How To Get Ahead Of Holiday Support Spikes

Things change during the holidays. Friends and family members reunite, people eat more than they should, and support teams grapple with hundreds of customer service tickets.

The National Retail Federation (NRF) estimates 20 to 30 percent of annual retail revenue occurs during those 10+ weeks of cheer.

This can be great news for a business, but not so great for its support team. As companies across industries see significant upticks in sales, support agents and leaders alike wonder how to best manage their increased ticket volume.

That’s why we brought three customer experience experts to Aircall HQ during the height of summer.

We wanted their advice on how to best prepare your people, processes, and technology long before those sleigh bells ring.

Here’s what they recommend:

Take cues from last year’s data

Understanding last year’s customer service volume will give you a much better sense of what to expect than any anecdotal hunch.

Beyond putting numbers to ticket volume, support managers who pull data from previous seasons are able to:

  • Know which issues their team handled the most
  • Refine or eliminate bad processes
  • Predict future hiring needs

In terms of which data points to consider, Leanna Nazzisi, Senior Coordinator of Customer Operations at Birchbox, offered the following metrics:

  • Daily number of tickets received
  • Daily number of tickets solved
  • Ticket resolution time based on issue type

“When customers write in through the help center, we ask them to select their issue type so that we can do a weighted average of the top issues for each month.”

This level of reporting helped Leanna and her team to identify that they spent significant time fielding questions about gift cards in December.

“One of the processes for gifting was very in-depth and it wasn’t something our team could handle for the customer on the backend. When we had gift-related questions, we found that our team was spending 10x more time on these than any other issue type.”

Armed with such data, Leanna was able to present the problem to her executive team along with a proposed solution for improving the gift card workflow. As a result, gift card outreach decreased by 60 percent, freeing Birchbox agents to focus more time on personalizing their interactions with other customers.

Treat seasonal hires like year-round employees

Most support teams contend with a backlog during the holidays. For teams large enough, the solution is usually to hire contractors—agents who swoop in, lend a hand, and leave.

There’s just one problem: Contractors aren’t culturally immersed in your company. They don’t know your customers. They don’t know your communication style. They may not even know what your office looks like.

As Avra Wacks, Senior Manager of Customer Experience at Bauble Bar explained, this lack of awareness can create unforeseen challenges:

“Last year we experimented with part-time and contract help, but our service is so high-touch and personal—we’re still trying to figure that out.”

This isn’t to suggest they can’t get up to speed—Leanna started as a part-time remote worker—but if you expect seasonal hires to perform on par with their full-time peers, it’s best to treat them as full-fledged employees. This means:

  • Start the hiring process way before you need help
  • Create a 2-4 week in-office training program
  • Allow them to work on-site

The more immersed they are in your company culture, the more engaged and attuned to customer needs they’ll be.

Find opportunities to promote self-service

Most modern customers want the option of helping themselves, but only when self-service is done right. 

For Danny Taing, founder and CEO of Bokksu, good self-service means providing clarity where it’s needed most:

“As a small team, we need things to be as efficient as possible. So we try to make sure every step along the flow—from order confirmation to shipping confirmation—contains all the right information. We want everything to be crystal clear for our customers so they don’t have to reach out to us.”

For the Bokksu crew, good self-support also means creating a space where peers can help each other:

“We started a Facebook group called Bokksu Unboxed. A customer will post something like, ‘I just got this snack, but it looks moldy. I’m not sure what to do.’ Another member will respond, ‘That’s just the roasted soybean powder on the mochi. It’s delicious!’ We don’t have exact figures, but we’ve seen a definite decrease in tickets since we launched the group.”

If creating a peer-to-peer space seems like a viable option for your brand, just make sure it doesn’t become a customer support group. 

“Anytime someone complains about something, we’ll reach out with our support email and encourage them to get in touch,” he explained. “But for basic questions, the group is wonderful.”

Join forces with other teams

Deals are just as synonymous with the holidays as gift-giving.

But all those discounts come at a price. When an organization’s support and marketing teams don’t sync on promos, agents are forced to find the fine print before they can actually help people.

To bridge the gap, Leanna treats cross-collaboration as an essential component of her role.

“I’m in 14 cross-departmental meetings. I write the terms and conditions for marketing promotions which really helps when a customer writes in to ask why they don’t qualify. Because of the outreach we receive, we’re able to think about things other people or teams don’t.”

This is also true for Avra, who sees alignment with teams whose work directly impacts customers as crucial to making sure their needs are represented:

“Our team works closely with the merchandising team. And because of the customer feedback we’ve shared, we’re now really inclusive with our sizes, which helps us to make sure everyone feels supported as a customer.”

Give agents autonomy

When support needs are high, bottlenecks and blockers are everyone’s worst enemy.

Forcing your agents to get approval for too many things means customers will wait even longer for an answer, causing an already active queue to pile up.

The solution here is simple: Give agents the autonomy to make decisions without the permission of a manager or supervisor.

Whether that means offering someone a discount on their next purchase or granting a full refund, both agents and customers fare better when there’s minimal gatekeeping around offering solutions.

“Customer retention is so much better than following a policy,” Avra maintained. “If we need to refund a $50 order to keep someone happy, we can do that.”

Manage customer expectations

Proactive communication with customers is always a good look, but during the holidays, it’s a necessity. One unforeseen setback can have a ripple effect that extends your backlog well beyond the holiday.

When a series of typhoons hit Japan a few months shy of Christmas, Osaka International Airport closed for weeks, leaving the Bokksu crew with little say in when customers would receive their snack boxes.

“We thought we did enough by reaching out to explain that shipping would be delayed during the typhoon,” Danny explained. “But we didn’t think about anyone who ordered after, so our orders were taking up to 8 weeks. People were pissed.”

The team at Bauble Bar faced a similar challenge when they sold way more product than forecasted, which caused major delays in order fulfillment. “We added delayed messaging on checkout,” Avra shared, “but all these other people had already checked out.”

To offset the fallout, their team took advantage of existing technology, using their help desk’s autoresponder to acknowledge the delay instead of the standard “We’ll get back to you.”

When it comes to major issues like order fulfillment, assuming all customers are affected is your best bet. Making sure to inform everyone should be your first action.

Further reading

In The Limelight: Live Customer Support Tips To Shine Under Pressure

What To Do With The Data: Become A Better Support Team Coach

Hiring Support Representatives: The 5 Questions You Should Be Asking

The phone system for modern business