Byline: Denise Power

NEW YORK — “Smarter” promotional offers created by database-driven technology tested in a Brylane call center led to sales increases and heightened customer service, according to chief executive officer Russell Stravitz. Now the catalog retailer is rolling out the software to all of its call centers nationwide.
The tool supports call center staff by prompting them to make better product recommendations to customers calling in their orders by telephone. The product suggestions are customized to the individual customer, to some degree, because past purchase history is taken into account.
“The software has access to our database [and information about] what a customer is buying and what her purchase history is — as well as that of like customers. The software creates a smarter offer than our customer service representatives can make” using Brylane’s existing systems, Stravitz said.
Brylane compared performance of its internally developed product recommendation systems with that of technology developed by Net Perceptions of Minneapolis, over a 13-week period. Sales increases were evident among those using the new technology, Stravitz said, although he declined to cite specific results. “Their offers were positively received; we sold more, and our customer service reps were better able to serve the customer. They were smarter.
“Based on that, we decided to move forward and establish a much broader use of the product,” he added. “We are ready to go to the next level and install the product throughout our call centers.” The implementation is expected to be completed this spring.
Call center staff employed by catalog retailers use a wide variety of product recommendation strategies, some of which are script-driven. For example, a script may dictate that a representative processing an order for a three-quarter-length coat should suggest a specific scarf to the customer. But Brylane’s new technology would take into account the customer’s past purchases as well as that of other customers sharing similar attributes. That way, if past history shows this particular customer likes handbags, the call center employee may be prompted to suggest a bag instead of the scarf.
Stravitz declined to detail Brylane’s traditional product recommendation strategy but said the new systems deliver more targeted, and therefore more effective, offers because the suggestions are based on personal preferences.
“This is an example of where technology really is helping us provide better service and sell more, and that is the name of game,” he said. “The main goal was to facilitate our customer service rep and help her serve the customer better. One way to do that is to sell the customer things that she would want.”
Retailers are primed to adopt these sophisticated tools, said Jeff Roster, senior analyst for global industries and retail at Gartner Dataquest, which is part of the Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner technology research company.
“Retailers, as of yet, have not adopted this technology because it hasn’t been available [and they] are just beginning to understand what opportunities this technology presents,” Roster said.
“With retail store personnel turnover approaching 100 percent over the course of a few years, this technology really makes sense,” he added. And it can foster loyalty, since stores show customers they are investing in a long-term relationship.
“When I was a kid and went to the local Penney’s with my mom, we’d have the same sales clerk. She was in the same department my entire childhood, so she knew us and could offer assistance. Those days are long gone,” Roster said.
Stravitz said the new technology will go into call centers first, but the plan is to incorporate it into e-commerce operations as well. Not only will the new capability be used to drive Web sales, but when integrated with call center operations, Brylane will gain a more complete view of its customers whether they make purchases via telephone or the Internet.
Brylane, whose catalog operations include Lane Bryant, Roaman’s, Jessica London, Lerner and Chadwick’s of Boston, is part of the French Pinault-Printemps-Redoute group.

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