The following is a guest contribution from Abigail Phillips, Head of Support at Help Scout.
For e-commerce and brick-and-mortar retailers alike, the busy holiday season poses a number of challenges and opportunities.
That may be especially true this year, when experts are forecasting an especially strong season: Holiday sales may grow 4-4.5 percent over last year, and online sales are expected to grow anywhere from 14.9 to 21 percent. Retailers are beefing up in-store customer service staff to enable customers to pick up and return products purchased online.
If you’re not careful, that influx of customer communications can compromise the quality of service — but you can’t afford to let customer service suffer during the holiday rush. Not when it takes 12 positive experiences to make up for one unresolved negative experience, and news of bad customer service reaches more than twice as many ears as praise for a good service experience.
Fortunately, it only takes a little preparation and consideration to ensure your customers still enjoy a stellar experience during the hectic holiday season. Here are our best tips for keeping customers happy, even when it feels like you’re drinking from a fire hose.
Pick your channels and assign ownership
Whether you have a brick-and-mortar shop, an e-commerce site, or both, you need to decide how and where you’ll communicate with your customers around the holidays: Email? Live chat? Phone support? Social media?
If you’re unsure which channels to focus on, look at where the majority of your current customer questions come from and decide whether that’s working for you and your customers. Think you might want to add a new channel, but not sure which? Again, start with the channels your customers currently use the most, then decide which you have the capacity to support. Give yourself plenty of time to set up processes and experiment with new tools long before you’re in the throes of holiday traffic. Don’t launch a major new channel (such as chat support) right before the holiday rush — test it out during less busy times of year to get it down first.
Once you’ve chosen your channels, assign each one a dedicated owner. Who is responsible for making sure every email gets a response? Who is staffing chat, and during which hours? Ownership reduces inefficiencies, ensures consistency of service, and makes it easier to identify future improvements.
Be sure to let your customers know exactly where they can find you. Post contact options in multiple places on your website — make reaching you on whatever channels you support “one-click easy,” so you don’t lose customers to unnecessary confusion or friction.
Consider hiring remote seasonal workers
“Outsourcing” isn’t necessarily a dirty word. If your business has any sort of online presence, consider hiring remote customer support staff to help you manage holiday volume. The larger candidate pool gives you greater access to the best people, as well as additional coverage when you hire people in multiple time zones.
Outsourcing all or part of your support team to adjust for seasonality allows you to scale your team size up and down as needed, without over-hiring or having to let people go when sales quiet down again in the new year. Companies like PartnerHero can help manage these fluctuating support loads.
“Rather than just providing ‘bodies,’ we learn what each company is facing at that moment and where they want to get to,” says PartnerHero founder Shervin Talieh. “Next, we assign a team of our employees to work exclusively with them. During onboarding we look for process re-engineering, policy or systems changes that can help stabilize the company’s operations.”
The ability to go beyond answering questions to improving your business is further justification for outsourcing customer support. Ultimately, your customers will be the judge — if they’re getting responsive, friendly, empathetic and effective help, it won’t matter to them who they are talking to.
For time-pressed customers, speed = empathy
The holidays are a great time to double down on empathy. Good customer support professionals understand that most grumpy customers are simply having a bad day — it’s not personal. The holidays, however, are known for adding an extra layer of stress, and customer interactions are no exception.
To provide the best support during this time, start by coming to each conversation with empathetic calm and focus on fast solutions. This time of year, customer service becomes more about action and resolution than warm fuzzies. It’s OK to forego wishing someone a “Happy Tuesday!” and mentioning what a great game their local football team played last night, if it means getting them — and the next customer in line — a quick resolution.
Your customers’ stress often arises from being pressed for time themselves, so they’ll appreciate a focus on fast action.
Set your team up for success
Support teams are in a position to help optimize the company’s holiday sales and potentially acquire new and devoted followers with the service they provide. By planning ahead and being strategic about where you place your efforts, you ensure a less hectic holiday season for your team and a better experience for your customers.
• Set customer expectations
Make your business hours clear to your customers, as well as how long they can expect to wait for a response. Set up an auto-reply to be explicit about what your office hours are, what your shipping delivery dates are, and so on — setting expectations goes a long way, and is crucial to maintaining customer happiness around the holidays.
• Automate wherever possible
Automation works best when used to enrich, not replace, your customers’ human-to-human experiences. Don’t replace your team with robots; help them become superhuman.
Use software to help streamline and enhance customer service — for example, you can set up a workflow in your help desk to track high-demand products you know will sell out and have complicated shipping requirements. Or you might anticipate and prevent any potential problems by tagging conversations based on the products a customer has ordered, to get ahead of the volume or any shipping or technical issues.
Our friends at Zapier put together a list of seven quick tips to boost holiday e-commerce sales with automation — it’s worth a read!
• Consider triaging customer emails based on urgency
If you normally work out of one mailbox but see an uptick in holiday volume, try setting up an additional mailbox for less-urgent inquiries.
• Review last year’s data
Take time to go over last year’s customer questions and pain points, then use those to update your knowledge base and saved replies. This is also a good opportunity to improve any internal processes and customer-facing rules such as hours, shipping policies, and so on from the previous holiday season.
• Beef up your knowledge base
For the many customers who would prefer to help themselves, make sure they can — self-service is a win for everyone. Remember, customers are pressed for time too, so if they can find an answer to their question without having to contact support, you’ve reduced the effort they need to expend. And quality self-service options allow your team to help a higher volume of people overall, potentially increasing your holiday sales.
• Make info readily available
Any help documentation should be easy for customers to find, preferably in the location where the question would naturally arise — this can be as simple as linked text on your site, or embedding widgets like Beacon that can point shoppers toward information at the source. (Remember to make the same information available to your staff, so they have the information they need at their fingertips when they’re helping customers!)
• Audit your online presence
When’s the last time you Googled your company name? If you don’t monitor this on a regular basis, conduct an audit of your online search results at least one month before the holiday season begins. Is your contact information up to date in Google’s search results? What about your Facebook page, or that Instagram account you opened two years ago and forgot about? Do you still have the login for that?
When customers can’t find an immediate answer on one channel, they may seek out others. Make sure any accounts that show up are actively monitored and contain accurate and up-to-date information. Review your website’s contact page and consider updating it with holiday-specific information such as extended hours, temporary shipping policy changes, where people can go find answers, and so on.
All hands on deck
All-hands support looks a little differently for every company that does it, but when your entire team is trained to help customers, you can call in the reinforcements when your customer service staff is in the weeds.
Of course, all-hands support during the holidays will only work when you have a year-round program. Every new hire at Help Scout spends time in the queue during their first week or two on the job, no matter what their role — and for support during company-wide events like our retreats, we schedule “support power hours” during which everyone jumps in and clears out the queue in a matter of moments. That way, support team members aren’t kept busy working while everyone else is enjoying themselves.
As an added bonus — or perhaps the best reason for an all-hands support program — it’s a great way to keep customers top-of-mind for everyone at the company, especially those who are generally more removed from those direct interactions.
No time for troubleshooting
If this is your first year getting proactive about customer service during the holidays, remember that it’s OK not to get things right the first time! It’s better to wade through any mistakes and make improvements next year than troubleshoot during your busiest season. Simply let customers know you’re taking their suggestions seriously, then make good on those promises the next time around.
About the Author
Abigail is the head of support at Help Scout.More Content by Abigail Phillips