Africa

Webhelp: Setting the agenda for BPO CX in Africa

Africa: A continent of near-limitless opportunity for a range of customer experience outsourcing services – but without an informed market entry and execution strategy, a place where global brands can severely damage their reputation.  

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As the pandemic disrupts established offshoring locations in Asia Pacific, global brands are assessing and ramping up alternative offshore sourcing locations within AfricaThe C-suite recognize that the continent offers a clear route to maximizing business continuity and minimizing risk, while systematically reducing operational costs, and achieving a more balanced distribution of customer engagements associated with high quality outcomes.  

We have understood the opportunities well – having grown from a single market entry position on the continent in Morocco, to the current team of over 25,000 people working across seven African countries, serving both English and French language needs, providing CX management services in multiple industries, including automotive, e-commerce, FMCG, retail, airlines and oil and gas. We also continue to learn from these extensive engagements – using insights to optimise market entry strategies.

Webhelp is now one of the biggest customer experience management firms within Africa, but it has taken us 20 years, and a deep level of understanding of all the specific and different nuances associated with each and every country in which we operate in Africa today.  

 As the second largest continent in the world, Africa is home to over 1.2 billion people and makes up 20% of the earth’s surface. It’s home to extreme wealth, obscene poverty, and everything in between – with widely varying levels of political stability and infrastructure availability. It’s vital that brands which are now considering adding Africa to their sourcing portfolio’s view the continent as a long-term, integral part of their business strategy. Most multi-nationals recognize that while critical, the actual delivery of customer experience management is not their core business, and they need support with creating and implementing human experiences in a digital world. In our experience, brands must also balance responsible business, leveraged opportunities, and risks, in order to succeed within Africa.

Responsible Business

Within Africa, young people account for 60% of those who are unemployed, according to the World Bank. Areas hit hardest included Botswana, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Senegal, and South Africa. As a leading global CX services provider in Africa, with an extensive global footprint, we recognize that we’re uniquely placed to offer employment opportunities and to tackle the social divides resulting from  these high levels of unemployment. So, we’ve created a bespoke and scalable Impact Sourcing Model for unemployed youth, to deliver social reform systematically through all our CX outsourcing work in Egypt, the Ivory Coast, Madagascar, Morocco, Senegal, and South Africa.

Young African man

In South Africa for example, we work in partnership with Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator – a world-renowned not-for-profit social enterprise – as well as multiple governments and customers, using a model for inclusive youth hiring at scale. Through all our contracts, we provide  formal work readiness training, including, jobs, and professional call centre qualifications, to young people aged 18-35 who are at risk of long-term unemployment and economic exclusion.  In addition, we provide bespoke programmes designed to maximize understanding of the sectors in which our clients operate, such as retail. This approach accelerates time to competence, and we are seeing young people thrive in their careers with Webhelp. We are also seeing remarkable outcomes being delivered for our clients’ customers.

So far, in partnership with Harambee, we have supported hundreds of excluded and unemployed young people into career opportunities with Webhelp, either through jobs, or work placements, and we have a firm commitment to increase numbers every year.

Having said that, as a business striving to deliver world class customer experience outcomes, we know that we can’t enter new countries with a ‘cookie cutter’ approach. We were one of the first companies to work directly with our customers in customizing and configuring our Impact Sourcing methods to meet the specific needs and objectives of their businesses.

In terms of talent management, Webhelp South Africa has also partnered with the University of Stellenbosch Business School to launch a leadership diversity programme. By combining formal education with career experience, we can create an equitable pipeline of skilled and talented future leaders. Social value aside, I cannot overstate that we won’t work anywhere in the world without first fulfilling our responsibility to carry out extensive due diligence on countries which we, or our clients, are considering as a place for new business or offshore expansion. 

Our expert team rigorously scrutinize each and every country’s standards in terms of political, economic, social, technological, environmental, and legal (PESTLE) criteria. We use this insight, alongside guidance from the UN, World Bank, and World Health Organisation to ‘score’ each country under consideration for new business. We then deploy a team of subject matter experts who spend time in the country surveying the local labour markets, salary levels and recruitment, before getting all our insights validated by teams of people based within the target country.  

Only when evidence shows that a country meets our high standards on ethics, compliance, and operations, will we consider designing the best way for us and our clients to work there.

Opportunities

With 60% of the population aged under 25, Africa is set to have the biggest number of consumers globally – backed by steadily increasing education levels, improving infrastructure, and a dynamic start-up business culture. Soon, brands will have access to an abundance of highly motivated and skilled people, who due to their emerging global status as consumers, have a unique understanding of the importance of CX.

