Accenture reducing the quantity and cost of customer returns


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Returns will cost consumer electronics companies an estimated $16.7 billion in 2011—and yet most do not fully account for or understand the impact of returns.

New research from Accenture quantifies the extent of this problem and suggests strategies to remediate the situation.

September 2, 2011

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Accenture reducing the quantity and cost of customer returns

  1. 1. A “Returning Problem”Reducing the Quantity and Cost of ProductReturns in Consumer ElectronicsDavid Douthit, Michael Flach and Vivek Agarwal
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  3. 3. Accenture research estimates Fortunately, the extent of the or software failure, even though nothat in 2011, US consumer problem is proportionate to the problem was detected when the item was tested against specifications setelectronics (CE) manufacturers, size of the opportunity. There is by the retailer, carrier or manufacturer.communication carriers and great potential for manufacturerselectronics retailers will spend and retailers to develop formal Similarly, consumer electronics firmsan estimated $16.7 billion to programs that dramatically could cut costs by implementing more sophisticated approaches to returnsreceive, assess, repair, rebox, reduce the number and cost of processing. Closer collaboration betweenrestock and resell returned customer returns. The two groups manufacturer and retailer is a goodmerchandise.1 Put another way, also have the power to design starting point. Another is developingmanufacturers spend about 5 better, more efficient ways to distinctive strategies, methodologiespercent to 6 percent of revenues process returns. Together, these and tools specifically designed for the returns supply chain. After all, returnsto manage all aspects of a approaches could save these operations are unique; it is not effectivecustomer return. For retailers, companies millions of dollars and to position them as simple supply chainreturns represent approximately create formidable new sources of appendages or as mirror images of2 percent to 3 percent of sales. competitive advantage. forward-focused supply chains.This would be a gargantuan One reason the problem—and the This Accenture Point of View examinesconcern in any industry. But opportunity—are so large is that, the scope of the returns dilemma,in a sector where margins are according to our research, more discusses recent research that framesthin, competition is brutal and than two thirds of costs associated the problem, explains why improvement“customer experience” is a key with returns can be characterized opportunities are so vast, and presents as No Trouble Found (NTF). In a variety of ways that electronicsdifferentiator, high return levels other words, the products did not manufacturers, communication carriersshould be seen as a problem of meet the customer’s requirements and electronics retailers can cut costsunsustainable magnitude. or expectations, or the customer by reducing the quantity of returns and believed the product had a hardware improving their post-sale supply chains. 3
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  5. 5. The hidden costs of customer returnsFigure 1: Breakdown of returns costs in the consumer electronics sector according to Accenture research.100.00% Warranty reserve Liquidation - Retailer90.00% Liquidation - OEM80.00% Returns Processing costs70.00% NTF costs60.00%50.00%40.00%30.00%20.00%10.00%0.00%As noted previously, Accenture The research effort’s most importantresearch estimates that the annual finding may be that most consumercost of consumer electronics returns electronics companies do not fullyin the United States is estimated to account for the cost of returns—muchreach $16.7 billion in 2011. Given this less do everything possible to reducemagnitude, Accenture recently set out them. Consider all the costs thatto understand the problem more fully go into processing a returned andand determine what actions could be repaired/repackaged product (Figure 1).taken in response. Approximately 100 At a typical consumer electronics firm,consumer electronics manufacturer, only warranty costs (approximately 30communication carriers and CE retail percent of the total) are identified as aexecutives responded to a subsequent line item in cost of goods sold (COGS).survey on trends on customer returns. Accenture research and interviewsWithin the scope of the research were confirm that the remaining 70 percentmanufacturers and retailers of wireless of returns costs are categorized eitherhandsets, personal computers, set top as “selling, general & administrativeboxes, digital video recorders, high (SG&A)” or as part of operationaldefinition televisions, game players overhead. Yet a fundamental first stepand software, MP3 players, computer in reducing returns and processingsoftware, printers and peripherals, them more effectively is trackingGPS devices, home and vehicle audio and analyzing costs in each of thesystems, CE accessories and media. categories shown in Figure 1 (NTF testing, returns processing, liquidation, and warranty reserve). 5
