What COVID has done for Accent Group's CX strategy and approach

GM of technology and head of CX share the customer experience lessons learnt during the tough 2020 and how it's informing their festive and 2021 retail approach

Learning fast and adapting quickly have become catchcries for Accent Group’s customer experience (CX) team as it gathers lessons from 2020 to take into the festive shopping season and beyond.

Accent Group is a retailer and wholesaler of footwear brands including The Athlete’s Foot, Merrell, Skechers, Sneaker Lab and Hype. Over the past two years, the retailer has experienced huge growth and in response been ramping up its CX capabilities to service and support customers across various channels.

Accent Group GM supply chain and technology, Tim Greenstein, and head of CX, Michelle Yanez, told CMO the company had built up to over 30 dedicated CX staff across both Australia and Manila prior to the COVID-19 global pandemic striking. It also implemented Zendesk as a key tool to drive processes and systems, allowing Accent Group to scale and turn CX into a day-to-day seamless operation, Greenstein said.

“It has been an evolution in our thinking. As a retailer, we have always had a focus on how to look after the customer. The growth of digital business has also changed requirements around customer interaction and accelerated the need for digital capabilities to ensure we can give them the support and answers they needed on these channels,” he said. 

“We also have a team in the business that is very much about ownership of the customer and how to make that whole experience as well as the lifecycle of the customer better. While they were once seen as separate functions, over time and certainly through COVID we’ve increasingly looked more at these holistically this year and as we go forward.” 

The seismic CX shift

Greenstein described the COVID-19 pandemic and store closures Accent Group enacted as triggering a seismic shift in focus from bricks-and-mortar to digital. As well as shopfronts, Accent Group’s Manila team was forced to shut down. The decision was made to rally internally and build out the CX team to run everything locally.

“What enabled us to do that was we had invested in platforms, which brings structure,” Greenstein said. “Digital was one of the few mediums people could interact with us as stores shut, which saw interactions rapidly scale up in our digital channels.

“The CX roles we had brought on allowed us to tweak our helpdesk content accordingly and handle email support, which was the only thing we could run for a short period of time, as we scaled up our on-ground team. We shut down one but were able to switch around and adjust.”

Pre-COVID, Accent Group had recruited a subject manager expert, dedicated CX systems administrator and a quality assurance manager/trainer. When COVID hit, communications was the main focus initially, Yanez said, externally and internally.

“On the comms piece, the automation initiative implemented pre-COVID was about reducing the cost to serve. As that was already in place, when the wider world shutdown we were able to maintain strong communications with the customer throughout that challenging period,” she said.  

By June 2020, Accent Group online sales were up 150 per cent from in Q2, with sales in May reportedly hitting a daily record of $2 million during the Click Frenzy sale and $29m across the month. In June, digital sales accounted for 23 per cent of all group sales.

“The biggest thing to come out of this time was acceleration of digital and those virtual requirements. We had to scale up our CX capacity accordingly to meet that demand,” Greenstein said.

“A key ‘adapt and accelerate’ learning was to empower and leverage the customer experience team during the pandemic to enhance the digital shopping experience for customers while continuing to support our retail business.”

This led to inception of Accent Group’s virtual sales team, which has helped onboard new revenue streams and implemented a sales methodology now generating a reasonable percentage of group revenue. Greenstein said the big discovery during COVID was to cope with rising digital product inquiries.

“Certainly in some of our businesses, we have more high-touch points around something like fit,” he said. “That became a greater requirement online and the more specialised the requirements, the more questions. We started getting a lot of pre-sales, product-related questions that really needed to be answered in a way that helped people to be able to buy the product.

“That was probably the biggest change post-COVID – this ability to sell and create a sales funnel within the customer experience digitally and support as a core business. It was about migrating customers who require product or greater knowledge around fit into a team that was really geared up around product knowledge and can help customers choose and facilitate their ability to purchase the right product.”

As a result, the teams covering support versus sales-related inquiry work are now equally sized.

Through this work, another important aspect was what key metrics to focus on. “Metrics show us if we’re doing the right thing by our customers, and ideally that our service levels and response times are high and wait times are low. That really helps guide our CX efforts,” Greenstein continued.  

“The uncertainty of stores not opening and acceleration of digital meant we had to keep doing a better and better job of CX. It wasn’t just a response, but a value-add. We wanted to make it an experience our customers would benefit from and be comfortable with.”

Yanez pointed to a recently appointed workforce management and data analyst helping the CX team to better unpack data and understand how it’s performing in Zendesk.

“She enabled us to understand, review and rebuild the key performance metrics and as a result, noted we can no longer measure our performance holistically as CX. We now look at both the sales and support team and their respective metrics to drive best-in-class service and business outcomes,” she said.

Wider CX impact

Yanez’s team is also seeing greater focus for CX insight across the organisation and is working to democratise these to share more with key shareholders. “We’re in the process of assessing what type of data to collect and house, who’s the audience, what are their requirements, and to best distribute data in a way that derives actionable insights, with the final goal to create a closed feedback loop,” she said.  

“With the digital and traditional marketing teams, we are working to pass on key insights from the sales team to best support future initiatives. The sales support team has been running for six months, so it’s given us enough time to make this part of our ecosystem. The next step is to understand with our portfolio of brands who are the high-touch versus low-touch customers. Then we can look to scope out initiatives that will provide a greater return on investment.”  

For example, Skechers and Athlete’s Foot are considered more high-touch brands and require a greater investment of time and resources on initiatives that will increase sales for that brand. For brands where customers are happy to self-serve, Accent will invest in more AI and automation, Yanez said.

For Greenstein, the whole experience of building out the CX operating model and digital support during COVID will be a sustainable model long-term. “The opportunity for us to further grow this channel is significant,” he said.

One potential opportunity could be with smaller groups not big enough to do a B2B wholesale deal but looking to buy volume occasionally, such as a small dance studio looking to buy footwear. “This allows those smaller bulk orders to be facilitated digitally,” Greenstein said.

“This will be an added value that becomes key to our business and the ecosystem. And when we have a sales event, having this capability will support this, even as stores are open and people are shopping in-store.”  

With Accent Group now expecting a 40 per cent increase in customer inquiries in the lead up to Christmas, the preparation done to optimise CX processes and platforms will help strengthen customer loyalty well into 2021, Yanez believed. 

A recent local survey conducted by Zendesk across 1000 respondents found 41 per cent agree a positive customer experience with a retailer during the festive season will yield long-term customer loyalty. Just over one-third said positive CX impacts their desire to buy more items from a retailer, and 43 per cent said the CX provided by a retailer is a key factor in their decision to spend. 

Across the board, Australians plan to shop with brick-and-mortar retailers and online retailers at 31 per cent and 29 per cent, respectively.

Greenstein said 2020 has made the retailer “rethink everything”. “It’s certainly about how we continue to build out this CX and digital capability,” he said.

A big question is loyalty. At present, only select brands within the Accent Group have loyalty programs and CRM. The retailer is currently looking at extending its Athlete’s foot CRM offering to other brands including Skechers.

“Often you become a part of one ecosystem and have a hierarchy of value, such as premium or tier-one service access. As this evolves, we can look at this more as an ecosystem to support customer loyalty,” Greenstein said. “Certainly from an omnichannel perspective, if you’re a top customer, you could access preferred services, for example. These are things we’re thinking about across that journey for the customer.”   

Yanez cited a list of 15 priorities with an emphasis on continuous improvement. As things change, the team is also restructured and adapted. In addition, Accent Group is formalising a new contact centre, a commitment to supporting these services locally for the future.

“Learning and acting fast - that’s the key,” she added.

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