Podcast #21

How to Start a
Customer Service
Department

Andru Castle
Director of Customer Service
The Tennis & Golf Company

 

About this podcast

Today we interview Andru Castle, the Director of Customer Service at The Tennis & Golf Company.

Director of Customer Service, Andru Castle, of The Tennis & Golf Company tells us how to get started building a new customer service department … from the ground up!

https://youtu.be/uF8LKBdh9Lk

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Interview Transcript

Welcome to the Future of Customer Service Podcast. I’m Andrea Palten from Inbenta and I will be interviewing customer support and service professionals to see what is currently working well, what issues they’re trying to overcome, and the future success of customer service.

Andrea Palten
Hello there today. We have Andru Castle from The Tennis & Golf Company. He’s the Director of Customer Service. Thank you so much for being here Andru. Can you tell us a little bit more of what you do for The Tennis & Golf Company and what The Tennis & Golf Company does?

Andru Castle
Absolutely. Thank you for having me on Andrea. So, The Tennis & Golf Company is the largest specialty retail store in the Midwest. It was bought by its new owners about a year and a half ago one of which was a former CEO that I had worked for. They wanted to get into the online and retail industry once COVID started to hit and physical building numbers kind of started to drop and that’s where I come in. I was the guy they called into kind of set up a customer service department. Eventually down the line as we continue to grow, we’ll go ahead and get a team together and kind of expand from there. But that’s essentially what I was. I was the guy that called in to get everything kind of built from the ground up and get things running.

Andrea Palten
Oh, that’s great. I actually love that spot to be because (a) you get to really bring in your opportunity. I mean, your experience, and it’s kind of cool to do that because then you can help them grow and help them to get them to the place where you want to be. So, you said that they’re online. A lot of stuff’s online now or is going to be. If it wasn’t for COVID, would they still have done that? Were they going there anyways or because of COVID did they move everything online?

Andru Castle
No, the long-term plan was definitely to move to the online retail kind of sector. It’s something they had previously done with the company I’ve worked at before. COVID just kind of really sped up the timeframe of how quickly we need to be online as we went from, hey, we’re going to be mostly in-store and slowly build the online brand to all of a sudden, hey, we’re 100% online as of yesterday, so let’s get the website up and running.

Andrea Palten
Oh, wow. Yeah, a little bit stressful. A little bit stressful. Yeah. So, tell me, are you already then doing customer service work, or are you still building up to it?

Andru Castle
So right now, I’m handling all of the inbound traffic from customers. We started with just one website, which was tennisrackets.com. We’ve now acquired skates.com. So, we’re moving to the inline and ice skate world as well, which is an area I’m very familiar with. We also have golfclubs.com now. So slowly, we’re starting to build the various sites that will become the tennis and golf family. But as of right now myself and one other individual that I’ve picked, another gentleman I’ve worked with before, we’re handling all inbound calls, emails, returns, the whole gambit. But it’s a good place to be because that’s how you really get a feel for what it’s going to be like working in that department for the companies. Whenever you move to a new variety of products or even a new industry, you know, it gets really stressful cause you don’t know what to expect. It’s been nice to kind of get a firsthand view being in the trenches of what’s going to happen as we continue to grow.

Andrea Palten
Yes, for sure. So, tell me then since you actually already are doing the work, you and your other partner that’s doing customer service with you. What are you doing to promote great customer service?

Andru Castle
So, our first big thing that we like to push is we’re always going to side with the customer as best as we can to try and help them out, whether it’s a shipment not being received, which is an unfortunate reality we’re living in right now with USPS being delayed and even UPS and FedEx to a degree. We’re doing whatever it takes to make sure that the customer is taken care of first and foremost, putting that customer first. Handling the claims, handling other stuff on our side, making sure that your inventory is right, is going to come secondary to making sure that our promoters, our customers are our biggest priority. So, we’re going to be on the frontline of speaking for them, being advocates for them to our buyers, to our marketing team, to our IT and our CEO even making sure we can do whatever we can to help them out first and foremost, and then helping out the company is second.

Andrea Palten
That’s great. That’s such a great place to be to do that. So, since it’s just the two of you guys’ limited resources, how are you dealing with that?

Andru Castle
So, and this is another reason why I was very happy to come on board when I was originally reached out to by our CEO to come on for this new venture he was doing. I know that Andy Schepper, who is our CEO, has always been one of the kinds of guys who lead by example. If there’s shipping that needs to be done, it doesn’t matter whether he’s the president or just a guy on the sales floor, he’s out there ringing out orders and getting things packaged up to go out the door. 

Everyone in the company has been tremendous in keeping that kind of mentality, from our IT and our marketing and our content team all the way down to our customer service team. It helps that a lot of us have worked together previously so there’s already a good dynamic, good chemistry there. We kind of know-how each other thinks and functions, but everyone’s pulling double, triple, quadruple duty to kind of get through until, you know, we can be in a good place to hire the staff we need for all the additional positions and work that needs to be done. So, it’s one of those, everyone kind of the Jack of all trades to an extent to make sure that we keep everything afloat as best as we can. 

