Tell us YOUR story: Customer Service Award Winner

Tags: SSON


The Charmer Sunbelt Group, Kelley Gilbert, Director, Customer Service
Shared Services Excellence Award Winner 2011, North America: "Excellence in Customer Services"

Based in: Baltimore, MD
Number of staff (Full Time Equivalents): 160
Date Shared Service operations started: 02/08/2008
Number of business units served: 14
Number of employees: 7,000

Awards previously received for Shared Services and related Awards
2010 SSON Best New Captive Services Delivery
2010 IQPC Honorable Mention – First Class Job For Efficiency and Automaton
2010 Information Week 500

Q: What is your strategic growth or transition plan for the future?
For Customer Care our "vision" is the move from what you might call standard "telesales" to "inside sales." This means that we now have a group that calls accounts directly to market our products and services — as a Shared Services offering. We are getting tremendous traction on this. Right now we are covering two business units but we will likely expand this to other units in the next two years.

In addition, we will continue to expand our service offerings as well as on-board more business units as they are integrated via SAP.

Q: Why did you need to make changes to Customer Service? Explain your strategy.
To build upon the successful transition to shared services, CSG made a strategic decision to add Customer Care, which included both inbound calls as well as outbound calls for inside sales opportunities. The overarching goal from the Executive Committee was not only to build a highly efficient Customer Care operation but one that is considered best in class in the industry and a competitive differentiator for the organization.

With those goals in mind, in early 2009 a cross-functional project team of more than 50 experts went to work on the initiative. This new organization would service 41,000 restaurants, nightclubs, bars, pubs and retail stores, and provide a single point of contact for customers, including order entry, delivery inquiries, and product knowledge questions. These customers are spread across all CSG markets, with each having its own set of regulations and business rules governing the distribution of alcohol beverages. The team designed the new customer care organization using Six Sigma methodology, which yielded standard operating procedures; and service level agreements and key performance indicators to control the process as well as measure success. In addition, the team defined a "Best In Class" organization as one that measurably increased customer satisfaction by fast/effective processing of orders, "1 & done" concept of call handling, consistent experience for all markets, and a high rate of order accuracy. While there was a cost benefit to be realized through consolidation of resources, the team was given very clear direction that the goal was best in class customer care and CSG was willing to invest any potential savings in order to achieve this goal.

In order to measure this goal, as each business unit is transition to Customer Care a baseline survey is distributed and tabulated which becomes the starting point benchmark. One year later, the same survey is distributed and compared to the baseline to measure effectiveness. Other key metrics for the team are abandon rates, service level (95% of calls answered within 50 seconds), average handling speed, and quality. Many of these metrics are measured in real-time and visible throughout the call centre so each team member knows how we are servicing our customers.

Q: Which methodologies did you apply for improvement to your Customer Service?
Early in 2009, a team of Charmer Sunbelt subject matter experts (SMEs) and external strategy consultants participated in a finalization workshop of the new Customer Care function for inclusion into CSG Business Services. The purpose of the workshop was to serve as the first step in the finalization process for centralized Customer Care. The team collectively participated in a series of breakout sessions focused on the voice of the customer. The workshop participants included experts from the business units who currently managed the Customer Service function, business unit leadership, members of the executive steering committee, and members of CSG Business Services. Participants departed the two and one half days workshop having successfully defined specific requirements; developed a high-level process; provided input regarding improvements in the areas of skill sets, training, business continuity, customer representative user screen, and customer survey development.
The following 3 keys essential to the establishment of a world class Customer Service center were identified:

  1. Implement the Best Technology
    a. Install the optimal phone system and technology is in place to meet customer requirements and to provide the best customer service.
    b. A customer should be able to make one phone call and get a knowledgeable Customer Service Representative (CSR) who can handle all inquiries and issues, i.e. one-stop-shop.
  2. Hire the best people
    a. Hire top professionals in the field starting with the leader driving the Customer Service organization.
    b. Ensure the organization has a number of bilingual CSRs
    c . Develop an ongoing training plan is in place for CSRs
  3. Fully Commit to the Transition
    a. To make this successful the organization needs to commit to centralized customer service. Commitment will ensure the transition is smooth and dual activities are not performed between the centralized group and the business units.

Below are the specific tools from Six Sigma that were used in the design process:

  • Critical-to-Quality Tree (CTQ) – KPI’s/Metrics
  • Kano Model – Voice of the Customer
  • RACI Charts
  • SIPOC Diagrams – Process w/Business Unit Specific Considerations
  • Identification of Customer Service Associate Skill Set
  • Identification of Customer Survey Approach & Components
  • Identification of Training Aspects for Customer Service Representatives

SAP CRM v7.0 – the concept was to develop a "dream screen" for agents to enable more effective customer interactions and increased agent capability. As part of the transition to our SSC many processes have been automated through technology to reduce operating costs. These include:

SAP Implementation for order entry

  • Screen pops for caller ID and customer identification. Auto-population of customer record if identified resulting in call efficiency
  • Call monitoring and recording implemented (Oaisys) to reduce errors and optimize the customer experience

Call routing to add bilingual capability for markets requiring such -- reduced overall call time and enhanced customer experience

  • Call management and reporting software (Prairie Fyre), includes visual monitoring
  • Electronic product returns capability – improved accuracy and customer response time

VOIP phone system with soft phones and agent remote access and capability software -- includes air cards if required; enables agents to work from home as required and/or during inclement weather

  • Remote (VPN) access for agents

There are several innovations that have evolved within the Customer Care organization; however the most innovative is the business continuity plan in which we have the ability to be open for our customers regardless of external events that may traditionally shut an operation down. This gives us the tremendous flexibility of having our agents work from anywhere in support of holidays, weekends, disasters or weather related events. It is unlike anything else of its kind in our industry and truly delivers a level of service that is above the competition.

