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The Magnolia method: Scaling authenticity in customer service

You don’t have to be the "Target Lady" to appreciate an occasional chin wag with customers. But a chatty approach may not always fly in busy contact centers, with open tickets and customers on the phone who need help—help that probably doesn’t include a recap of the weather.

It does fly at Magnolia, though. For about half the total support tickets, in fact.

Dedication to the customer relationship sets certain companies apart, for consumers and within the business community. For example, The Ritz-Carlton, Amazon, and Costco are often included on short lists of companies with stellar customer service, and it’s easy to see why. Agents are empowered to do what it takes to maintain the customer relationship, and sometimes with four-figure budgets to back them up.

You could make a case for adding Magnolia to the list: the Waco-based home and lifestyle brand was founded by Chip and Joanna Gaines in 2003, and has since evolved to include brick-and-mortar retail (Magnolia Market at the Silos), restaurant, bakery, quarterly lifestyle magazine, vacation rentals, and more.

magnolia silos

The popularity of their design aesthetic is undeniable, given the legions of visitors who visit the Silos—as they’re known—each year, and by the brand’s staggering 4.2 million followers on Instagram. The appeal goes beyond picture-perfect content, though, as people are truly enamored with the couple behind the experience. One explanation could be—take note, skeptics—that kindness and authenticity are actually scalable. But beyond being scalable, they’re simply essential ingredients to creating an enduring guest experience.

“This isn’t about pushing candles or vases; it’s this experience we hope people feel...that there’s a tangible takeaway even if they don’t buy anything,” Joanna recently said during the closing session, “Brand builders: Balancing business and creativity to make a cultural connection,” at the 2019 National Retail Federation (NRF) Big Show.

[Read also: Want customers to trust you? Trust your agents to make them happy]

Building a business around authenticity

HGTV executives first thought the Gaines’ approach would serve a niche, Chip said at the NRF Big Show. But the pair proved to be so relatable, a wider audience was keen to keep up with them. So much so, the couple’s tiny Waco home décor shop grew into the national home and lifestyle brand it is today, built around that community.

"This isn't about pushing candles or vases; it's this experience we hope people feel...that there's a tangible takeaway even if they don't buy anything," - Joanna Gaines

“Honestly, what you see is what you get,” says Magnolia’s Guest Services Director Sam Goff in reference to the company’s founders. “I think that level of kindness and authenticity is contagious—it inspires our culture. Whether you’re walking around the office or you’re shopping at the Market, you’ll notice people are genuinely happy to be here. People are genuinely happy to see you.”

It appears the trickle-down theory of company culture applies: You can’t buy culture and you can’t delegate it, which means leaders must lead by example. As Chip said at the NRF Big Show, musing on the company’s expansion from a few dozen employees to a few hundred: “We want our people to thrive and be successful.” While southern hospitality is infused throughout the Silos, it especially comes to life on Magnolia’s guest services team.

Chip and Joanna explained at the NRF Big Show how much they value touchpoints: any way they can connect with customers. While the Magnolia Journal is currently one of their biggest touchpoints, customer support, it turns out, is another important one. The support team is empowered to create a brand-right experience, buoyed with heaps of trust, and some budget, even as the company scales up, explains Goff.

Support tickets typically fall into two categories, in roughly equal parts: transactional and what Goff calls “experiential.” Transactional customers, as the name implies, have product or delivery questions. They need more immediate help, and agents are there to support those needs. Experiential customers, however, call mostly to share their experiences or

Building an experience around allowing customers to share their experiences results in a unique definition of support success. Sometimes the time to resolution on a ticket can be high (like months high), Goff says. The team’s customer satisfaction scores reach well into the 90+ percent bucket, but they pick their moments when deciding to send a “how did we do?” email survey after a customer shares a personal experience. When time allows, agents are encouraged to meet visitors for lunch, and a creative budget is used to send flowers or buy gift cards (not Magnolia ones) to give to customers. One agent, Goff recalls, struck up a conversation with someone who wanted to bring her mom to the Silos for her 81st birthday. She had lunch with them and showed them around—on her day off.

“Every ticket tells a really cool, really sweet story,” Goff says.

Building an experience around allowing customers to share their experiences results in a unique definition of support success.

Modernizing with customers in mind

The team strives to modernize the support experience, which isn’t mutually exclusive from preserving their approach to customer service. Goff explains that he wants more transactional guests to have the easiest possible path to getting in touch, which means having a full omnichannel solution at the ready. Phone support (as you can imagine) is popular, as is text message. Customers were also “ecstatic” over the augmented reality component of the Magnolia app. Some theories about why: It’s simple, at their fingertips, and gives them the ability to digitally place products in their homes without actually leaving their homes, Goff says.

[Read also: How augmented reality could change customer service]

Yet, Goff says, Magnolia guests actually prefer to wait longer for a 1:1 connection. It’s counter to many companies’ experience—research shows that 85 percent of customers will hop to another channel if they hear crickets on their first attempt at reaching out, and most of them wait less than an hour to try again. But patience works for Magnolia. With leaders who are unfazed by using the word “love” when talking about people in their company, and the feeling they want to exude in their business, it doesn’t come as much of a surprise.

Such a unique customer base takes unique agents to meet those needs. The first must-have, Goff says, is empathy. So is the ability to give people the benefit of the doubt, a desire to be forward-thinking, and

“We hire for character, first and foremost,” Goff says. “We can teach you how to use our systems, but are you a compassionate person? No matter what, are you able to approach every call with renewed focus and energy?”

Authenticity requires an interest in, dedication to, and appreciation for the things that make people tick, whether that’s getting efficient, informed answers about a product or an order, or feeling heard by an interested stranger on the other end of the phone line. The Magnolia approach might not work for everyone, but the company offers proof that kindness and authenticity can scale with a little effort... and room for conversation.

Debunking CX myths with Sam Goff

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