The Customer Service Transformation Is Real, and Just in Time for the Holidays

October 19, 2021 Vibes Marketing

If today’s brands do one thing to prepare for the holiday shopping season, it should be to make sure that their customers have as easy and effortless an experience as possible. As online shopping patterns hold firm, CX organizations are facing mounting pressure to provide seamless customer assistance at every step of the buyer journey. And during the high stakes holiday shopping period, brands can’t afford to leave even one customer dissatisfied. 

Fortunately, we learned a lot from last year’s holiday shopping season. Despite the pandemic, the National Retail Federation reported that retail sales during 2020’s November-December holiday season grew at an unexpectedly high 8.3 percent over the same period in 2019, to $789.4 billion. This growth was even more dramatic for online and other non-store sales, with an increase of 23.9% year-over-year.

According to our own research, 68% of organizations said they saw a greater increase in customer service inquiries during the 2020 holiday season versus the 2019 holiday season. In addition, 85% of consumers that shopped more often in the past year, plan on continuing to do so once the pandemic is over. 

Understandably, many businesses struggle to maintain a high level of support during spikes in activity. They may need to hire a flurry of seasonal employees who have a short training period, extend the hours of some agents, or give them a heftier workload. During the 2020 holiday season in particular, limited staff, long wait times, frequent shipping issues and challenging and frequent inquiries posed major scalability challenges for brands. 

 

Understanding What Customers Expect During the Holiday Season

For customer service organizations to take these learnings and translate them into delivering stellar service around the holidays, they need to have a firm grasp on what today’s customers expect. The first is immediacy. Between normal day-to-day life, holiday celebrations, traveling and gift buying, consumers don’t want more of their time taken up by customer service. According to our recent research, consumers get frustrated after only two minutes of waiting for a response from customer service. In fact, 90% of consumers would not shop with a retailer again if they provided bad customer service.

In addition to speed, customers expect the agents they interact with to be knowledgeable. Although this can be especially hard when seasonal customer service agents may not have sufficient knowledge or training, the consequences of poor interaction can be dire. Sixty-seven percent of consumers said they would completely abandon their purchase if they had a negative interaction during the purchasing process.

Omnichannel support is also non-negotiable during peak shopping season. With customers constantly on the go, they want to be able to reach out for support on platforms that are most convenient for them. Eighty-five percent of shoppers get frustrated when they have to switch channels or leave the platform they are currently using to get support, and 84% of consumers get frustrated when they have to repeat information to customer service. At a time when customers may be broadening the retailers they shop with, a fragmented shopping experience can easily lead to a lost customer.

 

How to Succeed During the Holiday Shopping Rush

Over the past year in particular, customer service has transformed to meet the changing needs of modern shoppers. As a result, CX has emerged as a key growth driver for brands of all sizes. To leverage this shift before holiday shopping is in full swing, here’s how customer service organizations can ensure they not only deliver the perfect holiday gift, but also the perfect holiday customer experience. 

Focus on efficiency.

During last year’s holiday season, many brands leaned into technology tools to help them achieve efficiency when resources were thin and expectations were rising. Chatbots, intelligent routing and auto responses were the top methods used by retailers to free up agent time and deliver that personalized, empathetic support that customers value. Oftentimes the most tedious tasks on an agent’s plate are manual and repetitive, and AI can handle simple tasks like tagging and routing conversations to the most appropriate agent. In addition, chatbots are growing in popularity and can be used to collect initial information, provide responses to simple questions, and even complete standard tasks like changing a booking or answering an order status question. These interventions save time for both the customer and agent, and increase the time spent on the actual issue rather than information gathering and low-level support.

 

Provide agents with the information they need.

It’s essential to arm customer service teams with the information they need to instantaneously service customers. This is especially imperative when new agents are on-boarded for the holiday season, and may not have the historical knowledge or context that more tenured agents have. Additionally, shipping and logistics issues continue to plague businesses, reinforcing the need for agents to proactively reach out to customers to provide updates and resolve issues. Technology that can intelligently surface relevant information from a knowledge base, so all agents are delivering consistent, high-value service is key. In particular, AI support technology and sentiment analysis can play an important role in efforts to personalize and escalate issues accordingly.

 

Provide a modern consultative experience.

According to our research, businesses and consumers are starting to adopt a new mindset, looking at CX teams for pre-transactional guidance and support. While post-transaction support, like order status and return initiation, likely will never subside, CX teams can now take on more of a revenue-generating advisory role, answering product questions or directing customers to better alternatives. It’s important to take this new role into consideration when planning out a holistic CX strategy as these more consultative conversations will require more time and knowledge (and likely the technology to support them).

Pre-purchase support can also help with the impending returns season. Sixty-four percent of CX organizations said they saw more return inquiries during the 2021 returns season versus the previous year. Providing a seamless, consultative experience to consumers before they make their purchasing decisions can help save valuable time after gifts have been opened. 

 

Be available wherever your customers are.  

Think of omnichannel as a way to talk to your customers in the way that they want, across all of the different channels (social, text, chat, email, phone, etc.) This helps shift perspective from ticket resolution to customer relationship building, which is incredibly valuable during the holiday season, when companies have the opportunity to attract an entirely new cohort of customers. If executed properly, omnichannel support provides a consistent experience for customers at every touchpoint. The right technology can help integrate your combination of communication channels and create a unified home for all your customer data.

 

Create a personalized experience customers will remember.  

Quick, personalized and empathetic service is key, especially during this busy time of year. Our research shows that 67% of customers expect retailers to know them and personalize how they interact. To create these meaningful relationships, companies need to provide agents with tools that allow them to see customer history, issues and behavior in context, no matter the platform. By leveraging automation for tedious and manual tasks, customer service agents can provide consumers with prompt and personal service, including individualized and proactive outreach.  

Since the pandemic started, there’s been a major shift in customer expectations for their overall retail experience. Customer demands for immediate, knowledgeable and omnichannel service continues to strengthen leading up to peak shopping season, and CX organizations have a real opportunity to be a catalyst for business growth and relationship-building. The brands that figure out how to lean into the many ways that customer service is transforming, and implement the tools, technology and strategies to deliver what customers are asking for, will be the holiday winners of 2021.

 

This article was written by Brad Birnbaum from Forbes and was legally licensed through the Industry Dive publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@industrydive.com.

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