Will the Holidays Stress Your Customer Service Delivery?

It’s that time of the year. The weather outside is getting frightful, the mistletoe is looking ripe for picking, the tree farms are popping up all over town, and yes, businesses are stressing out about their most wonderful time of the year.

Holiday time has always been bittersweet for me. Yes, I am abundantly blessed with wonderful family and friends and all I could possibly need for a comfortable life. I’ll reflect on the spirit of the season and give to those in need.

And, I will shop. I will endure the irritating traffic and irate fellow consumers of Christmas commercialism and sally forth to my favorite mall to compare prices and buy my goods, then make my returns and exchanges, and watch the days on the calendar dwindle as surely as sunlight during Daylight Savings Time.

For organizations in the business of customer service delivery, the holidays can stretch the limits of their operations. Yes, business is brisk and hopefully sales are good. You’ve made your forecast wishes that Black Friday revenues will come true, and that your frontline staff is ready to suit up and show up to meet consumer demands.

If all goes as planned, Christmas will come and there will be joy in the world. Your customer service delivery agents will handle every interaction with as much ease and jolly as Santa’s elves. Your customers will be well-clothed and well-fed, warm, cozy and satisfied… if.

If…. Small word, big consequences. Of course, proper preparation goes a long way to preventing the ‘ifs’ from turning into fire fights. Exceptional customer service delivery relies on the preparation of an adequate, well-trained staff prepared to address customer needs at the point of contact. So how do you short-circuit the ‘ifs’ and reduce your holiday stress? Here are four keys:

Real-time staffing. Are properly staffed to handle customer volume, as it happens? One proponent for holiday stress-busters says to “Make an educated forecast of how many customer inquiries you will receive this year.” I read that as make an educated guess about expected volume, and staff based on those projections. And guessing is a fool’s game.

But what if (there’s that word) conditions change? Are you ready to adjust scheduling in real-time to account for vacation days, sick time, holiday hours, even bad weather that could prevent your frontline workforce from being present and equipped to deal with volume? And what if one area of sales exceeds forecasts, or problems with a particular product line or online shopping tool is compromised? Can your workforce systems automatically adjust to move the right people to the right queues in a way that doesn’t impact customer service delivery?

Some telling stats to keep in mind: A recent Forrester study found that 50 percent of consumers would take their business elsewhere if their needs couldn’t be met quickly. Three out of 5 wanted to know, above all else, that the company valued their time. Two out of 3 said that resolution to their issue at the first point of contact most affected their satisfaction. The biggest detractor from customer satisfaction? Being made to wait.

An actionable frontline. Ask yourself if your agents are trained to handle not only product inquiries but the what-ifs that customers may ask. Training of course takes time, and with seasonal stress, time is short. But sometimes your agents may be idle, and that’s the perfect time to push on-demand training so they won’t be caught off guard by the what-if inquiry. If a condition changes, like a call volume spike on a particular issue, make sure you can get that information into the hands of your frontline now, in real time, so they can deal with the next what-if. That creates an environment of engaged and eager employees ready to, literally, give your customers the sweater off their back.

One story goes that when a customer called in to say that the exact sweater she wanted for a gift wasn’t in stock in the size she needed, and while the agent had exhausted all the channels he had at his disposal, he said that he himself had that exact sweater, he had only worn it twice, and that he would send it to the customer, no shipping or rush charges. Everyone was in good cheer, and Christmas was saved.

Open lines of communication. The holidays remind us to stay connected, and at this time of the year customers look to connect as quickly as possible using every channel available. Instead of staffing your multi-channel operations to capacity at all times (which can drain holiday revenues via excessive labor costs), look to meet channel demand as it happens, again, in real time. Intraday automation and channel balancing allows you to monitor service levels and fill demand with agents who are most capable in those channels.

Serve with your heart. The voice of an engaged, knowledgeable frontline employee can go a long way toward thawing the heart of the most cynical Grinch. And this is the essence of exceptional customer experience.

Metrics don’t drive this. Neither does any form of CRM technology in its purest sense. This gift comes from people, those who feel they are a vital part of something greater, that they are fully engaged and empathetic with each and every customer interaction. This frontline workforce reacts with heart because they know they are prepared and empowered to answer real-time demand. Much of this comes from training, coaching and mentoring your agents, some comes from rewarding exceptional abilities, some from addressing the needs of your agents, but most comes from your culture.

The ‘ifs’ of the holiday season are coming, as surely as kindling the lights on the menorah or Old Saint Nick coming down the chimney. Beating the holiday rush and handling the stresses on your customer service delivery is all about preparation and being able to adjust in real-time to unforeseen conditions.

You may have to wait on Mother’s exceptional Honey Ham dinner, but don’t make your customers wait on exceptional service.

About the author

Sierra Jones

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