John Roberts, Chief Executive of Appliances Online is changing the face of white goods retailing in Britain and re-defining the concept of online customer service.

Many senior business people, talk about delivering great customer service in a very clinical way. In reality, for some it is just another clichéd bullet point on the list of ‘things’ you need to say you care about! The other day however, I met and interviewed the most genuinely, innovative, pragmatic and passionate advocate of outstanding customer service that I have ever met … a man who has turned his enthusiasm and beliefs about ‘service’ into a £270 million business.  

John Roberts, Founder and Chief Executive of Bolton based Appliances Online, who employ around 600 people, lives and breaths great customer service delivery and has made his ideas about being customer driven, the heart and centrepiece of his business. In so doing, he is well on the way to changing the face of white goods retailing forever in Britain. 

Before I tell you more about John and how his customer service approach and methods translate into business success, let me see if my past experience of buying a white goods appliance, from a traditional shop rings any unpleasant bells?  

Some years ago, I vividly remember being in a white goods retail store, wandering up and down maze like aisles of fridges and freezers, searching for elusive sales staff who I quickly discovered knew less about the products than I did. Once we got to the buying and arranging delivery discussion, I was told that it couldn’t be delivered for two weeks and was going to be on a day that was inconvenient for me. The sales person mentioned, as if it was the most reasonable thing in the world, “that you will have to wait in “between 7 am – 7 pm, because it could come at anytime and we aren’t allowed to bring it up the three steps at the front door because of health and safety reasons”. When the big day came, they failed to turn up at all with no communication or apology. When I did try to call ‘customer services’, I was on hold for 14 minutes at my expense, listening to a recording telling me over and over again how much they ‘care about their customers’. Sound familiar? 

Contrast this with my Appliances Online experience last week. I had never previously heard of them, until a friend who knew my freezer was broken said to me casually, “Appliances Online are the people to go to … don’t buy anything until you have visited their website.” 

I did look at it and I did buy a freezer from them. It was the best and most perfectly customer service constructed retail experience I have ever had. 

Now, I want to be very clear about this … I am a business and customer services writer, speaker, commentator and consultant. I am not here to blow the trumpet for Appliances Online. The purpose of this article, is to show how it really is possible to build a business development strategy entirely around customer requirements and great service. Perhaps the John Robert’s mindset, thinking and methods will inspire other businesses? 

With this in mind, let me contrast the above typical white goods shopping horror story, with my Appliances Online purchase. Here is a list of just some of the key points of my freezer buying experience looked at from a service point of view: 

  • Their website showed a very detailed 5 minutes informational, non-sales style video presentation of the exact product I was interested in. Half way through watching it, my wife said, “we’ll buy that”. Applicances Online have a production team of 40 making thousands of such videos to help their customers with their choices. 
  • I could have bought online but I had a product question, so I called. I got straight through. They have measurable targets of having 90% of calls being answered within 10 seconds. 
  • I spoke to a genuinely happy sounding, friendly member of staff called Hannah. She went out of her way to be really helpful and was immediately able to answer the product related questions for me. 
  • I placed my order over the phone, for a date that was convenient for me. They promised me delivery within a four-hour window on the day and that they would text at 7 am in the morning, with more delivery timing information. I was also told that if for any reason I wanted to change my mind when I saw the product, I could have it collected free of charge anytime and get a refund. 
  • At precisely 7 am on the day as promised, I got a text narrowing down the delivery time window. 10 minutes later I got a phone call on my landline with a recorded message about this and 20 minutes later my mobile rang. It was the driver who told me they were 20 minutes away. 
  • 20 minutes later the van arrived. Two polite, helpful people took my old freezer away, set up the new one, shook hands with me and left. 

All promises were kept and the retail process had been seamless and trouble free. Quite brilliant. Oh and I nearly forgot … the price of the freezer was also significantly cheaper than if I had got it from a traditional store. 

How does all this happen? Well as mentioned the man behind this business is John Roberts. 

A bit about John: 

It was Christmas Eve in 1999 when John made a £1 bet with a friend that would change his life. “I had been going on and on for a long time about a business idea, when a friend bet me that I wouldn’t do it”. 

John now aged 38, who had previously worked for a high end kitchen supplier, explained to me … “I had the notion that most white goods retailers ‘set the standards bar’ pretty low when it came to customer service. They didn’t really care about customers at all. Because of the growing development of the Internet, I had a vision about an online white goods business with customer requirements as the main focus”. 

With some initial ‘Angel’ funding investment, John set up his business with two colleagues, won his bet and now has a growing business worth millions. 

To truly understand how this has all happened, you only have to read some of the customer service concepts that John has implemented. Here are a few highlights in his own words and style: 

On recruiting the right staff: 

JR – “Recruitment is the key. At Appliances Online all our staff are chosen for their DNA. We test for their ‘positivity’. You can give people various skills, but you can’t train them to be happy and positive. If they can’t meet our requirements over this they don’t join our tribe”. 

JR – “Think back to your school days. If kids like the subject, they will do well. If they really like the teacher, they will do well. If they like both they can’t fail to get a grade A. Likewise, if staff like the company they work for, they will perform well, if they like the other people in the company, they will perform well. If they like both then it is inevitable they will deliver A grade service to customers”. 

JR – “We are a great company to work for. We go to extreme lengths to keep our 600 people loyal and happy. Once we find the right people, we look after them, pay them well and give them pride in the company. We subsidise massages, get them haircuts, run Zumba classes etc. etc. We even do things for the families of employees, to help them make their kids more employable in the future”. 

On giving the customer what they want: 

JR – “Most businesses say, ‘that’s the service we deliver. Take it or leave it’. We look at it through the other end of the telescope. If a customer wants something, we say ‘how can we make that happen? In my business I am known as the most unreasonable person for saying ‘how can we?’. We identify our customer’s requirements and then we fix our destination … and it is not always cheap. My belief however, is that this level of customer commitment is most profitable”. 

JR – “We go out of our way to do the impossible. Sometimes, someone can place an order at 10 pm one evening and have the product in their house the following morning”. 

On understanding what is going on: 

JR – “We measure everything we do. If can’t measure it … we can’t manage it”. 

On control: 

JR – “We don’t outsource, we want to control every aspect of what we do”. 

On being open, honest and keeping promises: 

JR – “I hate asterisks. How many times do you see an offer somewhere, with a little asterisk against it? You then have to search elsewhere to find out that the offer has various catches. We make various promises and offer guarantees, but there are no quibbles or asterisks. We just do what we say and keep our promises. Everyone told me we would go bust doing this, but it is smart and profitable to do what the customer wants”. 

On the videos: 

JR – “We spend a huge amount of time making great informational video presentations about our products. Customers can watch these from home on their computer. It makes their product buying journey easy, convenient and goes along way to removing any perceived risk of buying online”. 

On business development and marketing: 

JR – “We don’t spend on advertising, marketing or PR in the traditional way. All our business and growth has come through word of mouth recommendations as a result of our customer service. Over 94% of our customers recommend us to others and we make a point of asking them to do so”. 

On empowering staff to be customer focused: 

JR – “We empower all our call centre staff to do anything they need to do, without financial limit in order to keep customers happy.” 

Conclusion: 

The interview with John Roberts was exciting. His approach to customer service is dynamic and in many ways courageous. Yes, it is in many ways simple common sense, however in my experience, common sense in business is not always that common! 

Whatever sector you are in, there is something to learn from John’s approach. Ultimately, the bottom line is that outstanding customer service can be very profitable. 

Copyright©Ian Cooper 2012