  6. 6. Figure 2: Recipients of a recent Accenture survey were asked “How do your current return rates compare to the previousthree to five years?”Trending HigherTrending LowerAbout the Same OEMs Retailers 0% 10% 20% 30% 40% 50% 60% 70%A second area of concern identified Clearly, there are significant benefitsby Accenture researchers is that the associated with reducing the incidencereturn rate for consumer electronics and impact of NTF and buyer’s remorsedevices is between 11 percent and 20 returns (the “non-defective” 95percent and rising (Figure 2). In fact, percent). For example:approximately 58 percent of consumer • Manufacturers would benefit byelectronics retailers and 43 percent reducing the far-reaching expensesof consumer electronics OEMs are (testing, shipping, reporting,experiencing higher return rates than repackaging, etc.) linked to productsin previous years.2 Of these returns: that have been returned by the• 68 percent are characterized as consumer but operate properly when“no trouble found.” checked.• 27 percent are associated with • Electronics retailers and“buyer’s remorse.” communication carriers would be able to lower costly customer interactions• 5 percent are defective. and administrative burdens associatedThe bottom line is that 95 percent of with assessing, restocking andreturns are ultimately unconnected to arranging for the proper disposition ofproduct defects! returned merchandise. • Manufacturers, carriers and retailersNinety five percent of would all enjoy the benefits of increasereturns are ultimately brand- and customer loyalty.unconnected to productdefects.6
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  9. 9. Proactive solutionsThe first thing manufacturers and Commensurate with a change in returns management means thereretailers can do is to stop thinking mindset (“high returns are not normal”), is merit in manufacturers andof returns as a normal cost of doing manufacturers and retailers can focus retailers understanding each others’business. After all, our research on addressing the twin challenges of 1) perceptions and practices. Prospectssuggests that total landed costs reducing returns levels and 2) improving for improvement in this area are good:associated with returns is 5 percent their returns–processing operations. Survey input shows that, in recentto 6 percent of revenues for years, collaboration in the area of The next sections contain a variety ofmanufacturers and 2 percent to 3 returns data shared by manufacturers, ways that both these objectives canpercent of sales for retailers. And a retailers and communication carriers be reached. However, it is important(very feasible) 1 percent reduction has increased. to begin with a brief discussionin the number of customer returns about metrics, collaboration and To keep the ball rolling, manufacturerstranslates to roughly a 4 percent communication. Most companies need to measure more effectivelyreduction in return/repair costs. This struggle with measurement and and extensively, and accept that highrepresents about $21 million in annual analysis challenges and this hinders NTF returns are not simply the resultsavings for a typical manufacturer and their ability to gauge total landed of overly-permissive retail returnaround $16 million for a large retailer costs. When it comes to returns, policies. Oftentimes, high NTF return(Figure 3). The message is clear: High comprehensive measurement requires rates are symptomatic of problemsreturn rates should not be considered ongoing, systematic capture and with a product’s design, manufacture,“normal;” they are a problem that is analysis of the reasons customers packaging or instructions. Conversely,worth correcting. give when returning a product. communication carriers and CE retailers Measurement savvy not only guides should realize that, to some degree,High return rates should the company towards product return problems are self-inflicted.not be considered “normal”; and service improvements, it also provides new insights on how bestthey are a problem that is to triage returns. In addition, theworth correcting. inter-organizational nature of 9
  10. 10. Figure 3: A 1 percent reduction in the number of open-box returns ultimately designated Not Trouble Found will reducereturn and repair costs by 4 percent for both the device manufacturer (OEM) and the retailer. OEM returns processing costs $466 M OEM returns processing costs $445 M $21 million savings for OEM Overall savings $37 million CE Retailer return costs CE Retailer return costs $396 M $380 M $16 million savings for Retailer/Carrier Current 1% NTF reduction*This example assumes a $10 B CE device manufacturer with an ASP at retail of $2991. Reducing Customer the products they have purchased. Most companies, in fact, invest implementation and usage experience. Think of this experience as havingReturns considerable sums to manage returns and relatively little to proactively three distinct stages, with strong potential for improvement at each:Over the past two decades, consumers prevent returns (Figure 4). Not unlike 1) point of purchase, 2) point of firsthave come to expect high levels of health care, both CE manufacturers use and 3) point of need.customer service in every segment and retailers need to refocus theirof commerce. This is especially investment strategies on prevention. Point of purchase. At the pointtrue for electronic items which, of purchase, manufacturers mustenhanced by new technology, have