Customers care about how they’re treated. With the recent rise of social media, consumers are able to voice their dissent — or support — immediately to the masses. Businesses have to manage relationships with their customers more carefully than ever, whether online or offline.Wayfair CEO Niraj Shah knows all about that. He co-founded the online retailer back in 2002 as CSN Stores, starting with furniture before expanding into all sorts of home goods. The recently re-branded Wayfair has since grown into the #2 home goods e-commerce site in the US.
The company prides itself on its relationships with customers, and uses it has a key way to differentiate itself. The customer experience is a huge focus for big box retailers across the world, but what about a retailer that never comes face-to-face with the folks buying all their products?
We spoke with Shah about everything Wayfair does to foster relationships with customers and enhance the customer experience. Here’s what he had to say (edited for clarity and length):
Why is customer relationship management important to Wayfair?
Wayfair is a company that’s always been very customer-oriented. Our feeling is that people will buy from you for a number of reasons, but the experience they had determines whether they come back or not. So from the beginning we’ve focused on helping the customer, because that’s what builds repeat business.
How has customer relationship management changed in the past few years with the rise of social media?
Years ago there was just email and phones, but now we might interact with customers on Facebook or Twitter because that’s where they want to interact. Those are venues that do a few things. For some folks it’s a more comfortable way to reach out to us.
Plus, a lot of what’s happening on social plays really well for Wayfair, because we feel we provide great service. As a company, if you provide good or bad service, everyone will hear about it over social media. The reality is out there, and now you have all those customers out there telling people about their experience.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of not having a brick-and-mortar location for face-to-face interactions with customers?
There’s no question that it can be helpful to see someone in person, but at the end of the day a lot of our customers come for the advantages that are online available online. For example, the are the 4.5 million items, which you can’t do purely offline in one store. We offer the vast majority of our products with free shipping, while stores often charge for delivery.
We’re able to offer a more heightened experience to a particular person because we can focus on the online customer without the added complexity of the physical stores.
How do you go about nurturing relationships with your customers?
We do that a few ways. Before someone even buys from us, one of the things we hope they’ll find is that we have categorized products on our main page, making them easier to find. We’re trying to help the customer make good decisions. For them to find a product they can search for items, or go through the categories.
They need a way to efficiently navigate millions of items to find what they really want. For example, we have over 4,000 bar stools, but when you go to the bar stool area on our site we have more data available on those bar stools than anyone else, and filters so that people can find exactly what they’re looking for.
If they have any issues or problems they can get a hold of us and talk to a real person on the phone or over email. We always try to do what we say we’re going to do.
And we try to do a lot for our repeat customers in terms of promotions and special offers to add value that way too. Plus we have a loyalty program for people to earn rewards dollars or discounts for future orders.
How does a company maintain a positive reputation, despite not being able to satisfy some people at times no matter what lengths you go to?
Our goal is to help every customer no matter what the situation is. We’ll go out of our way to try to help that to make sure that happens. But yes, if you serve millions of customers, you’ll probably find one that was unsatisfied with their experience. We hope that they’ll tell you that we did a tremendous amount to make them happy.
The key is that if you try to take care of every single customer, you’ll be in great shape. Even if they’re frustrated and the result wasn’t exactly what they wanted, they’ll probably still tell folks they’re surprised with how hard you worked for them.
What are the most difficult things you have to deal with internally to facilitate good relationships?
One of the things we have the benefit of at Wayfair is that we’re only 10 years old and we really built our systems from the ground up. Our web store is linked to our phone system which is linked to the rest of our customer service network and more.
We have the benefit of not having legacy technology, so when new things have come along like social, we’ve been able to embrace every platform quickly, instead of regularly patching and trying to fix things every time.
A challenge with legacy tech is that you have different systems in different places. When you build from scratch, you don’t have multiple truths — there’s only one. That means there’s no, ‘oh we have to check that other system’ and ‘oh we don’t have access to it.’ It becomes very hard if someone in customer service doesn’t have the access to the information that they need to help the customer with, and especially if they don’t have the authority to help them anyway.
Here, you don’t hear a lot of ‘hold on, I have to talk to my manager.’ They can just make the decision themselves. It empowers people to do a good job.
How do you deal with complexity?
It comes back to the company culture. You need to know what you care about and what your company stands for, and that needs to be one of the filters when you’re hiring folks. We have a few core values and one of them is transparency. Everyone in the company can help it progress, and we also have an analytics system where we all have access to all the information around.
We found that having this culture from day one and growing up within it has helped a lot for the folks that have been here for most of that time. You really do get the leverage of a large organisation all pulling in the same direction. But if you have a company where the goals aren’t as cohesive, you have people making the wrong short-term goals, and that’s a trap you’ve got to avoid.
What’s the biggest killer of a positive relationship with a customer?
It’s where you don’t live up to something you promised. In the customer’s mind, you made some sort of commitment, but in the end, you didn’t follow through on that. They want to buy this item, they want to buy it from you and they don’t want to worry about it. And if that doesn’t happen, the customer’s not going to be really tolerant of that.