Award-winning center stands out from the competition by delivering addictive customer experiences.
Whether you’re in a restaurant, hotel, on a factory floor or dealing with local law enforcement or emergency services professionals, employees’ work uniforms influence how you perceive the business or official with whom you’re dealing. Uniforms send an instant, visible message to customers, allowing them to immediately identify the nature of a business, its employees and their job function. They are a critical element of the brand identity and reflect a business’ values and, ultimately, the type of experience that they want to deliver to their customers.
No one understands that mission better than the customer support team at VF Imagewear, which specializes in designing, implementing and managing uniform and career apparel programs, including the Red Kap, Bulwark, Horace Small and Wrangler Workwear brands. VF Imagewear is part of VF Corporation, a global leader in the design, manufacture, marketing and distribution of branded lifestyle apparel, footwear and accessories. Its brands include The North Face, Vans, Timberland, Lee and Wrangler, among many others.
VF Imagewear’s customer support agents are experts in work apparel, but as their customers can attest, the service that they provide is anything but uniform. On a daily basis, the frontline staff strives to deliver on the organizationwide mission to deliver addictive customer experiences through the service platform, innovative products and compelling brands, says Director of Customer Support Linda Cullum. “We’re the voice of VF Imagewear to our customers, so we take the mission very seriously,” she notes.
As the judges for the International Customer Management Institute’s (ICMI) Global Contact Center Awards might say: Mission accomplished. VF Imagewear’s customer support center was recently recognized by ICMI with its 2015 Global Contact Center Award for Best Small-to-Medium Contact Center.
The support center, which is staffed by 75 agents, handles service and support for its business-to-business clients, companies varying in size from small mom-and-pop operations to large global organizations, as well as its business-to-consumer side, which includes managed programs for government accounts. Agents are grouped by customer segment (B-to-B or B-to-C), but all are universally trained to deliver cross-channel support via fax, phone, chat, email, web and EDI. Daily transactions range from order entry to inventory lookup, product information and referrals, and returns. “We are the resource for information about our products,” Cullum says.
Customer Experience Is the Brand
VF Imagewear has a long history of success as an industry leader for more than 80 years. What makes its customer service stand out among its competitors is the strong belief that the customer’s experience is the brand. So what is an addictive customer experience? Cullum defines it as, “a series of interactions that bind the customer both emotionally and psychologically to our brand.”
That view is part of an evolving culture within the contact center, she adds. Over the course of the past decade, the support center has focused on continually improving performance and aligning that with the customer experience. “We spent a lot of time establishing KPIs and making sure that the operational side of our contact center was successful,” she explains. “In the past several years, we have been focusing primarily on how that translates to delighting the customer—or making the customer addicted to our brand so that they don’t look to the competition.”
How did this evolution begin? By listening to the customer. To better understand customers’ needs and expectations, and the types of interactions agents were having with customers, members of the Senior Leadership Addictive Customer Experience team spent time jacking in with agents.
The insights gathered from this and other exercises helped the team to develop practices, training and guidelines for delivering superior customer service. A first step was to empower agents with a monetary lever, such as offering free or overnight shipping, which they could use whenever necessary to help a customer or to turn a negative experience into a positive one, says Cullum.
In addition, the frontline staff was coached on how to build personal relationships with customers while still maintaining their professionalism. In the center, VF Imagewear customers are not viewed as account numbers, but as individuals with families, interests, challenges and goals. “While we insist on professionalism, we have come to know our customers—and they have come to know us—as individuals,” Cullum says. “We share in their successes and failures—both personal and professional.” Agents often send cards to commemorate major events in their customers’ lives, such as when a child is graduating from high school or college. Agents have even been invited to customers’ weddings.
“Our personalization sets us apart, as well as our sincerity in working with our customers and partnering with them to help them be successful in their businesses,” Cullum points out. Customer feedback frequently praises the caring and compassion portrayed by customer service reps, she says, adding that it is a key strength of the support center. “We have compassion for each other and that translates into compassion for our customers. We know that our customers can’t go to work without a uniform, and that’s what we provide for them. We understand their jobs, their challenges and their needs—and we want to make sure that we’re equipping them with what they need to do their jobs well.”
