You must understand what your product or service means to a customer and ensure that your customer service matches the importance to them.
As part of my series about the five things a business should do to create a Wow! customer experience, I had the pleasure of interviewing Brooke Henze.
Brooke Henze is the owner of Swell Forever®, an eCommerce store known for its custom Forever Blanket® collection of heirloom quality throws and baby blankets. Swell Forever® is also known as a mission-centric business were supporting children in foster care and assisting adoptive families is woven into the overall purpose of the business. Brooke has been a champion for women entrepreneurs and served as one of the first Directors of Women in Entrepreneurship at The Fuqua School of Business where she graduated with an MBA from Duke University. A proud University of Georgia grad, she currently lives in Atlanta, GA with her husband, Kevin, and is a mom to two young daughters.
Brooke is influenced by a family of talented designers and entrepreneurs of the Southern variety. Born in a town known for its textile mills, she is committed to selling products Made in the USA. Since childhood, Brooke has been involved in a wide array of charitable activities aimed at helping children in foster care and in orphanages. She is also the founder of the nonprofit, Foster Swell Inc., and a local music outreach program for children in Atlanta called Swell Music.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
While working on my MBA at Duke, I worked alongside a lovely female entrepreneur that was incredibly artistic and creative. I saw her featured in Southern Living. She didn’t live in my state, but I felt I just had to work with her in some way. Her products really appealed to me and I loved her aesthetic. I had to reach out twice but thankfully the second time we connected, and she invited me to come to meet her. From there we became friends and worked through some pretty overwhelming challenges she was facing. I had an opportunity to learn more about the reality of running a small, growing business and stepping into the problem-solving mode of surviving!
During that stint, we posted something on her Facebook page asking customers what the most sentimental gift was that they received. A lot of the comments referenced a special, handmade blanket their child had received as a baby and who gifted it, how it was made, etc. One comment that really caught my eye was a mother who had lost her baby at birth. The most precious gift someone had given her was a lock of her baby’s curls to keep. Apparently, a nurse felt the baby’s sweet curls would be something special to the mother, so she clipped a lock of hair for her as a surprise. Somewhere while reading this very emotional thread of comments and seeing how special blankets were to people, I decided I needed to create the most special blanket you could make without having to sew or knit. From there I just kept plugging away on this idea for a brand that touched the heart and helped customers share their love with another person in a unique but lasting way. From that non-traditional path, I designed the Forever Blanket® and each throw or the baby blanket we sell comes with a fabric message that that is sewn into the back featuring a custom message from the gift giver.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I knew I needed to watch my spending and not get in over my head. I wanted to create a proof of concept as affordably as possible and flush out my idea without having to commit to a crazy amount of inventory. Unfortunately, I was living far from home in San Francisco at the time and had no contacts that could sew or help me flush out the concept. My sweet cousin in LA tried to help me but we didn’t get to see each other often. I decided to take sewing classes, but I have horrific fine motor skills and I found the process so tedious I quit the classes. I had borrowed a sewing machine from a friend and couldn’t figure out how to wind a bobbin. I realized since my mom was a Home Economics major in college and knew how to sew that my fastest way forward was to get back to Atlanta and get her help. When my little nephew was born, I was able to convince my husband to move back home so I could move forward with some people that were actually competent in this field I was trying to get into!
My strength has always been the creative process of a concept and building a brand around it. The funny thing for me was that I had set out to create a very sentimental, personalized blanket that anyone could gift regardless of their sewing skills or a knack for knitting. I was basically trying to create a special gift that I myself could give someone! I unfortunately never had the talent of crafting our blankets and relied on several of my mom’s friends to bring our collection to life.
I also struggled to find a scalable way to add personalized messages to the blankets and grow our brand beyond an Etsy shop so when I launched our website, I actually launched it alluding to what kind of blanket we were creating but didn’t have any photos because I had not sorted that part out yet! Finally, I was stupid enough to host a launch giveaway and someone won so I had to come up with a Forever Blanket® to ship to them. That put the pressure on us all to finally decide how to move forward with our fabric message tags that we sew on each blanket.
A big resounding lesson in my life is that most people can learn how to do just about anything they need to do if it is important enough to them. Natural talent is not always what wins out. Entrepreneurship requires exhausting amounts of trying and trying again and approaching a problem from a million angles. Most of our biggest points of the crisis have turned out to be critical turning points for our business because they push us into creative mode and make us so much better than if everything had gone our way. I have learned to panic a whole lot less and be confident that we will find a solution for any problem that comes our way.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I am blessed to have family and friends that will jump into whatever crazy adventure I come up with although they will pretty much tell me I am insane and a little crazy while going along with me. My mom jumped in and asked her friend June and a friend from church named Susan for help designing the blankets and message tags. My mom pretty much ran the show for me while I went through a family crisis last year and calls me constantly to tell me what I should be doing next, who she met at a random event that I should reach out to, and that she thinks I should change all my pricing…again.
