Although we all (well, most of us…) enjoy the holidays—watching Christmas classics like Die Hard, wrapping up warm, and shopping for gifts—there’s no denying that it can be a trying time of year for businesses that only have a small window to generate as much revenue as possible.
Whether you are a large e-commerce operation embarking on your 10th holiday season or are piloting your start-up business through its very first one, you need to ensure that you’re crossing all the Ts and dotting all the Is to make it a success. And one area where it’s crucial that you get everything right is in customer service.
Don’t let your standards slip
From the week leading up to Black Friday all the way through to the new year, strong customer service is one of the keys to a successful holiday period. Unfortunately, however, it’s the time of year when customer service teams face a higher volume of support queries, requests, and grievances.
In 2020 during Black Friday, online shopping surged by 22% to a record US$9 billion, an increase of 21.6% year-over-year, according to Adobe Analytics. While this increase was partly attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a trend of increasing online shopping activity during the holiday season for several years now.
Dramatic increases like these have been catching unprepared customer service teams off-guard: support requests pour in, pressure mounts, and some customers are inevitably left with a bad experience which harms the business’s reputation (or worse, its bottom line) as backlogs begin to mount.
While we are all guilty of being unprepared for the holiday period at one time or another (be honest—how many times have you found yourself frantically searching for last-minute gifts?) this unpreparedness shouldn’t extend to your customer service team.
6 ways to maintain a high level of customer service during the holidays
Even the very best customer service teams, with the smoothest of day-to-day operations, can find themselves feeling the pinch during the holiday season. The smartest way to make sure that your team can maintain its high service quality is through proper research, preparedness, and planning.
We know that half the battle is getting started, though. That’s why we have put together our list of six actions you can take to make sure your customer service team is equipped to maintain quality from the run-up to Black Friday all the way to 2024.
1. Optimize your customer service channels
While you might have multiple channels for customer interaction, not all of them will have the same level of productivity. For example, in terms of live channels, a telephone agent can only deal with one customer at a time, meanwhile, a live chat operator can assist three, four, or five different customers at once. During the holiday season especially, it’s important to have an overview of the number of inbound requests each channel is receiving and ensure agents can easily hop between channels as needed.
Having the flexibility to easily assign and re-assign agents to channels based on need, rather than assumptions, will offer you the chance to keep your service standards high, even during the holiday rush. When your channels live in different applications or systems, it can be near impossible to get an accurate overview of usage. And, for your agents, they must constantly get up to speed with a new user interface each time they switch to a different channel. This has been shown to waste valuable time, in fact, up to 5 working weeks per year, according to research conducted by Harvard Business Review.
If you’re short-staffed nearing the holiday season, you could consider narrowing down your live channel offerings to certain time periods, knowing that you don’t have enough agents to meet the immediacy that a live channel demands.
While you might frustrate some customers by doing this, the tradeoff of being able to serve more customers more quickly will deliver a net gain. It’s important to warn customers ahead of time so that they’re not caught out, however.
Having a platform that brings all your channels together in one place, offering you a real-time overview of inbound requests and giving your agents a unified user interface, will allow you to use your resources in the best way possible.
2. Direct attention to high-value customers
There are lots of ways to leverage your data to improve customer service, and one way to do this is through customer segmentation.
While bringing in new customers and retaining existing ones are both important, statistics have shown time and time again that repeat customers bring more revenue for businesses. And, given today’s challenging economic climate, more and more companies are seeing the value of focusing on customer retention over acquisition right now. Plus, since 89% of companies surveyed say that excellent customer service plays a huge role in customer retention, there’s one segment you can’t afford to ignore: your returning customers.
It’s therefore a good idea to have systems in place to identify when a high-value customer is coming through your customer support channels for assistance. Giving these customers the VIP treatment—fast-tracking them, connecting them with the agent they last spoke with or the agent best suited to helping—will help to strengthen their bond with your brand and keep them coming back for more.
