In-depth: Sharon Millard, Head of Customer Services at Mothercare

by Jessica Ramesh

Sharon Millard, Head of Customer Services at Mothercare, will be among the speakers at the Figaro Digital Marketing Conference on 29 November. She tells us about the retailer’s knowledge management system and explains why brands need to be speaking the same language as their customers

Figaro Digital: Tell us about the knowledge management system which Transversal put together for Mothercare – what did the brand need and how was the system conceived?

Sharon Millard: This goes back to a time before Mothercare and Early Learning Centre joined forces. Our contact centres were changing from being somewhere where people rang up in order to place orders via our catalogue, and instead customers wanted more online support. Previously, the website had been about finding a product, sticking it in your basket and going to the checkout. But all of a sudden people were using the web to browse for information – from students wanting to see a study pack to people asking about the charities we support. We wanted our brand to be well represented, but we also wanted customers to have all this information at their fingertips without having to trawl through the website. We did have HTML FAQs but they weren’t very dynamic. We called them ‘frequently asked questions,’ but really they were just the questions we knew the answers to!

So how did you go about fulfilling all these different requirements?

Well, to backtrack a bit, our business is very flat through most of the year but there are huge spikes at Christmas, when there’s a 1,000 per cent increase in our customer contact. What that means is we have a lot of people in the contact centre who are very new to the business. They only have a short experience of the brand. We wanted to clone our best call centre agents, if you like, so the person who only has two weeks’ experience has all of the same business information as someone with three years’ experience. We knew that being able to share knowledge and breaking news very quickly was something which would really push up the quality of the experience of our brand. 

So the knowledge management system was made available to staff as well as customers, and it was able to differentiate between the two, serving different information according to where the query came from. 

How has that been effective?

If you’re a customer you’ll not only have a different way of asking a question, but in this case you’ll also get a different database of public-facing results. The system works across both our brands [Mothercare and Early Learning Centre], across two websites and across the call centres. We’re giving people a portal and the system dynamically retrieves the information instead of them having to scroll through traditional document repositories or go to a site where you might have to hunt down your information. 

What results have you seen since implementing the knowledge management system?

By being able to serve customers information online instead of them having to send us an email, inbound email has been reduced by 40 per cent. We’ve also reduced the amount of time it takes to train an agent to go live on the phone. It used to take three weeks to train an agent – showing them the order-placing systems, the telephony system and so on. Then you’d have to give them brand training, product knowledge, business process knowledge and so on.

Now if someone’s asked a question about the refunds policy, for example, an agent in the call centre has that information instantly via the knowledge management system. It’s always current and it’s all coming from a central source. It means our new staff can be more competent and more confident more quickly. It’s also driving the overall quality of compliance in the call centre, because everyone has the same information in front of them. The system differentiates between different groups of people and you can allocate the information it retrieves. That’s the beauty of it. And the system is managed, by the way, by just one part-time person.

There are also, I must point out, some interesting by-products – things we hadn’t expected or intended but which have been of great value. A system like this shows you the questions people actually ask. 

Can you give us some specific examples?

People ask questions online which they wouldn’t necessarily ask on the phone. At Mothercare, one of those is ‘when is the best time to conceive?’

That was a revelation to us as a specialist baby and parent retailer, because we realised people were coming to us before they’d even got pregnant, which shows how early our brand was registering with that group of customers. And the question has remained in our top 10 ever since the site went live. Up to that point I was very much of the opinion that I knew everything our customers were asking, because I’d hear them on the phone. If we hadn’t already heard it on the phone, I thought, we weren’t going to hear it! But we did. So a knowledge management system might even help you learn something about your brand.

Another thing we hadn’t anticipated is to do with language. We all use the jargon we’re familiar with in our world and often we don’t pick up on the vocabulary customers actually use. But if you understand that, you can start to incorporate it into your own language.

For example, in our content we would use the word ‘carriers’ to describe the people taking the parcels from the warehouse to customers’ homes. But our customers always use the word ‘courier’, which means something slightly different. So there are subtleties involved in understanding your customers’ language, and if you can pick up on those you can make your content more meaningful. 

Does that have a knock on effect on search and SEO?

It does. It can dramatically improve your natural search results. And based on the question a customer is asking we can not just return a match to that specfic question, but we can push out other information alongside it. So if you were asking about the Baby & Me Club, which is the loyalty club you can join when you’re expecting, we can then push the in-store parent club classes we run. We can see the question you’re asking and put a relevant push, almost like a little ad, on the side. By knowing the questions people are asking we can deliver information that’s targeted and serve up other information to customers. 

Interview by Jon Fortgang