Holidays and peak seasons, such as Christmas and New Year, are crucial for retail and ecommerce sales. They’re a time to improve revenue and earn new customers with compelling offers and discounts. But all that also comes with increased customer service demands.
An effective customer service strategy is critical to engaging with seasonal sales and peak periods to maximum effect. You need to embrace agility and build a system that is able to:
- Scale-up capacity on short notice
- Provide access to the right channels and agents, at the right time
- Train and onboard new agents without losing quality
- Control and predict costs
- Strengthen customer relationships
- Drive business outcomes
Remember: customer service is a growth strategy. Customers judge brands based on customer service experiences, and are more likely to recommend a brand because of a positive experience.
The last thing you want is for your Christmas, Black Friday or Summer Sales event to negatively impact your reputation. Increased contact with your customer service teams can (if done right) create positive customer experiences that actually improves your ability to retain customers first contacted during seasonal sales.
Let’s get started and walk through the key points of a successful, year-round customer service improvement strategy.
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Step 1: Preempting customer behaviour
Customer service is about serving customers — so that’s where we are going to start. Peak seasonal periods (be that Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Christmas, January or Summer Sales) each come with a set of unique customer behaviour trends. Understanding these, and planning your customer service strategy accordingly, will help deliver the right outcome.
1. High rates of return
Sales seasons lead to impulse buys, which leads to an increase in returns. The fact that more and more purchases are being made online only exacerbates the issue. Brick-and-mortar store return rates average between 8%-10%. For ecommerce, that jumps to 20%. Holiday ecommerce return rates regularly top 30%.
These volumes can easily get out of control, particularly during peak periods. January 2nd is a big day for customer returning items accumulated during the December sales period. You need to be prepared. Customers expect fast turnarounds, updates on progress, and seamless experiences.
Suggested reading: Check out our eCommerce customer service outsourcing guide for seasonal customer service demand strategies.
2. A deluge of reviews
More sales means more reviews. Up to 97 per cent of customers read brands’ responses to reviews, and 45 per cent are more likely to visit businesses that respond to negative reviews. You need teams in place to respond to criticism and curate the right brand image online.
3. Demand for upfront information
Peak seasons are competitive, and customers demand information to make decisions. Particularly online, that information has to be baked into product listings. Remember, customer service isn’t just about responding to complaints. It’s about creating positive customer experiences from start to finish.
Just like you need to pay attention to your reviews, make sure that you have information-rich product listings. Create FAQ pages, post high-quality photos, and properly represent your products online. This will increase sales and decrease returns.
4. Seasonal-specific interests
Each sales season and each industry has its own quirks. There are obvious correlations. For example, clothing (summer clothing particularly) sees a large boost during the summer. However, you also see a lot of home improvement projects and other DIY sales in the summer, along with purchases associated with “back-to-school”.
Electronic goods, and other big-ticket items, fly off the shelves during Black Friday and Cyber Monday. And the whole run-up to Christmas sees people buying gifts — not just making purchases for themselves. While, in January, customers are often looking for good deals, or purchases to help with New Year’s resolutions.
The point is simply to think about seasonality. Consider broad buying trends, look at how that aligns with your products, and use that as a basis for projecting how any given season is likely to impact your customer service capacity. That forethought will help you time the rest of the steps in this list.
Step 2: Build flexibility
There are a number of things customers hate about contact customer service. 98% of customers find interactive voice response (IVR) systems infuriating. But having to wait too long might even top IVR on the pet-peeve list.
You might be surprised to find out that two-thirds of customers think that a hold time of over 2 minutes is unacceptable. 13% won’t tolerate any hold time at all. You need to make sure that a spike in demand won’t overload your automated and personalised support teams. Keeping customers waiting is just going to make them unhappy.
There are two critical components to keeping wait times to a minimum:
1. Use multiple channels to create efficiency
Customer service can take many forms. As we have already addressed, FAQ pages, online support videos, training manuals, etc. all fall within the framework of customer service. So do automated chatbots. Making sure that these self-service options are honed and easily accessible can lessen the load on your customer service agents.
However, it’s also important to consider the different ways actual agents communicate with customers. Most popularly, these include:
- Phone support
- Live chat
- Online support portals
- Social media
Fundamentally, different queries are better suited to different channels. A quick question about return policies is far faster to respond to with templated text via live chat then to explain over the phone. By having options available, you not only create a better experience for customers — each one of which will have a preferred channel of communication — but also create a more efficient system overall.
Pro tip: You need to make sure that switching between channels is easy. For example, 71% of customers expect to be able to jump from a chatbot to phone conversation without having to repeat themselves. If you don’t build information sharing into your system, you damage efficiency gains and create unhappy customers.
2. Create scalability and agility
Efficiency is great. But, ultimately, more customer service queries means more people are needed to answer them in time — be that on the phone, over live chat, or via email. Your ability to bring onboard new agents is critical to matching seasonal demand.