Young African muslim lady

Not only that, but right now, brands considering investment in Africa can benefit from a myriad of funding opportunities. Many governments across the continent award significant grants to firms which can deliver positive social outcomes – which is one of the reasons why South Africa has been voted the most favoured offshore CX delivery location by Ryan Strategic Advisory. There is also significant funding available through organizations like the Rockefeller Foundation, and the World Trade Organization. 

We encourage competition in Africa because it drives performance. We’re not only looking to build our own business here – we’re looking to develop the whole CX industry in the regions in which we operate. As more and more brands commit to the continent as a key part of their go-to market strategy, we’re expecting to see second, third and fourth generation businesses open up opportunities for local suppliers to gain a foothold into the formal economy, driving economic growth. That means even more momentum on investment, and greater social value within African countries. 

Companies which thrive in Africa now will gain a huge competitive advantage in the long-term.  

Risk

But for every opportunity in Africa, there’s also a potential risk.  

While infrastructure is improving, it’s generally still behind more established offshoring locations, and standards vary widely between countries, so it’s smart to pre-empt potential challenges in terms of telephony and communications. Further, in a continent with historic issues relating to debt, brands may also need to be alert to, and navigate away from, potential corruption issues, as well as the potential mismanagement and misappropriation of African aid. 

It all means that Africa is not a go-to destination for any brands seeking a ‘quick win.’ Firms don’t scale here by luck – they succeed by designing and implementing robust operating models, due diligence and governance, appropriate sourcing, investment back into the available capabilities, and nurturing a pipeline of management talent.  

The operating model we use in Africa, and across the world, is Webhelp Anywhere – a system which enables clients to standardise excellence at any location in a way that’s bespoke to the needs of their business, with a focus on six key pillars – talent, engagement, performance, technology, security, and resilience. We also deploy specialist teams, comprising global and local talent, into new countries to support the set-up and establishment of new services, the combined effect brings assurance to this process. 

Finally, I’d urge any firms considering their operating model strategy, entry into new territories, and business operations, to talk to brands like Webhelp, which have already overcome these challenges and established a presence in a number of countries in Africa. Leaders can save a lot of hassle by getting advice on how and where to invest, avoid pitfalls, and fulfil social value in a country with infinite opportunity.  

About the author

Craig Gibson

Craig Gibson, grew up in South Africa, was educated at Durban Technikon in South Africa and helped to develop the first major contact centre BPO offshore model in South Africa – working across the US, Middle East, UK, Europe and Africa.

A business he started in South Africa was later acquired by Webhelp, which accelerated his work to bridge the social divide in communities in which the company makes investments with its clients, alongside delivering world-class outcomes for them.

Today Craig leads the Webhelp Group’s growth efforts, working with clients to address their customer management needs, he lives in London.

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Fashion and ready-to-wear: 3 tips to help you make the most of the economic recovery

A quick analysis of the fashion and ready-to-wear market, plus 3 tips from Bertrand Mahon, VP Operation Logbox at Webhelp Payment Services, whose credit management network covers 35,000 shops and more than 400 brands; a unique economic vantage point.

What a lovely surprise! Back in autumn 2020, who would have placed any bets on the fashion and ready-to-wear sector being back up and running? So many bankruptcies, outstanding debts, mass unemployment, disaffected consumers… the media was dominated by grim predictions. And yet here we are in autumn 2021, and the indicators are pretty positive… excellent even: at Webhelp Payment Services, we’re even breaking records – our monthly sales figures for September 2021 are the best since our company was founded, in 1984!

Without claiming to replace the pollsters, our “surface area” means that we really understand these markets: we manage more than 400 brands and 35,000 ready-to-wear shops in Europe and the United States, as well as department stores and online retailers. In 2021, we expect to manage more than 600,000 invoices, equivalent to 1.3 billion EUR.

Based on this, we can say today that wholesale distribution networks in Europe & the United States have weathered the storm – no doubt due to the exceptional financial support that has been offered, and thanks to the fact that brands have managed to restructure some of their debts. And we can attest to the fact that the current levels of debts and disputes are neither extraordinary nor worrying.

A general picture that is totally different from the catastrophic situation in 2008-2009, for example. This time, the market has been managed well – that’s our first observation.

Digital players have benefited from the health crisis

Our second observation will be less surprising: digital players have been able to take advantage of a period during which in-store stopping was prohibited or limited. In addition, many department stores – and even retailers – were able to develop their online sales channel quickly. In the end, the sector sped up its digital transformation, and so new buyers were recruited. But the wholesale market has still done well in this complicated, competitive environment.

