Jonathan Congdon improves customer service at Beachbody Featured

8:00pm EDT July 26, 2010

When Jonathan Congdon threw a party in 2001, he wasn’t sure if anyone would show up.

The “party” was actually an online forum for customers of Product Partners LLC — the parent company of Beachbody and its in-home fitness and weight loss programs like Power 90 and P90X — where Congdon serves as president. There were plenty of customers, but he felt the way an anxious party planner feels after sending invitations.

“I just remember nervously watching those forums and wondering if anybody was going to come on and ask anything or start talking to each other,” Congdon says. “We realized we had people that were doing our program who needed to talk to other people who were doing it and needed to talk to us. We saw people coming on the [message] boards and very actively posting and speaking to each other and asking questions, giving incredible support to each other — better than we could have done.”

Soon after Congdon founded Product Partners in 1998 with Carl Daikeler — who’s now chairman and CEO — they realized they were good at creating comprehensive DVD-based weight loss programs and clearly articulating what customers could expect from them. But not until those message boards started filling up did they realize they were good at something else, too: building relationships with customers beyond the product.

“What we became was a company … that provides a community for people to interact with each other, which probably quintuples the likelihood that they’re actually going to do the program all the way through to the end,” Congdon says. “If you’ve got five times as many customers doing the program as you would have if you weren’t good at creating community for them, you then have five times the number of satisfied customers who are willing to buy more from you. And then you’ve increased the odds that some of those people are going to become evangelists for your brand.”

Congdon learned the secret to satisfying customers is offering support then staying out of the way so they can use it.

“Our job is to make sure that the customer experience is top-notch, that we deliver products really quickly, that when they call and have a complaint, that we handle it really quickly, and that we’re just a well-oiled machine,” he says.

Find service stars

With 70,000 new customers jumping on the Beachbody bandwagon weekly, Product Partners’ 300 employees can’t handle the sales volume — which totaled $350 million in 2009. The company also uses third-party vendors for giant spikes in demand, especially during infomercials.

Whether or not your customer-facing forces are full-time employees, the key is training everyone to the same standards for a consistent customer experience. But first, make sure you’re training the right people — ones who care about your customers and your standards.

“One of the keys to our success is that we’ve worked hard with our vendors to make them better so we’re better,” Congdon says. “We don’t just farm out work to our third-party vendors. We create standards … and we choose vendors who are willing to work with us like that. I almost said, ‘be managed like that,’ but really, that’s not the way it is. You’ve got to find a vendor who wants to work with you.”

It starts with a clear explanation of what you expect. That will weed out the self-selecting few who know they don’t match and secure a better fit with the rest.

“It’s really common for a vendor to tell you that they’re beating industry standard,” Congdon says. “And then we have to say, ‘We just don’t care what the industry standard is because we’re trying to create a new industry. We’re in the industry that wants a zero percent [error rate].”

Explain why those expectations are important. When searching for people who will serve your customers best, that means answering why your standards matter to customers.

“We need to have a zero-error environment because … if they let themselves get to a point where they have 70 pounds to lose, they are very quick to find any excuse not to work with a company that’s going to ask them to work hard to lose that 70 pounds,” Congdon tells candidates. “So we have to get out of the way. The product coming late or somebody rude on the phone or whatever and they’re gone.”

The second step in identifying customer service stars is an attitude check. Optimists are the best match for the customer-centric culture at Beachbody because that upbeat positivity translates into a more enjoyable interaction for the customer.

“You’re not going to have somebody say, ‘Eh, I don’t like life,’ in an interview,” he says. “The pessimist is going to tell you what was wrong with every company they’ve been to and how what they tried to do couldn’t get done and it was always somebody else’s fault.

“Hopefully they’re willing to share a little bit of the blame. I’m perfectly willing to hear from somebody how they’ve learned from their mistakes. But the people who seem to have never made any mistakes, those are the dangerous ones.”

People who share the blame for past mistakes are more likely to take initiative in solving future problems for the sake of the customer.

“We don’t accept anything less than 100 percent,” Congdon says. “It’s easy to say we are great because we’re 99 percent, but if you’re thinking about the customer then you’re thinking about the 1 percent who didn’t get the product as quickly as they were supposed to.”

Train employees to believe

You can spend that effort finding upbeat employees who are passionate about customers, but it’s moot if you don’t get them to believe in your company and what it does.

“It’s a paradigm shift in the way customer service thinks,” Congdon says. “We’re not trying to get them to [buy] the product so we’ll make more money. We’re trying to get them to [buy] the product because they need to improve their life, and the way they’re going to do that is by using our product. ”

That’s easy for him to say, right? His products actually help people get healthy — thus improving lives. But that same strategy can apply to any company, regardless of what product or service you offer. Just focus on the benefit you provide customers, even if that’s as simple as making a task more convenient for them.