Hiring and Training for Success
You can train staff to follow policies, but you can’t teach them compassion, caring or empathy. “Knowing that we have the right people with the right attitude to support our customers is our biggest measure of success,” says Cullum. “Our hiring and training processes are at the heart of our ability to deliver an addictive customer experience.”
Over the past several years, the support center’s hiring process has undergone sweeping changes, she adds. The company’s HR department is highly involved in the prehire assessment phase to ensure that job candidates have the appropriate hard skills and experience—and, equally important, soft skills like compassion and a passion for problem resolution. Qualified candidates then undergo a series of interviews with various individuals within the department—both management and veteran service staff. “We have strict guidelines about the attributes we’re looking for, and the types of questions that we ask to make sure that we get the right people in the right spot,” Cullum explains.
Candidates with the skills to provide an addictive customer experience then undergo a comprehensive 10-week training program. Upon completion, new-hires graduate to a nesting phase during which they handle limited types of transactions while being closely monitored and coached for two to three weeks. Once agents are comfortable and confident in their skills, they are carefully transitioned to the center floor. Each new agent is assigned a mentor—a senior agent who helps “to ensure their success and that they’re delivering the experiences that we feel brand us as different from anyone else in our industry,” Cullum says.
On an ongoing basis, agent performance is monitored for quality and continuous improvement. Managers and agents meet once a month to review their scorecards, performance against QA goals and for additional coaching opportunities.
But while KPIs and QA scores are an integral part of individual and centerwide performance, “the true measure of success for us is customer satisfaction,” Cullum states. “We look at our customer satisfaction scores and we listen to what our customers are telling us—both directly and through our sales teams. We want to listen to their feedback and act on it as necessary.”
Superior Customer Care Requires Engaged Employees
Delivering on a mission to provide an addictive customer experience requires a team of dedicated, highly engaged employees. It’s not surprising that VF Imagewear’s leadership team places a high priority on employee satisfaction, and takes an active role in communicating openly with frontline staff. Cullum firmly believes that it’s important for leaders to interact with, and to show interest in, each and every agent in the center. “We listen to them, we coach them, we invest in them, and we empower them with the tools do their jobs well,” she stresses. “Trust is very important. We need to trust them, but they also need to know that we trust them to do the best job possible.”
Personal and professional development is a key contributor to employee satisfaction and engagement. VF Imagewear provides support center agents with various opportunities for continuous development and career growth. For instance, one program, called “Knowledge Is Power,” allows agents to participate in self-paced education. Agents earn points for reading books, participating in webinars and working on various department projects and committees. After accumulating a certain number of points, they can earn a pay increase.
Career-minded agents are also given priority when new opportunities for promotion become available within the department or outside of it. Cullum is proud of the fact that a high percentage of the center’s attrition has been positive—agents who have been promoted into other positions within the organization.
In addition to formal career paths, support center agents are encouraged to grow their skills by participating on committees. The center has several agent-led committees that form and improve internal processes and procedures, as well as interdepartmental committees to improve the customer experience.
Agents also take part in special activities, such as fund-raisers and walkathons, so that they can engage with employees from other departments. “Their job is pretty sedentary since they’re tied to the phone, so we try to give them as many opportunities as we can to interact with other colleagues, and to help them feel like part of the organization as a whole,” Cullum says.
A Rewarding Journey
The journey over the past decade has been a rewarding one, Cullum says. It began with methodically working on one improvement after another to create a contact center that can support the high reputation for which VF Imagewear’s brands are known.
“It has been a true evolution,” she says. “We have the most fantastic team of dedicated managers and agents who want our company to be successful. They’ve worked very hard to build us to the point that culminated in this award and recognition. We are very humbled by it.”