When Backcountry.com sent out a press release (click here to read) on April 11, proclaiming continued significant sales increases, talking about new this and that, and then declaring 2006 to be "the year of the customer," SNEWS® naturally got just a bit curious. For a company that prides itself on service, and frankly, we believe, for any retailer worth his or her salt, shouldn't every year be the year of the customer? So why this one in particular?
"When Jim (Holland) and I founded this company, we sat down and agreed on a few principles, and they have been the ones that continue to guide us," said John Bresee, vice president of business development.
"We wanted to create a company that treated all customers as we would want to be treated. It is such a simple thing. And that is what we have tried to build all along, but with 250 people now working here…well, it is hard to keep everyone clued in on what our vision is," Bresee told SNEWS®.
Bresee shared with us that back in 1996, when Backcountry.com (then BackcountryStore.com) was in its infancy, it was nearly impossible to find a phone number for a real person at Amazon.com.
"So, it became a mantra for us that we would never hide from our customer, beginning with making phone numbers obvious. Then that morphed into live chat and then we decided that we needed to make the returns process as simple as possible. Next we made it possible for customers to visit our warehouse, so they could see us face-to-face. We have always been about the customer first, but…"
As with any company, Bresee allowed that with rapid growth comes decisions, and very often, it makes sense to focus on the greatest pain within the business. For Backcountry.com, that pain was a shackled warehouse crew barely able to operate in their confined space.
After solving that dilemma so products could be stored and shipped effectively, and Bresee would argue that is certainly still about the customer, it was time to focus on another pain -- the computer servers.
"With our website, we had this whole infrastructure we had built on super cheap servers that were very cheap and very fast, but before long, they were dying once a week and we would have to resuscitate them. We were running 12 servers on the front end, and rebuilding at least one a week," Bresee told us.
"Jim and I finally realized we had to stop pretending that we were that company still operating out of a garage with $2,000 in the bank. We had to bite the bullet and install a very scaleable infrastructure," added Bresee.
All of the focus on servers and back end and the warehouse meant not much changed for the customer over a two-year period on the front end. This year, though -- and that is some of what Bresee means by "year of the customer" -- there are already significant changes in website performance and site performance to improve the customer's experience. However, many of these changes are so subtle that most customers won't notice…which is the point.
"We have bolstered our staff in customer support and in website development, and we are putting many more resources into improving the customer experience. We stopped pretending we were in a garage…but how do you do that while maintaining the garage personality we love?" asked Bresee.
He said that what the company concluded is that what they really loved was not the garage itself, as that was drafty and, frankly, sucked, according to Bresee. What he and Holland loved, though, was the scrappy attitude, the open, entrepreneurial spirit that was an outgrowth of a garage-business culture.
"Year of the customer to me and to Backcountry.com means, we are saying we love the sports we do, and we love the gear we sell, and we love finding new ways to serve the customer," Bresee said.
That was reinforced for him a few weeks ago as he was standing in the men's locker room of his health club, fresh out of the shower, to find there wasn't a towel to be had anywhere. So, dripping and naked, he used the house phone to call the front desk to ask for some towels to be delivered. What he got was a pleasant enough girl, who explained that the person who delivered the towels hadn't come in that day, and that since she was a girl, she couldn't deliver to the men's locker room, and…excuse after excuse. No solution.
"Every company has problems. What is important to me is I never want to make my company's problems the customer's problems," he said.
Bresee told us that the company mission statement has been scaled down to four words: Best Outdoor Gear Retailer.
"That is our internal mission. We are not claiming we are there. We are there in some aspects and aspire to be there in all aspects. Best in customer service, fastest shipment, best presentation, best gear made. If it is not right for our customer, then we need to get it back and get them their money back -- quickly with no hassles."
One recent change is while Backcountry.com is known for how fast the company will ship something once an order is placed, Bresee and team felt customers would benefit if the process could be even faster. So, working with UPS, the retailer has established a later pickup for packages, and coupled with a faster website and faster order fulfillment process, it means orders will ship even more quickly.
SNEWS® View: Impressive, indeed. All that customer service mumbo jumbo aside, and it is very good stuff, we'd assert that one of the reasons Backcountry.com continues to be so successful at what it does is that the company embraces its employees as true members of the team. Even to the point of turning the entire company Intranet into, essentially, a Wiki -- meaning any employee can jump into and onto any developing idea, any company document, any bio, and official paper in the company, and have his or her two cents heard. Granted, that makes for some truly outstanding practical jokes that might make many companies with a controlling HR department cringe, but in keeping with that spirit of a garage-founded company still embracing the entrepreneurial spirit, that freedom that is allowed and encouraged inspires creativity -- all to the benefit of the customer, and, ultimately, the business. We'd agree, working in a garage would suck…but you can't argue with the results in this case.