Despite being around for less than two decades, Black Friday is as ingrained in the holiday lexicon as pumpkin pie and mistletoe. Cyber Monday, its more recent relative, has also enjoyed a quick climb by catering to those whose ideal shopping experience involves skipping the lines and searching for deals from the comfort of their own homes.
However, for online retailers all over the world, relaxation is the last thing they expect during the holiday season. E-Commerce businesses describe a surge in traffic that is unseen during the rest of the year. For the US, the National Retail Federation reports that many retailers complete a third of their yearly sales between November and December alone.
With these yearly cycles, online retailers have to be prepared. More customers mean an increased need for customer support. But many E-Commerce store managers are still caught off-guard every single time.
While you can’t control every factor, having a strategy to address (and optimize) your E-Commerce business for the holidays can be the difference between a stressful shopping season and a successful one.
3 Essential Holiday E-Commerce Tips
1. Hire the Right People
Your team is your most important asset. This is why when you’re making hiring decisions, it’s vital to bring in people who will help your team thrive. While this is tough enough to do with your full-time fleet, there is one especially neglected segment—seasonal support workers.
While often brought on a part-time or remote basis for extra holiday support, seasonal customer support workers are a crucial part of the team and need to be treated as such. Apply the same level of training that full-time employees receive to your seasonal staff, especially since they’ll be dealing with higher-than-usual traffic.
If an online business has been around for longer than a year, then it has likely experienced an entire year of seasonal spikes. Use that data to inform hiring needs for the season and anticipate the rush before it hits.
Many teams make the mistake of waiting until the middle of the shopping season to start bringing on new team members. That often fails because it doesn’t factor in time for onboarding. As a result, response times rise, time to resolve issues skyrockets, and support staff are frustrated and demoralized.
Always scale before you need to. Having to slow down your team to help with training, onboarding, and ramping up during the busiest time of the year is detrimental.
2. Provide the right training
Once you have your agents on board, you’re going to want to make sure the team is trained to handle the increase in online sales and support requests.
The customer on the other end of the line will not have any idea if they’re talking to a ‘full-time employee’ or a ‘seasonal employee.’ However, bad service is bad service, and poorly trained employees will affect your brand reputation, decrease customer loyalty, and lead to a drop in revenue.
So how can you train team members and keep them accountable?
Conversation reviews are a great way to help your team provide excellent and consistent customer experiences across the board. They’re also an efficient way to train the entire team on things that work (or don’t work).
Conversation reviews use call recordings to coach both new team members and veteran support employees. By listening in on an especially great call—or even a not-so-great call—you can train them to handle complex situations without the stress of real-world stakes.
“It’s important that we’re giving people an opportunity to mess up in a safe space until they’re confident enough to go out on their own,” Colleen Ruggiero, Director of Client Support, Yext
Conversation reviews are not just limited to calls. They work across all platforms that you can use to communicate with a customer, including email, chat, and social media. Learning from previous conversations can help replicate results and keep your team on the same page.
An additional benefit to conversation reviews is that they can be as simple or complex as your team needs. From smaller one-on-one training to more detailed scoring and tracking, reviews are versatile, accessible, and easy to implement.
Every business has different policies, and that’s never more clear than when the holidays hit. From order fulfillment to returns, your team has to be prepared to handle questions across the board. But the key to policy training is to keep it simple and make it accessible.
TIP: Organize your training documents in an easily accessible area for all new hires. This will cut down on the situation of multiple people creating several different training docs that are not in sync with each other.
All teams train differently, but all new agents need time to adjust and learn the policies in place. Focus your training on your most important and relevant holiday policies: shipping, promotions, and returns. This will prepare them to quickly respond to the most common situations that creep up.
Unfortunately, less common and more complex situations will still arise. Confusion about a certain marketing campaign, problems with your E-commerce site, fulfillment strategy, and other issues can be too nuanced for new members to take on. That’s why it’s just as important to train on policy as it is to train on how to escalate problems. That can mean having a group of subject matter experts, managers, team leads, or any combination that works best for your team.
Funnel these harder-to-solve issues to those who are best equipped to handle them. This way your team can streamline the process of getting back to customers in a timely way.
Quality Assurance (QA) is an underutilized–and often underrated—aspect of customer support, especially during the holiday season. Teams that are already struggling to hire and train often deprioritize their QA efforts, while teams that are in a position to take on the challenge can feel like they’ve bitten off more than they can chew when the holiday rush rolls around.
But that lapse can end up costing a lot in the long run.
