“White glove” services give the impression of a greater level of care in handling, delivering and assembling products a consumer has ordered. But, it doesn’t matter if the delivery person is wearing white gloves (and a tuxedo, for that matter), a brand’s reputation is often at the mercy of that delivery-person’s performance.
For online retailers that sell furniture, the difference in a delivery person that tracks mud through a home and leaves empty boxes by the door and one that leaves a home spotless could impact future sales and long-term consumer loyalty. Large retailers including West Elm, Crate & Barrel, Williams-Sonoma, One Kings Lane and Design Within Reach, and smaller specialty retailers like Carolina Rustica now offer this service, though it presents challenges for retailers of all sizes.
The details and cost vary depending on the retailer, but “white glove” typically indicates the delivery person or team will setup and arrange items so they are ready for the customer to use. In some cases, they might also cart away trash or even the furniture or appliance that is being replaced.
That level of service may sound like a recipe for customer satisfaction, but when this service is outsourced to a third-party vendor, the retailer loses some control over the customer’s final impression of the brand.
According to Richard Sexton, president of Carolina Rustica, a high-end furniture and lighting retailer based outside of Charlotte, NC, ensuring consistency is the single biggest challenge with white glove service. “We stay with a select and small number of white glove carriers, but they’re still not our employees,” he says. “I’m not signing their paychecks, so there is that loss of control over the final most important part of the whole experience. It’s a human being in the truck and if he’s having a bad day and is feeling cranky, there’s nothing you can do it about it.”
The company has tried several approaches to ensure that its white glove service becomes a seamless extension of the brand. For instance, they asked delivery people to wear Carolina Rustica t-shirts, but the heat made wearing an extra t-shirt impractical.
Drivers give customers a satisfaction survey while the furniture is being set up, and Sexton admits that there’s a bit of self-selection in the surveys that actually get returned. “If somebody writes that the driver was rude, that review is probably not going to come back to you,” he says. “But sometimes we get ones back that aren’t 100 percent glowing.” Even so, the company has opted not to bug customers with a follow-up survey via phone or email because “their time is really valuable,” says Sexton.
The key to ensuring a consistent customer experience, according to Sexton, is to build strong relationships with carriers and make sure they understand the retailer’s expectations. He prefers asset-based carriers (those that own their own trucks and warehouses rather than outsourcing to other parties) for this reason. If you use a logistics service rather than an asset-based carrier, “you’re adding another layer of anonymity between yourself and the customers,” he says. “They’ll try and do their best, but they have even less of a connection to us than our white glove carrier.”
Setting proper customer expectations can also smooth over issues. For instance, when a customer discovers that delivery will take 6-8 weeks, they may get frustrated if they don’t understand the logistics behind that timeframe. “We have furniture professionals who answer the phones so they can explain to the customer this is why it takes eight weeks to get to them,” Sexton says.
Also make sure that customers know what white glove service actually covers. “We have seen over the last couple of years a lot of companies saying they’re offering white glove service, but if you want to upgrade to platinum white glove service, it’s another $150,” Sexton says.
A quick scan of West Elm’s Facebook page shows the importance of setting consumer expectations around delivery services. Post-purchase, one consumer asked “What does ‘white glove delivery’ mean? I ordered two nightstands and it says they were shipped white glove delivery.” A company rep responded:
Hi Tracy- Thank you for your inquiry. Our “white glove delivery” means your nightstands will be inspected prior to delivery to ensure there are no damages and that they are in first quality condition. They will be delivered to your home by a delivery team who will set them up in the room of your choice fully assembled. If we can help you with any further question, please send us and email to firstname.lastname@example.org. We would be happy to hear from you.
Crate and Barrel’s In-Home Delivery includes a 2-person delivery team, placement in room of customer’s choice and removal of packaging. The price for the In-Home Delivery service ranges from $59 to $299 and is dependent on the total value of your furniture order (above or below $250), how many pieces are being delivered and the customer’s proximity to a shipping point (within 50 miles, 50-75 miles, 76-100 miles, more than 100 miles).
According to its website, One Kings Lane ships most furniture pieces using white glove services. The retailer sets expectations for consumers in its Help section, including details around delivery times, assembly, hours of availability, removal of packaging materials, and how to identify items that will ship with white glove delivery services on the website.
“The key linchpin of the whole thing is customer education, as it is with so many customer service issues,” Sexton says.
Reporting by Susan Johnston