In this interview I talk to Michelle, cofounder and COO at Manly Bands.
John and Michelle started Manly Bands in the fall of 2016 after struggling to find a unique and affordable wedding band for John for their own wedding. Not only did they want to create an easier buying solution; they wanted to make it fun.
Some of the topics we cover in this interview:
- Competitive differentiation
- Business value of excellent customer experience
- Business value of free 30-day returns
- Business value of 24/7 support
- Working with Influx - flexible outsourcing for high growth brands
- How to get more public reviews
About Manly Bands and how they work with Influx
From day one, they’ve used customer service as a differentiator. Competitors selling online or in person (local jewellers) deliver poor selection while often charging twice as much. Other competitors, like Amazon, can’t provide the personal understanding of the product.
Manly Bands works with Influx to deliver thoughtful and fast responses, 24/7. Together, they provide refunds and exchanges within 30 days of purchase plus a free one-year warranty.
This full service solution matches the needs of their customers. Many of their customers are either buying rings last minute or they’re buying a ring for the first time. They often need fast answers or even faster exchanges.
Turns out this focus on the customer works. Only one year into operation, Manly Bands is now selling to more than 1,500 customers per month. Much of their new business is driven through customer referrals. These positive reviews show up on Facebook, their own website and through old-fashioned person to person conversations.
Influx powers 90% of their support experience. This full service support solution frees up more of John and Michelle’s time to focus on the big picture of their business.
Here’s how they set up their own business and Influx for success.
How would you describe Manly Bands?
Manly Bands is the place to find affordable, unique, and fun wedding bands for the groom (or bride) who want to stay within their budget while also loving the look of their wedding band, instead of trying to forget it’s there.
How is Manly Bands different from its competitors?
Most of our competitors have very clean, classic looking rings. We have some of those too, but we also cover the gamut. We push the envelope a bit and try to let guys know that they don’t need to wear something traditional.
Most importantly, we make buying a wedding ring fun and easy.
How does creating a better customer experience fit into your broader business goals?
One of our standout features is our excellent customer service. That’s one of the main things someone is buying; they’re buying an easy and effective experience.
We had a terrible time trying to buy my husband’s ring, which is why we wanted to make this experience easy and classy.
As the company grew, keeping the reverence and love in the buying experience remained our primary intention. Great customer service drives those values.
What’s the business case for excellent customer service?
We’re in the business of making people feel at ease, instead of stressed out.
In terms of what we do, customer service is key. It’s #1.
How does customer service fit in with your strategy when competing with Amazon and other large ‘everything’ stores?
It’s huge. That’s one thing Amazon doesn’t have. They have a good customer service team, but you don’t talk to someone at the company you’re buying from - you talk to someone at Amazon. They don’t know the product.
They don’t know anything.
If I want to get in touch with the retailer, I have to wait 48 hours for a response. Responses are often written in broken English. It’s really hard to communicate.
Our team at Influx knows so much about the product, it’s like talking to someone right at the company. That’s incomparable.
You have a really flexible return policy - 30-day free returns. Could you provide some context on why you do this?
We looked at our competitors, established retailers, and what our customers wanted.
First, what would Macy’s do? Turns out they wouldn’t do half of what we would do for our customers. They had a 30-day policy years ago, now it’s much different.
Second, most retailers we tend to go to have a 30-day policy. The majority of our competitors do 30 days as well.
Lastly, what do our customers need? When planning a wedding, there are so many things in the air at the same time. You don’t always think to get your stuff sorted out in a normal amount of time. So, we extended our exchange policy to fit those needs that kept arriving.
We learned that there were people who don’t touch the ring until the ceremony. It turns out that there’s this tradition for the woman to buy the ring and hold it for months before the wedding.
Our client captain at Influx helped with this as well. We changed our policy as we analyzed customer feedback and requests. Now, you can return for a refund within 30 days. After 30 days, we ask for a small fee to cover the shipping on exchanges and we will grant a “late exchange” up to 90 days. I don’t know of any big chain jewelry stores that will do that.
One more thing - in the beginning we had customers paying for shipping on their returns, we found they didn’t always keep the tracking number (even though we asked them to). This created all kinds of issues. It’s better to have control over the whole process by paying for the exchange shipping. I’ll pay $3 just to know where the package is when the customer asks.
How does working with Influx create a better support experience for your customers?
Having been a bride myself, I knew anything I couldn’t check off my list fast became a source of stress.
We want to respond to our customers ASAP, even if they are writing us at midnight or on a Sunday.
Our team at Influx is a group of detail-oriented problem solvers with a smile. This creates a sense of ease for the customer, and we continue to get rave reviews on the buying and exchanging/returning process. So much of our business is referrals from happy couples.
We also have more visibility into trends from our customers. We have a regular check-in call with our client captain, ops manager, and account manager. We can therefore stay on top of every inch of our business.
Our Influx agents go deep to process returns and exchanges. They interpret gray area scenarios and answer customer questions in detail. They even communicate with our warehouse to troubleshoot shipping issues. This takes a huge load off of us.
How important is scalability to your business success?
Huge. There are certainly hills and valleys in our line of business, and when the hills get big, Influx is there to tackle them 24/7. An in-house team wouldn’t be able to do this.
I’m fortunate to have an amazing team that really works with us to make our business the best it can be. It feels much more like an extension of our in-house team than a vendor.