Admittedly, overall, we are not yet seeing the same levels of activity as “before”, in other words in 2019, but everything is pointing towards the fact that there is some new momentum, and that it would be a good idea to make the most of that.

For 2021, according to a study carried out by Euler Hermes, a partner of Webhelp Payment Services, a rebound of +14% is expected in the turnover of French textiles and clothing, but we won’t be going back to pre-crisis levels before 2023. As for marketplaces, they grew by +27%, so twice as fast as in 2019 (according to Fevad).

Let’s allow ourselves to dream a little: what if 2022 were to surpass the performance we saw in 2019? If you spend some time at trade shows, and according to our clients, that idea isn’t as crazy as it might seem!

Tip #1: don’t be timid

Faced with this new momentum, it’s a good idea not to hold back. During the crisis, brands and the wholesale market protected themselves from risk, including in particular by reducing the number of models or collections.
Now, we need to turn over a new leaf and get away from this “crisis mentality” that holds initiatives back. Although some supply chains have been disrupted, a return to normal is falling into place. And consumers – who have saved a lot of money in Europe – are rediscovering the desire to treat themselves, to step out of the gloom and even to build a better world.
Brands that are more daring will win market share. This is backed up by the spectacular growth seen in ethical, second-hand and eco-friendly fashion.

Tip #2: watch out for signs of impending failure

We know that there are some warning signs before a shop or a retailer defaults. That’s why we advise our clients to watch out for “weak signals” that indicate a potential breakdown. In particular, levels of debt and disputes should be closely monitored!

To that end, we have created indicators, alert thresholds and procedures to detect and mitigate financial risks.

Tip #3: take national and international payment practices into account

Our extensive experience of national and international markets backs up this advice – the crisis hasn’t changed anything in this area: you need to take into account the specific characteristics and payment habits of each country or economic area. The desire to impose “unique conditions”, with exactly the same payment deadline for all European countries, for example, runs the risk of significantly penalising your business.

To sum up, Webhelp Payment Services has unique quantitative and qualitative information: we have local bases and have been pooling millions of pieces of data from brands and stores for more than 30 years. That means that we understand what really happens with payments, depending on the stakeholders and the countries, in real time. This customer knowledge is a key asset when it comes to making the most of the recovery that lies ahead.

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Mode paiement

[Fashion] - 4 tips to make payments easier and more secure in Europe and the US

Mode paiement



For fashion brands, the European and United States markets are strategically very important. But there are some risks when it comes to payments, especially with department stores and e-commerce sites. Anke Glaser, General Manager of Webhelp Payment Services for Central Europe, offers some advice.

 

1. Fashion brands should make the most of the momentum driven by departments stores and e-commerce sites

Over the last 2 or 3 years – and especially since the health crisis – online sales have really flourished in the fashion industry, both in Europe and in the United States. This growth is mainly due to department stores, which already have a digital strategy, and e-commerce platforms.

This trend is explained by companies investing more and more in digital technology generally – in England, spending on websites and online sales platforms went up by 30% in one year. In the United States, department stores can account for up to 70% of suppliers’ turnover. We can also see this trend in Spain where the leading Spanish department store has made its digital development a major focus in its development strategy.

We therefore recommend taking full advantage of this momentum, driven by departments stores and e-commerce sites, because we think it’s one that is going to last!
However, while digital strategies are undeniably seeing a surge, we remain convinced that the physical component is still vital, and that the crisis will lead to an offering that combines human and digital solutions.

2. Protect yourself against the problem of deduction

Brands have to comply with the conditions imposed by department stores and e-commerce platforms, which generally have very strict rules, at the risk of having to deal with chargebacks. In practice, whichever country you’re in, department stores and platforms rarely make a payment for just one invoice. Usually, they send us a payment advice: a document summarising all the invoices to be paid. Added to these are debit notes or chargebacks that are deducted from the payments. For a brand, it is important to be aware that these practices, which can be for many different reasons, are widespread.

Webhelp Payment Services manages debit notes directly for department stores and platforms. We check them, as agreed with the brand, and if the deductions are not totally justified, we dispute them with the department store or the platform. Our regular contact with the stores and platforms means that we can speed up the processes and so resolve any disputes faster.

Every year, this work by our experts, dedicated exclusively to managing these key accounts, helps our clients’ brands recover substantial amounts of money, as well as giving them a clear overview of the buyer’s current situation.
The benefit: if the Order to Cash process is under control, those involved in distribution generally pay on time.

