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The WOW Guide to Providing Amazing Customer Service During the Holiday Rush

Through a series of interviews with Desk.com customers and WOW team members, we gathered six effective strategies that all support managers should use to provide amazing customer service during holiday rush.

Running With the Holiday Rush

Grey Thursday, Black Friday, Cyber Monday, now...Small Business Saturday? What was once a renowned busy time of year has developed into an eruption of free shipping deals, crazy promotions and huge sales numbers. Regardless of the madness, retailers love the holiday rush as it accounts for a huge portion of their overall revenue. Last year, US retailers raked in $579.8 billion in sales in the month of December 2012 alone! Unfortunately, a huge spike in sales also means a big swing in the volume of cases and customer interactions.

The ecommerce boom over the past couple of decades means that companies are facing an even more competitive holiday landscape as aggressive discounts and free shipping deals have become a holiday standard. Even though holiday shoppers are frantically hunting for the best deals, it's an amazing customer service experience that will keep them coming back after the holidays are over.

Today's customers have unreasonably high service expectations - even more so during the holiday rush. The last thing you want is to let the quality of your customer service slip during the most important time of the year. In order to shine amidst the clutter of promotions and maximize your holiday efforts, your support team needs to provide superior customer service.

At Desk.com, we talked to some of the support managers taking on the holidays this year to understand how they empowered their teams to provide amazing customer service. Through a series of interviews with them and our WOW team members, we gathered six effective strategies that all holiday heroes should use to prepare for the peak seasons:

  1. Plan ahead
  2. Divide and conquer - triaging customer interactions
  3. Improve self-service support
  4. Empower agents to get the job done
  5. Focus on fast resolution times
  6. Activate whole company support

By The Numbers: A Look at the Holiday Shopper

In order to serve your holiday shoppers, you need to have an idea of where they're coming from, how much they're willing to spend and what their expectations are.

Below is a series of facts and figures from the National Retail Federation's annual Holiday Report and Forrester's Holiday Forecast:

  • 2012 holiday shopping accounted for $579.8 billion for all US retailers
  • 2013 holiday shopping is projected to reach $602.1 billion in November and December (a 3.9% increase from 2012)
  • Online sales are projected to rise as much as 15% to $82 billion in November and December of 2013
  • The average US shopper spends $419 online during the holiday season
  • During the 2011 holiday season, the top 500 retail websites saw holiday traffic peak during Black Friday and Cyber Monday - at least 170 million unique US shoppers that accounted for $2.5 billion in total online sales

1. Plan Ahead

You should consider planning at least three months before peak periods. This time is needed to determine personnel needs, training, and if necessary, schedule longer shifts for existing employees. Planning ahead and setting goals is essential - especially for fast-growing companies that have experienced rapid customer growth in the previous months.

The best-in-class companies don't deviate too far from their goals no matter the volume or time of year it is. They plan ahead so that reach their critical targets - in quality and efficiency - even when volumes are high. That's what sets them apart from their competition.

What to look for when planning for the upcoming holiday season

Fortunately, some simple reporting and forecasting efforts can really go a long way to determine how much personnel and tools you need on hand for the peak seasonal demand. There is a wide set of factors that you should consider analyzing in order to effectively forecast the holiday season. Desk.com's customers paid special attention to these key points:

  • Look at your workflows from the past peak seasons. Did you burn out some agents with the workflows you had in place or was there not enough personnel? Insight from your team can help understand what was effective and what was not as successful. Consider adding more personnel for the peak season or investing in better technology to handle your cases.
  • Understand your past years' customer satisfaction ratings. Figure out what your customers praised about and what they disliked from last year's holiday rush. Then decide what levers to pull to improve.
  • Consider the cost of hiring seasonal workers compared to training team members from different departments. Many enterprises make large investments to hire and train seasonal workers in order to handle customer issues. However, don't rule out training fellow colleagues from different departments to jump on the phone and help out during the peak seasons.
  • Make an educated forecast of how many customer inquiries you will receive this year. A forecast of the volume of customer inquiries is a critical metric to have when making decisions. It will help determine the workflows you need to implement in order to effectively handle the holiday rush.

Technical Insight: Diagnose the Holiday Blues With Business Insights

Desk.com customers have recently had major benefits from Desk.com's latest upgrade to Business Insights.

Managers can easily look back at the previous year's customer service metrics and learn from extremely valuable pieces of information including: customer contact channel preference, the total number of incoming cases, average replies per resolve, average time to resolution and number of cases resolved with a single interaction.


2. Divide and Conquer - Triaging Customer Interactions

One of the biggest mistakes you can make during the holidays is not providing a process for your support team to efficiently and effectively handle all of the cases. Unfortunately, an inbox full of hundreds of cases that grows by the hour has the ability to slow any agent down. An effective process that keeps agents productive is "triaging" - a strategy that gives all cases quick, instant attention.

