In the early 2000s, Overstock.com was in hypergrowth mode. The e-commerce site that sold surplus and returned merchandise at discounted prices, had growth 100-percent growth rates every year. It was doing so phenomenally well that customer experience wasn’t even talked about inside the Utah-based company.
 
Then this happened: In 2005, it overgrew all of its software systems—a major challenge for a company that makes its existence on the Internet. As it looked into finding new software to match its new success, it took a look at all of its operations and tossed out the idea of bringing customer experience into the system.
 
With the blessing of senior management, Brian Popelka, senior vice president of supplier and customer care, created a new corporate structure. Finance was the foundation; its core business was its pillars, but a capstone over everything was customer care.
 
“That really flipped the ball on who was important,” Popelka said during a general session at the 2018 Loyalty Expo on ‘Helping the Customer Help Themselves: Overstock’s Move Toward Self-Service Could Reimagine the Customer Experience.’ “We started to listen to customers, and it worked really, really well.”
 
Then this happened. Customer expectations changed. The white glove, heavy-touch customer care approach that was expected gradually became an impediment instead of a luxury.
 
“We had to try to get ourselves out of the way of the customer,” he said. “Our customers don’t want to talk to us. They only time they want to talk to us is when it gets ugly.”
 
In today’s society, where customers are used to navigating e-commerce sites and figuring out things for themselves, they prefer to solve the problem on their own first. If they can’t figure it out, then—and only then—do they want help. And they don’t just want a little help or have to go through different tiers of options in order to get the help they need. They want—and expect—that white glove service where someone will solve their problem immediately.
 
Realizing this, Overstock set about to not only get out of its own way, but to create a system when it would know that perfect moment to step in and “take the ball,” he said, and provide that additional guidance. It’s a delicate balance.
 
“You have to get out ahead of it,” he said. “We realized that the idea that they will call if they’re upset is totally wrong. The silent ones are the ones who are really unhappy.”
 
And it didn’t take the easy way out. It began a new approach starting in the fourth quarter of last year, right in the middle of the holiday rush when there is no room to be sloppy.
 
What’s helping is the advancements in artificial intelligence, machine learning and other technologies, which are catching up to the point where they are usable for customer experience and interaction. Chatbots, for instance, used to be awful. They are now to the point where they can understand words and sentiment, so if someone is using angry words they can be transferred to a person who can offer a personal touch.
 
“They’re now more like digital assistants like Siri or Alexa,” he said.
 
But the human touch can’t be eliminated. It’s critical—if brought in at the right moment.
 
“You have to set standards,” he said, “and never take customers for granted.”
 

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