Sears Chooses the Human Touch over IVR

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While many businesses are shifting service strategies to interactive voice recognition and automated answering systems, Sears Home Central is finding that the human touch can boost operating efficiencies and improve data gathering techniques.


Live agents staff the nationwide number 1-800-4-My-Home, which was introduced in the fall to support Sears' repair business. The company currently is back filling operations, upgrading systems and training reps to better present its human side. Sears recently introduced an interactive voice response system in its stores, enabling callers to be directed to departments, but it finds that for service repair, real people work better than automation.


"When consumers call [Sears Home Central], they get a human being. We want to be able to serve our customers," said Elaine Bolle, vice president, marketing and sales for the home services division of Sears, Roebuck and Co., Hoffman Estates, IL. "Right now the sheer volume of calls are still for appliance repair, and obviously going through a gate is more effective for us. [But,] we are in the service business, and are trying to keep a very high touch component to everything we are doing."


The approach is providing Sears with greater up-sell and cross-sell opportunities, while at the same time building relationships with callers and customers.


"While we have the customer on the phone our goal is to make an appointment or sell a warranty," said Bolle. "We have a relationship and back it with our satisfaction guarantee. These people have a tie with Sears, and we build a two-way dialogue. That's what is working to build the business."


Sears introduced Sears Home Central to select markets in 1996 to try to capture repairs -- for everything from appliances and heating and cooling systems, to roofing and windows -- for Sears and other products. The 800 number expanded the program nationwide, providing consumers with a central means for service inquires, resolution, appointment scheduling and the opportunity to speak with a repair specialist.


"We are constantly retraining and re-scripting our agents," Bolle said. "The agents are aware of the services we provide, but they will also put callers in touch with an expert."


Agents also serve as repair consultants through extensive scripting and training that helps them to resolve callers' problems. In some cases this eliminates the need for callers to be transferred to a repair expert or to make an appointment.


"Our scripts walk them through uncovering what is wrong," Bolle said. "We have rapid resolution through simple questions. You would not believe how many calls we can avoid and the expense we can save them because we have really well-trained agents."


Although Bolle would not disclose specific systems or cost, she said the company's strategy is to evolve call center operations continually.


"We are making the systems more sophisticated every day. As the business gets more complex we are trying to make it more simple for call center operations," she said.


One of the strategies has been to consolidate the various service repair phone numbers the company had operated according to the type of repair needed. Consolidation was completed earlier this year, and already, more than a quarter of the service division's 100 million calls annually have shifted to the Sears Home Central toll-free lines.


The centralized number is helping the company target more customers and enhance its existing database, which represents nearly 100 million households.


"The Sears database is one of the largest and most detailed databases in the country," Bolle said. "We can look at profiles of our customers and target for very specific services and products that we are selling. Our integrated marketing efforts on this front have been incredibly successful."


Bolle said the company is ramping up integrated direct marketing efforts by marrying database information through call centers and retail with direct marketing efforts that are executed by mail, as well as inbound and outbound calling campaigns.


"We are only just beginning one of the most important parts of our marketing budgets," Bolle said. "We will be doing more and more work on relationship marketing because it is a significant and growing segment behind our efforts."


The new number is promoted through 15-, 30- and 60-second spots created by Wunderman Cato Johnson, NY. The two spots, "Umpteen Appliances" and "Wedding" help position the company as a neighborhood repair service.


"For customers to have access to our services they have to call us," Bolle said. "The toll-free number appears in every single thing we do. Our goal is to have the consumer remember one number and to have us serve as one central source for household services from someone customers know. This is truly an example of relationship marketing, because people want to know who is coming into their home."
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