in-house procedures that you expect your team to be following but actually they are not!

Why?

  • Because your new hire onboarding process is more of an intention than reality.
  • Because people are not in an optimal role by temperament or aptitude, especially after a growth spurt changes roles.
  • Because personal work habits evolve or devolve under pressure.
  • Because leadership is distracted with other matters.
  • Because, because, because for all kinds of lesser reasons…

People are the ‘X’ factor in your (broken) system. But any good system needs a foundational base. A base around which leadership can organize. A help desk can be such a base for a customer service operation. How?

The help desk provides a collection point.

It can bring visibility to customer concerns and accountability to those tasked with resolving them.

A help desk can spur automation.

It can become a training aid.

It can function like a CRM for customer service teams.

In summer 2020, Gorgias stepped fully into the ecommerce customer service spotlight. Gorgias promised an email focused help desk software tool that could reach inside Shopify and pull out order details automagically, viewable in the right pane of the same screen as the customer’s email. That was a simple enough vision for Acme Shop to build a migration plan around.

Ok, let’s go to Gorgias, we recommended. It might save seconds, minutes, when every second felt precious.

But before migrating to Gorgias, the existing help desk powered by Teamwork Desk could bring immediate relief. Our ebusiness pros consultants came alongside the manager. Together we sorted out the existing help desk. With an 80/20 mindset, we prioritized what to optimize:

  • Check the help desk’s usage reporting to understand the team’s load, the bottlenecks, their opportunity.
  • Start assigning tickets to individuals, as a means of bringing accountability to team members. No unassigned tickets.
  • Merge, deduplicate tags so that tickets can be meaningfully classified. What’s meaningful depends on where the stress enters or accumulates in your front-office system.
  • Create triggers (in Teamwork Desk, and what are known as rules in Gorgias) so that tickets can be auto-tagged upon arrival in the inbox. This can include automatically adding an internal note with guidance on how to respond to such tickets (a kind of Standard Operating Procedure guidance right in the help desk).

    For example, the problem of returns. Tag relevant email tickets with ‘return’, and consider sub-classifications that identify reasons for the return. It matters whether the return was actually a mistake in fulfillment, more of a replacement for the correct item then a return of a deficient item. Tag accordingly.

The above examples are configuration of a software tool feature. But in keeping with our people are the ‘X’ factor mantra, much of the gain comes from prioritizing people’s attention and inviting them to revise their expectations.

In the case of Acme Shop, the manager intentionally focused on the critical Amazon account:  product inventory, descriptions, etc. Also he managed other marketplaces like Wal-mart, which similarly grew from a stream to a river of orders all by itself. So in this moment of growth, the customer service manager became a dedicated marketplace manager. It was less of a strategic decision by the owners than a common sense coping response. So day-to-day, small team leadership was absent….

What role-shifting coping responses persist in your business today?

In periods of growth, what one person accomplished in a fraction of their day may expand to require the entire day. So what happens to their other stuff, the other part of that person’s day that never got attention? It doesn’t get done. It gets harder for everyone across the team from the inattention. As the attention deficit persists, the emotional toll accumulates on all. The heavier the emotional load, the lower the energy of the people on the team.

Have you noticed a challenge within the dynamics of an organization, as it relates to customer service as a unit, a department? If the squeaky wheel gets the grease, customer service people may not squeak enough. They may put a happy face on the situation and just keep swimming, just keep swimming, as Dory sang. Short-term coping has a place, but the root of the problem goes unsolved. The customer service team cannot be taken for granted. The friendly folks hired to be “great with people” are people with feelings and frustrations themselves. Listen, ask for them to share their otherwise squelched, frustrated squeaks. Leadership seeks out the roots. Leadership, even among small teams under 5 people, impacts productivity more than tools.

This seems important looking back: Our presence as adjuncts to the team, helping the manager, affirmed the significance of the effort to the company. We asked questions like: what’s not working?

What’s slowing you down?

What’s agitating customers?

What should be different?

The customer service agents felt the energetic shift. A sense of leadership returned. They upped their energy levels to match us. Clarity about what it looked like to be ‘done for the day’ helped focus the team’s energy to push onward. Productivity improved.

Let’s look at short-term results:

Before any migration to Gorgias, using same old tools, the customer service metrics improved. Comparing the prior 90 days with the following 90, the ticket resolution that had averaged 40 hours decreased to 29 hours. That’s an improvement of 37%, climbing uphill as it were with orders increasing 68% during the same period. 

