How a Failed Journalist Saved Nordstrom Millions

The Problem: A Failure to Communicate

When I started on the job as a call center representative for Nordstrom Bank, one thing above all else was perfectly clear: this job would not be easy.

While the callers could be difficult, the hours could be long, and the stress of giving complete and accurate information was very, very real, it was the company’s intranet that was the biggest problem. Called “The Quickbook,” the intranet housed a jumble of legal disclosures, internal procedures, and directions on how to handle each different type of call that we might receive.

And it was completely unusable. Items were arranged alphabetically, which, when it was first created, was simple enough. As regulations, content, and acronyms multiplied, so did the content on the site itself. As the site was created by an admin and had no search functionality, it quickly came to the point where it was impossible to find what you were looking for, unless you knew exactly where to look for it.

There had been no thought put into how the site was used, what tools the phone reps really needed, and what could be done to make it better.

What we had here was a failure to communicate, and it was silently crippling the call center.

The Approach: Observation and Conversation

At the time, I didn’t have any experience working in the realm of User Experience. I did, however, have a degree of web development knowledge, and the desire to make the world I lived in a better place.

So while I took calls, I made notes of the problems I ran into on an everyday basis, and thought about possible technical solutions. I also watched my fellow reps around me, listening in on their side of the conversation and watching how they went about finding and consuming the information they needed from The Quickbook. I talked to the other reps, too, about what issues they ran into and where they were frustrated.

I talked to my manager about the problems I’ve seen and some possible solutions. She agreed that something needed to change, but wasn’t sure what or how, and was hesitant to send my feedback up the chain of command.

The Solution: If you want something done right…

It was clear that if I wanted things to change, I would have to do it myself.

I took this information and began to design the tool that would make our jobs easier. I had narrowed my project down to three very clear priorities:

Make the most-used Quickbook information the easiest to find.
Provide a means to quickly access workflows for credit granting decisions
Make a tool that made it easier to find the right internal extensions and store phone numbers

At work, I was limited to what I could get done on my computer’s intentionally bare-bones setup. I sketched my designs on scrap paper, which had to be shredded at the end of each day as a matter of customer security. From a tech standpoint, all I had was Notepad, Internet Explorer and my coding skills. Unfortunately, access to web design and development resources were blocked by our corporate firewall, so I was on my own when it came to solving problems I didn’t already know the answer to.

I worked diligently between calls, in the 5 to 30 seconds separating the end of one conversation and the beep in my headset indicating the start of another.

Away from the office, I could study coding techniques and usability theories, but couldn’t implement any new concepts. For obvious reasons, I wasn’t allowed a way to transfer files to and from my work computer, so my project lived at the office. Whatever I learned, I had to wait to the next day to use.

Needless to say, progress was slow. But I did make progress.

The Design Odyssey

Within a couple of weeks, I had a site that accomplished my three main goals. A list of five hard-coded Quickbook links made it easy for me to access my most-used information. A dropdown list of credit granting workflows made it simple to access the correct procedures. A nifty bit of JavaScript added functionality that allowed me to search for internal phone extensions and store phone numbers on our intranet.

Proud of my work, I showed my supervisor. As before, however, she had no ability to send the idea up the ladder.

I went back to my desk, and continued to work on my site. A month later, I was finished with adding a feature that made adding common notes to accounts much more efficient, and another that made it simple for me to keep up with new policies and procedures posted to the Quickbook. I showed it to my supervisor yet again, who was impressed enough to set up a meeting for me to show it to her manager. Her supervisor loved it, too, and promised to send it up to her boss, who could show it to our internal development team.

Days passed. Though I asked for updates, I never got a response.

So the pattern went. I added features to my site, and presented them to my boss and her boss. They loved them, but couldn’t do more than send them up to the next wrung on the corporate ladder, which is where my ideas went to die.

Months passed, and the pattern remained.

My coworkers,however, caught wind of what I was doing. A friend asked if she could use my site, somehow, and we worked out a way for her to access the site on my computer when I was signed in. She gave that information to another friend, who started to use my site when she was signed on, too. Before long, a small handful of reps on my team was using my site on a daily basis, and their stats were skyrocketing.

Needless to say, our IS and IT teams were not pleased when they found out that some call center rep was using his own personal computer as a mini web server to share his unvetted website with the rest of the call center. I was told in no uncertain terms to stop doing so, and delete my site completely.

I knew, however, that the stakes were too high, both for Nordstrom and myself, to give up at this point. So while I shut down access outside of my own computer, I kept the site, and kept working on my creation.

The secret behind most overnight success stories is that they don’t actually happen overnight. My story was no different. Over the course of a couple of years, I continued to develop and refine my site, presenting it occasionally to different mid-level managers who promised to help me get my ideas implemented and were never able to deliver.

Eventually, however, a new CEO took the reins, and wanted to hear from employees about their ideas to make Nordstrom’s banking division better. Anyone who wanted to was invited to put together a business case to present the idea to the CEO and the Board of Directors.

The presenters would move from their current roles to a Career Development Program title, with a goal of placing them in the organization where they could do the most good for the company.

I knew immediately when I saw the email explaining the search that my project was about to pay off. Not only was my site now refined, but I had concrete evidence from testing and call center analytics proving that my site saved us upwards of 30 seconds per phone call, a number large enough that most of my managers didn’t believe the claim despite the evidence.

I put together a business case, and when the day came, I made my presentation. I thought things went well, but how well I could never have guessed. I found out in later discussion with our our CEO that, as soon as I left the room, he turned to the group and asked simply “Why aren’t we doing this?”

My idea was selected, and was immediately presented to IT. Although I was placed in the Career Development Program, our CEO explained to me that his plan was to put me in a Front End Developer roll as quickly as possible, so that I could implement my idea company-wide.

The Results: Massive Savings and Impact

I immediately began implementing different versions of my site for the different departments (Customer Service, Fraud, Collections, and Legal) in the organization, all of which had their own Quickbook and own set of unique rules and procedures. As I implemented versions of the site, we were able to see immediate improvements in productivity, accuracy, and customer satisfaction. Most notably:

  • Our overall call time dropped about 34 seconds per call.
  • We saw a massive improvement in call abandonment, notably from Nordstrom store associates that called in asking us to approve declined sales.
  • Customer satisfaction increased markedly in surveys across all groups.

In saved call time alone, my system saved the company about $1.8 million per year in lost productivity. The analytics for bottom-line impact on approved sales that we had previously declined were a bit fuzzier due to a lack of proper tracking tools and methodologies, but all evidence overwhelmingly supported the notion that we were faster and more accurate in our credit granting decisions. The net positive impact between increased sales and decreased collections efforts ranged in estimates between $700,000 – $2 million per year.

The Lessons: Great Ideas Can Come from Anywhere

Needless to say, my experience at Nordstrom was hugely formative when it comes to my view of UX as a whole.

I learned the value of persisting with an idea, even when it’s opposed by people more powerful than myself.

I discovered the utility of presenting my ideas to the right person, at the right time.

And, most importantly, I learned that great insights into usability can come from anywhere.

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