Q&A With Craig Barnes, SVP Customer Care at Williams-Sonoma

A few weeks back, Stella Metrics GM, Kevon Hills, sat down with Craig Barnes, SVP of Customer Care at Williams-Sonoma, for a fireside chat. The two covered a range of topics, from the way Williams-Sonoma measures customer service performance and stays ahead of emerging trends, through to the way the company uses service to drive brand loyalty and underpin investor relations and marketing programs. The Q&A below is an excerpt from their conversation.

Williams-Sonoma is a longstanding Stella Metrics client. Your CEO even mentioned your use of Stella Metrics data on an earnings call a couple of years ago. What initially made you decide to become a client?

One of the things we’re always focusing on at Williams-Sonoma is how we can stay in front of our competition. It’s very tough to go out and have your teams benchmark service performance on their own. It takes time and it takes money. Stella Metrics gives us a good look at the areas that we would spend a lot of time and money trying to gather data on. With Stella, it is about having all the information we need in one place.

As a company, we always like to think our service is the best. With Stella we look for validation of that. When we first looked at the data, we said: you know what, we’re not as good as we think we are. Stella data helped us realize there were areas we needed to invest in to make our service even better, make our delivery faster, make our brand more recognizable, and to really drive customer loyalty.

I think one of the first things that we learned from Stella was how to set a baseline for service performance. Once we get the data from Stella, it allows us to dig deeper into what is driving performance. What are the data points that allow us to really focus our efforts, instead of trying to focus on a thousand things at once?

“Stella allows us to focus our efforts to meaningful, impactful areas as well as quick wins that can help us drive our service scores higher.”

One of the areas we worked on together in the beginning of our relationship was email issue resolution. I know email is still a big channel for Williams-Sonoma. After seeing some of the early data and insights delivered by Stella, what were some of the changes you made to your email processes, and what kind of impact did that have on your business?

Before working with Stella, we were very focused on phone support and didn’t really pay close attention to emails. When I first saw our product knowledge, issue resolution, and speed for emails, it was a real wake up call. It was on paper that we were not anywhere near the fastest. We didn’t have great product knowledge. Our spelling was terrible.

I think my number one lesson was, you can’t take great phone people and just assume they can do email. As we looked in more detail into what was driving multiple contacts, it was too much use of templates that were too generic, and that weren’t answering customers’ questions directly. This was driving more emails back to us because we weren’t resolving issues. It was also driving phone calls because we weren’t answering emails in a fast and timely manner.

The more contacts you get, the more costly it is. When you can reduce multiple calls and emails, you need fewer staff, you have happier customers, and really that was the biggest lesson we learned. The email data was a real epiphany. We changed how we hired our email associates and how their essential functions worked. We made some big changes that have helped drive efficiencies, lower our costs and reduce the number of people we need as our business grows.

What’s the best advice you have for customer care leaders who want to stay ahead of trends and lead the pack when it comes to service performance?

The shift of a customer and their buying habits happens very quickly. As a customer service leader, it’s important to ensure that teams are focusing not just on the customer interaction that’s coming in, but what’s driving the interaction, and identifying those early trends. A major part of staying ahead for us is knowing our service metrics. The data that Stella gives us helps us identify trends before they become normal, and that helps drive customer loyalty.

We want to beat our competitors to the finish line before they know it’s a race. What that means is we’ve got to find trends by looking at everything daily and not just assuming that every day is the same. If you think that today is the same as yesterday with regards to product information, product trends, delivery, packaging and marketing, you’re going to fall behind. We, by no means, are perfect. We want to strive to be the best, but I think the key is to acknowledge where your service is poor, and go after it vigorously to make it better.

Can you talk about how you share your customer service and fulfillment performance with your executives? How do you share this information with your CEO, Laura, and connect it to the strategic business objectives that Williams-Sonoma is trying to achieve?

There are a lot of great tools Stella provides for us in terms of being able to showcase our achievements with our executives. Sometimes the downside of that is if we have a quarter that’s not so fantastic, Laura sees it and says: “Wow. Now we’re third. Craig, what is going on?” That’s actually a lot of pressure. Once we’ve experienced top performance and showcased it, the pressure is on to continue to perform at a high level. Once you go out there on a limb and tell everybody in the world that you’re really great at service, you have to constantly be pushing that envelope.

We look at the data Stella is providing us about industry standards and how our competitors are doing, and can say: “Okay, Laura, we feel like if we invest in this or we change how we do this, it’s going to move the needle because there are five or six different points of data that point to this.” We use Stella data to dig into different parts of our business. If all things are aligned, we know that’s the direction we need to go.

It’s important that once we go out there and claim we’re going to have great service, that we actually do it. We also feel that being noticed as a top service company mitigates the need for us to overcompensate customers in the rare case that something does go wrong. We’ve built this brand loyalty where when customers see us, they think of great service. Then, when things do go wrong, they realize, “Wow, this is not like Williams-Sonoma, or this is not like Pottery Barn.” It may be easier for us to say, “I’m so sorry that happened,” instead of, “I’m so sorry that happened. Let me give you a free sofa to make you stay with us.” The better we are at being consistent at delivering great service and broadcasting how well we’re doing, the easier it is for us to build loyalty and keep customers for a longer period of time.

What advice would you have for customer service leaders who don’t have a very close working relationship with their CEO or Investor Relations teams? How can they get a foot in the door?

As customer care has evolved, we’re always fighting for that extra time with those teams, and sometimes other departments have an easier time of it. It was up to me and all of the customer service team to say, “You know what? We’re going to show you some really impactful things.” We needed to be able to put Stella data against it, and make it impactful enough to get in the door. We feel like customer care has an extremely important seat at the table now.

Also, data about us is being published out there whether we like it or not. I’m sure there are some companies who don’t realize they’re a part of a blog, or they’re a part of a ranking that they may not like when they see where they’re ranked.

I’ve been with Williams-Sonoma for 18 years, and in the beginning, I remember thinking, “Hey, those guys from the brand forgot to call me for the meeting.” The first thing I thought to myself was, “Are you providing the information that makes them want you to be a part of the meeting?

That changed the philosophy around. We have to be able to take our customer data, not only what we see internally, but also what is externally being said about us, and share that in a manner that makes them say, “Wow, you know what? You guys are important. We need you to have a seat at the table.”