But more significantly, what about the time to first respond to a customer’s inquiry? In the prior 90 days, it had averaged 14 hrs. This meant customers were NOT getting same business day responses. In the following 90 days, that dropped to 6 hours. So a bigger improvement of 122% faster even as orders grew 68%.  

Now customers got same day replies. Sentiment softened. The tone improved. The team felt the positive shift.

 Replacing the help desk with Gorgias:  Aug – Oct 2020 

Gorgias replaced the old help desk on a hot Wednesday in August. It was the same day that a new customer service agent joined the team. She would be the third. Plans were to let her observe the first week, get comfortable with the software and processes, and then start replying to customers the next Monday.

Instead, she started replying as a full Gorgias user after lunch on the first day. After a couple hours, it seemed easy and obvious. Cool.

The decision to not import any historical tickets or customer records into Gorgias meant a fresh start. We wanted good data, updated processes. A clean slate. A simplified set of tags would be applied automatically by Gorgias rules.

Still playing catch-up, attention needed to focus first on what was urgent. But what was truly urgent? We configured a rule to make this determination specific for this business, in this moment. (Tip: revisit these rule decisions). Then we tested it, and again refined the URGENT view that made sense to the team.

Order growth had not abated by August but capacity had expanded. Feeling less overwhelmed, Acme Shop was now swimming downstream, as compared to its earlier flood experience of trying to keeping its feet pointed forward and avoid rocks.

Acme Shop’s long-term partnership with Search Scientists as pay-per-click ad manager continued. Ad spend resumed on Amazon. Ads also restarted on Google, sending new prospects to the Shopify site. With a new tool and a new customer service teammate, Acme Shop bet they could keep up with orders.

Let’s look at what happened the first 90 days of using Gorgias:

  • Ticket resolution time dropped from 29 hours to 3.6. WOW!
  • Ticket first response time dropped from 6.2 to 2 hours. Wow, again!

So now customers were consistently getting their issues with returns, refunds, sizing and selection questions answered the same day, just about always. An answer was coming back within a couple hours, well within reason for the average customer’s expectations of email support. Anger dissipated. Tone softened again.

Gorgias’ Statistics feature brought new metrics like how many tickets were being solved with one touch, essentially one reply to the customer. That number the first 90 days averaged 25%. And that metric remained static until it finally improved six months later in spring 2021 (for reasons we’ll explain below that have nothing to do with Gorgias nor typical customer service  department responses).

Whenever there is such a marked improvement in a system, broaden the view, soften the focus. What else might explain such a change?

System dynamic theory concern the art of understanding stocks (or accumulations, as in a bathtub) and flows (inputs or outputs, as in a faucet or drain). Also, systems are about the rates of inflow or outflow. What are your stocks? Flows? Rates? Such system dynamics can be modeled with tools.

Here’s a big one:  the inflow of new orders softened, dropping 16%.

Amazon FBA returned to normal delivery times, and this removed a big load on fulfillment for the team. Competitors started to come back online, too, retaking a bit of the market share. Seasonally, this would also be a typical period of decline. OK, it allowed us to catch our breath.

Here’s another big change in this period, something we’re still trying to make sense of:  the front-office team returned… to the office.

No longer working at home, in bedrooms or kitchen tables, they returned to big desks, double monitors, within earshot of one another. They regained all the focus (and distraction?) an office brings. If people are the ‘X’ factor, then ‘work environment’ is a ‘Y’ factor, right? Going ‘remote’ made a difference at Acme Shop, it’ wasn’t neutral!

Here’s another change that happened August to October, something we didn’t place as much value on, but should have:   we consolidated some of third party marketplaces that sent order notifications to an old Gmail email inbox.

Now these marketplaces could be aggregated into Gorgias, and then grouped into specific Views.  The customer service team could consolidate their attention in Gorgias, not jumping as much between Gmail and other marketplace systems.

As a measure of caution, being new to Gorgias at the time, we did NOT integrate the most significant marketplace:  Amazon.  Fear that there might be an unintentional email reply via Gorgias back to Amazon’s Seller Central customer support system that contained Acme Shop branding or links, we delayed this. It was a mistake. The efficiencies of Gorgias would not be applied to all the Amazon inquiries until later in 2021 when we finally made the integration live with Amazon….

 A slide backwards in customer service:  Nov 2020 to Jan 2021 

The

Updated: May 3, 2024Array
Published: July 9, 2021

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