Andrea Palten
Yeah. So, it’s almost like you guys put together the dream team since you guys already knew each other before it makes things so much easier. I like that the CEO is actually digging in and to me when you see that first of all, that’s cool but also what happens is you really learn. You learn what customer complaints are even happening, what they’re saying, how they use language. So, you can use that language in your marketing and sales or in your customer service language. So, it’s a really good thing, and for those of you guys who are listening, as you guys know with COVID, we’re all from home. So, you might’ve heard, heard a dog or maybe a cat even. Both Andru and I have animals in the background. So, just deal with us.

Andru Castle
Yeah. Both my boys are fairly vocal people, especially when I’m not paying attention to them and my cats like to snuggle up at the most inopportune times. So, for those of you who are viewing, you might actually see them pop up from time to time. I’ll do my best to keep them at least quiet for the best of my abilities.

Andrea Palten
Love it, love it, love it, love it. Okay. So now you started this new customer service role, or you’ve all you started this department really. What are you measuring? What right now is the most important thing that you guys are measuring to see if it’s successful or not what you are doing?

Andru Castle
So, we had utilized Net Promoter previously at the last company that we have worked in. We are utilizing that promoter again to kind of keep track. I’ve always been both a fan and a detractor as it works for Net Promoter because it gives you a good temperature reading on how things are going from an overview standpoint. Being physically on the phones, viewing emails in real-time, seeing sales as they kind of come in, and being on the ground, gives you a better sense of the direction that you’re heading in, how customers are kind of feeling about you, and the company you work for strictly because you’re going to be getting real-time with opinions, real-time decisions being made by customers. If they’re telling you, I’m probably not going to shop with you again, or, you know, hey, you guys made my holiday or my kid’s birthday, etc., chances are you’re going to feel a lot better about the direction you’re heading in and what you need to do from that standpoint.

So, the big thing for me is while we do have metrics that we keep track of, and I say, metrics on the loose ends right. Right now, we’re still building everything together so we’re still using analog phone systems where we’re kind of keeping a tally as we go, of the actual phone calls we’re taking a day as opposed to being able to look at a report. But a lot of the actual metrics we’re using are just kind of guidelines at this point. This is what we’re aiming for. This is what we want to hit. Eventually down the line when we have better technology and reporting available to us, it’ll be a lot easier to keep track of those things. But for the most part, it’s just a general sense of being in there in the moment with the customer, kind of talking to them and getting a vibe for how everything’s going. That’s really dictating how we continue to push forward and how we evolve as we keep moving forward as a company. 

Andrea Palten
Yeah. Okay. I like that you have that plan for the future too. You will change. You will have to change. Talking about change I saw on your LinkedIn because of course, I had to stalk you. That’s what a podcast host does that you’ve had multiple customer service roles. So, you’re very comfortable in this field. What is your plan with artificial intelligence currently at the current company and also, I want to know what you think the future role of AI is in customer service?

Andru Castle
So, there is a lot of manual stuff that is still being done behind the scenes. A lot of people think that it’s being handled by a program or some sort of app that’s built into the website, whether it be automated update emails or making sure the tracking information gets loaded and sent to the right people. A lot of times, that’s not something that’s built naturally into the website or the system or the shipping program, or even the point of sales programs that you’re using. I don’t think a lot of people, whether it be they don’t have retail experience themselves or they just don’t realize it because technology evolves like that. A lot of the updates for stuff that’s on pre-order that we sell through the website, those updates are all being sent by myself and the other gentleman who works for me.

So, some days there might be three orders to update. Some days there might be 150 orders to update, and we’ve got to go through each email manually. So, a lot of times there’s things that can kind of slip through the cracks. I think artificial intelligence in the long run will solve a lot of that problems once the programming, the coding is there to push those things automatically to our customers. I’m happy for that in the sense that they’re going to stay better informed of how their order is going, what’s happening on our end. They don’t just think we disappeared after we take their money. That’s not a good thing. On the other hand, there are some things that AI obviously just can’t replicate that a real person, a real human contact speaking with somebody on the phone can absolutely do reassuring someone that we’re handling this with this claim with UPS or that don’t worry, here’s your order information but they’re panicking because their kid’s birthday is on Friday and they need to make sure the order goes out today and it’s 15 minutes before the cut-off. 

Chances are if you call in and you talk to us and you explain what was happening, we’re going to do everything in our power to make sure that it gets done. That’s not something that a computer can necessarily handle with just placing an order from a customer. So, on one hand, I’ve seen the evolution of what artificial intelligence and a better-automated system can do in terms of increasing the customer’s experience and improving the customer’s experience through shopping on our website or even our physical location. On the other hand, it’s something that it will never just flat out replace customer service in my mind, at least not for people who value customer service and making sure their customers approve of how they’re being handled and treated.

Andrea Palten
Yeah. The one good thing is that we’re getting more advanced, and it is more personable now. It used to be so robotic and cold and now you get slang and it actually sounds like a real human being talking to you. There’s somebody that I interviewed, it’s actually a customer of ours and they have a ski mountain, multiple ski resorts. It made me think of you and your business because you were saying, you do the skating, that you do the tennis, you do the golf, and they were doing the same thing. They were doing everything on their own, answering everything, and then all of a sudden it became too much, which is good. They were growing right… 

Andru Castle
Absolutely.