We aren’t saying that you should ignore or give a lower service level to new or potential customers, though. Rather, we’re saying that there’s a lot of value in going the extra mile to help your high-value customers because they’re the ones who are most likely to return in the future.
Be mindful that implementing a routing system that prioritizes different customers can take some time. It’s important to factor this into your planning so that it’s fully operational in time for peak season.
The best way to resolve problems is to proactively answer customer service queries before your customers have them. You can do this by providing answers to holiday-related frequently asked questions on your website and/or customer service portal.
You will need to decide which questions to answer. We recommend taking a deep dive into all the data you have available and looking for frequent repetitive queries that eat into your team’s time. Some examples of frequently asked questions might include:
- What are your holiday return policies?
- How can I use a promo code?
- When do your holiday deals go live?
- When is the order the deadline for guaranteed Christmas delivery?
- How long do refunds take to be processed?
Once you have decided on which questions to answer, find a way to get these in front of your customers. A banner that appears at the top or bottom of your website, for example, can be a useful way to highlight important information and bring it to the attention of your customers.
While we’re talking about being proactive, it also makes sense to identify beforehand friction points in the customer journey because this can also reduce customer service queries.
Carefully explore areas like site navigation, checkout, and payment processing to unearth potential problems and highlight these to your product team well ahead of time so that they can be resolved. If things aren’t broken, nobody’s going to be contacting you about them!
4. Prepare resources for agents to handle situations faster
Even with a thorough FAQs resource and help center, you’ll undoubtedly still get queries that come through from customers who haven’t read them. You might also get queries from customers that while not necessarily answerable in your FAQs, do crop up quite often, or queries that are of a higher level or specific to a particular product or service.
This is where it truly pays to be prepared and have resources available for your customer service teams that they can dip in and out of on-demand. Resources like template libraries, knowledge bases, and access to specialist staff members for high-level queries (e.g., tech team members for vendors that sell technical products) can help your customer service staff increase their productivity and get through queries faster.
If you are going to be relying on interns, temporary staff, or agency workers during the holiday season who aren’t familiar with your product, service, or brand, having a resource center that they can turn to is invaluable.
5. Protect your human resources
Protect your customer service team’s health and well-being by preparing them for the stressful period ahead. There are many ways to do this, for example by providing them with the right resources and training, and by ensuring that adequate services and processes are in place for agents that begin to burn out.
When it gets close to the holiday season, prep your customer service agents for working with unsatisfied, irritated, and angry customers by delivering training packages and seminars. Strong communication and soft skills can help minimize spats and confrontations with customers, which benefits everyone involved. You may also want to consider hiring extra customer service agents on a temporary contract or by utilizing business process outsourcing services (i.e., bringing in third-party agency staff).
No matter what you decide to do, it’s important to be empathetic and patient with your customer service agents as they battle through the toughest time of the year for the retail and e-commerce sectors.
The importance of innovation cannot be understated. But while side projects can deliver immense value in the long term, the nature of the holiday season means that all hands need to be on deck to pilot the business through it successfully.
This means that any side projects that aren’t critically important and aren’t delivering immediate value to the business should be put on hold until after the holiday season. Prioritize focusing on the now and pick up these projects later on.
Experience has shown us that the best time to start working on a new strategic project is one or two months after the end of your peak season. The reason for this is twofold: i) it gives everyone time to recover and ii) it allows enough time for budget planning.
Good customer experience is transformative
This holiday season, millions upon millions of shoppers will turn to customer service teams to solve their problems. And each year, the number of people doing so is only increasing. The way service teams handle these problems will have a huge impact on not only the success of the holiday period but the long-term success of the business.
Speed. Consistency. Convenience. Friendliness. These are the critical ingredients that make for a positive customer experience and help to build a strong reputation.
Before the holidays begin, take a look at your data, critically assess your team’s capabilities relative to your goals, and plan accordingly! This will set your team up for success and help you achieve a record-smashing holiday period.
Contact us today to get started.