What many brands forget is that scalability isn’t just about recruitment. There is a lot more to creating a team that can truly deliver on-demand access to seasonal resources. Consider the following:
- Recruitment: You need to predict seasonal customer service trends and set up recruitment drives beforehand. You also need some form of ongoing regular recruitment to simply fill gaps as they arise, and manage unexpected growth.
- Onboarding: New agents means rapid training. You need a robust and streamlined training system able to bring new agents up to speed quickly, teaching them the specifics of your brand, product/service, messaging and style.
- Management: Growth means being prepared to manage larger teams for a short period of time. That means processes that scale, management expertise, the ability to bring onboard new managers, and effectively manage seasonal teams.
- Infrastructure: More people means more space. You need the desks, phones, computers, and more required to support your expanded seasonal team. During the current health crisis, you also need to think about social distancing. One “out-of-the-box” solution to consider is a greater embrace of WFH policies. For more details, check out our free ebook — A New Approach to Customer Service.
- Downsizing: If you experience twice the volume during the Christmas period, it makes no cost sense to maintain those service levels all year round. You need a policy and process for letting people go after the season peak has subsided.
Taken together, these five components form the basis of a truly agile customer service team. With that said, it’s important to recognise that true on-demand flexibility cannot really be achieved in-house. Only by partnering with outsourced customer service specialists can you scale up and down access to resources to match rapid fluctuation in demand.
In-house vs outsourcing customer service is a valuable debate to have. Outsourcing does remove all of the complexity we’ve described to this point. And it’s important to remember that outsourcing can be undertaken with a quality-specific outcome in mind. But any business attempting to manage fluctuations in demand needs at least limited outsourcing access, which brings us to the next point…
Step 3: Line-up emergency overflow capacity
If your goal is to deliver seamless customer service throughout peak seasons, you need a contingency option. There is no way to recruit agents fast enough to match any seasonal spike without massively over-investing in capacity. What you need is an outsourced partner that is able to step in and fill any gaps as they arise.
Selecting the right customer service partner is critical, so too is deciding what percentage of your customer service capacity to outsource. Most brands benefit from having a limited internal customer service team. But a benefit of being a brand subject to seasonal demand is your ability to engage with outsourced partners for limited periods of time, and double down on what works.
In all cases, consider the following characteristics as key things to look out for when outsourcing customer service capacity:
- On-demand scalability: Not every customer service outsourcing agency actually promises on-demand scalability. If you can’t scale up and down your access to agents and channels at a moment’s notice, it kind of defeats the point.
- Transparency: In any partnership, you want to look for support that is transparent. That means easy to understand pricing, SLAs, reporting and more. You want a partner that will keep you up to date on what they’ve done, and tell you where improvements can be made.
- A focus on quality: You don’t want agents that aren’t going to appropriately represent your brand. Look for partners that emphasise quality, have on-shore teams, provide training and have a track record of success.
- Are willing to learn about you: Your business is unique, anyone delivering services on your behalf should recognise that. This comes back to the point about quality. However, fundamentally, you want a partner that emphasises customised training and support to make sure that their agents understand you, your brand, your messaging and your customers.
- Inhouse vs outsourcing customer service: What’s better for your business?
- Customer service outsourcing pricing guide for 2021
- A new approach to customer service: Building better outcomes for businesses and customers
Step 4: Control costs and watch metrics
Growth in revenue is almost always accompanied by a growth in expenses. The need to bring onboard more customer service representatives is just one example of that linked growth. As we have emphasised, creating positive customer service experiences can be a growth strategy in and of itself. However, you need to be careful that spikes in seasonal demand don’t lead to spiralling cost.
Again, the right outsourced partner can help. Pricing transparency, on-demand scalability and simple reporting will allow you to stay on top of costs and predict month-to-month changes.
Building a scalable solution in-house is a little more challenging. You need to make sure that the administrative costs of managing your agile team do not outpace predictions. There are a lot more variables to manage. However, getting this all under control is critical to a successful seasonal strategy.
Building a solution that works
Quality customer service is essential to any business, and it’s something that customers naturally expect you to provide. Outsourcing your customer service is the easiest way to get the flexibility you need. However, simply having access to outsourced customer service resources able to operate alongside your in-house team can go a long way to simplifying seasonal scalability. Realistically, some kind of outsourced capability is essential to real on-demand scalability.
From Black Friday and Cyber Monday all the way through to the Summer Holiday, you need to think about which seasonal sales are most critical to your brand, and plan accordingly. If you need help with seasonal customer service, be sure to get in touch, our agents are ready to help.
Aamir is one of the Co-Founders at Odondo, where he obsesses over the details to deliver a strong and compelling proposition for each of his clients.
Prior to Odondo, he was CTO at one of the UK's largest price comparison websites, with contact centres in the UK and India. In his spare time, he loves reading, politics, tennis, and playing the piano (badly).