Andrea Palten
…and actually seeing that all the chats that they get to. They have a chatbot on their website. 80% is being handled by the chatbot and the people are super happy. Then about 20% is getting those birthday things that you were mentioning. Oh my gosh, or my kid is stuck on the lift or something like that and those are getting escalated, but they were able to free up their customer service so much because their chatbot was, it’s called natural language processing where it’s really just normal talk. Then they had to talk about COVID and Coronavirus and the pandemic because everybody is using different words. So, it’s definitely gotten so much better. Again, I like that you guys are doing it though, all on your own right now. I know it’s a lot of work. I know you probably don’t like it every day. You’re like set up to really understand your people and their needs and once you are going to be there where you can’t do it anymore or you have to hire 100 people to take the calls, then being able to set up some kind of knowledge center or a chatbot or some kind of AI. You’re going to be so golden because you’re going to speak exactly like your customer. So, it’s cool to see what you’re doing.

Andru Castle
Yeah. That was one of the big draws for me here. The previous company I worked for Mr. Schepper and a gentleman named Steve Kopitz was Summit Sports which funny enough is a ski and snowboard company and I’m very familiar with how those industries work as well. I got in as just a regular old phone rep starting on the ground back in 2009 and I worked my way up to the Director of Customer Service for that company, but I had gotten in right after they had moved from all being crammed, like 30, too many people crammed into one tiny office upfront with a warehouse being in the back of the building. I’d gotten in right after they’d gotten past that point and I’d always heard great stories about how fun it is to work that close and in tandem with so many different departments. Everyone kind of jumps in and helps out as best as they can.

So, when I had the opportunity to jump in and do it again with the same team, I said, absolutely. I dropped what I was doing and came on over and it’s exactly like you said. It’s an awesome opportunity to not only build something that I feel passionate about and that I really like doing, but it’s also the opportunity to watch it as it kind of grows and expands and learn myself how to deal with it from the actual ground all the way up, building it my style. It’s going to be a crazy, crazy adventure. I already know based on what I’m already seeing, and it is a lot of work, although I will say I do love it I would say 99.99% of the time I’m there. But more importantly, it’s going to be a great learning experience long-term for me, not only for myself but for those around me as we kind of do this dance all over again. 

Andrea Palten
Yeah. Yeah. So, I usually end up asking my guests to give one piece of advice to customer service departments, but I’m going to change it for you because I have a question for you that to other people that are just like you, first boots on the ground. You’re the first man on the moon, starting out a customer service department. To all those people that are doing exactly what you’re doing all on your own really. What number one piece of advice do you have for new Director of Customer Service people for a new business, a new customer service department?

Andru Castle
So, my one piece of advice would probably vary depending on the type of person. If they’re like me and they’re often kind of a perfectionist and therefore kind of get down on themselves when things aren’t going 100% according to plan. Keep in mind, things are not anything like they have been ever in the time that I’ve been around or most likely the others have been around. COVID has changed things. Technology has changed things and we’ll continue to keep changing things. Got to remember to take it easy on yourself. You can’t take it with you when you go home, and you can’t take it from customer to customer either. Each person, even if they’re asked the same question a thousand times a day, that person doesn’t know that the 999 people before them also asked the same question. You can’t take it out on them, and you can’t get down on yourself like you didn’t do something. It’s going to get better as time goes on. 

For those who are familiar with maybe like the customer service experience and are just trying to grow their own brand, you’ve got to remember that at the end of the day customer comes first. You’re trying to build the company and obviously, you want the company to do well, but you’re providing, or at least you should be trying to provide top-notch service regardless of what happens. At the end of the day, the only way to keep the company going is by helping those customers out and advocating for them, and being their number one fans. So, I’d say that the biggest thing to keep in mind for those types of individuals would be to just make sure you remember that the customer has got to be number one. Obviously don’t just lay down for everything, but put that customer first and think about how you would like it if you were in their shoes in that particular situation. Do whatever you can to do what would make you happy and for all my other phone reps and other individuals who are out there on the grind all the time, I’d say my number one piece of advice is to invest in a very, very strong coffee.

Andrea Palten
Nice. We’re going to end there because I like that. That’s gold. Strong coffee, Andru, I really appreciate you being here. Thank you so much and I wish you the best of luck, although you don’t need luck, you know what you’re doing, and I appreciate your time.

Andru Castle
My pleasure and thank you so much.

Thanks so much for tuning in. This podcast was brought to you by Inbenta. Inbenta symbolic AI implements natural language processing that requires no training data with Inbenta’s extensive lexicon and patented algorithms. Check out this robust customer interaction platform for your AI needs, from chatbots to search to knowledge centers and messenger platforms. Just go to our website to request a demo at inbenta.com. That’s I-N-B-E-N-T-A.com and if you liked what you heard today, please be sure to subscribe to this podcast and leave us a review. Thank you.