In bringing a winning way with people to her work with customers, Bethany Peckham reflects the importance Roots attaches to quality service

By Robert Sarner, The Source, Aug. 2009

TLike an age-old law of nature, there’s nothing like excellent (or deplorable) customer service to get people talking about a company. In the retail world, if that talk is positive, it can only be good for business.

As a result, most companies at least pay lip service to the importance of good customer service – even if many don’t deliver on the promise, both before and especially after a sale.

At Roots, excellent customer service has long been an integral part of the business. It’s a core value and source of pride. There’s little mystery as to why it has contributed so much to the success of the brand.

Based on personal experience, we can all name companies that have shown scant regard for customers. At some point in our consumer careers, we’ve all encountered surly, cold and otherwise officious company representative or in-store sales associate. We’ve all experienced the near-futility of trying to reach a live human being at certain companies and never hearing back after leaving a message.

On-line forums and blogs are rife with customer rants about companies screwing up orders, dysfunctional products, obnoxious store associates, nerve-wracking automated phone systems, robotic call centre employees and just downright unpleasant individuals.

“Ever since we began Roots in 1973, we have always understood that you ignore your customers at your peril,” says Roots Co-Founder Michael Budman. “Treat them well and they’re far more likely to buy your products and return again. It’s really that simple. A satisfied customer is your strongest asset. Conversely, a bitter, dissatisfied customer is like poison for a business.”

Good customer service should not be complicated. Not if the operating principle reflects a basic respect and appreciation for customers and what they represent for a company – namely the key to its continued existence and success.

When Jarar Kazmi became Executive Director of Retail Operations in 2007, he made customer service one of his top priorities. Having been at Roots since 2001, he knew it was essential that staff always be sensitive and attentive to customers as part of the company’s ethos.

“I’ve always believed in the simple philosophy that happy customers equal repeat customers,” says Jarar. “When I took on my current role, one of the first things I did was to merge the Customer Service Department with Retail Operations and overhauled the existing processes to have a strong backend support for our clientele. I then focused on getting the entire retail team to believe and buy into the ‘every-customer-every-time’ philosophy and making it a cornerstone of the culture in our stores.”

To be sure, every retail employee plays a vital role with customers. How store associates receive and attend to shoppers has a strong impact on their perception of Roots. Occasionally, something goes askew, creating a frustrated, and potentially alienated, customer. If Roots is lucky, that customer will take up the issue – real or perceived – with the company. If not, the person will likely be lost as a customer and become a source of negative, word-of-mouth banter about Roots.

How Roots responds to the situation largely determines whether it retains or forfeits the customer. Often the person will first seek resolution at the store level but if not satisfied, he/she will turn to the Customer Service Department.

Unlike many companies, Roots retail customer service is an integral part of the Head Office. Since January 2008, Bethany Peckham has fielded the majority of customer queries and dilemmas.

Few people could do it better than Bethany. She really cares about both Roots and the customer. In seeking a fair and reasonable solution to an issue, she always tries to make customers feel better by the end of the conversation than they did at the beginning.
It helps that Bethany is a great listener, extremely attentive to details. When she speaks on the phone, she’s courteous, patient and compassionate. She knows the importance of engaging the customer in a respectful dialogue. She rarely, if ever, gets riled, despite the rude, aggressive behaviour to which she’s sometimes subjected.

“I realize that customers who contact us have a reason for calling and if sometimes they’re less than pleasant, it’s not about you, even though it’s directed at you,” says Bethany, 31, who grew up in a small town in New Brunswick. “This is something I struggle with because I care so much about the company that I can almost become defensive and react as if they are insulting me personally when they attack Roots. It’s always important to take a step back and look at the situation in perspective before offering a resolution.”

In serving as the chief liaison between customers and Head Office, there’s a lot more to customer service than most people realize. This includes answering a wide range of questions by phone and email about Roots, Roots 73 (and Roots-licensed products sold at Sears, The Bay, Future Shop, Best Buy, Canadian Tire, etc.). In addition, Bethany assists with product searches, special orders and international sales. She attends to customer shipments returned for assessment, repair or refund. No less important, Bethany is also in regular contact with store managers to help them resolve issues with customers before they might escalate to Head Office.

In her work, Bethany fields every imaginable type of query, complaint and demand. They can pertain to a garment with a broken zipper to a gift card enquiry to a request to purchase an old Roots product to charity solicitations to allegations that a store employee said something perceived as offensive. Experience has taught Bethany that in matters involving retail staff, they usually have a different version of the facts than what the customer claims. That’s where her diplomatic and psychological skills come into play. It doesn’t make things easier that consumers today feel a greater sense of entitlement when it comes to dealing with companies.

On certain matters, including those relating to issues of social responsibility, environmental policies and community involvement, she works closely with the Communication and Public Affairs Department. Much of Bethany’s work is done in follow-up correspondence (usually by email) with customers.

Anne Theriault, who is bilingual and communicates in French with customers from Quebec and other francophone communities in Canada, also assists in the Customer Service Department.

Bethany joined Roots in 2000, right out of university. Her first position was as a fulltime keyholder in Guelph, Ontario. She liked the retail environment and enjoyed assisting customers, which – given her caring nature and having majored in Child Studies and Family Counseling at university – came naturally to her. She proved an excellent employee, eventually becoming the manager of the Roots store in Waterloo, Ontario. In late 2007, when a position opened in Customer Service, she applied.

“I felt this was the next step for me with Roots,” says Bethany. “My role as a store manager was only drawing on a small part of my education. I felt that a customer service position would still give me the feel of running my own store, but allow me to focus mostly on the ‘helping’ aspect of the job instead of the financial and business side.”

Bethany derives great satisfaction from her work. She never tires of finding solutions and converting someone who was upset about something into a satisfied customer who in turn becomes an ambassador for Roots.

But one can’t satisfy everyone all the time. “I think I will always be optimistic that we can turn very customer around and it will continue to hurt me on the rare occasions when we cannot,” says Bethany. “It can be hard when you really care about a customer and their experience, but you feel that you weren’t able to get that feeling across in your interaction with them and they still leave unhappy because the resolution you offer is not the one they anticipated.”

Human nature being what it is, a frustrated customer is far more likely to contact Head Office than a satisfied one. But despite possible appearances to the contrary, not all incoming customer phone calls and emails stem from disgruntled shoppers. On many occasions, Bethany also receives letters from people paying tribute to the quality of service they received in a Roots store or thanking her for the way she handled a particular situation. The praise she receives is well deserved.



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