3. Know how to manage the complexity of accounting documents for department stores and e-commerce platforms and avoid mistakes

Each season, brands receive documents with a lot of items to reconcile, from department stores and platforms. This involves a considerable amount of work for their accountants!

We have developed a specific reconciliation and comparison tool for documents that come from department stores and platforms. It makes the accounts much easier to understand, and means we can analyse the source of chargebacks.

Our dedicated customer platform allows clients to find all the information and all the payments in one place. It is here, for example, that any deductions will be clearly shown. This document provides a good basis for the interaction between us, the brand, and the department store or e-commerce platform.

4. Digitise your data exchanges

The relationship between department stores, platforms, and sellers is also going digital. Implementing this digital process is really useful when it comes to optimising your cash flow with these different stakeholders. Indeed, in addition to the speed of transmission via EDI, it also means that you can check to make sure that invoices have been received, and act promptly if the invoice is rejected or incomplete. This means we can reduce delays to invoice payments, but also lots of chargebacks that might not be due.

We are currently working on setting up EDI with the many department stores and e-platforms so that we can offer our clients simple, unique access, whilst also relieving them of the technical work specific to each buyer. Why not take advantage of it?

 

With 35 years of experience in fashion and luxury, Webhelp Payment Services can be both a personal advisor and a facilitator, not only for department stores and e-commerce platforms, but also for retail distribution. We are currently working with 400 ready-to-wear brands with a network of 35,000 stores in Europe and the United States.

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‘The Nest’ by Webhelp expands across Europe

The customer experience program offers a simple and scalable outsourcing proposition for fast-growing companies

Oxford, March 24th, 2021

The leading global customer experience (CX) and business solutions provider, Webhelp has announced the expansion of its program, The Nest by Webhelp, across Europe which aims to support startups and scaleups to provide the best-in-class customer experience. The Nest enables fast-growing companies across all sectors to grow exponentially by offering a unique, tailor-made outsourced CX proposition.

This news comes at a time when many young companies are facing multiple challenges due to the pandemic and are requiring flexibility and ROI optimization while uncertainly prevails in their business environments.

Chloe de Mont-Serrat, Head of The Nest, said:

“We’re delighted to expand our offering to companies across Europe. Thriving startups have one key thing in common – exceptional customer experience. Outsourcing CX with a trusted partner can enable businesses to scale up quickly while maximizing ROI, freeing them up to focus on what matters most – growing their business.”

Launched in France in 2018, the program already supports dozens of the most dynamic startups, many of which have been placed highly in ​The French Tech Next rankings. In addition to this, Webhelp is a long-standing partner for countless unicorn startups and is well-placed to help fast-growth companies differentiate their businesses. The program is taking on a European dimension by expanding into the UK, Spain, Germany, The Nordics, The Netherlands, and Turkey.

“The early years of building a startup can be complex. From scaling quickly in new markets, building solid expertise and processes to sustain growth, innovative products, and services to differentiate from competitors, the challenges can be vast. Our program can support startups by providing outstanding customer experience to deepen their understanding of customers as they scale through leading-edge insight and analytics,”

added Vanessa Flather, Managing Director, The Nest, UK.

The Nest by Webhelp makes the expertise of Webhelp, the European market leader for CX, available to smaller businesses and is based on a strong people-first working culture. Its core focus is to support its clients as they grow their businesses and enable them to generate competitive advantages in the CX space. The program offers a wide variety of services, all of which can be customized to the client’s individual needs, including, but not limited to; omnichannel customer engagement services  (including customer care, community management and technical support),  sales support  (customer acquisition & retention, sales assistance) and digital services  (content management, moderation services, digital marketing). The program operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week and is available in more than 40 languages.

In addition to a best-in-class customer experience delivered by expert teams, clients also get access to ‘The Nest Community.’ This resource will offer members mentoring, business development, and networking opportunities as an additional way to generate traction and achieve better results through a strategic startup network.

As Charles Egly, CEO of Younited Credit, and one of the first startups to join The Nest by Webhelp program, testified:

“In the early days of a startup, the senior team often try to tackle all the issues head-on, sometimes to the detriment of the final product or service. The outsourced support that The Nest program offers was invaluable to expand our team and provide reinforced expertise. It also allowed us to conquer new markets much faster. Working with an outsourced partner in this way offers increased efficiency, lower operating costs, more flexibility, and faster time-to-market. Not to mention, access to the best processes and tools on the market, most of which are usually too costly for a startup.”

Webhelp Co-Founder, Olivier Duha, concluded:

“We are thrilled that – despite the COVID-19 pandemic – the startup world is still booming, and the pace of fundraising has not slowed down. Ultimately, supporting fast growing startups has always been in our DNA, as we still have an entrepreneurial culture that perfectly guides that.”