Q: What did you have to do to push the required changes through? What kind of resistance did you have to overcome? Was this a complex process?
A: For The Charmer Sunbelt Group, the concept of moving customer service from the business units, where it was perceived as being close to the customer, into a centralized shared services model was nearly the death of the project. Each business unit president had serious doubts that, given the local market complexities of the alcohol beverage industry, and the conditioning of the customer to expect someone local, this change would have a negative impact on the business — even a severe one. While the size of the customer care team is optimized at 35 FTEs, given the magnitude of the change it impacted thousands of associates in each of the 8 business units transitioned — including sales, HR, credit/finance, transitioning of local customer service reps, and the nearly 41,000 customers who represent 68% of CSG’s overall business. Given the size of the change and the organizational impact, what really made it successful was the vision of the CEO & CFO, who both felt that a world-class customer care organization would be a point of competitive differentiation for CSG.

As the change moved forward, it proved to be as challenging as expected: in terms of ensuring that as we on boarded new business units & customers, roles & responsibilities where clearly defined; that a new team was able handle all of the unique challenges in each market; and that the transition was as seamless as possible to customers, ensuring no negative impacts to revenue.

From the beginning, we wanted the Customer Care organization to continue the culture building that had existed in the shared services center, so that our customers could "feel it". The shift in the shared services organization has been dramatic. As we focus on external customers as well as internal customers, there is another level of focus required such as ensuring business continuity plans are in place and that the level of customer satisfaction is not just maintained but increased, so that our customers prefer to call us versus our competitors. The CSG Customer Care organization has numerous opportunities moving forward to drive customer excellence or what we refer to here as a "Delighted Customer Experience." The main leadership challenges have been to ensure that each team member is empowered to help the customer; that process changes are made based on the voice of the customer; and that our metrics will drive continued improvements in customer satisfaction.

Q: Describe the impact of the improvement or innovation you introduced –– what are the benefits?
Key benefits were defined at the beginning of the project, particularly around efficiency, quality & service levels. In all cases the actual results exceeded the initial projections.


  • Customer Service Cost Reduction
  • Modified Internal Rate of Return (MIRR) – 48%
  • Payback Period – 2.11 Years

  • 46% improvement in agent efficiency
  • 53% reduction in cost per transaction

As previously stated, a customer satisfaction survey was sent to customers prior to the transition to establish a baseline metric. A year after transition to SSC, a follow-up survey is sent to solicit customer feedback and measure delta customer satisfaction.

Results – Survey Response Rate ~ 20%

  • Overall Customer Satisfaction when Placing and Order – Between 9% & 23% increase in year 1
  • Overall Customer Satisfaction for General Inquiries – Between 12% & 21% increase in year 1

The hard benefits exceeded all expectations within CSG - however the qualitative changes that have occurred are equally impressive. We now have a highly trained, dedicated customer care organization that is relentlessly focused on delivering a Delighted Customer Experience. As well, this team has such energy and charisma that it has impacted the rest of the shared services organization to be more energized around our customers, focused on building a culture that signifies a great place to work, and dedicated to continuous process improvement. This is completely aligned with The Charmer Sunbelt Group’s Vision "To Be the Distributor of Choice"!

Among the large wine & spirits wholesale distribution companies such as CSG, we are the only one in our industry that has a customer care organization that is centralized and part of a shared services organization. The combination of people, processes & technology has allowed us to increase our customer satisfaction while proving to our industry not only that this is possible, but that we are best in class.

2010 was our first full year operating under the SSC and we answered over 340,000 calls, processed over 275,000 orders with an average speed of answer of 10 seconds, a service level of 97.3%, an accuracy rate of 99.80%, an abandon rate of 1% and an 89% staff retention rate.

While those numbers are impressive, in addition we received an Honourable Mention award from SSON (IQPC) for "First Class Job Leveraging Technology for Efficiency and Automation." Our Business Continuity plan was utilized in February 2010, when we received record snowfall for the northeast US region resulting in more than four feet of snow in Baltimore, and causing multiple CSG offices to close, including the corporate office housing the Customer Service group. Immediately, the business continuity plan took effect, with customer care specialists logging into the CSG network from home, and taking customer calls through the soft phones installed on each laptop. The customer experience was seamless and enabled CSG to remain open during this time, when other competitors in the affected areas closed down their operations. During this three-day period, the Customer Care team took more than 1,900 calls, while maintaining a service level of 98%, resulting in significant sales volume. The robust business continuity plan enabled by technology provided CSG with a significant competitive advantage by allowing the Customer Service specialists to provide a strong experience to the customers.