Triaging cases as they come in allows you divide and conquer your case load by having the right cases, assigned to the right teams, right away. By gauging the urgency of a case and correctly categorizing it by the type of help the customer needs, you're ensuring the right agents are handling the customer's question. This prevents specialized agents from wasting time digging through cases looking for the ones that most require their subject matter expertise.

Desk.com's customers consolidate incoming customer interactions into various groups during the holidays including:

  • Priority Levels. Priority levels may be dependent on how long a case has been left untouched or how angry a customer is. Using Business Rules, Desk.com customers can allow priority levels to escalate through various commands. For example, if cases are left unanswered over a period of time or an incoming email contains multiple exclamation marks, the priority level will rise.
  • Differing Products. Some agents might be better at understanding certain products than others. If time is of the essence, agents should play to their strengths so that a moment is never wasted trying to figure out the answer.
  • Password Resets or Login Questions. We all know how tedious and disrupting a batch of password or login questions can be especially during the holidays. These are typically resolved with one touch so consider assigning part-time support agents to these questions.
  • Assign Based on Skill Set. Reserve cases with low levels of difficulty for seasonal staff or cross functional team members that are helping out. As cases come flooding in, full-time agents can focus their time and energy on more pressing cases.

Technical Insight: Automate a Triage System with Business Rules and Case Filters

As opposed to manually assigning each incoming case, Desk.com customers typically use Business Rules to automatically assign cases that contain specific key words - such as "lost password" or "please help" - to particular Case Filters. They can then divide their support team into smaller groups that attack each Case Filter.

Triaging can be done manually - by assigning one person on your team to tackle every case within seconds of its arrival and assigning it to the right team or placing it in the right category, or bucket. Alternatively, if you have a streamline business process, you can use Desk. com's Business Rules to apply logic to the subject and body of the customer's case and have the team and category assignment happen automatically!

SmugMug, a secure online photo sharing portal for photographers, see a huge lift in customer requests during the holidays - particularly in photo orders. Nicknamed the Heroes, SmugMug's support team consists of actual customers as well as professional photographers. Their company has gained a huge amount of recognition over the years due to their customer-centric culture. One of the key strategies SmugMug implements during the holidays is triaging cases using Desk.com's Case Filters and Business Rules. By dividing and conquering cases, the Heroes can actively provide personalized and super-fast customer service.

Below, SmugMug's Support Hero Captain, Barb Gates, explains some tips for managers on triaging cases and the benefits their system has provided for the SmugMug Heroes:

"In order to effectively triage incoming customer interactions, we use Case Filters a lot in Desk.com to send specific topic questions to specific buckets. That makes it easier for our specialists to concentrate on those tickets. We particularly use Case Filters for order tickets - since those are time sensitive - as we don't want those getting lost in the mire! Our agents work from the top of the box (oldest ticket first), but also scan for unassigned tickets that seem urgent in nature. I typically have one or two agents scanning through our unassigned filter at all times.

We usually create filters based on certain subjects or keywords we find in emails (for example, our internal subject line on order notification emails we send to our customers, etc.).

Triaging cases makes all the difference. Since we normally get tickets on varied subjects, the holiday season for us is mostly about order questions. It's necessary to triage for order tickets and set up special filters - based on key words, etc. - so we can resolve those tickets in a timely fashion. Our agents also put in extra time during the holidays to help with the volume."


3. Improve Self-Service Support

It's no secret that the holidays are a time of high case volumes and even higher emotions. The best way to keep both at bay is to provide customers with the resources they need to solve their own questions. You can serve more customers faster simply by making answers to common questions readily available to them through an online support center. Most customers prefer to solve their own problems anyways! According to Forrester, 72% of customers prefer self-service to resolve their support issues over picking up the phone or sending an email.

From office/store hours to shipping information, sharing relevant self-service content through an online support center is a huge asset during the holidays. Not to mention it is also the most cost-effective customer contact channel at just $0.10 per correspondence. Keep customers happy as well as operational costs and case volumes down by buttoning up your online support center ahead of time.

How can you improve your online support center for the holidays?

There are several ways to focus on improving your self-service support:

  • Tune up your online support center's search optimization so that customers can find answers with ease
  • Focus on what customers will be looking for during the holidays - most notably, shipping or exchange policies
  • Rewriting knowledge base articles with low satisfaction ratings

Customers are very likely to abandon a self-service attempt after a couple of tries. After 2-3 failures of attempting to find the answer they're looking for, customers will not try again. If a customer can not find the solution they are looking for, make sure there is a clear escalation path (your support team's contact information) in the sidebar of your online support center.