About The Nest

The Nest by Webhelp is an outsourced customer experience (CX) program by Webhelp to help startups and fast-growth companies differentiate themselves and scale-up their team, quickly and simply. Operating across Europe, the program provides clients access to its global network of operational customer experience specialists 365 days a year and seven days a week. The Nest offers a wide variety of services, all of which are customized to the client’s individual needs, including, but not limited to; omnichannel customer engagement services (including customer care, community management and technical support), sales support (customer acquisition & retention, sales assistance) and digital services (content management, moderation services, digital marketing). Clients of The Nest will have access The Nest Community, offering mentoring and other business support and guidance to enable startups to grow and succeed in their marketplace.

More information can be found at thenest.webhelp.com


Why fashion businesses need to move from channel-first to customer-first

For years, consumer brands have promoted omnichannel strategies as a ‘Holy Grail’ for attracting and retaining customers. Many believe that integrating sales, communications and tech platforms is a magic wand for generating sales and improving customer lifetime value.

But with bricks-and-mortar retail suffering and direct online sales skyrocketing, those who have succeeded in managing demand effectively were not necessarily those who implemented full-scale re-platforming and omnichannel transformations but those who had a real understanding of their customers.

We have seen many brands – mainly medium-sized businesses – feel pressured into implementing or scaling e-commerce functionality as a way of pivoting around retail closures and lockdowns caused by COVID-19. There was panic and reaction – businesses scrambled to implement e-commerce strategies and manage influxes of online orders, as well as an exponential rise in customer service requests across multiple languages and time zones.

In our experience of working with over 50 global fashion brands, those who are most successful adopt a customer-first mindset. Using the same laser-focus that they use in their designs to identify exactly what their customer needs and pain points are. There’s little debate – companies which are market or customer-focused are more profitable and enjoy better sales growth, customer retention and product success. That’s according to the renowned global marketer John Narver.

By adopting a customer-first approach, brands can ensure that any digital solution will meet customer needs. Fashion businesses often have an intrinsic understanding of their consumer – and have a real opportunity to truly connect with customers, understand their needs, and get ahead on the service proposition behind any future digital offer.

We see this play out within strategic, digital-first brands such as ASOS, which traded around 35% higher year-on-year after combining an understanding of customers with a slick digital platform. In the 2021 State of Fashion report, McKinsey gives further hope, claiming that there will be another 20% annual digital growth during 2021.

What does a truly customer-first approach look like in practice?

With 3,000 professionals serving the fashion industry, we have seen that firms which marry customer understanding, data and analytics, see the best successes in maximizing brand profile, customer experience, and profits.

Most often, fashion brands come to us with the following needs in developing a customer-first approach:

1. Really get to know the customer – You wouldn’t design ranges for a customer you didn’t understand, and the same goes for designing service. Forget any assumptions you have made about your target customers, which can lead to a lack of understanding and a swathe of false and risky beliefs, which can be a fast-track way to waste money.

Data drives better decision-making, and the most advanced brands access millions of data points collected in real-time from across the whole industry – not just their businesses – to inform the next steps.

This approach also helps solve another problem we often see in fashion – where C-level directors and business owners are not close to the critical customer data and insights collected by less senior colleagues. Leveraging this data effectively will enable businesses to become far better informed and make more intuitive, proactive, and predictive decisions.

Armed with data, you can then create personas built on facts, enabling you to build better customer relationships and personalize experiences based on real insights about their preferences, behaviors, and purchases.

2. Understand the opportunities in your customer journey – In an increasingly complex sales environment, many brands need help mapping out the entire customer journey. Visualizing the current experience through the end-to-end process, from attraction to selection, retention, and upselling. This will help you identify areas that can be streamlined and opportunities for upselling and cross-selling.

3. Re-write what customer service means – Move the contact center from being a cost center to a profit center that reflects your brand values through positive customer experiences while supporting sales.

The smartest firms free up service teams to help customers to buy, not solve problems. This involves automating the maximum number of routine transactions and inquiries, enabling people to engage in personalized 1:1 conversations.

It also means listening to customers and giving them what they want. In a globalized industry like fashion, if someone wants to buy a handbag at 3 am, let them do that. Or, if they’ve purchased a jumper from a collection – show them the rest of the matching collection or items that are seen with that look to ‘shop the outfit.’

For fast-growing firms, it can be challenging to recruit high-caliber customer service professionals to support these sales experiences effectively, particularly at scale. In our experience, the most advanced fashion brands tap into existing hubs comprising multilingual, trained call handlers to quickly achieve scale and ensure the highest standards.