concentrate on their ability to improvebecome vastly more complex and Not unlike health care, the retail buying experience. Onerequire more and more support. both CE manufacturers and way to do this is to roll out educationSuch expectations contribute to retailers need to refocus programs for retail sales professionals.customer impatience with products By expanding training focused on thethey can’t figure out and with support their investment strategies form, fit and function of a product,systems that are hard to access or on prevention. manufacturers can help prepare retailinsufficiently helpful. Moreover, sales personnel—making sure theconsumers know that retailers and Improving the Stages of the latter are well prepared to addressmanufacturers will accept returns of Customer Experience questions, concerns and issues thatmerchandise that they (the customer) arise during the buying process. Somefind to be defective, unwanted or In some cases, the returns issue has manufacturers have deployed online(for whatever reason) unusable. a design problem at its core (basic learning or certification programs flaws or higher-than-necessary levels that offer special rewards to salesThe simple reality is that most of complexity). Quality control and professionals that undergo training.CE manufacturers, retailers and the minimization of complexity shouldcommunication carriers have not always be manufacturing priorities,done enough to help consumers but in many cases, all that is neededunderstand, set up, use and optimize is to improve the customer’s buying,10
  11. 11. Figure 4: Enhancing investments to reduce the total cost of returns.Every manufacturer’s and retailer’s goal should be to determine the optimal (most cost effective) mix of returns prevention versusreturns processing. Our hypothesis is that if most organizations fully measure the cost of returns, they will find that their investments aredisproportionately stacked in favor of reacting to returns, rather than focusing on the prevention of returns; and that more preventionefforts result in a lower overall cost structure.$ Cost to Prevent Returns Cost to Process Returns Optimal Total Cost Position Increasing Investment in Preventing ReturnsSocial media and web content are One company that Accenture Less common but oftentimes effectivechanging the way we live, work researched was able to reduce its are “priority handling” policies. If aand communicate, and they can return rate by half a percentage point first-time customer contacts the callalso help CE companies minimize by offering product videos on a major center, that call might warrant specialreturns. For example, well-designed social media site. Less than 3 minutes handling that avoids lengthy waitwebsites help people become long, the videos demonstrate product times and connects customers withmore informed consumers by functionality and setup. Net effect? personnel familiar with first timers’providing documentation, FAQs and Fewer returns and happier customers. issues. The mission is about sales andimplementation training—all of which image building as much as support.can help consumers make more- Point of first use. At the point of first After all, since returns are so easy,informed purchase decisions and use, the key concern is ensuring the the product is not really sold until thesubsequently reduce returns. The same product’s usability. Toward this end, customer is contentedly using it. Callsites may also offer consumers a forum manufacturers could enhance the out- center staff must be able to get theto rate and review their purchases, of-the-box experience with better- customer up and running on this firstwhich further educates other buyers. illustrated “getting started” guides call and build excitement concerningSimilarly, social media, chat resources that help consumers set up their the product’s value. For example, aand online videos that provide setup devices. These should be much easier “first timer technician” might also takeand usage guidance can improve to understand than lengthy instruction a moment to introduce shortcuts orthe “customer-training” experience. manuals (but obviously do not replace hidden features to the caller.These media also build loyalty and them). Multimedia customer-educationadvocacy among a product’s most resources such as accompanying DVDs Social media, chat resourcesknowledgeable customers. and online tutorials also provide an engaging way to help customers learn and online videos that provide about the product. setup and usage guidance can improve the “customer- training” experience. 11