To this day, my dad will pick up our shipping boxes to cut my costs down and when he travels to see family, he picks up boxes of some of our bestselling blankets from a Southern mill. He calls himself the “errand boy.”
One of the things that I am most proud of having started Swell Forever® is that it attracts amazing people. We have had so many special people on our team. Our graphic designer has been here almost since the beginning and our main seamstress is going on several years with us. My mom’s friend June will come to help us anytime we are in a pinch and I am so grateful that our business has brought so many wonderful people my way, including our incredible customer base.
It is hard to narrow just one influential person! My husband has had the hardest job having to listen to ALL my endless ideas and roadblocks along the way. I got the inspiration for the name from my cousin who blazed the entrepreneurial trail first and really opened my eyes to e-commerce and how it works. People are not kidding when they say it takes a village to achieve success. That is the truth in my case.
Thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main focus of our interview. This might be intuitive, but I think it’s helpful to specifically articulate it. In your words, can you share a few reasons why great customer service and a great customer experience is essential for success in business?
Connecting with people is central to what makes me tick as a person. Looking back at places I have shopped even if the prices are higher than somewhere else or the selection is better elsewhere, I often find it is the people that draw me in. My mechanic, for instance, worked on every car I owned until he passed away. He would drop just about anything to look at my car and troubleshoot for me. I ended up living in a house right down the street by his shop! In my mind, there was nowhere else I would ever go to have someone work on my car because of the time and attention he took to my car drama. I never shopped around. I also believe he was incredibly honest, so I didn’t need to do that! We have had people say to us as a company “you are where I go for all my special gifts!” They trust us to deliver for them.
Swell Forever® is a business built on helping customers share their hearts with someone else through gifting blankets that symbolize warmth, comfort, and security. It is a very important gift for many of our customers to give and I believe that we owe them the attention they deserve to make sure they love not just the result, but the full process gifting involves. Since our gifts are customized from the message tags, satin offerings, embroidery selections, etc. there are so many opportunities for us to make a mistake and working diligently with a customer is how we avoid that pitfall. If you think about a lot of gifts that you give, you may find that so much of the joy and satisfaction is thinking about what that person likes and how you want them to feel and then walking through the actual process of making or buying the gift. It is not just the gift itself. We try to make the whole process fulfilling especially for customers that are desperate to “get it right.”
While most businesses are not producing as unique of a product as we do on a regular basis, making the entire process as seamless and enjoyable as possible ensures your customers are not looking for a replacement no matter what the product or service is. The cost of attracting new customers outweighs the cost of keeping your current base happy so it just makes sense to do right by your customers.
We have all had times either in a store, or online, when we’ve had a very poor experience as a customer or user. If the importance of a good customer experience is so intuitive, and apparent, where is the disconnect? How is it that so many companies do not make this a priority?
I would guess most companies think it is a priority for them but can’t deliver for various reasons. We are a small but growing company and because we have a very focused, nimble team it is easy for us to have the ear of our customers. We call them, text them, email them, etc. and make use of the contact information they provide to us. I often find it funny how many times a company requests your phone number on an order form and how few times anyone EVER calls you when there is a problem. It is like “why did you ask for my phone number if you never intend to use it!?!” The more direct connection your team has to an individual customer the more likely you are to have a chance at making them happy. I have found the worst customer service with larger companies that outsource customer service or companies that have a product so in demand that they take customers for granted. No matter how well your business is doing, you can’t ever take a customer for granted. You may have the realization that some customers are not interested in being satisfied from time to time, but you can’t treat people like they are expendable.
Leadership also comes into play here. Your team needs to see that great customer service is important to you and acting in a way that reinforces that set the tone. Sometimes I will see a customer’s order is referencing a tragedy and share with the team what I want to do to reach out to the customer or the gift recipient. Or, we will notice a shipment going to an address nearby and someone will drop off the gift instead of shipping. When your team sees the kind of effort you are willing to put forth in order to surprise and please your customers, it is much easier for them to pick up the cues and follow suit. My guess is a lot of larger companies have so many boundaries in place for representatives that taking the initiative to provide the best customer service becomes impossible.
Do you think that more competition helps force companies to improve the customer experience they offer? Are there other external pressures that can force a company to improve the customer experience?
