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The coming 12 months at Halfords should see the bikes, car parts and auto services company raise its customer service game – supported by multiple new technology deployments.
In early January 2020, the company’s auto centres and retail arm, which are already combined in many physical locations, will be brought together on one Salesforce Commerce Cloud e-commerce platform. It is a major replatforming project that has been long in the making, and will see a departure from the old IBM-run Websphere Commerce.
While that represents a change to the firm’s visible customer-facing online services, there is also significant work going on behind the scenes to help facilitate a smoother journey for any consumer interacting with the 127-year-old business, which has grown over the years through acquisitions such as Nationwide Autocentres and Cycle Republic.
Currently being implemented across the group is 8x8’s cloud contact centre technology, which the Halfords team views as a way of untangling some of the legacy spaghetti that is so often served up on a retailer’s plate as a result of multiple acquisitions.
Gareth Brophy, head of Halfords customer support, says the presence of an array of systems and platforms in use across its core retail business, car service division, acquired cycle chains and other departments meant a change of direction was required.
“We’re a customer service business and we were in a situation where it was actually difficult to communicate with our customers,” he says, adding that it was also challenging for customers to communicate with Halfords and for the business to talk internally.
That, he says, is changing as Halfords rolls out 8x8 software that is not only ensuring customer service teams spanning all divisions of the business can use the same system, but is also bringing new flexibility to staff working at the company.
“From a communication point of view, it was very disconnected and disjointed,” says Brophy.
“As the group had evolved over time, all these systems had been bolted together, but they weren’t working. 8x8 has provided a cloud system that has streamlined all of that – we are bringing it out across our estate and we are future-proofing.”
For the customer, for the business
So, what improvements does this actually bring? Primarily, the new service is being put in place to make incoming customer queries smoother and more efficient, with consumers directed to the best-placed product specialist or individual store following an initial interactive voice response (IVR).
Before this change in technology, customers might have called individual stores when a contact centre specialist was best prepared to answer the query, or vice versa. This new technology integration aims to eliminate these incidences.
Crucially, the 8x8 package integrates with Halfords’ existing Salesforce customer relationship management (CRM) software, so once it is fully deployed, anyone who calls in and whose phone number already exists on the database, will be instantly recognised by the call centre agent, which can lead to efficiencies and smoother interactions.
“We can divert calls through to store much more easily, and we can push customers to the right person at the right time to answer their query,” says Brophy.
“It’s a big change for us, and we’ve already found it’s improving customer service. From my point of view, it’s all about making it easier for our customer.”
From a business perspective, the new technology has a virtual contact centre functionality, which mobilises the workforce and provides more opportunity for staff to access the system remotely. It is also linked to the retailer’s workforce management tool, Teleopti, which means Brophy can deploy customer support staff based on real-time demand for their services – while also benefiting from the accompanying analytics.
“It’s the integration thing again – having everything talking to each other,” says Brophy, who has been at Halfords for a year, after joining from online bike retailer Wiggle.
“Halfords has been around for 127 years now, so you can imagine the legacy systems we’re trying to replace as we go on a digital journey don’t always talk to one another.”
Live chat and voice tech-enablement?
Halfords currently offers a Salesforce-supported chat function on its website, but that is set to evolve into something more sophisticated in the new year, according to Brophy, as the business looks to take advantage of this fertile area of new technology development.
By the end of January, chat functionality on the Halfords website is, like the customer service phoneline, expected to be routed through 8x8. This means Halfords will be able to use its multiskilled customer agents – they can serve online or phone queries – to provide better service however a shopper interacts with the business.
“We have a roadmap and we want to use chat a lot more – 8x8 will give us the opportunity to do that,” says Brophy. “It will just be one system and we’ll be able to prioritise or route customers over two channels for that omnichannel service we want to get to.”
Whether it is iAdvize’s software that helps divert online shoppers to a product expert, Hero’s technology that links people directly from web browser to an in-store member of staff, or AO.com’s investment in Surfly that enables staff and online shoppers to co-browse a website, the area of online customer service within retail is rife with innovation.
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Brophy adds: “There is a lot of activity and so many emerging technologies.
“Technology is changing so quickly and we’re moving at such a fast pace. We’ve been talking about chatbots for years – originally they were only as good as the data you put in them; now the artificial intelligence [AI] behind them means it’s an exciting time.
“If you get it right and have the right partners, you can really make a difference in this space.”
Brophy says Halfords is also exploring how 8x8’s AI expertise might be able to benefit the organisation further.
“A lot of what we do is service-based – for example, the garages – and it’s important to have the human voice,” he says. “But to make it streamlined for us and our customers, we want to use AI up front.
“We’d love our customer to be able to phone up and, using voice recognition, find out that their MoT is ready and they can come and pick up their car. 8x8 has done that with other businesses – where they have the interactive conversation by voice tech.”
With the imminent arrival of the new web platform bringing together car services and retail – scheduled for launch in Halfords’ fiscal fourth quarter, which coincides with the first three months of 2020 – Halfords’ Autocentres will acquire a chat function for the first time.
Thanks to the investment in 8x8, Brophy says online chat will come with intelligent routing behind it, so customers will be directed to the most suitable agent based on the webpage they are on.
This integration will also mean Halfords can offer customers one contact telephone number, and rely on the IVR to send customers through to the relevant department.
“The last thing we want is a customer to call up and talk to the retail team and be transferred to the garage and then to the local site, which would constitute a horrible customer journey – it would have taken away from the new site,” says Brophy.
The recent work at Halfords has involved different departments working closely with each other, although the new website development has been the domain of the digital team in conjunction with systems integrator, Astound Commerce. The customer service, IT and retail stores teams have been the driving forces behind the 8x8 project.
Ahead of the busy autumn/winter period – when demand for Halfords’ auto products and services intensifies – the retailer brought in ex-Holland and Barrett omnichannel boss Emma Mead as digital director. She replaced Matthew Gratze, who has moved to Signet Jewelers after leading the Halfords e-commerce project from its inception.
This customer support and e-commerce development fits under a broader Halfords business-wide IT modernisation that includes evolving its use of cloud computing to support a new data analytics strategy, as reported by Computer Weekly in February.
IT director Neil Holden, who joined the company in November 2017, is leading technology strategy in line with CEO Graham Stapleton’s mission “to inspire and support a lifetime of motoring and cycling”.
The company goal is to be present in clients’ lives, from the moment a child’s first bike is bought to when that person buys their first car and requires annual MoT and maintenance services. That will require sophisticated data management and analysis, as well as consistency in customer service, which is a key reason for Brophy and his team to make the technology investments he describes.
“Now, no matter where customers contact us from, they will get the same experience,” he says. The new year is shaping up to be pivotal for Halfords in terms of improving customer service.