Cart Talk is a new interview series dedicated to highlighting innovators in the ecommerce space. Each month, we’ll have conversations with thought leaders on how they run retail. This week, we spoke with TJ Stein, Head of Customer Experience at MeUndies, a feel good, direct-to-consumer underwear brand and membership program. As manager of all things customer-focused, TJ's objective is to bring as much value as possible to MeUndies' one-off customers and monthly members.
Tell me about your personal and professional journey, and how that led to where you are today.
I’m TJ Stein, Head of Customer Experience at MeUndies. I joined the team two years, almost to the day.
When I first joined MeUndies, we were maybe 40 or so employees. Now, we’re around 120. It's been a pretty wild ride. In my current role, I’m focused on the development, implementation, and execution of a best-in-class customer experience. Prior to MeUndies, I worked at Media Temple, a web hosting provider in Culver City, where I got to see the company transition from a small, scrappy startup to its wild growth stage, all the way to acquisition. Eventually, I watched our parent company go public. It was a really unique adventure, one that allowed me to experience different milestones that I'm ultimately grateful for. So that's where I'm at today.
Can you tell me more about MeUndies’ ecommerce setup? Are you using an off-the-shelf platform, or are you mostly homegrown? What’s your tech stack?
MeUndies runs on Spree, an open source Ruby on Rails platform, which we've really extended to fit our specific needs. For instance, we’ve taken our billing and subscription logic in-house rather than simply using a default payment gateway as a billing processor. The really cool thing about open source is that if there's a feature we're missing, we have the ability to just build it ourselves. Every pixel is under our control. But we don’t build everything. We still rely upon dozens of other outside services to handle analytics, business intelligence, warehouse management, and customer feedback.
It’s interesting how subscription boxes are making such a comeback. What do you think are some of the unique value props around subscription vs. some of the unique challenges? Aside from discount pricing, how else are you incentivizing customers to sign up for membership/subscription?
MeUndies just launched The Membership, an evolution of our original subscription model to a membership platform. The industry has changed since we launched in 2011 as the first online underwear subscription, and now the market is saturated with subscription services. Today, convenience and quality product just get you to the starting line. It’s time to evolve and MeUndies is solidifying its long-term growth by doubling down on our community. With The Membership, we are deepening our relationship with our most valuable customer—our member—by providing value beyond just product alone. We now offer Exclusive Prints and special Member Pricing on every product we make. In addition, our members get access to exclusive collaborations with up-and-coming artists, musicians, brands and events.
In terms of challenges, I don't think we're immune to the obstacles of any fast-growing company. I just think it’s incredibly important to stay focused on really great customer outcomes, and to deliver as much value to our members as possible. I use the term ‘membership’ over ‘subscription’ because we want to make sure that we're focused not just on the operational rhythm or cadence of the program, but on building an enduring brand. A subscription is a financial agreement to consume a service or product. A membership is an attitude, connection, emotion, a community for our customers.
Would you consider MeUndies to be a technology company?
Obviously our core product isn’t software or hardware, but the experience that drives that product is predicated on a very engineering-rich experience. So yeah, I think that's a fair characterization. For instance, our membership program looks like a pretty simple end-to-end process from the outside: pick a pair, get it, pick another pair, get it again. But what we're doing on the backend is fairly complex in terms of how our algorithm decides which pair to assign to which customer profile. What are the customer’s preferences, and how can we use that data to drive better business decisions? To me, that’s very technology-driven.
And as we continue to ship millions of MeUndies year over year, we have to do things at scale, to become more efficient as we grow. In order to do that, we have to be really informed about all the data behind our logistics and shipping to 60-some odd countries this year. It's incredibly complex.
Tell me more about the CX org. You’ve led support teams at both MeUndies and Media Temple (both subscription products!). From the perspective of managing a CX team, how does online apparel differ from web hosting?
Running the customer experience team is definitely different than web hosting, though in some ways it's remarkably similar. I think before I joined MeUndies, I naively underestimated the types of challenges that we would see. Apparel is very personal. Products can be touched, worn, gifted, and broken in ways which software can’t be. To a consumer, to someone who bought the wrong size or had their shipment go missing for a special occasion or just had a really lousy experience, the significance of that matters. Obviously our customer is a little different from someone buying web hosting, but ultimately our job is to take care of customers, and that remains the same. If we're not taking care of our customers, somebody else will.