Customer service is clearly a unique opportunity to stand out from the crowd when all other avenues to differentiate yourself have been exhausted. For a lot of businesses these days, the prevalence of review sites and verified review widgets on websites is probably the biggest incentive to turn the heat up on customer service and identify where there is a lapse in quality or service. As a business, we hope any customer with an issue will reach out to us immediately so we can work with them on a resolution before they go to review us. Thankfully most customers do reach out and end up pleased with the outcome. It is frustrating when customers skip that step but seeing a review that is honest and not exactly what you want to hear is often the best pulse on how well your business is scoring in this area so you can address your issues.
Can you share with us a story from your experience about a customer who was “Wowed” by the experience you provided?
It is so hard to pick one! Customers come to us to make an impact with their gift and customize their blanket in a way that will show the person receiving it just how much they matter. Our Forever Blankets® are gifted for just about every occasion under the sun both happy and sad. We often hear the story behind a gift in the order form or through an email chain. We offer rush shipment options and this is a critical offering for us to help customers ensure their gift arrives in time for parents on a wedding day, a sister facing cancer that is entering another phase of chemo, a baby on his Baptism day, or a recent customer in Malaysia that needed a beautiful blanket for his wife in time for her birthday. International shipments are always nailed biters, so we try to follow tracking until time of receipt thanks to the mess that customs delays often cause.
One of the hardest blankets to make was for a newborn baby to be wrapped in at his funeral. It is immensely humbling to have a customer ask you for help in creating the blanket a baby will be wrapped in forever. The turnaround of a gift like this is intense and our team works so hard to meet a customer’s need in a time of crisis. These customers are often our hardest-core supporters.
We often send surprise gifts to our customers or add in an extra something to the shipment if we know the story behind a gift. During a kindness campaign, a customer nominated her best friend’s mom to receive a blanket from us after losing her daughter, best friend, and newborn granddaughter in a traffic accident. We perused the daughter’s Facebook profile for nursery photos and designed a throw with her favorite colors in mind. It was a unique combination. Not long after the gift was received, we heard from the grandmother and received such a sweet photo of her wrapped in the blanket. It was truly moving to hear from her and know that the blanket brought her comfort and made her feel loved despite her painful and unbelievable loss. We do not expect people to share with others as the gift is for them and does not come with strings attached but when they do, it reinforces why we do what we do, and others notice.
Did that Wow! experience have any long term ripple effects? Can you share the story?
We have a very large return customer base and even when I had to step back from the business for a considerable amount of time, we were amazed at how many return customers kept us going and how many people said they heard about us by receiving a blanket as a gift. Last year was the biggest uptick in seeing referrals from those who experienced our blankets as gifts. Our brand speaks to the heart and can inspire others to do the same. I was nervous to add the review widget to our website but since you can’t see or feel our products in person it seemed like the best way to assure customers that we care about beauty and quality. Just today I had the most awesome review come in from a return customer that has made us her go-to gift company. We go out of our way so many times for customers that it is hard to pinpoint just one specific ripple effect. Seeing that word of mouth referral is one of our biggest sources of new customers right now is proof that what we have worked to do from the heart of our business is connecting with our base and growing it.
Of course, social media shares almost always have that ripple effect, which is special to see. In this new environment of paid influencers though, I am careful with how we do marketing through social media. It has made it a slower process to grow on channels like Instagram but from a long-term perspective, I want to ensure our brand stays true to being genuine and not about the show. If an influencer reaches out to us and has a special story, I often collaborate but I rarely reach out to just send a blanket in hopes they will share it. The sincere attachment someone has for a blanket from us is what makes social media collaborations successful. The same goes for happy customers. People can sniff out insincerity and that is why I focus so much on our existing customer base because they are the ones to authentically experience our gifts and the most motivated to share with others.
Ok, here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a founder or CEO should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience. Please share a story or an example for each.
1. You must understand what your product or service means to a customer and ensure that your customer service matches the importance to them.
For us, our gifts can be as important as a way for our customers to mend a broken relationship or express feelings that are difficult for them to verbalize. Knowing that our customer service is very personable. My mom picks up most of our phone calls just about any day and many hours not typically made available by other companies. We use a SIM card option to move the phone number to different team member’s phones making us highly accessible even when not in the studio. Hearing from someone warm and eager to please can put people at ease. It helps when that person actually has the knowledge and skills to resolve issues and finalize orders.
