Just because the repair technician shows up at your house doesn’t mean your broken washing machine will be fixed. The technician might not have the right skills, or the right parts, for whatever the problem turns out to be.
A newly assembled Sears Home Services engineering team, operating from the company’s fledgling tech hub in Seattle, thinks it can do better. A dominant player in the world of home appliances and repair, Sears plans to use predictive algorithms — combined with its years of appliance and home-repair data — to diagnose problems before the service call takes place.
“The industry runs at a 75 percent completion rate. We think we can get to 95-plus using these modern data techniques,” explained Ian Clarkson, a former Amazon executive who is now the head of product and technology for Sears Home Services.
That’s one of many initiatives under way at the new Sears tech hub at Seattle’s Columbia Center, which already employs 30 people and could double in size over the next nine months. GeekWire first reported on the new Sears engineering office in February, but the company hasn’t previously detailed its plans publicly.
In an interview at the office today, Sears executives outlined plans to upgrade everything from the front-end user interface to the back-end infrastructure that powers Sears Home Services — the nation’s largest provider of residential services including appliance repair, furniture cleaning, remodeling, maintenance and other forms of home improvement.
The company faces no shortage of competition, including Seattle startups Porch and Pro.com, and giants like Amazon, which launched in Amazon Home Services in March.
But Sears is also unique because it has its own service technicians — 7,500 people across the country who work for the company. Other companies are creating marketplaces for consumers to connect with existing service providers, but Sears is able to engineer a complete system, down to the routing system used to send technicians to houses.
“We can own the solution end-to-end,” said Heidi Robinson, the Sears Home Services vice president of digital customer service, based in the new Seattle office. “We own our destiny end-to-end, and we have to solve all parts of that to make it work really well for the customer.”
Clarkson and Robinson worked together previously at Amazon, where Clarkson was the first AmazonFresh general manager. Robinson has also worked in leadership positions at companies including Nordstrom and Pro.com.
They were joined in the office today by Arun Arora, president of Sears Home Services & Home Appliances, in town from the company’s headquarters outside of Chicago. While digital technologies have transformed everything from taxis to airlines, Arora said, that hasn’t happened yet on a large scale in home services and appliance repair.
“The idea that this team could change that is the premise of this office,” Arora said. “So for us, this is a really bold move. As the industry leader, it affords us certain options of scale. We can act like a startup and behave like a big company all in the same breath.”
Mixing its own heritage with the customs of the tech industry, the Sears office in Seattle has an open floor plan, bordered by conference rooms with names like “The Washer,” “The Oven,” “The Fridge” and “The Microwave.”
At one end of the room is a bell that the team rings when a major update has been shipped. The bell has been rung once so far, when the company rolled out a new mobile-optimized order detail page, allowing customers to easily view information about their service appointment and other aspects of their order from their smartphones.
So what about the issue of the Sears brand image? The company is known as a traditional retailer, not an innovative tech company. But the Sears executives in Seattle say they believe the company can overcome that issue in the minds of consumers, over time, by delivering a superior service.
“The answer is, you deliver something that’s amazing,” Clarkson said. “I’m not going to get on the top of the building and say, ‘Look, now Sears is innovating.’ You need to actually deliver something against that promise.”