WOW TIP: Consider a Holiday FAQ

A Holiday FAQ is an incredible resource for customers and has the potential to dramatically deflect calls or emails - meaning, holiday shoppers do not need to contact your support team because they have solved their own problem using the FAQ.

To prepare, hold a meeting with your team and brainstorm past holidays and determine what questions were asked the most. These FAQ's should also serve as a solid foundation for your holiday training because they will enable agents to resolve a majority of customer interactions on the first call.

Consider some of the following questions for your Holiday FAQ:

  1. What are your work hours during the holidays?
  2. Did you recently release a new version of the product during the holidays? What's different about it from the older version?
  3. Are there any discount codes available? Explain the fine print.
  4. What are the shipping policies?
  5. What are your return/exchange/cancellation policies?
  6. Do you have any rush order options?

4. Empower Agents to Get the Job Done

We've all been in that situation when a holiday order somehow goes terribly wrong. It might have been lost in transit or arrived three sizes too small. In which case, having a problem resolved in the shortest amount of time in a friendly and personalized fashion has the greatest impact on a customer's holiday experience.

In order to deliver amazing customer service in the shortest amount of time during the holidays, you should consider empowering your agents to solve customer problems at all costs. By giving agents trust and confidence to make their own judgment, they will be able to deliver a fast, personalized customer experience without having to jump through any hoops. A team of support agents that deliver a fun and fast customer experience has the potential to be a huge competitive advantage during the holidays.

How do you successfully empower agents?

  • Hire the right people. Hire agents with empathy that truly care about the customer. You can teach any of the skills that are necessary for support but starting with the right people is definitely key to it.
  • Invest in training. If you throw somebody into support during the holidays and say, "OK trial by fire," that sends the wrong message to the customer and the agent. You should want to send the message that you invest in your support because you're invested in your customers.
  • Give your agents the right information so they can give a personalized experience and make the correct calls. According to Forrester, "in order to successfully empower agents, they must have access to a customer's profile, current situation, and prior purchase and interaction history in order to deliver personalized service."
  • Arm your agents with relevant and accurate content. In order for agents to feel confident about giving the correct answers to customers, they need to have the right product information readily available. Make sure there is a knowledge base in place for them to reference in case they don't know an answer off the top of their head.

Bonobos, an online men's clothing retailer, has received a lot of attention for going above and beyond the call of customer support. Nicknamed the Bonobos Ninjas, the customer support team has gone off the beaten trail by allowing agents to solve customer questions or problems at all costs - no questions asked. During the holidays, Bonobos has seen a direct correlation between positive customer experiences and faster resolution times as a result of empowering their agents.

Cole Sickler, Director of Support at Bonobos, explains how he leads a team of empowered agents as well as provide a story:

"We empower ninjas to do whatever it takes for 2 main reasons - speed and loyalty. By empowering our staff to do whatever they want to satisfy a customer they can jump to a workable solution immediately without having to get clearance or jump through any hoops. By giving our customers real solutions that make them happy we also earn a customer that trusts us to get it done, and they keep coming back with a smile.

Last holiday season we had a woman call in who wanted to purchase a sweater as a Christmas gift for her son. She was dead set on a specific sweater and unfortunately we did not have the specific size she needed in stock, nor were we getting a restock in time for the 25th. She was quite distraught over this, and there was nothing we could do to get more sweaters for her in time. The ninja handling the case, Adam, had the very sweater she needed in the proper size. He happily packed it up and sent it to the woman for free (letting her know that he had worn it twice but it was still in good condition). This obviously thrilled the customer - Adam essentially saved Christmas."


5. Focus on Fast Resolution Times

There is no question that speed is often the deciding factor between a good and bad customer service experience. We have all worn the customer's shoes where we have ordered a Christmas gift only to find it is the wrong order or has been lost in the mail. In which case, we want our problem resolved as quickly as possible.

Many customer service managers will advise that the biggest efficiency metric to focus on is an immediate first response time. Setting goals to reach a customer as soon as possible is a great way to make them happy because it assures them that support is reachable. However, bear in mind your team could consist of agents that pick up a phone within two rings or average an hour response time via email. But, if they require multiple contacts over a period of 2-3 days to solving each case, then your agents might not be as effective as you thought.

There are several ways to twist the gears to make sure agents can solve cases as fast as possible:

  • As mentioned earlier in this chapter, triaging cases allow agents to quickly respond to easy, one-touch-resolution cases and escalate the higher priority ones that require more time and patience.
  • Desk.com customers love using Macros to get simple questions answered fast and effectively. It's also easy to train cross functional teams on which macros to apply where.
  • Actively respond to cases with links to your knowledge base giving customers the opportunity to solve their own issue. HINT: This can be automated with Desk.com's Macros.

