Booktopia CX chief: Getting to know the customer better

Customer experience manager at Australian online bookseller talks about what customer engagement needs to look like and how Booktopia will remain relevant as Amazon hits Australian shores

Alex Huntley, Booktopia
Alex Huntley, Booktopia

While much of the Australian retail landscape has worked itself into a lather this year thanks to the onshore arrival of Amazon, for one local company, the US-based giant has been a factor in its life since the very beginning.

Online bookseller, Booktopia, started trading in 2004, an entire decade after Amazon’s formation. Despite Amazon’s apparent dominance, Booktopia has appeared eight times on AFR/BRW’s Fast 100 list, and today has annual revenue well beyond $100 million.

According to Booktopia customer service manager Alex Huntley, the key to competing successfully with Amazon is to be focused.

“The companies that compete successfully with Amazon are the ones who know how they are, and the focus is on delivering what they specialise in,” Huntley says. “The recent arrival has really crystallised that thinking for us. We are focusing on what we do well, and that is our range and our speed of shipping.”

Booktopia’s success to date even gives Huntley confidence that Amazon’s local arrival might actually be a good thing for his company.

“Australia lags the US and UK in ecommerce as a proportion of total retail sales, and we think the arrival of Amazon will help grow the overall ecommerce space,” Huntley says. “Add if we continue to keep competing effectively then that is something we can share in.”

Huntley came to his role at Booktopia having started in the lower rungs of the customer service industry, handling calls for pizza delivery and working his way into managing reward, loyalty and customer programs across various industries, including telecommunications and retail.

“The conversation around customer experience is often led from the marketing side of things,” Huntley says. “But if you take a holistic view, it is really about providing an experience that is seamless and makes sense for a customer – so logical but also effortless.

“Any time you are creating friction for a customer, those friction points can lead you to losing them.”

One area of focus for Booktopia to remove friction points is automation.

“Whether it is market automation or contact automation, that will change things,” Huntley says. “At the same time, you see a trend among some customers to want genuine interactions. So how those things are balanced together is going to be really, really important. That is where the frontier is for customer experience.”

Know your customer

Getting to know customers well is an ongoing challenge for Booktopia. Book purchasing is an infrequent activity for most customers, and despite the company operating through multiple channels including Angus & Robertson, Bookworld and the Catch and eBay marketplaces, gaining sufficient intelligence on customer preferences can be difficult.

“We have an incredibly diverse customer base,” Huntley says. “We sell all kinds of books to all kinds of customers, and our customers don’t always buy for themselves. So trying to understand who our customer is, is a very loaded question, because our customer is very, very multi-faceted.

“Growing so rapidly, we have a lot of new customers, and we need time for them to have a relationship, so we can understand what drives them and what their behaviours are beyond that first order.

“Someone might have bought text books, but at heart they are really a romance reader. So trying to understand what segments they really fall into is where all of the effort is going. Our journey is about moving from genre-based content to being more refined.”

Getting to the heart of customer preferences has led Booktopia to make significant investments in its analytic capabilities, to turn the masses of data it collects into something useful. Huntley says the company’s goal is to develop a clearer picture of what a consumer might want to buy next.

“What we have done over the last 12 to 18 months is build the systems and the data capture mechanisms to collate that data,” Huntley says. “We now have that data in a form that we can access and analyse, and that work is beginning now. Those roles didn’t exist in our organisation two years ago.”

While Amazon looms large on the horizon, Huntley says Booktopia won’t seek to emulate its model of moving into diversified product ranges, as ultimately he does not believe that will help the company compete.

“It is about knowing what you are good at and what your customers value from what you provide, and the having a laser focus on those things,” he says. “We are a bookseller – that’s our roots and that is what we continue to do well. Our customers appreciate getting the books quickly, and they appreciate finding what they are looking for easily. So the combination of that is a good experience for them.

“We’re not a business that is built on rocket science. We are a business that is built on doing the simple things right and being consistent over a long period of time.”

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