Ramping up for the holidays: How to excel at handling higher customer service demands
Today’s consumers have an overwhelming amount of choice in the marketplace. They’re looking for quick, courteous and personalized customer service as a way to differentiate one company, product or service from the next — and there’s no time like the busy holiday season for them to flex their purchasing power.
The National Retail Federation estimates $682 billion will be spent in the United States in November and December alone. At the same time, new research from online review community Trustpilot says nearly 48 percent of consumers named customer service as one of their biggest considerations when deciding which product to buy — second only to pricing.
Of course, successfully meeting customers’ service expectations is challenging year-round, and these challenges exist in many scenarios beyond the winter holidays. But there are essential lessons to learn from holiday crunch time about how to effectively ramp up — and gracefully ramp down — customer service efforts to meet higher-than-usual demand.
Have a plan for hiring up
From retailers, to travel and hospitality businesses, to popular consumer technology companies and beyond, the holiday season requires rapidly ramping up customer service efforts to meet market demand and facilitate business growth.
The answer may seem as simple as hiring more people, but companies can’t just onboard a slew of new customer service representatives without careful consideration. It’s crucial that the service customers receive during ramp periods meshes nicely with the service they’ve come to expect from a brand in quieter times.
Attracting great talent starts with the job description, says Nate Brown, director of customer experience at UL EHS Sustainability in Nashville. The description should be clear and concise, detailing exactly what new hires will be doing and why that work matters. “You need to be transparent about day-to-day activities and how they tie into your company’s overall mission,” Brown says. “People are really looking for meaningful work.”
To further connect new hires to the company’s mission, Brown’s strategy for seasonal hiring also includes leveraging corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives. A company’s efforts to support their local community, charities and the environment can become a vehicle for finding employees that fit your brand. “If you can transform your CSR efforts into a recruiting beacon, that’s a huge opportunity,” Brown says.
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From nesting to production
Finding the right agents is only the beginning. Companies must also be prepared to train them to handle an onslaught of time-sensitive inquiries while simultaneously serving as an ambassador for the brand.
In an outsourced environment, new hire training offers a brief but critical opportunity to get new team members up to speed. “We want them to get a feel for our own culture, and even more importantly a feel for the client’s brand,” says Chuck Koskovich, chief operating officer at TELUS International.
Once they’re immersed in the brand and knowledgable about a company’s products, new team members go through a “nesting” process designed to improve their proficiency with handling customer inquiries. In a contact center, this is where they go from training to actually learning how to do the job side-by-side with a team leader or subject matter expert, Koskovich says. “It’s a very collaborative process. If someone has never done this kind of work it can be a little overwhelming, and they really benefit from the coaching and feedback they get in this pre-production floor phase.”
New team members need time to familiarize themselves with the products they’re supporting and hone their skills before they transition to production. For clients in need of temporary workers, Koskovich says TELUS International often narrows the scope of the role to enable quicker ramping. For example, agents may only focus on sales or tech support during a rush, then “up-skill” later on. “There’s an art and science to it all,” Koskovich says.
Boost agent engagement
With a team in place to effectively manage customer service demand, companies are left with a new dilemma: How to keep staff motivated throughout the holiday season.
To achieve this, Gavin James, customer experience strategy consultant and director of creative services for Beyond the Arc, believes communication is key. “A lot of companies just give them a script and say, ‘Answer the phone,’ but that’s where the customer service experience can fall apart,” James says.
To build brand buy-in, James recommends that companies explain their business objectives, along with how much leeway their agents have with the script. Next, conduct regular team huddles so agents have an opportunity to ask questions, propose suggestions or air grievances. James points out that Ritz-Carlton Hotels hold 15-minute morning meetings where employees talk about their recent positive guest experiences. These kinds of rituals make workers feel as though they’re part of the team. “You have to give people a reason to care, and that shouldn’t just be the paycheck,” James says.
To further boost engagement, James suggests offering rewards based on the quality of an agent’s follow-up customer surveys, or on internal performance feedback. “A company can’t necessarily promise temp employees a job, but it can certainly offer them a gift card,” she says. “Team managers should determine what kind of reward is best to acknowledge and encourage good work.”
As they say, what goes up must come down. Not all companies will retain all of their seasonal talent, so planning a ramp-down becomes another important initiative. Above all, it’s important to analyze call data related to volume and timing to ensure that a reduction in staff doesn’t negatively impact the overall customer experience after a busy period.
Many companies may also choose to re-deploy customer service team members to other functions, and for outsourcers like TELUS International, to other accounts. Even if seasonal workers only stick around on a temporary basis, they can have a lasting effect on your customers’ perception of your business and brand.