DTC Era   /   June 17, 2020

How retail startups are dealing with an uptick in customer service inquiries

Retail customer service lines have remained busy over the past couple of months, fielding questions about shipping delays, how to return items when stores are closed and inquiries about sizing and material from first-time customers.

A number of direct-to-consumers startups say they’ve seen an uptick in customer service inquiries, as they getting more first-time customers, and as more companies are experience shipping increases. Coulter Lewis, founder of subscription lawncare startup Sunday told Modern Retail last month that his company was seeing a 50% increase in outreach to its customer service team.

In order to handle customer service inquiries right now, startups are redeploying other staffers to help out on the customer service desk, looking to see what parts of the process they can automate, as well as posting more information on their website to address frequently asked questions. Particularly for first-time customers, the customer service experience can make or break whether or not that shopper returns.

And the wait to talk to a customer service agent is likely to only increase, as more customers start to make returns. That’s because some customers couldn’t make returns when stores were closed, and even DTC startups like Dagne Dover extended their return window from 30 to 90 days in order to give customers more time to test out the product during a tumultuous time. Happy Returns, a business-to-business company that helps retailers including Everlane and Rothy’s process returns, said that the number of returns it during the week of June 7, the number of returns it processed was up 23% compared to the same time period a month ago.

“Retailers are very keen on getting merchandise back, so that they can put it back on the rack,” said Amit Sharma, CEO of Narvar, a customer experience platform that works with retail companies like Levi’s and Everlane . “The longer you wait, especially in the apparel and footwear category, you get out of season and then you have to give an even heavier discount than what they are already offering.”

As such, the Wall Street Journal reported last week that wait times for customer service lines have dramatically increased for larger retailers like Lululemon, Best Buy and Ikea, with some customers being unable to get a hold of a customer service agent for days.

While many DTC startups aren’t experiencing days-long backlogs in processing returns and customer service inquiries, they are having to deal with some new challenges.

New questions being asked
The DTC startups that are getting more questions are often the ones that are seeing a sales increase generally. Brian Berger, CEO of Mack Weldon, which sells men’s sweatpants, t-shirts and other basics, said that Mack Weldon recorded a sales bump over the last few months as has seen an uptick in customer service inquiries. The company, he added, is still able to respond to pretty much all of them within 24 hours.

What’s changed, Berger said, are what some of the most frequently asked questions are. The company is getting more questions about how to print out return labels if they don’t have access to a printer, as some shoppers have relied on office printers in the past to print out return labels. Customers are also increasingly curious about shipping time and tracking orders, as some carriers are experiencing delays. To deal with these kinds of inquiries, Mack Weldon has added a note on the website that states, “due to the impact of covid-19 on shipping carriers, your tracking information may be slow to update, and your order may take longer than usual to be delivered (even if it ships on time).”

“People are looking at their tracking information because they kind of have nothing better to do,” Berger said.

Getting more man (and computer) power
Another option that’s proven popular for DTC startups has been to move some of their retail employees over to customer service teams. This was one way to keep retail staffers employed while stores were largely closed in March and April. Athleticwear brand Vuori has done this, as has Brooklinen. Brooklinen’s customer service team has tripled in size in total over the past three months, as it’s also added some new remote team members, according to a spokeswoman.

Additionally, some startups are also turning to software in order to automate part of what are typically some of the most time-consuming inquiries — questions about returns, exchanges and refunds. Happy Returns said that it is on track to add more new customers in the second quarter than any other quarter to date, according to vp of marketing Caitlin Roberson. Happy Returns’ business consists of multiple components. First, it has established a network of roughly more than 700 “return bars,” at retailers like Paper Source and Cost Plus World Market. Customers can return products from any of Happy Returns’ customers at one of these return bars, with the idea being that this makes it easier for customers to return items from startups who don’t have a large network of stores. During the past couple of months, Happy Returns’ return bar network was largely closed, but its since been able to re-open at 200 of its locations for customers to drop off returns.

But Roberson said that Happy Returns has also seen increased interest from customers in using its software, which enables retailers to take actions like create a customizable tracking page, or enable one-click returns or exchanges. The push to rely more on automation is likely to continue in the near-term, even for DTC startups that are seeing an increase in sales as a number of companies are waiting to hire more people until they see consumer behavior return to normal.

“Many retailers have needed to scale back on costs, and one of the ways they have done is by scaling down their customer service teams,” Roberson said.

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