QA for E-Commerce support teams is important year-round. It sets an agreed-upon baseline for good customer service and trackable metrics. It encourages teams to focus on training new hires as well as brushing up seasoned employees. Lastly, it helps set standards that are transparent and achievable.
With a solid QA process, you can help your entire team understand exactly what a good support looks like, so they can jump into the holiday rush equipped to perform their best.
3. Get the right E-Commerce support tools
When it comes to having the right tools in place for your online store, your E-Commerce tech stack should not be neglected. As the infrastructure behind your processes, it’s vital that your technology can support your team. Documentation, communication, and organization make up your E-Commerce infrastructure.
Tools for Documentation
More and more online shoppers are leaning towards self-service and prefer companies that give them that choice. Having self-service options frees up time for your support team that’s already dealing with the seasonal spike in tickets. Additionally, it empowers customers to solve issues on their own time.
Look for opportunities to:
Build (or expand) your online FAQ/knowledge base
Add video aids to customer resources
Make customer resources easy to locate
Tools for Communication
While your knowledge base or FAQ can reduce the pressure on your support team, sometimes your customers will want to communicate with a live agent. While brick-and-mortar retailers have the opportunity to be available in person, online retailers have to work harder to make sure their communication is top-notch. Your phone, live chat, or email will be where the majority of customers turn to when they need to connect with a live person.
Because of that, it’s essential that these channels should be able to withstand an influx of requests without causing headaches for your team. Dropped calls and lost tickets make for a bad customer experience, and the last thing your business wants is to ruin someone’s holiday.
Make sure the systems you’re using to communicate with your customers are able to scale and support a growing team while maintaining great customer service. Keep an eye out for tools that are:
Easy to learn and use so you can train and onboard new members quickly
Easy to add and remove users so you can scale up and down as needed
Connected to your other tools so you can improve efficiency while cutting down on mistakes made through manual and repetitive workflows.
Tools for Organization
While communication and self-service are important, things will quickly fall apart if your support team is unprepared to handle the requests that are coming through. That’s why organization is vital in your holiday E-Commerce toolkit. Knowing how to prioritize your incoming support tickets is essential to making customer support as smooth as possible.
Whether you’re using a help desk, CRM, or a group of Excel spreadsheets, you need to have a method to tag, organize, categorize, and assign your support tickets that works for your team. It’s a good idea to look out for tools that have:
Integrations: Selecting help desks and CRMs that integrate with your phone, chat, and email tools means a faster, more efficient workflow.
Analytics and data: Having information available at your fingertips will help support managers make informed decisions quickly.
Having the right tools, team members, and training is key to getting ready for the rush that E-Commerce retailers experience during the holidays. In addition to prepping for November and December, you also need to prep for January. While January may symbolize the end of the holiday season and a return to normalcy, it remains a particularly fraught time for E-commerce retailers. Studies show customer returns continue to climb yearly, adding up to almost $400 billion across all types of retail throughout the year. A large percentage of this happens right after the holidays.
7 Ways to Handle Post-Holiday Returns
For online retailers, dealing with post-holiday returns can be overwhelming. Returns on holiday gifts and other purchases start making their climb about a week after Black Friday and Cyber Monday and eventually peak within the first week of January. In 2018, the United Parcel Service (UPS) reported an expected 1.4 million returns on January 5th alone, causing it to earn the nickname, “National Returns Day.”
As the growth of E-commerce continues, it’s critical that customer support teams are prepared to handle the challenge. It’s also important that online retailers understand how to leverage returns to build better customer experiences. Here are 7 strategies E-Commerce businesses can use to handle post-holiday returns.
1. State your return policy up-front
Studies show that almost two-thirds of shoppers will check a retailer’s return policy before purchasing something from their website. That’s because shopping online, while convenient, comes with its own set of risks.
The good news is that those customers who check for the return policy before buying online are much more likely to complete their purchase if they agree with it.
Honesty and transparency are essential to building trust with your customers. This is especially true for online businesses. Stating your return policy upfront, before the sale takes place, is a good way of showing your customers that you value their purchase and your product. It also removes the confusion surrounding your return policy and decreases pressure on your support team during the post-holiday rush.
2. Have customer-friendly return policies
While being up-front with your return policy is great, it’s only the start. Many businesses trip themselves up by creating complex policies. This is detrimental. Studies show that customers are much less likely to complete a purchase if they do not like or understand the return policy.
Since the last thing you want is to scare off your customers and drive them into the arms of your competitor, it’s a great idea to regularly review your policies. Make sure the writing is clear and helpful by avoiding industry jargon and complicated terms. The policy is there to help your customers, not complicate their purchase.