Right now, we have about 48 members on the CX team today. As we ramp up for the holidays, we'll probably scale up to 75. Our LA group is mostly focused on day-to-day operations, quality assurance, learning, and development. We also supplement the team with a group in the Philippines, which handles general inquiries, returns, exchanges – all frontline support. For the most part, we're not quite at the size where specialization or skill-based routing makes a ton of sense, so we pretty much cross-train all of our team members to be generalists.
How does a CX agent interact the MeUndies order process, from start to finish?
From a visibility standpoint, the CX team’s current setup allows us to see all of the customer’s transactional experience. For instance, we may have to look at billing data to make sure the payment method isn’t fraudulent. Just like any ecommerce store, we have to approve or deny orders that get flagged for review. Additionally, we may catch an order before it gets a label printed in our warehouse management system. Occasionally, an address won’t meet USPS criteria, so our team has to figure out why. We track all the way through fulfillment, so we can see when the order is being picked, when it's being packed by our facility, if it gets returned. At no point of the customer journey are we lacking visibility.
And how do you translate that kind of knowledge to other departments? How does the customer experience team work with other departments?
A big part of my role is advocating on behalf of the customer, especially when we’re designing new products or services. I've got to be able to take customer feedback, distill that into something actionable, estimate its impact, and then work with our other stakeholders to get those things done. We actually have a team solely dedicated to just customer-facing issues and internal tools within the engineering org. The leadership here is really committed to investing in this team because the work they do actively drives customer loyalty.
For many retailers, customer support is reactive versus proactive. What are some of the ways you’re anticipating your customers’ needs? How are you ‘delighting’ your customers?
For the most part, we try to make ourselves available to customers in every way possible. Other folks who run support teams often focus on reducing inbound volume to such a degree that it’s almost like they’re hiding. That hasn’t really been our approach. In order for us to learn about our pain points, we need to hear from customers.
We talk to a lot of current customers and prospective customers about any sort of concerns, from pre- to post-purchase. Are we getting them the right size, do we ship to a certain country? How much will it cost with tax and shipping? Maybe someone is planning on signing up for our monthly membership program, and we want to make sure they feel like they’re a part of that community. Ultimately, our customer experience is designed around making that purchase experience—one not typically associated with being comfortable— absurdly fun. That’s the philosophy of where we're at today: invest in the customer relationship up front and you'll be thanked with a lifetime of loyalty.
Name three brands doing customer experience right, excluding Zappos, Apple, and Starbucks (because everyone name-drops them!).
Have you heard of Publix? It's a family-run supermarket chain and one of the fastest-growing employee-owned companies in America. I’m from the Southeast, so I have to give them a nod. If you ask for peanut butter at a regular grocery store, typically the attendant will say, “Aisle five,” or whatever. At Publix, they’ll race off and go get that item for you. They’re also really dedicated to reducing wait times. I don't know if this is true or not, but I've heard that their goal is to have no more than two shoppers at the checkout line. And from what I've heard, they're just crushing Walmart in these rural areas.
I still think Southwest Airlines is incredible. They are another brand that's customer-focused, and I think service design is a big part of that story there. They're not loading their seats full of magazines and they don’t offer in-flight meals. They hone in a select number of aspects of their service model to really shine on – price, convenience, a great customer service – and then they focus only on that. Other airlines often do too many things and try to make it difficult for you to cancel, either through fees or obstacles.
The third is Everlane. With their emphasis on transparency, Everlane is taking a really unique approach that integrates their mission very neatly with the whole customer experience. Their website explains how it all works. I think that's a pretty rare thing to see in ecommerce today.
Selling something as intimate as underwear can probably lead to some Interesting customer interactions. How does the MeUndies team navigate these hairy situations–especially regarding returns? I welcome any and all horror stories.
I think a lot of people assume like, “Oh man, do customers ever send back used products?” Believe it or not, we don't really have many awful stories, especially regarding returns and exchanges. Our customers are pretty kind and sweet, and they more or less know not to return things that have been worn, washed, or damaged. We also have a really gracious return policy where if your first pair doesn't fit right, we don’t ask that you send it back. We’ll just send you another pair.
Question from Sara Hicks: “Boxers or briefs?”
How many pairs of MeUndies underwear do you have?
I'm probably in the 30s range. Yeah, it's pretty bad. I'm a member, so not only do I get a pair every month, but I also buy multiples in designs I like—I go adventurous on everything. I have the socks, the lounge pants, sweatshirts and t-shirts too. And obviously, I get things for my wife. So, um, I'm spending a lot of my paycheck, actually.