With enough stuffed animals to fill one wing of the Natural History Museum and enough canoes, fishing rods, and tents to fill another, Cabela's stores have become the largest tourist attractions in some of the states where they've opened. But to find out what really drives its customers wild, you'd have to talk to one of the retailer's beige-clad employees, or dial one of its call centers to ask a question about one of the outdoor-recreation items it stocks. Chances are, it's a question the employee has already asked himself.
Rather than rely on a database of customers' hasty answers to standardized, tepid questions, Cabela's turns to its highly engaged employees for feedback on its products. Through an extensive loaner program, employees—generally outdoor enthusiasts, too—are encouraged to borrow a product for a month or so and ask the same questions a customer might in order to learn more about it.
Then Cabela's sits back and listens. Upon returning the fly-fishing rod or backpacking stove, employees must fill out a form detailing the product's pros and cons and give a talk to other employees or customers explaining what they learned. The feedback from the field tests is then fed into a vast knowledge-sharing system, called "Item Notes," that helps staffers answer customers' questions more effectively. Both in-store and call-center employees have the system at their fingertips; it includes annotated notes about catalog or instruction typos and quirks gleaned from both the employee feedback and a cadre of near-savant-level specialists. These agents, who act as a second tier of call-center support, offer answers to obscure questions such as what kind of equipment to bring on a first-time elk hunting trip, or whether a camouflage seat cover for an all-terrain vehicle would fit on one customer's golf cart.
Letting employees field-test equipment has always been a key strategy for Cabela's, which was founded as a catalog company in 1961. Since its shoppers weren't able to touch and feel the company's 245,000 products themselves, they had to rely on the depth of employees' knowledge. It's working. Last year, the company mailed some 120 million catalogs, shipped 8.1 million packages, and brought in $971 million in revenue from its catalogs. (Its 12 retail stores, most of which have been built in recent years, added another $499 million in revenues. In the second quarter of this year, the company tripled its net income over the same period last year.)
Not that Cabela's doesn't value feedback from customers. The loaner program extends to a handful of customers Cabela's taps as outdoor enthusiasts, such as adventure guides or fish and wildlife biologists. Their input is also fed into the Item Notes database. Also logged into the system are customer comments that come in via phone or email, which are then distributed by Jim Cabela, the company's cofounder and vice chairman, to individual departments for resolution. And yes, he does read each and every one.
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A version of this article appeared in the October 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.