  12. 12. Developing direct communication customers to call their contact center Return-prevention Strategies forchannels with customers can also rather than returning the device. CE Retailers and Communicationensure that the product stays sold. Accenture research shows that oneTo engage product purchasers before of the top factors in a compelling Carriersthey return products, one surveyed customer experience is a personable When it comes to returns, retailersmanufacturer deploys a “set-up and capable agent, and a support and communication carriers haveconcierge.” Accessed via an 800 experience that solves the problem the more or less the same challenge asnumber, the program helps customers first time a customer calls. This relates manufacturers: create a satisfactoryset up smart phones to work with their closely to the measurement issues user experience that helps a boughtpersonal computers. discussed previously: Manufacturers product stay bought. However, there should understand the relationship are unique behaviors that retailersPoint of need. At the point of need, between increased returns and poor and communication carriers canthe challenge is to address a customer’s phone support or abysmally slow wait exert to reduce the returns problem.current concerns and problems with the times. Is it possible that attempting For example, many customer-facingproduct. In this context, manufacturers to save money by limiting the number organizations fail to set reasonablecould distinguish themselves by building of telephone support personnel is customer expectations or educateremote diagnostics capabilities. Such actually costing the company money the buyer properly. In addition, manysolutions not only enable repairs to be by raising customer returns? retail sales staffs are not sufficientlyhandled remotely but can also identify knowledgeable about their products and(and head off) conflicts arising from Is it possible that thus try to sidestep critical issues thatimproper set-up or configuration ofa device. attempting to save money they don’t fully understand. In other cases, store advertising, signage and by limiting the number of literature fail to communicate a realisticIf a customer is unable to rapidlyresolve his or her problems on- telephone support personnel level of complexity or explain what accessories or knowledge the customerline, an efficient contact center is actually costing the needs to launch and operate a device.experience is critical. Many devicemanufacturers now include flyers company money by raisingwith their products that encourage customer returns?12
  13. 13. When it comes to returns, For retailers, the most important Offer delivery and setup services metrics are return rates by item; to consumers for highly technicalretailers and communication item class and manufacturer; length products. Accenture research revealscarriers have more or less of time since purchase; and reason that offering value-added services for the return. It is nearly impossible can radically reduce returns, oftenthe same challenge as to determine what new approaches by as much as 20 percent, whilemanufacturers: create a might reduce return rates without this generating additional revenue. (Bestsatisfactory user experience information. One retailer Accenture Buy’s Geek Squad is probably the best interviewed also tracks return rates known example.) Given the benefitsthat helps a bought product by retail sales person. NTFs are associated with reduced returns andstay bought. particularly important since these are, improved brand image, there is a theoretically, 100 percent avoidable. strong case to be made even withoutConsider the following five steps that The reason for any return that is the additional revenue.retailers and communication carriers ultimately deemed NTF should becould take to address the returns studied particularly closely. Invest in proactive customerproblem: service on high-cost/high-return Develop product-education classes products. The idea here is to assistMeasure the impact of returns. Like for consumers. The best example customers before they have a chancemanufacturers, retailers need their may be Apple’s Genius Bar which— to become frustrated and return anown metrics to assess the scope of the in addition to creating a generally item. By demonstrating interest in theproblem and follow trends over time. pleasurable and fruitful support customer’s success, retailers not onlyAs always, it is critical to begin with experience—handles training programs head off potential implementation anda baseline in order to benchmark the for groups and individuals. Better usage problems, but also strengthencurrent impact of returns. Using that than almost any other manufacturer/ their brands’ image. One wirelessinformation, they can determine cost- retailer, Apple understands that device manufacturer worked closelyappropriate levels of improvement and loyalty is largely forged by a with a wireless carrier to put in placeintroduce new approaches as necessary. positive, personalized relationship. a proactive customer contact program 13
  14. 14. Figure 5: Percentage of survey respondents interested in having computers maintained using various methods. Provided by Handled in Self directed Provided by Provided by Provided Take it into a a friend or my home by and guided technicians technicians via remotely by retail store/ family member an onsite visit by training through a e-mail or online accessing my computer by a technician manuals/online telephone call chat computer at repair shop forums/training center with me night or during support on the phone non-use hoursTotal 51% 40% 39% 36% 36% 33% 28%18-24 53% 41% 43% 30% 37% 28% 31%25-34 55% 38% 47% 34% 39% 34% 31%35-44 51% 41% 41% 40% 39% 36% 28%45-54 47% 41% 41% 38% 36% 31% 27%55-64 48% 43% 34% 38% 34% 35% 27%65+ 53% 38% 27% 35% 28% 33% 26%Male 44% 36% 45% 35% 35% 32% 27%Female 58% 45% 33% 37% 37% 34% 30%for complex data devices sold at the Provide multiple service options.carrier’s retail stores. By reaching out Customers value choice. Theyin the first 24 hours, the collaboration have different