black-friday-2925476 It's a short week for many in the United States as we head into the extended Thanksgiving holiday weekend. This means stress levels will be on the rise in customer service centers not only in the U.S. but around the world due to Black Friday–assuming they haven't already started climbing since many retailers have kicked off even earlier sales. And as the busiest shopping season gets underway, customer service for companies that support retail businesses by creating packaging, delivering the goods, etc. will also be under pressure.

 

If that weren't enough, companies of all types (not just retailers) will struggle due to constraints on staff. Employees in customer service will be taking time off at Thanksgiving and during the other approaching holidays. Many companies will fill in with additional workers, but those workers will likely lack the seasoned expertise of regular staff.

 

Higher volumes of customer activity. Reduced (and less knowledgeable) staffing. Yet the expectations on your service levels have not changed; in fact, if anything, customers tend to have less patience due to the holiday pressures in their lives. Is your customer service team ready for all this?

 

The bottom line is–retailer or not–your customer service organization needs to be prepared - prepared to handle a potentially higher volume of inquiries by less experienced staff while still delivering high customer satisfaction. As we head into this busy time of year, let's review some of the tricks of the trade that will help you weather the season. Hopefully, your customer service already employs these tools and they just need a quick review and updating. For any of these techniques you aren't using today, be sure to add them to your New Year's Resolutions to evaluate for 2018. (Now is not the time to start anything new!)

 

Omnichannel Service

Customers have different contact preferences. They will choose channels depending on several factors, such as the perceived complexity of their problem, the priority of a solution, their location, and the time of day.

 

Do you need to provide service via telephone, email, web, chat, social media, and other means? Don't try to answer this yourself; rather, ask your customers. Survey them to get an understanding of their expectations. In addition, consider benchmarking your capabilities.

 

Bear in mind a few requirements for omnichannel service. First, ensure each channel has appropriate service level targets and is staffed to meet them. Holding on the telephone line is just as frustrating as holding in the chat queue!

 

Second, don't allow customer inquiries on the same issue to become fragmented. If the contact starts by chat, moves to telephone, then follow-ups occur over email, everything should be recorded and reconciled to the customer's case. Nothing is more frustrating to the customer than having to re-explain their issue to an agent during each interaction.

 

Automating Common Solutions

Forrester and others have reported that customers increasingly start at your website for self-service solutions. While self-service can describe many things including knowledge and communities (more on those in a moment), there are likely many common requests your business receives that could be resolved through automation.

 

Common solutions ideal for automation includes signing up for or changing a service, updating an address or billing method, requesting replacement parts or documentation, or providing feedback on your product or service. Automating the actions required for these types of requests might be simple, such as capturing data into a form and delivering the results to the actual department outside customer service that can address it. More complex tasks might involve querying a connected system for data and displaying that information to the customer.

 

Once you have some automation in place, check it periodically. Are the behind-the-scenes workflows still functioning correctly? What new types of requests coming in from live channels would benefit from automation? What should be retired? And remember to coach agents that customers can be directed from interactive channels to automated solutions, especially from digital channels like chat and email.

 

Knowledge Articles

While automating as many common issues as possible creates a more effortless experience for the customer, a solution can't always be addressed in this manner. Perhaps the customer must manually perform some steps on their side to address the problem or improved information, beyond what was originally available in a manual, is now available. In these cases, a knowledge article is an excellent substitute for automation.

 

Like a good library, the key to knowledge bases is to keep the content interesting, timely, and relevant. Check search logs and create articles to address issues customers are searching for where no solution exists. Give customers the opportunity to "vote" on articles and provide feedback. If articles no longer apply, remove them; keep your knowledge base compact and nimble so customer searches will deliver short lists of only the most relevant results. (Bonus: your case management system should suggest knowledge articles as agents document the customer's issue as well as make it possible for them to create knowledge articles on-the-fly as they solve customers' issues!)

 

Communities

Online communities offer a means of interacting with customers, with many advantages beyond the traditional service interaction. Like the benefits of providing other forms of customer service online–anytime, anywhere assistance; reusable solutions; and lower costs–communities effectively allow you to add more customer service agents for free. How is that possible? Because when you offer communities, you are effectively recruiting other knowledgeable and passionate customers to assist fellow customers.

 

That said, don't make the mistake of not monitoring your communities. Knowledgeable staff should be present in the community and quick to respond when customer-provided answers aren't available or are inaccurate. If customers are not finding solutions (or deriving value) from the community, they will not return–and customers and prospects "lurking" will notice! Solutions in the community also make great material for knowledge articles.

 

Making The Season Happy

The holidays can be a tense time for everyone, but you can maintain and even improve customer service while reducing agent stress.

 

Ensure the appropriate contact channels are available for your customers and you're meeting service level goals. Make problem-solving effortless by providing more avenues for customers to self-serve: look for opportunities to automate solutions to common problems, document answers in knowledge articles, and empower customers with communities. If you are lacking in any of these areas, consider them as projects to tackle in 2018.

 

With the right service methods in place, your customer service can not only tackle higher volumes but also address greater expectations. And the gift to you is these benefits will be around beyond Black Friday.

 

For those in the U.S., have a happy Thanksgiving!

 

[Image source: Pixabay.com]