4. Ensure organizational and operational support – Shifting to a customer-first approach is a strategic move that needs to be supported operationally within your business. You will need to scale, transform, and ramp up rapidly and efficiently to support customer demand. You may need support in changing your organizational structure.

5. Optimize commercials – While we strongly advocate putting the customer first, there’s one caveat – it has to be commercially viable. Many firms need to balance their brand promise, meeting customers’ needs, and ensuring they make a profit.

For some, shifting to e-commerce has not been a lifeline pivot – it’s increased the cost to serve significantly. We help brands to develop a commercial strategy, which might include having to say no.

6. Create a frictionless user experience – Customers have high expectations and demand a quick, slick, frictionless experience. Nearly half of us won’t wait even three seconds for a website page to load, according to Dynatrace, which monitors IT performance. Eliminate poor websites, glitches, payment issues, and bugs within apps to minimize frustrations and retain people on-site for as long as possible to maximize spend.

7. Future-proof solutions to avoid a constant cycle of change – Without care, digital offerings can become an area where you can waste money in rapid time.

In previous roles, I’ve seen firms spend millions on IT platforms that become obsolete almost the moment they’re finished because the industry is moving so fast. Another common issue is brands that implement technology for technology’s sake.

There is never a good time for a ‘white elephant’ IT project. But now, with all the unique challenges presented by COVID-19, it’s a particularly bad time to drain your business’s time, money, and team morale.

By implementing a customer-focused technology approach, you can deliver a digitized solution that saves not only time, effort, and money – but also positions you ahead of the competition for business growth.

Thinking customer-first helps you invest in the areas where you and your customers will derive the most value. Not only will this enable you to be both more effective and efficient in delivering your customer experience, with some irony, it’s probably also the best way to give the optimum omnichannel experience in the long term.

Atif Rashid

Solutions Director – Transformation

Gobeyond Partners (part of the Webhelp Group)

Fashion Subject Matter Expert

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The timeless ways fashion businesses can maximize growth

It’s no secret that the fashion industry has endured one of the most challenging trading years in its history due to COVID-19, with shop closures and the seismic shift from bricks and mortar stores to digital selling.

In fact, the 2021 McKinsey State of Fashion report talks of a ‘Darwinian’ shakeout of firms that were weak before the pandemic, while stronger players will be emboldened.

In our experience, supporting the growth of 50 global fashion brands, we see that the strongest firms are evolving their service centers into profit-making entities, geared towards supercharging customer satisfaction while systematically driving up sales – not just solving problems.

Many of the world’s largest fashion brands recognize that customer experience isn’t their raison d’être. They understand they can benefit from external expertise to help them solve critical challenges in this area – such as spotting trends and patterns in data, shifting to new technologies, or engaging always-on, skilled, flexible, and multilingual teams which are passionate about delivering excellence for brands.

These leaders who had the foresight to see that their customer service teams were an asset in waiting are also the same leaders working with us to redeploy skilled people from solving problems to driving sales.

And so, in the middle of a strategic and fundamental business transformation, during a global pandemic, they can remain laser-focused on their core mission – creating the very best clothing collections for customers.

It could be like this for every fashion business. There is still enormous strategic and commercial opportunity to reposition customer service and experience, not as a ‘nice to have,’ but as a function that adds real value to customers and brands’ profitability.

For example, we re-engineered and digitized the customer service center of a luxury fashion client. This resulted in 50% of contacts being deflected into automatable digital channels and a 26% reduction in inquiries tracking orders. We also eliminated warranty claims, which had driven 40% of references to the center.

Operational efficiencies rarely ever hit the headlines – but at a watershed moment for the fashion industry, we believe these numbers can spell the difference between success and failure.

So, what’s new?

The pandemic super-charged online shopping, with e-commerce’s share of fashion sales almost doubling in eight months – from 16% to 29% globally, according to McKinsey’s 2021 State of Fashion report.

But with technology developing at pace, simply having the right platforms isn’t enough. The report also discusses the urgent need to give customers the best possible service and experience at a time that could still make or break scores of fashion businesses.

Three features for optimal customer service and experience:

1) Ability to deliver rapid change – Global fashion brands realized they couldn’t deliver rapid strategic change at scale – so they outsourced scalability projects to Webhelp. In return, they got immediate access to a multilingual team of 3,000 skilled and flexible colleagues who deliver a diverse range of customer services, leaving brands to focus on what they do best.