Example of Amazon’s simple return policy
Once you have reviewed and updated your policies, make sure it’s easily accessible to your customers. The most important areas you want your customer to see your policy is on your website, your FAQ, and during the return process.
Your website: While a customer is looking through your site to purchase an item, how hard is it for them to find your return policy? Make it easy by linking to it directly on the product page as well as when a customer is getting ready to check out.
Your FAQ: The FAQ page is one of the first places a customer will go to when they’re looking for help. When a customer visits this page, they might already be frustrated. The last thing you want is to have a vague or outdated policy greeting them.
While it can feel like a daunting task to go back and update all the FAQ’s, it will make a huge difference for both your support team as well as your customers by increasing the “self-serviceness” of your product
Your Packaging: How easy is it for a customer to return a package? For many, the process involves a lot of unnecessary friction. Rather than stopping the customer from sending items back, a complicated return process simply frustrates the customer and makes it less likely that they will purchase from your brand again.
Make the process pain-free by having a pre-printed return sticker already included in the package, along with directions on how to return the item. Create a user-friendly process, and your customers will thank you for it.
3. Set up quick & easy refunds
The art of the refund has undergone a lot of changes over the years. Brick-and-mortar retailers can have varying return policies that are based on the rules and regulations governing their location.
For an E-Commerce store, that is not the case.
Because online retailers can operate and serve almost any geographic area, refund policies are much more flexible. Many retailers see this as a positive, using the opportunity to streamline refunds across the board.
E-Commerce businesses have pivoted to quick and painless policies in order to stay competitive. It’s now commonplace to find retailers that process payment refunds within ten business days. Not only do customers love getting their money back quickly, but the great experience is sure to keep them coming back.
Lastly, when done with care and consideration, your process of refunding customers can be beneficial to your business. Many reports show that clients who go online to return an item, will end up making an additional purchase while they’re there.
4. Be flexible about refunds
While online customers expect great refund and return options, sometimes managing it all can be a hassle for business owners. Dealing with returns is not always easy; it is costly to keep inspecting, repackaging, and restocking returned items.
This is why many online retailers have turned to other available options, like rebranded currency. A business can give a customer the option of refunding the original payment while sweetening the deal with an offer of rebranded currency. This often looks like a refund through merchandise credit or store credit of higher value, if the customer is willing to forego getting the refund back to their original payment.
As it turns out, many customers are on board with this. Everyone from small retailers to giants like Amazon routinely offer discounts on refunds if the customer opts for their money back in the form of store credit. This incentive can help keep a lid on the costs associated with refunds while encouraging customers to continue purchasing with your brand.
5. Track returns on the way back
We all know that tracking online shipments is important. Customers worry about where their items are and when they’re going to get there. And yet, one major customer complaint continues to be package tracking – nobody wants their shipments to get lost.
Companies traditionally do a great job of tracking package delivery on the way to the customer. However, the reverse is not always the case. According to Channel Advisor, 97 percent of retailers offer to track a shipment for deliveries, yet only 7 percent will offer the same for returns.
Customers making online returns want the opportunity to check on their packages as they are shipping. Not having this option can quickly develop into a big pain point. But it doesn’t have to be.
Businesses can make it more accessible to track the returns. Simply add a pre-paid shipping label to the packing slip and send it alongside the original purchase. If the customer does decide to return their product they already have the return label easily accessible. If not, they simply discard it.
This method not only helps customers track their returns, but it also gives retailers control over which company they prefer to use for delivery–potentially cutting down on the cost of shipping fees.
6. Provide omnichannel post-holiday support
Regardless of how prepared your support team is for the holidays, they will not be of much help if customers are getting frustrated while trying to reach them.
While FAQ’s are a great way to answer a lot of customer questions, having support that spans all areas is a must. Phone, email, and chat are the top 3 ways that customers contact support. Make sure that your staff is prepared to continue handling these requests, even as the holidays begin to wind down.
7. Watch out for fraudulent post-holiday returns
Despite doing everything right, there will always be a handful of people who are keen to ruin things for everyone else.
It’s no secret that people have been attempting to take advantage of refund policies since they first became commonplace. One couple even managed to swindle $1.2 million from Amazon’s returns and exchanges policy.
Unfortunately, accounting for every situation and opportunistic thief is close to impossible. However, staying vigilant and training support reps to keep an eye out for situations that seem suspicious is a great place to start, and will help keep potential fraudsters in check.
Published on January 17, 2024.