ideas about what iscut buyer’s remorse returns by up to convenient, how they want to solve20 percent. problems and what is worth paying for. Moreover, people not only have widelyOne wireless device differing preferences, their choices also vary by age and gender (Figuremanufacturer worked closely 5).3 Some, for example, prefer self-with a wireless carrier to help via the Web while others prefer telephone support or exchange/repairput in place a proactive by mail. Another group may prefer thecustomer contact program face-to-face interaction and speed offor complex data devices in-person support at a retail facility. A retailer or communication carriersold at the carrier’s retail that provides a choice of service andstores. By reaching out support options is enhancing the customer’s experience and potentiallyin the first 24 hours, the reducing return rates. Because morecollaboration cut buyer’s than two thirds of all returns areremorse returns by up to ultimately labeled NTF, in-person service centers can be a particularly20 percent. valuable solution—weeding out NTFs before they become returns.14
  15. 15. Leading Practices in CE Product ReturnsAccenture research on customer • Emphasize customerreturns in consumer electronics education. Industry researchreveals several behaviors that suggests that a key contributorcan be labeled “leading practice.” to high return rates isSimply put, manufacturers and insufficient education ofretailers that excel in this area... the customer. One study by the Consumer Electronics• Measure the impact of Association found that the topreturns. Using quantifiable four actions companies couldmeans, they have determined take to reduce return rates are:the cost impact of returns and encourage more pre-purchaseidentified the optimal mix of research by the consumer;investments in returns prevention provide better pre-sale info;versus returns processing. Their improve telephone support; andmeasurement activities involve create more informative in-examinations of all costs and store displays.5 Not mentionedprocesses associated with device but also vital is creatingreturns. At a minimum, they favorable, yet reasonable,understand what it costs to customer expectations.receive, process and dispositionNo Trouble Found products. • Aggressively encourage customer feedback to help• Create simpler product determine the causes ofdesigns. Leading practice returns.companies know that easy-to-use products improve thecustomer experience. In fact, asurvey of US consumers foundthat consumers’ tolerance levelsfor making a device work isapproximately 20 minutes.4 Afterthat, they tend to give up andreturn the product. Fortunately,there are tools and strategiesthat can address this challenge. 15
  16. 16. 2. Processing Accenture’s view is that companies can realize notable gains in profitability Acknowledge that a one-size-fits- all approach rarely works. Volume,Strategies: Optimizing by bringing new levels of innovation, agility and flexibility to their returns complexity of repair, cost of repair, cost of product and customerthe Return/Repair processing efforts. By streamlining demand all must be considered when and optimizing their return/repair developing a returns network. VariousNetwork networks—often applying greater combinations of these factors needMany of the companies Accenture levels of segmentation—they can drive to engender different responses.studied have a one-size-fits-all out significant costs. Following are For example, it may be effective tostrategy when it comes to processing some specific ideas: centralize the return/repair processreturns. They lack the ability to quickly for a product with stable demand Work to understand the total that requires complex diagnosis andand efficiently segregate NTF products landed cost of returns. Accenture repair by highly skilled technicians.from truly defective products early recommends that retailers and By contrast, a high-demand productin the returns process. They may manufacturers develop a more that requires rudimentary diagnosis byexcel at getting new products to thorough understanding of total minimally trained personnel may lendmarket swiftly, but returns pile up in landed costs for returns—accounting itself to a decentralized repair networka stock room. They often are unable for factors such as transportation geared to faster differentiate products tied to and shipping, inventory, labor andstable demand from those with spiky materials. Supply chain network Decouple return and repair processes.demand, which means they can’t make modeling tools are available to help Companies may find that it is moresensible cost decisions about whether companies understand key tradeoffs, cost effective and expedient toa repair should occur in Memphis or such as “cost to serve versus customer position return and repair processesMexico. In fact, they may not be able service expectations.” as discrete activities that can beto determine if it is appropriate to performed at one or more sitesrepair a product at all.16