For example, when delivery problems suddenly hit Greece on Black Friday, we used our proprietary talent selection approach to help one global brand source skilled multilingual expert team members, who managed everything from an influx of customer service inquiries problems with logistics and deliveries. This agile approach created a flexible workforce that could optimize service during challenging market conditions in the lucrative run-up to Christmas.

2) Commitment to turn cost centers into profit centers – The smartest brands invest in automation technologies to help customers ‘self-serve’ problems online. For example, one fashion client recently introduced chatbots as part of a customer journey redesign and saw the average order value rise by 20% and customer engagement rocket from 2% to 30%.

This approach frees up agents to engage in personalized conversations with customers, aimed at showcasing options and increasing sales.

3) Deliver customer experiences led by multimedia, and interactive content – Digital traffic to the websites in the top 100 European brands surged by 45% in April last year compared with the previous month, according to McKinsey.

Simply providing a flat, copy-led website won’t be enough when brand leaders are using tech to push the boundaries of customer experience:

Video – When Shanghai Fashion Week went virtual and was live-streamed last year, it drew 11 million viewers with $2.75m worth of clothing and accessories sold directly to consumers. In China, live stream revenues hit $138bn last year due to lockdown – up from $63bn the year before. Meanwhile, in the US – live stream revenues are forecast to reach $25bn by 2023.

Brands like Zara experiment with video – customers who buy via their app can create a personalized video to send with a gift from the store.

Social media – Social media platforms – particularly Instagram – have configured their apps in a way that allows customers to buy direct from stores without leaving third-party sites. This marked a significant boost for fashion companies, which effectively gained another sales channel.

Brands should also continue to maintain strong conversations and relationships with customer communities via traditional platform activity. Again, advanced firms often trust us to deploy 800 people, speaking 20+ languages to manage this – with high rankings from NelsonHall – one of the world’s leading analysts in this area.

Technology – We also see several fashion brands racing to offer or improve existing online sizing tools to maximize customer satisfaction and reduce the massive amount of over-ordering and returns. Consumers have also shown significant interest in scan technology – typically smartphone apps that carry out 3D-body scans and supply accurate measurements to make online clothes shopping more manageable. An obvious example is ASOS’s See My Fit tool, a big hit with its customers.

Also, augmented reality (AR) continues to advance. For example, Dior has embedded AR filters within Snapchat to enable customers to ‘try on’ sneakers, hats, and other accessories. Meanwhile, Burberry’s AR shopping tool lets customers ‘embed’ or 3D-view products within their environment.

There’s no doubt that transforming customer service from a cost to a profit center marks another significant challenge for fashion businesses. But in a cut-throat market, the bravest course of action for many fashion businesses could be to work with partners who can help them reach their potential in 2021 and beyond.

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Three top tips for de-risking your fashion brand's B2B channel

If ever any sector has demonstrated a determination to survive and thrive through adversity, it’s fashion.

COVID-19 has hit the $2.5 trillion fashion industry hard – forcing the closure of stores across the globe and hitting revenue by around 30% year-on-year in 2020.

The pandemic also triggered a rapid and urgent acceleration of e-commerce, omnichannel selling, and digitization, with omnichannel shoppers spending at least 34% more than their offline counterparts, according to The State of Fashion 2020 by McKinsey.

Meanwhile, the B2B fashion sector – including wholesalers, resellers, and e-shops – has also gained a renewed criticality: the opportunity to sell hundreds of thousands of items in bulk and keep inventory (AKA cash) moving has never been more vital.

In total, 82% of businesses fail because of poor management of cash flow. So, for all the consumer-facing tech in the world, getting paid on time by using the correct business processes and human interactions remains the best way to ensure cash flow and financial stability in the long term.

The fashion brands that will excel tend to see COVID-19 as a catalyst to manage risk – ramping up resilience planning and reviewing and adapting payment strategies ahead of new restrictions and consumer shifts.

But many executives tell us they are exhausted after an unforgiving year. They recognize that now is the time to focus on their core business – adding value and supporting competitive advantage.

Our team of 3,000 professionals speaks 25 languages and serves 50 of the world’s leading fashion brands operating in 35 countries. This includes providing outsourced credit management services for the wholesale channel from our regional hubs.

By removing these immediate pressures quickly, brands can achieve a rapid return on investment. This combination of human expertise and technology is key to success.

In our experience there are three keyways for fashion firms to balance their positioning, profitability, and cash flow managing their wholesale channel:

1) Build secure relationships using data – At a time of unprecedented risk of collapses within wholesale and retail, mid-tier firms must use data to drive robust decision-making on risk management, pricing, and payment strategy.

