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Host With the Most: Why Customers Are Shilling for D2C Startups

As the direct-to-consumer channel continues to grow in the home goods category, the traditional customer service model of in-person sales staff has been replaced by chat bots and other digital helpers. But the value of an actual human being assisting during the sales process still resonates with many shoppers.

According to a state of global customer service report from Microsoft Dynamics, 95 percent of consumers say customer service is important for brand loyalty. And 60 percent of consumers report having dumped a brand and switched to another because of poor customer service.

So direct-to-consumer companies such as Rove and Outer have taken a different approach. Rather than relying on chatbots, they’ve enlisted perhaps the best possible brand ambassadors—their customers.

Earlier this year, Rove Concepts—a direct-to-consumer furnishings company offering everything from living room and bedroom furniture to outdoor and office products—launched its host program. Through the initiative, Rove customers can apply to become a host, acting as a mouthpiece and marketer sharing the brand story with shoppers. Rove hosts conduct video chats, phone calls or texts with customers, answering questions about products and offering firsthand experiences with the company’s furniture.

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“The goal of the program is to ease the direct-to-consumer furniture shopping experience by creating a community where customers can share firsthand experiences with Rove products,” said Diane Lee, senior marketing manager for Rove.

And those firsthand customer experiences can be a powerful tool for brands like Rove Concepts to reach potential shoppers. According to an online reviews report from reputation management software company ReviewTrackers, 70 percent of consumers pay attention to customer ratings when shopping. And a customer service report by email marketing company Hiver found that 70 percent of consumers would advise their friends against buying from a brand that gave them poor customer service.

Rove customers who’ve purchased from the brand can apply to be hosts. There’s no minimum purchase threshold to qualify, and hosts aren’t asked to fulfill a minimum time commitment. A vetting team at Rove reviews applicants and accepts them based on qualifications and demand. The program has attracted roughly 100 hosts to date.

Rove hosts are compensated through store credit based on the amount of interaction they have with shoppers. But while hosts receive compensation, their payment doesn’t hinge on shopper purchases.

“Host compensation is in no way linked to the customers’ purchase behavior, which is a safeguard to ensure that Hosts are giving honest and unbiased support,” Lee said.

Meanwhile, outdoor furnishings direct-to-consumer brand Outer takes the customer ambassador model a step further with its neighborhood showrooms. Through the program, Outer customers agree to make their outdoor spaces available to prospective customers to see and feel the brand’s furniture in person.

“While customers can connect with hosts virtually from anywhere and explore hundreds of outdoor spaces, the goal is to get people outside and build meaningful local connections in person,” said Outer co-founders Jiake Liu and Terry Lin. “Our neighborhood showroom program allows shoppers to see how real people are using Outer and gather firsthand feedback from customers.”

Similar to Rove’s host program, Outer’s neighborhood showroom model enlists customers who apply and are vetted with background checks and other criteria for approval. Neighborhood showroom hosts receive a small compensation, discounts, early access to new products and other benefits in exchange for their participation in the program. And like Rove hosts, Outer neighborhood showroom participants are not compensated based on sales, and they’re encouraged to speak candidly from their own experiences with the brand.

“Because hosts are customers themselves, they too have been through the buying process with Outer and can speak firsthand about their own experience.,” said Liu and Lin. “That’s why we don’t provide hosts with any scripts or marketing training—we want the interactions to be as real and authentic as possible.”

Connecting with customers aside, the neighborhood showroom program has provided Outer the ability to expand its retail reach without the investment in traditional stores.

“Through this model, not only do we promote community by inviting shoppers to connect with existing Outer customers in their own neighborhoods, we are also reducing the carbon footprint and massive overhead that comes along with traditional retail locations,” the co-founders said.

Currently, Outer has hundreds of neighborhood showrooms in 45 states. Liu and Lin said the program allows them tap into markets they might miss otherwise.

“Most premium furniture showrooms are concentrated in metropolitan areas and can be difficult or inconvenient for many consumers to access,” they said. “We have hundreds of neighborhood showrooms across a vast array of rural, suburban, and urban areas.”

Outer plans to continue expanding the neighborhood showroom program, and Rove said it sees its host initiative expanding, as well.

“Examples include opening up virtual host sessions where multiple customers can dial in to get a tour of our showrooms for a more collaborative experience,” Lee said. “In addition, as our host families are growing, we are also planning to build a community for hosts to share their interior design tips and share their homes with others.”

As the home goods marketplace continues to change and direct-to-consumer brands expand further into the category, programs like Rove’s hosts and Outer’s neighborhood showrooms allow these emerging brands to bridge the gap between online and traditional retail. And according to Liu, facilitating connections between current customers and potential shoppers is the key to providing the kind of service that builds loyalty to their brand.

“The way people shop is evolving,” Liu said. “Our neighborhood showroom program is not only the next generation of retail, but it’s also a way for people to re-engage with their communities and neighbors. After a long period of isolation, we are thrilled to give people an opportunity to connect and enjoy the outdoors together.”