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During the holiday season, brands typically see a surge in demand for their goods and services, especially in the retail industry, but also in many others. This means increased sales, new campaigns on social media, and heightened brand visibility — all great things for your organization. Of course, it also means support requests see a spike as consumers have both pre- and post-purchase questions.
If you’re not set up the right way to handle an increase in volume like this, it can lead to bigger challenges for your contact center. In fact, many brands struggle to keep up with support requests during the holidays. A study by Shopify found that support volume requests increase by 65% during the holiday season. Furthermore, the same study found that “customer service needs” was the second highest concern for businesses during the holiday season, with 74.5% of businesses being somewhat or very concerned about customer service during the holidays.
Things were particularly difficult in 2020 as online shopping boomed during the COVID-19 pandemic: that year, ecommerce sales grew 44% while retail only increased by 6.9%.
When consumers shop through brick-and-mortar retailers, they can direct questions to in-store associates; thus they don’t need to call a brand’s support line or use web chat to get their questions answered. Of course, they can’t do this when they’re shopping online, so their inquiries must go to the brand’s support team. With last year’s ecommerce growth, a lot of support requests that would typically be answered in-store were likely directed to the brand’s contact center. And ecommerce growth isn’t slowing down in the wake of COVID-19. It’s expected to grow another 21.6% in 2021, and projections show that online sales may double pre-pandemic numbers as early as 2024.
While the causes of this phenomenon are complex, the result for contact centers is easy to predict: brands need to act quickly to bolster their support capabilities. During the holidays, they may need to take extra measures to ensure they can keep up with volume spikes.
This is no small issue, as 83% of consumers identify good customer service as their most important criterion for determining what to buy. If your brand isn’t rapidly modernizing its contact center, there’s no time to lose. That’s why we’ve put together these five strategies to ensure your support team can keep up during the holiday season.
When it comes to increasing efficiency in your contact center during the holidays, the name of the game is support deflection — that is, deflecting support volume away from your agents and to alternate channels. One of the best ways to do this is to implement self-service solutions so customers can resolve inquiries on their own. Generally speaking, there are two ways to offer your customers self-service options: knowledge bases and AI chatbots.
A knowledge base is a repository of brand-specific information where customers can get answers to their questions without ever talking to a brand representative. The most common example is an FAQ page — but these pages are often clunky and inefficient, leading to more frustration than help. (Think about how many times you’ve gone to an FAQ page only to contact an agent soon after because you couldn’t find what you were looking for.)
Brands interested in boosting their customer experience and providing a more interactive self-service option often build an online community instead. These communities are places where brand advocates and customers can post reviews, engage in discussion threads, and most importantly, answer one another’s questions. One of the most valuable features of these communities is that they help users find what they’re looking for without agents ever getting involved, saving you time and money.
Another way to deflect customer care volume during the holiday season is to use an AI chatbot. While these chatbots can’t fully replace human agents, they can handle simple requests and questions by pulling relevant information. If a request is complex enough to require an agent to step in, AI chatbots can help agents resolve inquiries more quickly (and with greater customer satisfaction) in a number of ways:
They handoff information they’ve already gathered;
They provide agents with suggested responses;
They analyze customer sentiment and intent to keep track of important CX metrics.
If you’re interested in learning more about how chatbots can help your brand with ecommerce during the holidays, or any time, check out our webinar on Google’s Business Messages.
Most brands in 2021 recognize the importance of having a presence on the channels their customers prefer to use, whether that’s SMS, social media, email, phone, Apple Business Chat, Google’s Business Messages, or somewhere else. We’ve found that 62% of customers want to be able to engage with brands across channels and 77% of consumers want brands’ internal teams to collaborate so they don’t have to repeat themselves.