Many brands currently use a mix of credit insurance, external financial scoring, and access to their data to underpin strategies. But many of these methods are no longer sufficient or fit for purpose, at a time when guarantee coverage is low and trading conditions can change almost by the hour.

We manage relationships with 35,000 points of sale worldwide to collect live data from across the fashion industry, analyze the numbers, and report back anonymized data to clients every day to inform their decision-making. We collate these insights about potential risks into our screening processes, analyze client’s retail portfolios, make real-time recommendations (payment methods, payment terms, etc.) to enable everyone to make quick and robust decisions to develop safe business practice.

This enables brands to gain much better visibility and insight to protect themselves proactively from potential payment issues which may arise in the future.

There is no way to completely remove risk from any business, but prevention is better than cure, and the more insight you have about buyers, the better you can protect and adapt your business.

2) Support Global Growth – The wholesale fashion industry has shifted from 5% online to 30% online. As such, brands are managing an increasing number of sales channels, including multi-brand and department stores, resellers, and e-shops.

This rapid change is compounded by an increase in the level of complexity faced by fashion businesses when developing their buyer network across multiple regions and channels – all with different laws, rules, systems, languages, processes, and payment terms. Without care and engaging with numerous industry stakeholders, it’s easy to be caught out – for example, making mistakes on declarations, invoices, or process implementations, which your client would recharge to you.

To get this right, you either need to create your multinational multi-skilled team or tap into an existing network of professionals who understand and advise on navigating regional customs, payment methods, specific channel processes, and interdependencies within a fragmented and complex landscape of countries and clients’ specificities. Experts can also help you to implement new systems and procedures covering all new and existing trading areas.

3) Negotiate payment terms – It has perhaps never been so attractive for brands to optimize trade with wholesale buyers – selling hundreds of thousands of pieces in a single transaction.

But like D2C, the B2B fashion industry is also facing new risks.

First, there is a financial squeeze, as retailers who urgently need to add a mark-up and ensure profits urge wholesalers to seek discounts.

Then there’s an increased credit risk. Before the pandemic, the majority of fashion brands relied upon credit insurance to protect their stock and profits, knowing that insurers would indemnify them in case of clients’ payments default. But since COVID-19, insurers have dropped the level of coverage by around a third – putting much more orders at risk.

Without careful management, this combination of discounts, together with significant falls in consumer spending on apparel and reduced cover, could result in massive inventory build-ups.

Fortunately, it has been recognized that ‘one issue affects all’ – in an industry as interconnected as fashion, and stakeholders have worked collaboratively to implement a pragmatic response.

Many key resellers and wholesalers have increased payment terms from 30-60 days, which mid-tier fashion brands have widely accepted. Meanwhile, the bounce rate on payments has remained relatively steady at around 1%, despite all the challenges.

It is vital that fashion brands recognize this measured approach in any discussions with B2B buyers and negotiate terms in a way that offers a win-win on financial security for buyer and supplier.

We worked on behalf of a global US luxury fashion brand to manage relationships with 1,500 of its wholesale clients, and implement new payment systems.

As a result, the brand increased sales by over 5,000% over 12 years.

It has also ensured that the brand stays ahead of the curve with its omnichannel strategy and digital transformation.

We recommend engaging a team of professionals focused on providing end-to-end credit management services, from order to cash, to support your domestic and international markets. This includes matching your sales and finance strategies, automating financial processes whenever possible, transforming fixed costs into variable costs, negotiating payment terms, brokering the best credit insurance, and collecting receivables as quickly as possible to ensure cash flow.

This combination of people, processes, and tools will enable you to remove a significant amount of hassle, set the right levels of risk to boost a sustainable business, and secure your sales using best practices in credit management.

Looking ahead

The fashion industry went through a ‘perfect storm’ of challenges in 2020. But the hard truth is that 2021 is set to be just as tricky, with a likely global recession and the continued fallout from COVID-19.

Brands that balance their positioning, profitability, and cash flow will be best placed to realize the potential of brighter days ahead.

Axel Mouquet

President & Chief Executive Officer

Webhelp Payment Services

Global Fashion Sector Lead

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Accreditations

Webhelp Payment Services is accredited to carry out a range of actions including international debt recovery for and on behalf of our clients .

Webhelp Payment Services is authorised as a Payment Institution by the French Prudential Supervisory Authority (ACPR*). Thanks to our status of Payment Institution we are able to operate across the European Economic Area.

Webhelp Payment Services is also registered with ORIAS*, the unique register of intermediaries, as an insurance intermediary.

*N° Code Interbancaire (CIB) : 16518E – Insurance intermediary registration number ORIAS: 12 064 847