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A home-grown ecommerce success story, Booktopia has over 4 million Australian customers. Head of Customer Experience, Alex Huntley, shares the company’s CX evolution through a period of rapid growth, and the impact of COVID-19 on employees on and offshore. 

Booktopia has enjoyed significant growth over the last few years. How have you evolved the customer experience to accommodate this?

I liken my experience at Booktopia to being part of a 16-year start-up. When I started in 2013, I’d have to explain who Booktopia was to people I met, now everyone has a Booktopia story to tell me. This growth has really been a challenge, as what you could achieve with effort is replaced by the need to scale resources, and then by the requirement to do tasks at scale and automate. And, through that, what you do today might not be enough, or good enough for tomorrow. We couldn’t always wait until we were ready to jump to the next stage, we just had to adapt and find ways to make it work, but always with a long view to keep improving.

We’ve invested millions in recent years in keeping up with that demand, implementing high speed packing machines and high-rise-high-density storage for the more than 100,000 titles and 500,000 books we have in stock. This development hasn’t stopped and we’re very excited that the next generation of these automations (super-duper high speed?) are coming on line later this year. All of this is to get books to our customers quicker.

On the service side, we’ve grown the team significantly, invested in systems that let us scale as well, and turned our service around from an inside-out mode (where we defined the service needs) to truly be customer-centred and attempting to anticipate the service needs of our customers.

With a team in the Philippines, how did you manage customer service during lockdowns?

The situation in the Philippines was really challenging, and it was a rapidly evolving proposition with new edicts being announced and enforced on a daily basis. We made an early decision (luckily) to go with a full work-from-home model, and through our partner, we couriered all the team workstations out to their homes, just beating the lock-down by hours. They essentially built new networks and enabled all the required security and VPN platforms so the team could stay online.

Once settled we needed to focus on our team. It was really important that we did everything we could to keep them connected virtually, to maintain morale and a positive attitude. This meant keeping the useful parts of daily routines intact and using video tools to keep the social connections and fun. We also needed to be supportive because there was a lot of disruption to daily life, the lock-downs were quite severe and we needed to provide all the flexibility our team needed to adapt to those conditions. At Booktopia, we are one team and making sure our people were safe was super important, regardless of their location. Business continuity in this sense was also about looking after our team. Without this in place, and a commitment to enabling work from home, there would have been a very real and personal impact on our team members.

How does Booktopia differentiate its CX with a giant competitor like Amazon?

Booktopia is focussed on books; that’s our passion and that’s our expertise, and we realised that if we wanted to continue to be successful we needed to double-down on what we do best. We put our energy into helping customers find what they are looking for, because book buying can sometimes be bewildering. Our book merchandisers and content team are endlessly creating content: specialist pages and collections, author pages, series lists, blogs and podcasts that help Australians learn more about the great books out there.  And let’s not forget our long support of Australian authors and local publishing!

Being obsessed with our customers also means being available for their needs. Customers will always have questions and there’s only so much you can achieve with on-page support or a help centre. So the question became, “How do we make this easier for customers?” It’s been a mainstay of Booktopia that you can pick up the phone and call us, and as technology has progressed, we have made this even more widely available, whether accessing self service on the site, live chat or engaging with the Booktopia Bot – however you need to you can get help. The Booktopia Bot wasn’t established with the primary goal of being a call deflector (I hate that term). There are no dead ends and at any time you can convert that contact into live chat if we’re available or an email.

Which channels do you offer customers and can you talk to your biggest channel challenges?

Customers can reach Booktopia by phone, live chat 7 days/week, via Facebook Messenger, and with the Booktopia Bot we’re able to answer many simple questions quickly 24/7. Email is still our main channel however, but this is also the channel where it’s hardest to make a connection with a customer.

Service channels need to help solve customer problems, not just be part of an omnichannel service stack. It may seem obvious to push out into more and more channels, and try to be everywhere, but we’ve switched to trying to engage with customers on the channel where we can provide them the best outcome. For some concerns it’s hard to beat a phone call, but for other queries, for example eBook support, live chat allows for real-time help. We can send you a quick instruction, or a link to click through for a download, and still be there to walk you through the steps as you access that; and it’s way more personable and fun than email!

I can’t help looking at this still as a process of managing the symptoms. If we can better manage customer expectations, if we can keep them better informed on the progress of their orders, then I think we’re offering a better experience. Being proactive keeps us connected, like with a thread, and we can offer the right support channel at key points through this approach, keeping that thread intact.

In what ways has COVID-19 left a lasting impact on your approach to CX and EX?

I think we are all changed by the events of this year and collectively recognise that what we understood to be “normal” is not normal any longer. There’s been an undoubted shift to ecommerce during the COVID-19 wave, it’s natural, and we’ve had to adapt our operations and service to manage through this.

Australians have sought out books to help them through this time and it’s been gratifying to have been part of that.

We feel very lucky and don’t take it for granted that we have been able to continue operations and service our customers.

We weren’t sure that a work-from-home customer service model could work outside of disaster recovery/business continuity. Clearly that myth has been busted. When the playing board has been tipped it really opens up the room to ask questions of how you do things, we’ve been forced to adapt and that creates conditions for open-mindedness. So work from home will be part of the mix, it has been terrific for our Philippines team and also really works for some team members here. 

Regardless of all of this, our customers’ core needs haven’t really changed. So we remain on the path to be more responsive, more proactive, and to make it easier to shop with Booktopia.