The Holidays Are a Stress Test for Your Customer Service. Here's How to Stay Afloat.

Managing customer service during the holidays.

Warm up your support inbox because the holiday retail rush is underway. This year, Americans are expected to spend more money online than in stores for the first time ever. That means plenty of customers old and new who will be coming to you for help.

Big spikes in the demand for support can really test your systems and processes, but they’re also a tremendous opportunity to make a great first impression and create lifelong customers.

The good news is that investing even a little time now will go a long way towards helping you maintain excellent customer service through the holiday period and into the New Year.

Getting prepared

The period before the frantic holiday shopping season offers just a brief chance to prepare yourself (and your team, if you’re lucky enough to have one) for the impending customer service rush. Though you won’t have enough time for major changes, the small tweaks and improvements you do make will be amplified by the higher volume of orders and support requests.

Predict your most likely problems

Your best business decisions are those that are fully informed by your historical context. Based on past experiences, create a list of service situations most likely to come up (or those that will be most stressful) during the holiday rush. Here are some common examples many stores encounter:

  • Being out of stock on a popular item.
  • Delivery delays or lost packages.
  • Third party outages in systems like payment processors.

For each scenario you should create, review, or revise your pre-written replies. An answer created during a quiet moment will likely be clearer and more thorough than one written under pressure. The following actions will improve the majority of your saved replies.

  • Increase clarity. Concise, direct language will reduce the chance of confusion and thus reduce the chance a customer will need to ask additional questions (a situation you’d both prefer to avoid).
  • Add links to further information. Are there any common follow-up questions you can answer in the first response? Make clear how your customers can access more information if they need it.
  • Update your FAQs. Ensure you’re sharing accurate information and make your answers easy to find. For example, you can link to an FAQ page from your order confirmation emails, shipping update emails, and contact page. The perfect targets for an FAQ are questions which are reasonably common and where the same answer applies to most of your customers — situations where a human service rep would not be adding as much additional value.

Managing incoming calls

Identify quick wins

Whether you search your own recollections or talk to your support staff, it’s helpful to consider previous holiday issues that could have potentially been avoided with preparation. You’re especially looking for low-effort, high-impact improvements that can be made now.

Consider, for example:

  • Adding information to your product pages to head off follow-up questions, instead of answering each one individually. Are people asking about product sizing, or color choice? Does the manufacturer have additional product details you could include on your own pages?
  • Revise your contact form to ask for specific details up front, and avoid having your customer wait for an answer that is only another question. E.g. do you sometimes need to know their order number or the email address they used for a purchase? Add optional fields to your form to encourage customers to provide this information up front.
  • Improve your product page layout to reduce causes of confusion. If you see your customers asking questions where the answer is already listed on your website, information design and layout may be the cause. Common examples include making the currency obvious, making shipping costs appear up front, and including size charts.

If you’ve been using a help desk to manage customer service, you may have reports that can help you surface root causes of common support requests. Tagging incoming contacts can be a valuable source of quick win ideas. If you spot a surge in questions tagged as “pricing” you’ll be able to investigate and respond with improvements quickly, reducing the number of incoming questions later on.

Predict your workload

Help desk reports can also be useful in predicting the increase in support demand. You can look back at the same periods during previous years and measure the change in workload and overall customer contacts.

Even if you don’t have hard numbers, you probably have a sense of how many extra hours were needed to handle the incoming chats and emails. Here’s a very basic example of calculating your workload.

“Last year over this period, I had X unique customers, and handled Y customer queries.“

Y queries / X customers = Your contact ratio.

So 35 queries / 100 customers means a contact ratio of 0.35. For every 100 customers, you should expect 35 questions to come in.

If you can estimate roughly how many paying customers you’ll have, you can also predict your need for customer service. Knowing that ratio is also a great way to measure how effective your “quick wins” have been. If you can help customers get answers themselves, or fix the cause of the questions, then your contact ratio should go down over time.

With your predicted workload in mind, you can come up with a solid plan to maintain your service levels over the holiday period.

Expand your internal information

Even if you work solo, writing down what you know and making it easy to surface when you need it will save you time and effort. You might keep notes on problems you’ve solved, key contacts at your different service providers, or instructions on how to do those fiddly but irregular tasks.

And if you do have other people jumping in to help, then sharing that knowledge will help them get up to speed more quickly, and save you from having to act as the lone source of truth. If they have access to your processes, internal tools, and guides, you’ll no longer be a bottleneck and they’ll be productive from day one.

Holiday shopping season.

Managing the rush

When the time for preparation is over and the holiday rush has finally arrived, there are still some practical steps you can take to cope with the chaos.

Bring on some extra hands

Consider asking a competent friend or colleague to step in for a few hours on your busiest day. Even if they can only handle basic questions, they’ll free you up to work with higher value customers and on trickier situations.

A virtual assistant can be a cost-effective option for expanding your support coverage. Worldwide101, for example, provides experienced virtual assistants each year to ecommerce businesses that need to scale up their customer service for temporary busy periods.

The costs will vary, but a skilled VA will be able to hit the ground running and create space for you to focus on the work nobody else can handle.

Use your triage skills

Triage is the process of deciding which tasks to handle and in what order. When your incoming support queue is large, spend time to look for the most urgent questions so they don’t get lost in a flood of lower priority issues.

A help desk can make this job easier by enabling you to set up workflows and automation to handle common tasks. For example you might filter out payment questions into their own folder so you can handle them quickly, flag questions containing words like “urgent,” or even assign incoming questions according to which email address your customer used.

Here’s a very simple workflow to tag conversations about returns and refunds:

Example of a support worflow.

Even an ordinary email client will let you filter and apply simple rules to help you organize your incoming workload.

Communicating with customers

You know when you’re busy, and you know that you’re working hard to answer every question, but your customers won’t know that unless you tell them.

Purchasing online still involves a lot of trust on their behalf, and over-communicating will help build their confidence in you. Here are a few steps you can take to ensure customers know their questions and concerns are being heard loud and clear.

1. Set an auto-responder email that lets customers know you’ve received their message, and what your typical response times are. It will make them more comfortable and reduces their need to contact you again to find out what’s happening.

An auto-responder doesn’t have to sound like “Corporate-Auto-Bot-3000” either. When you write an auto-responder, think about how you’d talk in a physical store to a customer waiting for you to serve them. Make friendly contact, acknowledge that you see their need, and let them know when you’ll be free.

2. Set honest expectations on your contact page by letting customers know when to expect an answer (e.g in 8 hours, one business day or whatever you can commit to). It’s better to under-promise and over-deliver than to leave customers uninformed and feeling like they’re being ignored.

3. Centralize your support options by condensing the channels you support. For example, you might point all your social channels to your email support form so people know the best place to get help. That way your attention isn’t split across too many inboxes.

4. Take some time to record your learnings and make life easier for future-you by taking note of what changes during the holiday rush, and what would help you out next time.

5. Don’t be afraid to be human. You can stand out from the mass of online options and impersonal big box retail by being a real person to your customer. Time spent taking a moment to make a human connection is time well spent, and usually helps people be more understanding about small delays or the occasional mixup.

Delivering during busy times

Nobody is in a better position than you are to know your capabilities, your resources, and your constraints. Take some time to think ahead, make some plans and implement some small changes.

Every improvement you make now to maintain your level of service through the crunch times will pay off in the months and years ahead.

There are plenty more ideas on handling seasonal support spikes on the HelpU Rush Hour playlist.