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Human Resources

Inside Job

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W hen Kevin Peters was named president of North American retail for Office Depot in April 2010, he began looking for ways to improve the overall customer experience throughout the organization. Peters’ philosophy, “We need our customers more than they need us,” made headlines for its candor and the can-do fix-it attitude he inspired.

At the time Peters came on board, Office Depot’s sales were declining, but customer service scores from third-party mystery shopper services were extremely high. Customers were shopping Office Depot stores, but not buying. Peters conducted his own unannounced visits to 70 Office Depot stores in 15 states and discovered the mystery-shopping scores were correct — though Office Depot’s scoring system was not.

As Peters detailed in a presentation at Forrester’s Customer Experience Forum 2011, Office Depot was asking the wrong questions and measuring customer service using metrics that didn’t drive sales. So Peters, and Office Depot as a whole, embarked on a customer-centric shake up.

Higher and more consistent quality
Office Depot launched a program to retrain approximately 39,000 associates at its more than 1,600 stores in 61 countries. But Peters was also looking for a few more good men and women — about 200 — to serve the changing needs of its growing base of small to medium-sized business customers. The idea was to create a best-in-class inside sales organization by hiring a new team of sales representatives — well-trained and well-equipped — to manage accounts in the same manner as their field sales counterparts. While the inside sales representatives don’t leave the office, they have technology and tools to identify customer needs and make recommendations to help customers better manage their time and budget, as well as make the most of the benefits of their Office Depot business account.

Office Depot had previously used a third party to service these accounts, but wanted to bring the operation in-house in order to maintain a higher and more consistent quality standard.

By March, Office Depot had assembled those new inside sales associates “online” at a new facility in Austin, Texas. With Austin located in the Central Time Zone, it’s easier for sales representatives to contact both East and West Coast businesses.

“We felt that outsourcing the customer relationship just wasn’t in our best interest or in our customers’ best interest,” Peters told the Austin American-Statesman at the facility’s grand opening. “There was lots of turnover with our outsourced partners, and so our customers were often exposed to a new account representative, and that’s just not the way to build long-term relationships.”

A large percentage of Office Depot’s business is comprised of small businesses; Office Depot’s inside sales organization primarily works with contract customers with fewer than 100 employees across the country.

Measured and maintained results
“We want the customers to know we have someone proactively calling upon them,” says Chris Edler, vice president of Office Depot’s inside sales. Dedicating a specific inside sales representative “creates a more frequent and higher quality customer contact dedicated to managing and developing the accounts.” It also helps those small businesses save more on office supplies and maximize efficiencies and their relationship with Office Depot.

In addition to looking for specific educational backgrounds in the new sales team members, Edler says, “We recruited a strong, sales-focused and entrepreneurial workforce, and provided in-depth [six weeks long] training to equip them to be effective from day one.”

Enabling technologies like maximizes productivity and access to key customer information, allowing sales representatives to identify and even anticipate customer needs. Comprehensive data management and reporting capabilities provide real-time visibility to the most beneficial customer opportunities within each segment served.

The first three weeks of the training program was devoted to providing representatives with an introduction to Office Depot’s products and services, as well as to the office products industry. It also held training on the company’s various processes and computer systems and conducted role-playing sessions, allowing associates to practice what they had learned. The remaining three weeks were hands-on, with new reps contacting customers by phone.

The new inside sales organization is just one of the ways Office Depot is working to enhance the shopping experience for customers across all of its channels. “We are remodeling stores and retraining our store associates,” Edler says. “We are improving our website with new features and new functionality. We rolled out the In-Store Customer Experience model — created to help convert more shoppers to buyers and improve customer loyalty — to all stores across the country.”

And the new approach appears to be working. “These stores are showing comp sales that are better than their counterparts in the chain,” Edler says, and Office Depot is “converting more of our shoppers into buyers.”