The trouble is that engaging on each of these channels is costly and inefficient. Some brands have agents respond in multiple channels at once, switching back and forth to manage incoming volume. But this slows them down when they have to switch applications, and it increases the risk of them forgetting to respond to one or more inquiries. Other brands try to solve this problem by dedicating certain agents to specific channels. The problem here is that not every channel will have the same support volume, so some agents might be overwhelmed while others don’t have enough work. Needless to say, this makes it difficult to maintain consistent SLAs across different channels.
Either way, agents are less efficient and customers are frustrated by increased wait times and poor service.
To streamline the process, brands should use a unified engagement hub that enables agents to seamlessly view interactions from every channel. By providing customer interactions from all channels in a single platform, agents can gather information faster, improving their response times and customer satisfaction.
Some delays in customer service may be inevitable, especially during the busy holiday season, when volumes spike and labor shortages sometimes occur. These things can happen for any of a huge number of reasons, and when they do, they can affect SLAs, resolution rate, response time, handle time, CSAT, NPS, and other KPIs.
It’s not the end of the world when delays occur, as long as you can manage the issue and properly set expectations. It’s always better to be direct with customers about delays in service response times. If you’re experiencing a spike or anticipate one soon, let customers know how long you expect it to take before a customer service agent will be available. For example, when customers initiate a support request brands facing a spike can let them know “We are currently experiencing a delay in response times and will get back to you in X time, for self-service on this issue check out Y resource.”
It’s always a good idea to route customers to more efficient channels of communication. For example, when a customer reaches out over the phone, some brands provide an automated recording saying that customers can, for example, press 1 to receive an SMS message and continue their conversation with an agent through text. This practice is known as IVR deflection, and when implemented properly it’s one of the most powerful tools in the contact center industry. The important thing to note is that when using IVR deflection, brands need to make the process as easy as possible for the customer. Don’t ask the customer to message you and wait for a response; give them the option to receive a message that makes switching channels a seamless process. Alternatively, you can also encourage customers to go to your brand’s online community to get the answers they need through self-service channels.
A last resort here is throttling — that is, limiting incoming inquiries on a specific channel, in a specific geographic area, or of a specific type. This is a last resort because it doesn’t provide an ideal customer experience (think how frustrated you might be if you tried to call a brand and they told you they weren’t taking any calls at the moment, only SMS messages), but it can be immensely helpful when volumes are simply too high to manage, or when you have a last-minute labor shortage. Of course, you can only take advantage of this option with a digital first customer care platform.
Due to the increased volume during holiday times, customer service agents may feel extra stress, which can lead to burnout. This is one of the reasons retail contact centers staff up so much before and during the holidays, with some businesses increasing their contact center staff by anywhere from 30–500%. While it’s good to have extra seasonal agents to help with the spike in support requests, this shouldn’t be viewed as a solution for agent turnover during the holidays. Seasonal agents require training and will be less experienced than long time employees, so brands should do everything they can to keep morale high and retain tenured agents.
To keep morale high during this stressful time, look for ways to thank and motivate employees. Your methods may vary depending on the size of your staff, but a few ways you can boost morale include extending breaks, providing meals, and awarding bonuses during the holiday season. Additionally, managers should make sure to recognize and thank customer service agents during the busy holiday season.
Many brands use post-interaction surveys to gather valuable feedback from customers. They use this feedback to make improvements both for the next holiday season rush and in general. But while surveys are excellent tools for gauging customer sentiment, they can’t tell you everything. Brands who combine surveys with other ways of measuring the customer experience — real-time analytics, unsolicited feedback, sentiment recognition, and more — can be far more agile in implementing changes. With these more advanced capabilities, a brand could make an improvement within the holiday season instead of waiting to dig through the data before the next one; this can lead to real business impacts.
For example, a brand consistently getting the same question about a recently released product could use real-time analytics to identify the shared concern among customers and make a change to their ecommerce page, update their message boards, or program a bot to recognize and answer the question before it reaches an agent.
If you’re interested in using real-time analytics to adjust to spikes and trends, learn how Khoros Care and CX Insights can help. Request a demo to see how our platform can help your customer service team for the upcoming holiday season and beyond.