“The point is: If you believe in the product that you’re selling, you should know how you’re affecting people and why the company exists, why it’s good,” he says.

But employees won’t fall in step automatically.

“You have to train people on what the product does and why it’s better than something that’s comparable,” Congdon says.

At least that’s the idea if you manufacture a product. If not, then the training should cover what’s special about whatever it is you do. Maybe that comes down to the experience customers have with your company.

“If I’m a Best Buy, I can’t train all my [employees] on every single product that I sell,” he says. “But I can train them on the Best Buy experience, on what happens when somebody walks in the store, on the fact that I’d rather walk into that store than some other elec

tronic widget and music retailer. So I might be training somebody on the experience and the customer service and the prices and everything else that I consider the best thing about my company.”

So in addition to teaching employees about Beachbody’s programs, there’s also a service aspect. That training involves explaining the expectations and metrics that define great service, down to what phone calls should sound like.

It starts with some of the basics, like: The customer’s always right — and when they’re not, don’t correct them.

“We realized that … when somebody called to say something and they were incorrect, it wasn’t our job to let them know that they were incorrect,” Congdon says. “If their expectation was the product should have gotten there in four days, it didn’t really matter if we said, ‘Well, if you’ll go to the Web site, you’ll notice that it says five to seven business days.’ There was absolutely no upside in showing them that their expectations were off.

“Ignore the fact that you’re right and the customer’s wrong. Just ask them what you can do to make it better. We’ve found that returns went down based on that.”

Congdon also wants customers to hang up the phone feeling like their issue was handled. The only way to know is to ask.

“Even if the call didn’t feel good and was a little tense, you have to, at the end of the call, basically ask, ‘Have I taken care of what you were concerned with?’ and ‘Is there anything else I can help you with today?’” he says. “We must ask that question and then we must say whether the person said, ‘Yes, my issue has been handled,’ or, ‘No, it hasn’t been handled yet; I’m not satisfied,’ which then can create more conversation. We will get them to the point where they say yes.”

Look beyond statistics

Congdon is surrounded by customers every day. It’s not just the ones who tour headquarters daily; the office walls are covered with thousands of customers’ before and after pictures.

“You cannot get away from the customer in our company,” he says. “I am shocked when I go to other companies that sell direct like we do and I realize that there is no sense of the customer inside those offices.”

If you make fan belts, you’re probably not going to have photos of people who love your product plastering your office. But to keep the focus on customers, you can make heroes of people who create a positive experience for them.

You’ll only recognize who’s doing that if you have ways to measure it. That starts with the expectations you set in training, but you won’t always know initially if those will have tangible, measurable effects.

“Do I try to make improvements without knowing how I’m going to measure them but because I know it’s better for the customer? Yes,” Congdon says. “Does it usually turn out that I’ve got something measurable that happens as a result of hitting that mark? Yes.”

For example, Congdon realized shipping products on time — within five to seven business days — wasn’t good enough. Customers expected the low end of the range, and they’d start calling on day four to ask where their product was. They’d whittled down the official deadline.

So Congdon set the internal deadline on day five to meet that expectation and realized it reduced canceled orders by 50 percent, returns by 40 percent and “where’s-my-order” calls by 80 percent.

Although he didn’t set out to, he can monitor when shipments go out as well as what effect that has on other statistics.

Those statistics can also contribute to your broader understanding of whether your expectations are resonating with employees.

“Certainly, it pays off in the reactions of your customers and the number of complaints that you get or the number of positive letters that you get,” he says.

Plus, the unresolved complaints go straight to the top for Congdon and Daikeler to handle.

“I’ve had people that were a little frustrated after they say that 99 percent of the products went out in 24 hours and then I respond with, ‘Well, what happened with the 1 percent?’” Congdon says. “(That) sounds great, but not if you’re one of the customers that fell into the (1) percent. You can look at statistics generally and go, ‘Wow, that looks like an A+,’ … but always think about individuals rather than the stats. We feel that 1 percent because those are the complaints that come to us.”

While the company has gotten good at dealing with those, it doesn’t have as many because complaints have dwindled. Instead, Congdon and his team are getting a lot of unsolicited praise, as more than half of their sales are now sparked through word-of-mouth recommendations from other customers.

“My job is making sure that we don’t get in the way of that and that our operations literally remove any barrier to that word-of-mouth transaction occurring,” Congdon says. “What we do is we try to give our customers all the tools possible … and let our customers be our best spokespeople and our best salespeople.”

HOW TO REACH: Product Partners LLC, (800) 714-7254 or www.beachbody.com

Visit Beachbody’s online community: www.teambeachbody.com