As also mentioned earlier in this chapter, empower agents to solve cases at all costs. Rather than creating a bottleneck filled with cases that have not been resolved due to agents asking permissions from their managers, give them the freedom and resources to make the customer happy.

By the Numbers: Customers Want Speed

In a recent study of more than 7,000 US consumers, Forrester found that customers expect to receive efficient, effortless and personalized service from customer service organizations. Amongst that, they also discovered the following key learning points about customer expectations:

  • 52% of respondents said that they would abandon a purchase if they could not find a quick answer to their question
  • 71% said that valuing their time was the most important thing that a company could do to provide them with good service
  • 67% of respondents said that having agents able to solve a problem on the first contact has the greatest impact on customer satisfaction
  • 99% of respondents said that the service agents deliver directly correlates to resulting customer satisfaction scores

6. Activate Whole Company Support

Rather than spending time and money on seasonal workers, consider activating whole company support - or cross-training fellow colleagues - for the busy holiday season. Whole company support provides more personnel that require little training as well as allows your system to be more resilient to the stress that will undoubtedly be experienced during the peak season.

First, you should equip all of your colleagues to answer basic questions customers may have (refer to the Holiday FAQ previously discussed). Then set up an escalation procedure for common situations that require additional steps or expertise from full-time agents. This tactic is particularly useful on busy days like Black Friday and the day after Christmas when all hands need to be on deck. With basic training and some guidance, you can stack your support team with more personnel and make sure each customer receives a fast and personal response.

The best part is, the benefits of whole company support go beyond helping your company deal with the holiday rush including:

1. Focuses all departments. From product to sales to marketing - by interacting with the customer directly, all employees are able to obtain insight on the specific needs, wants, desires, and problems that your customers may have. As a result, the business actions your employees take day to day have positive repercussions to the company overall.

2. Eases the load on your support team. Whether seasonal or not. While your support team is your fully-functional arsenal around everything that a customer might ask, sometimes the answer is simple, and anyone at your company can answer it. This is particularly helpful during the holidays. Get your whole company involved in support, and knock those straight forward questions out of the way so your support team can tackle the nitty-gritty.

Manager Recommendation: Build a Team of Flex Agents

If you're a Desk.com customer, you can easily activate whole company support by using Flex Agents. The spirit of Flex Agents is to allow users who are not "full-time" agents to login to Desk.com, with their own personal account, at just $1 per hour. When Flex Agents – or colleagues participating in whole company support – log into Desk.com, we track the total logged-in time and total your Flex hours at the end of the month.


Must-Knows About Customer Service During the Holidays

Тhe holidays are a stressful time for everyone - shoppers, retailers, service providers, and especially customer support agents! It's important to remember, though, that at the end of the day, most of the insanity is being done to bring a smile to someone's face. The holidays are a time of giving, celebration, and happiness - and its important to remember that when dealing with the very opposite. Here are a few things to remember to keep you and your support teams sane during the holidays:

  1. The customer isn't mad at you. So stop answering angry customers thinking you're the problem. Truth of the matter is, your customer has a goal in mind and they're having a hard time accomplishing it - whether they're having technical difficulties, shipping delays, or just plain, old user error. But they're not mad at you, they're mad at the situation. So make the situation as easy as possible, commiserate with them and try to ease their pain. If it means letting them make you the bad guy - let them! Just keeping smiling and be as helpful as possible because you might not know it at the time, but they appreciate it.
  2. Keep it seasonal. If it's the holidays, add a little holiday cheer to your messages. Keep the spirit seasonal - whether it be in office decor or mood music. But don't forget to keep it seasonal for your customers, too. Developing a FAQ specifically for the time of year that your customers will be accessing your support site the most will help them find the answers they need. This will free up your support team to tackle the tougher issues.
  3. Consider a rewards system amongst agents. 99% of customers believe the service and experience agents provide determine their overall satisfaction. Shouldn't someone be making them happy too? Design a game or create a contest to lighten the occasional straining demands that come with holiday support. Did someone say company holiday party?
  4. Expect the unexpected. While preparation is crucial for providing amazing customer service during the holidays, always remember that anything can happen. While this may strike fear into the heart of new support managers, all seasoned customer service professionals know that adapting as situations evolve is the best thing for your team and for your customers. Having a user-friendly customer service app that scales as your business grows ensures that you're always prepared for the unexpected.
  5. Direction needs to come from the top down. The holidays are a busy time for all your departments, not just support. Senior level leadership should promote the directive, from the top-down, to get everyone in your company jazzed about helping customers.

 

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