For the second quarter in a row, L.L. Bean reigns supreme on Stella Service's benchmark report of retailers' customer service performance. Stella Service evaluated retailers by looking at a number of service areas, including the speed with which customer service issues are handled, the efficiency of returns and exchanges, and the amount of missed opportunities for customer engagement. Most notable were L.L. Bean's prompt responses to both phone and email requests, according to the report.
In a live test, Stella Service Analysts were able to reach a representative via phone in about 30 seconds and received responses via email in about an hour. As for the rest of the companies in L.L. Bean's category, only 10 percent connected callers to agents in under 30 seconds. Email performance was even worse—roughly 40 percent took over 12 hours to respond, the report states.
Because speed is a key differentiating factor for consumer-facing companies, brands can't afford to take too long to respond, Shep Hyken, customer service expert, says. "The best companies have figured out that if they want to play in the space, they have to play fast and respond quickly. If you send me an email, I don't want to wait several hours or several days. The best companies respond within an hour," he says.
The Stella Service benchmark report also evaluated companies' shipping and return policies. L.L. Bean performed particularly well in the returns category, which, according to the report, many companies overlook. A simple step such as including a prepaid shipping label, for example, makes a tremendous difference to customers. Furthermore, designing policies for honest customers rather than dishonest ones goes a long way as well, Hyken says.
"If one in every 500 customers tries to take advantage of the company, don't create rules that negatively affect the other 499 customers. If somebody comes in with an item and they don't have the receipt and it's in good shape, just take it back," he urges.
On a broad scale, the effectiveness of a company's customer service efforts—especially when it comes returns or exchanges—ties back to trust. "L.L. Bean engages in what Peppers and Rogers call 'extreme trust.' Their guarantee, for example, is renowned but also is a symbol of the company's attitude toward customers. Buy a pair of boots, wear them twenty-five years, if they wear out you can get your money back," customer service author Chip Bell says.
The other crucial feature of service in retail that Stella Service didn't evaluate directly is effort, Bell adds. Customers want to do business with companies that are easy to do business with, he points out, and the more hassle and bureaucracy involved with every interaction, the more frustrated customers become. Consumers have been spoiled by brands such as Zappos and Amazon that have nearly perfected the art of customer service interactions, but L.L. Bean holds its own in this regard, according to Bell. "L.L. Bean has crafted processes that make the service experience as effortless as possible," he says.