And the best thing is, I never wonder what we will do if we get a crazy “Influx” of sales, because I know the team will be there to give service with a smile to our brides and grooms, and if they can’t get to someone’s email, the next time zone’s team will grab it!
What tools do you use to scale quickly as a business?
We are fortunate to work with both the wonderful team at Influx and the incredible staff at our warehouse, Ships-a-lot. As our business grows, it’s imperative to have hands that can jump in when it gets crazy during wedding season. It’s also imperative to have vendors you not only trust but also like as people. Man, we are lucky!
What types of things have you been able to accomplish while Influx has handled your support operations?
We’re finally getting to all of the growth ideas we’ve had on the whiteboard! We can also sit back, take a breath, and optimize our product inventory, create new ways of looking at marketing, and even venture into other business ideas.
Before Influx, I’d have this nasty stress about what I needed to do in the morning. I used to have this horrible hush before I went to bed or woke up in the morning because I knew there was somebody who had emailed me needing a ring immediately.
Now, I know that someone is addressing these issues with urgency. I’ve even taken two mini-vacations recently!
When do you think a company should look at working with a company like Influx?
I would bring Influx into the picture when you have about 5 orders a day. You’re not overwhelmed, but you’re busy and generally knowledgeable about what your customers need. The more experience you have with your customers, the more you can prepare your Influx team for success.
Working with Influx has been a growing process as well. New questions come up, and we define answers together to find the best solutions. It can take a while to get everything optimized and get everyone up to speed.
You don’t want to get involved too early, but you also don’t want to wait until the last minute, when all you can think about is the 30 orders you have to get out the door by 2 pm!
Now that the Influx team handles about 90% of our customer support, I still like to sometimes pop in just to read the chatter, and I think it’s very helpful to see what customers are asking for.
How did you handle support operations before Influx?
In the beginning, it was just me answering all the customer inquires. Because weddings are a super special event, sometimes customers came to me with general questions, too. I talked many a bride off a ledge haha. Having just gone through it myself, it was nice to be able to tell them it was all going to magically come together!
Although I really enjoyed interacting with our customers, my email account became a big source of stress, and although I fought it, we finally moved over to Front and I hired a friend to help part-time while we looked for a more permanent team.
How does your company run support while still working with Influx?
We use Front [shared inbox software] and love it. We can easily organize our conversations and tag members of the team as needed. We also use Facebook Messenger; it’s integrated into Front as well, which is fantastic.
When the Influx team has a question they can’t answer, they tag me in Front and it ends up in my folder.
We also use Slack to send updates and messages. When the team needs me ASAP, they know to Slack me so I can respond right then and there from my phone, where I am also able to access Front. I have been known to do some customer servicing while at the pool or beach!
Our Influx team now also works directly with other third party partners and troubleshoots issues directly.
#1 lesson since launching Manly Bands?
It takes a village to keep the train running. At least the kind of business we have is not something you can do in your basement on your own. We thought we could and fast learned we needed to hire some hands to help.
More specifically, our Influx team has really helped further develop our customer experience and our warehouse helps further streamline our backend needs.
We’ve even hired several family members to make homemade ring boxes and send out personalized customer thank you cards. It’s kind of awesome actually!
How did you set Influx up for success?
The biggest part is communication. I get my weekly meetings with the client captain and ops manager. I check in regularly with our account manager. The best thing is having that open channel - I can Slack the team whenever I want.
There was one night towards the beginning of working together when I was like, “What’s going on here?” Someone figured out the issue immediately.
In the beginning, we also used a Google Document with all our FAQs, and we’d add to that regularly to keep everyone informed. With Front, I can easily tag and send notes back and forth with the Influx team. For example, “add this response to the wiki.”
We started with both a detailed Google Doc and a detailed onsite FAQs page.
What are some of the benefits of Support as a Service vs hiring fixed rate agents?
Before we hired Influx, I had a friend who would jump in when I asked.
Influx provides 24/7 service. It guarantees near perfect coverage, which is huge for our business. Full time agents couldn’t do that.
Another thing, I considered hiring a full-time team, but then I’d be managing people full time, rather than being a CEO and taking care of all these business growth items.
Influx means big cost savings, but also headache savings.
How does Influx compare with other third-party support providers?
We didn’t have another team like yours. Influx was our first foray into finding someone that could do what you could do. We were floored by everything that can be done. I’ve been really delighted.
I now have people who have hearts and brains. They can make their own call on things. They’re doing what I would do. That’s way more than I expected.
Initially, I thought I’d only hand off 20% of things, but now we’re handing off 90% of our support work; the Influx team is thinking through everything. They’re answering more than just the questions.
They’re thinking beyond the question. It really helps the customer feel at ease when they have all the info they need, or when they receive extra help.
How did you get so many customer reviews?
Honestly, just asking people. We ask people to leave a review a few weeks after their purchase. We’ve been really lucky. People are happy, so they want to say something and share a photo.
We also have a process loop for negative reviews; there aren’t many, but we do personally address them to make sure we can make that person a happy customer. Often times, they will rewrite their review without us asking, which is really nice.
Any eCommerce fredictions for 2018?
I think the world is increasingly turning to Facebook and Amazon for purchases. Last year, we got all of our Christmas presents on Amazon. This year, I’ll bet I’ll be buying them off of Facebook. Shoot I hope our customers are!
Thanks for taking the time!