Sitel Group & John Lewis: A New Partnership
Interview with Ray Biggs, Head of Contact Center Operations, John Lewis
Interview with Ray Biggs, Head of Contact Center Operations, John Lewis
Tell us a bit about your professional background, specifically your role within John Lewis and describe the scope of your responsibilities?
I am the Head of Contact Centers at John Lewis, so I have the responsibility of two in-house centers, looking after around 1,400 John Lewis partners. I’m also responsible for our outsource operations, which accounts for approximately 1,000 contact center agents. My area of expertise, developed over 15 years now, is retail contact center operations and home delivery. Before (working with John Lewis) I held similar roles with retail organizations in the UK, spending three and a half years with Sainsbury’s, two years with Play.com and 10 years with Argos HomeBase.
What do you consider to be the main challenges within these responsibilities?
Today, we have to keep up with and react to ever-changing and ever-demanding customer expectations and lead an operation of nearly 2,500 contact center advisors, who face these demands and expectations in real-time. Ultimately, our constant challenge is to be able to differentiate from our competitors through the service we offer our customers.
How do you successfully combine your historical heritage with today’s hectic digital world?
Our history and our heritage have always been around delivering great service. And that is even more relevant today than it was 150 years ago. We have a century and a half of experience of delivering excellent service and can take a lot of confidence from where we have come from. Our history shows how we earned our customers’ trust and loyalty to our brand, which we’ve worked very hard for and will protect vociferously. And our partners are crucial, as we are a co-owned business. We believe the trust customers have in us and the level of service we deliver are driven by the fact that our partners across the entire organization are owners of our business.
What were the needs and expectations when John Lewis decided to work with Sitel?
We needed a partner that could deliver in terms of service expectations. We have this fantastic heritage built on the incredible trust of our customers and very high standards, so we were looking for a partner with a real quality focus. But we were also looking for a partner who shares our values in terms of the contribution that employees make and how important this is to a successful organization and operation. The leadership of the function and the employee SAT scores are very important for us – because we fundamentally believe employee satisfaction is inextricably linked to customer satisfaction: if you’re happy in your job, you do a very good job.
It’s a permanent effort. It isn’t something you verify only when you run an employee engagement survey once a month, it’s something you have to live and breathe day in and day out.
John Lewis has worked with Sitel Group for seven years. How would you describe this collaboration?
It’s a partnership. What we have with the Sitel Group team who is running the operations for us in Exeter is a partnership. What that means is that we work together: we have transparency, honesty and shared goals. We are very clear on what we want to do and the lines of communication are very open. And it’s proactive. It can happen that an operation is run by doing the bare minimum to satisfy the needs of the contract. However, a true partnership is always looking to evolve, to go above and beyond the terms – and we certainly see that with the Sitel Group team.
Could you elaborate on some of Sitel’s key assets that have made this partnership so successful?
The insight they brought to us, their “can-do” attitude and the way the team has reacted to various challenges and embraced them, either by taking on additional work or changing how we work. When you present someone with a challenge or change, the default position can be to give reasons why it can’t be done; however, what we get from the Sitel Group team is: okay, here’s how we CAN do it.
They have been honest with us as well. A partnership must go both ways, it’s not just about us demanding things. A good example is when we face challenges on performance, and occasionally we do, we are very clear on what those challenges are. Sitel Group is excellent at coming to the table with solutions to get performance back to where it needs to be and won’t hesitate to come to us and say “Hey John Lewis, this is where we need your help.”
They are also very pragmatic. The team embraces change but remains open and transparent about the risks and issues. So, we go into things with our eyes wide open. If you know what the risks are, you can anticipate them and mitigate them.
The results are tangible. From the insight we received out of Exeter, we have been able to make changes to our processes that have had direct commercial benefits. We recently announced we would be placing additional activity into Sitel’s new site in Plymouth. Adding more activity with Sitel Group is probably the best indicator of the level of service we are receiving.
Could you share with us a personal anecdote of what you consider to be an outstanding Customer Service Experience?
One of the best experiences I can think of is one I had with an online retailer in the UK who provides accessories for gentlemen. I ordered two pocket handkerchiefs from them for a wedding I was attending and paid for next day delivery. The online process was great and very easy. The delivery arrived the following day. When I opened it, there was a handwritten note of apology explaining that one of the handkerchiefs I had ordered was out of stock, that they were looking into why it had been incorrectly listed as available and they had enclosed three additional handkerchiefs free of charge, in the hope to make up for this letdown.
There were several things I liked about this experience. The handwritten note made it feel very personal. It was a situation where they had gotten something totally wrong, but they spotted the issue, proactively corrected it in a very personal way and overcompensated for it. What could have been a disaster for them, actually had me thinking “They handled that brilliantly!” That’s an experience I hold up as a model we have to aspire to.
What are the major evolutions that your industry is facing today?
Whether you call the evolution digital or omnichannel, it broadly means the same thing: successfully bringing together the offline and online channels. Customers physically visit our branches, but they also use their devices, are on Facebook, Twitter, our website… The very notion of a channel is almost irrelevant now. Customers don’t remain in one channel, they move across them. And what that implies in terms of execution and delivery of service is a new challenge.
The second evolution is the pace of change. It’s speeding up drastically. Approximately 40 percent of our sales are online and steadily increasing year on year. Businesses and retailers have to keep up and anticipate where our customers are going to be next.
Your slogan, “Never knowingly undersold,” has existed since 1925. How is this still reflected today?
For a 150-year-old business, we have never stood still and have always evolved. If you look at our history and heritage, we have constantly ventured into all kinds of areas. So change is not new for us. However, we make sure we remain dedicated to our core values – and this slogan has helped define us from the beginning.
It’s what we’re famous for and one of the things that has built customer trust. Our customers appreciate us for it: they know they can buy from us with confidence. So it’s still absolutely key to our offer and still holds true. It’s what we are and who we are.
About John Lewis
Beloved retail brand in Great-Britain, John Lewis was founded in 1864 and still holds true today to its original promise “Never knowingly undersold”.
Since its inauguration on Oxford Street, the brand today operates 48 shops across the UK which make up The John Lewis Partnership: The UK’s oldest and largest example of worker co-ownership where all 30,000 John Lewis staff are Partners in the business and perceive the value of their ownership.
In 2016, the brand was named ‘Best In-Store Experience’, ‘Best Clothing Retailer,’ ‘Best Electricals Retailer,’ ‘Best Furniture Retailer,’ ‘Best Homewares Retailer’ and ‘Best Click & Collect Retailer’’ by Verdict’s Customer Satisfaction Award, and its website johnlewis.com is consistently ranked among the UK’s top online shopping destinations.