  17. 17. (e.g., Triage, Level 1 repair, Level 2 inventory planning tools that factor Explore creative solutions for Brepair). Decoupling these processes in the “drivers” of repairs and the stock. Many of the manufacturerscan increase the responsiveness and associated parts consumption (e.g., and retailers studied by Accentureflexibility of return/repair networks. installed base, mean time between have recently expanded their onlineOne large communication carrier failures, warranty data). From an auction activities for B product stock.reduced its repair and return cycle organizational perspective, returns In fact, many leading retailers arefrom weeks to days by moving its planning should have a slot on the approaching the secondary markettriage operations to its retail store and sales and operations planning (S&OP) customer with the same zeal appliedadding Level 1 repair capabilities at its agenda, where returns metrics are to brick and mortar customers. They’redistribution sites. reviewed and continuous improvement moving liquidation in-house and thus opportunities are identified. increasing profits by avoiding theImplement strategies for quickly middleman.identifying No Trouble Found (NTF) Account for different levels ofitems and returning them to inventory product demand. Manufacturers and One large communicationas soon as possible. retailers should be able to confirm that their return/repair networks can carrier reduced its repairForecast and plan for returns and accommodate peak demand for a and return cycle fromrepairs. Even the simplest repairs tap particular product. When demand isinto parts inventories, which means high, returned products need to be weeks to days by movingthat (more sophisticated) inventory rapidly processed and put back on its triage operations to itsmanagement techniques may be shelves. By contrast, products linked toneeded to ensure and confirm that retail store and adding Level stable demand may not require rapidnecessary stocks are available to re-stocking, so a different, less costly 1 repair capabilities at itsmeet service requirements. Consider repair approach may be preferable. distribution sites.using specialized spare parts 17
  18. 18. A Returning OpportunityWorking together, CE manufacturers, At the same time, smarter investmentsretailers and communication carriers in return and repair operations—have a distinct and very large calibrated and segmented to reflectopportunity to 1) reduce customer cost realities and market conditions—returns and 2) make the processing are another potential win.of necessary returns less arduous,less costly and, in some cases, more The bottom line, of course, is newprofitable. The reason for such vast potential for broad cost improvements,improvement potential is simple: A greater competitive differentiation,great majority of returned products increased customer loyalty andare not defective, thus implying that a stronger brand image—all ofmost returns associated with consumer which contribute mightily to higherelectronics devices are preventable. profitability and the attainment of95 percent of returns are ultimately high performance.unconnected to product defects!18
  19. 19. About the authors ReferencesDavid Douthit 1 Estimate derived from Accenture client interviews, consultingDavid Douthit is an executive in engagements and market research.Accenture Supply Chain Managementconsulting where he is the Lead for 2Accenture Returns ManagementReverse Logistics and Repair. He has Survey, May 2011cross over experience in advising 3 “Beyond Landline: Evolving Consumerclients on issues related to customer Expectations for Technology Support”:support and service as it relates to a survey of 3,886 technologysupply chain issues. He has 20+ years consumers in 21 countries. ©2011 bydomestic and international experience Supply Chain Management,Supply Chain Strategy, 3rd Party 4 Elke den Ouden, 2006 Thesis at theLogistics, Sourcing and Procurement, Technical University of EindhovenWarehouse/Repair Operations, Service (Netherlands).Parts Logistics, and Electronics 5 Tim Hebert, “2005: A ProductContract Manufacturing. He has deep Returns Odyssey,” Consumerexperience working with electronics Electronics Association Study, 2005.and high tech, communications andproduct companies. Based in SanJose, CA . David can be reached FlachMichael Flach is a Manager in AccentureSupply Chain Management consulting.He has an extensive background inSupply Chain Transformation, Sourcingand Procurement, Category Reviewand International Trade for a variety ofindustries. Based in Pittsburgh,he can be reached at AgarwalVivek Agarwal is a Manager inAccenture Supply Chain Managementconsulting handling research anddevelopment activities for theglobal service strategy & operationspractice. He has extensive experiencein designing and implementing largescale supply chain projects for avariety of companies in Electronics &High Tech sector. Based in India, hecan be reached at 19
  20. 20. Copyright © 2011 Accenture About AccentureAll rights reserved.Accenture, its logo, and Accenture is a global managementHigh Performance Delivered consulting, technology servicesare trademarks of Accenture. and outsourcing company, with more than 223,000 people serving clients in more than 120 countries. Combining unparalleled experience, comprehensive capabilities across all industries and business functions, and extensive research on the world’s most successful companies, Accenture collaborates with clients to help them become high-performance businesses and governments. The company generated net revenues of US$21.6 billion for the fiscal year ended Aug. 31, 2010. Its home page is / 11-3653