2. You must stay open to critique and the truth in a negative review.
When you are as close to your business personally as I am this is a very hard one. In the early days as we were sorting out how best to meet expectations given all our custom options, I would get feedback and then go immediately and figure out a way to fix the issue. Often times, making something easier for one person on our website would cause the same “fix” to result in something that was harder for another customer. It took quite a while to improve the order experience and we are still working through limitations on our website to make it better. It is to your benefit when a customer is bold enough to tell you what is missing the mark instead of just walking away.
3. You must set the tone for your customer service expectations at every level.
I have a friend who always points to failed leadership when talking about organizations that fail and what went wrong. Leadership is critical and the best way for your team to know what your brand is all about. It is kind of like the phrase “Be the change you want to see in the world.” When it comes to customer service, one could say “Emulate the behavior you want your team to model.” I have noticed that people on our team started coming to me and asking “should we offer local pick up for this customer, they are right around the corner and it will save them on shipping.” I am not sure I have specifically told my team to look for those opportunities to delight customers, but I know they have heard me take notice of shipping locations and seen me reach out to customers with special circumstances. I try to be generous and proactive with customers and my team has a chance to see that up close and personal and know that is a great approach for them to take as well.
4. You must find people with a serving heart.
To do right by your customers, who you hire is key. Thankfully, our brand seems to attract fantastic people. Attracting good-hearted, service-oriented team members can be way harder for other companies depending on the pay level and type of product or service but humans are incredibly diverse and I strongly believe if you are motivated to hire people who authentically care about others, you will find them no matter what industry or pay grade you offer. Plenty of big businesses just have a script to follow and just about anyone can fill those shoes, but I don’t think too many of us are impressed by that type of customer service. You can instantly tell the difference between someone who is really working to help you and someone who simply isn’t motivated to do so. I try to hire amazing human beings. Good customer service flows from there and generally, people are happiest working with other nice, caring people. There are times I have kept people on our team because the desire to please others is so strong it outshines other areas where they may struggle.
5. You must be relentless in your pursuit to delight customers.
I go to bed thinking about a customer’s story, fun ways to make people feel noticed, opportunities to do something unexpected that really stops someone in their tracks. We started sending random packages with little inspirational gifts to customers along with cards encouraging them to pay the love forward to delight someone else. Once the card is passed to ten people, they can email us a photo of the card with all the emails of those who participated in another special surprise. When I started this company, I wanted it to inspire others and spread joy. The idea of a “swell forever” is to wish someone a happy ever after. From our kindness campaigns to driving our gifts to be delivered in person on tight deadlines and simply including handwritten cards of sympathy from our team in gifts, we have been relentless in trying to bring joy to customers and wow them as often as we can. I don’t pay a lot of attention to what other brands are doing. I try to think about my unique customer base and how to connect with them genuinely because I care about the things that matter to them. From my experience, that focus makes us stand out.
Are there a few things that can be done so that when a customer or client has a Wow! experience, they inspire others to reach out to you as well?
Just by sending customers our gifts, we get quite the response when those recipients turn into new customers looking to gift a Forever Blanket® to someone else they adore. Recently a wonderful return customer asked us to send extra postcards about our company to hand out at the shower where she was gifting one of our blankets. She wanted to make sure everyone knew where she bought her gift from! Word of mouth referrals from very happy customers allows us to rarely discount our products and save as much money as we can for our philanthropic mission of working with foster and adoptive families. It is by far the gold standard. When someone is truly pleased with your product and service, the inspiration to tell others about your company happens on its own. It is the best and most affordable form of advertising!
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
You look at the world and it is like, where do you start? There is so much broken. In the past few years I have felt more of a calling to look locally at how I can help those suffering that are right in my own community. If your own community is healthy, it is easier to expand your reach and do more for others. Unfortunately, most of us live in communities where there is great suffering, people who still face hunger each day, and vulnerable populations not being served with compassion. I would love to inspire people to identify a specific need in their own backyard that they can meet and commit to it. The ripple effect of being involved in your local community and the doors it opens for more good to take place is so powerful. I wish more of us would take the time to commit a year to addressing a local need even if it is a simple as taking an elderly neighbor to doctor appointments or sponsoring a family who is at risk of eviction by keeping their lights on. In theory this is the easiest way to give back, but we keep driving by all the broken just staring right back at us. I also see stronger communities as the ticket to improving the chances of children getting to stay with their biological families and not be subjected to the painful chaos that foster care can bring.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Our social media is very grassroots. I often share a mix of customer stories, fun designs coming out of the studio and my own life on Instagram as @swellforever and Facebook as Swell Forever. We are also on Pinterest and love home design and recipes.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!