0 snow

January 2013 is rapidly becoming like December 2010. Many of you based in the UK reading this will have very clear recollections of what happened just over two years ago – the kids may have loved it, but for many businesses, it was not pretty! As I look out of my window watching the snow fall, I am wondering how many organisations have changed since December 2013 – how many businesses altered their business processes to mitigate future problems caused by the weather. I am not sure enough did. So just what did happen in 2010?

In December 2010 the snow fell – and fell. At the most critical time of the year for the majority of businesses, severe snowfall had a very damaging effect on their ability to fulfil their promises to customers. It was the first very heavy snowfall prior to Christmas that the majority of the country had seen since the internet home shopping revolution. One thing that this revolution has ensured is that many of us rely on deliveries being made to our homes. One thing that can prevent that from happening is severe weather. In December 2010, thousands upon thousands of customers did not get their Christmas presents. Many organisations stopped delivering to Scotland altogether!

All businesses struggled, but the way they reacted differed. At the time, I was working as Group Head of Customer Experience for Shop Direct Group (SDG). The business that runs brands such as Very.co.uk, Littlewoods and isme, had always been very focussed on ensuring business continuity whatever happens to be thrown at it. In December 2010, SDG was affected by the weather in exactly the same way as anyone else, but it was proactive thinking and innovation that ensured that almost all of their customers that Christmas did get their presents in time – or at least knew exactly what was happening.

One thing that SDG did in Scotland, for example, was to put containers in the car parks of supermarkets. It was too treacherous for them to make door to door deliveries on residential streets, but they could at least get the desperately needed Christmas presents delivered as close to the customer as possible. Whilst most retailers had shut off Scotland completely, SDG found a way.

But when we suffer from inclement weather in this country (and we know how easy and quick it is for us to ‘shut down’), one of the key issues we have is related to our own staff. With heavy snowfall, large numbers of employees become unable to get in to work. Some cannot get there due to issues with public transport; some cannot get there because it is just too dangerous. A lot of parents become unable to get to work due to school closures. Whilst our customers are all in the same situation, they do not necessarily seem to understand that when they dial a company to find out where their parcel is!!

SDGs greatest innovation in 2010 was to be completely and fully prepared for what ended up happening. As a result of the foresight and passion of Nicola Collister – SDGs Customer Experience Director at the time – a relationship with a company called Arise had been instigated. Arise is the world’s leading provider of virtual business process outsourcing and contact center services (http://www.arise.com/) – in other words, the leading company at enabling you to have customer service staff who can operate from the safety and comfort of their own homes. Now that can be a pretty handy thing to have when it becomes impossible for your staff to actually get in to work.

SDGs motivations for introducing ‘homeworking’ as part of their complete contact centre model’ was largely to ensure that they could keep serving customers whatever happened. This proved to be a master stroke in December 2010. Whilst many contact centres were struggling to answer the phone, SDG were able to not just continue ‘business as usual’, they were able to be proactive with customers. Every customer was contacted during the bad weather – some were proactively contacted multiple times. All of SDGs customers knew what was happening to their parcel. The Arise homeworking solution made it possible.

That Christmas, despite the difficulties in delivering parcels to customers, SDGs customer satisfaction increased. Verbatim comments captured from customers detailed how happy they were at being ‘kept in the loop’. Customers commented that they could trust Littlewoods or Very to deliver – they were heart-warming comments that were a reflection of the men and women who made it into the distribution centres; drove the lorries and vans in treacherous conditions; and contacted customers by telephone and email to ensure they knew what was going on.

The brands that comprise SDG are as good as it gets when it comes to ‘home shopping’. What SDG is absolutely best at though is Christmas – having contingencies and solutions to ensure that nothing goes wrong is their absolute reason for being. That Christmas – SDG could not stop the snow from falling – but they made sure that Father Christmas had sufficient presents under the tree. I am pretty sure that they are still out there now delivering woolly jumpers and waterproof coats to customers up and down the land. I can also guarantee that if you have a question, you will have no problem getting through to them. Even if some of the staff cannot get in to the call centres, their Arise agents will be there – whatever the weather!

So let us ask the question again – how many businesses have changed the way they do things since December 2010? It would be interesting to know if some of them have failed to act – have not considered home-working as an option. Why wouldn’t you consider it as part of your customer contact strategy? It is never too late to start!

As always, I welcome your comments on any of my blogs.