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5 ways support teams can prepare for the COVID-19 holiday rush

How to provide the best customer service and support during this unprecedented holiday season.

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Editor’s Note: This guide was written by Myra Golden, customer service coach, and CX expert.

This holiday season will be unlike any other due to COVID-19’s influence on consumer behavior in 2020. In addition to the usual increase in web traffic, call volume, and longer business hours, customer service and support reps will need to be ready for the new expectations of this new customer.

Gift-giving will look different this year. There is uncertainty about how COVID-19 will shape stay-at-home orders over the next several months and consumer reluctance to venture out means fewer customers will grab retail, movie, and restaurant gift cards as last-minute buys. Instead, shoppers will most likely opt for goods people can enjoy no matter what turn the virus might take.

Companies should also expect that most consumers will choose online shopping and start buying sooner in the season. More shoppers will snatch up gifts on Cyber Monday than on Black Friday, according to research cited on QuickPivot. Due to the Coronavirus, consumers who traditionally make purchases in brick and mortar stores and boutiques will check items off their holiday lists in online shopping carts.

All this is to say that there will be an upswing in customer support and service. The gift-giving shift out of uncertainty about 2021, coupled with a surge of online shopping from both current and new digital customers, means we’ll see an uptick in customer support on all contact channels. 

Just as retail and shipping companies ramp up for the holiday season, customer support for online shopping must billow to answer substantial increases in volume, customer urgency, and frustration and assist first-time digital consumers. 

So, do you feel ready for the holiday season?

If you don’t. You will be after reading this guide.

Here, we’ll discuss the top five tips for providing the best customer service and experience during this unprecedented holiday season.

Pro tip 1

Use customer feedback to train your team

Your employees need special preparedness training to ready them for the usual holiday peak and the unprecedented changes COVID-19 will bring. 

To prepare your team, start with customer feedback from the last season. 

Pull reports from your contact management system and talk directly with front-facing employees and frontline supervisors and managers.

Examine with your team:

  • What were your biggest wins from the last holiday season? (Did you hit or exceed customer experience metrics? Was your contact center forecasting model right on target?)

  • What worked and what didn’t? 

  • What are the top issues that escalated?

  • What were the top issues customers experienced that caused us to lose customer confidence?

  • What skill training, knowledge, and support did your employees need that you didn't give them in hindsight?

Use your customer feedback on wins and losses to frame your preparedness training. Some areas you should consider for training this COVID-19 holiday season include:

  1. Managing background noise when working from home.

  2. Handling issues and crafting a complaint response.

  3. Delivering bad news to a customer.

  4. Navigating challenging customers.

  5. Aligning training with your mission.

Let's walk through each of these five training areas.

Managing background noise when working from home

Gallup estimates up to 62% of employees have worked remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of your customers likely worked or still work from home worldwide. 

The quarantine's communal experience gives customers patience and understanding of unexpected interruptions by pets or loved ones during support calls. So, don't sweat little interruptions. 

Nevertheless, advise your employees to find a quiet space and walk them through tips for reducing distractions, and acknowledge interruptions that they can't avoid.

Reduce distracting sounds with technology

You can support your employees in managing background noise with technology such as noise-canceling headphones. White noise apps can help mask unwanted sounds while creating a natural office background sound. The Calm Office app lets you imitate characteristic office sounds like co-workers in the background, A/C, copy machines, printers, and room tone.  

Confidently acknowledge background noise and then move on. 

Your employees needn't feel embarrassed by occasional interruptions. Recently, during a live digital workshop I facilitated from my home office, FedEx rang my loud chiming doorbell. 

Not only did my audience hear the symphony, but my package was a signature-required delivery. I was expecting the interruption, and excused myself briefly from the video training, explaining, "Ah! Work-life in the pandemic. FedEx is at my door, and I need to sign for this package. Back in a sec." 

I muted my conference, grabbed my package, and was back in less than 40 seconds. Let your team know that sometimes they have to go with the flow gracefully and that that's okay. 

Handling issues and crafting a complaint response

Reach out to frontline customer service professionals to find out what they're hearing from customers. Customer-facing agents pick up on issues and problems before they can be tracked. 

Then, map out the precise response you want agents to take to resolve each issue. The predetermined actions you direct your agents to take should fix the problem and restore customer confidence and regain customer loyalty. 

Predetermining responses based on customer data and employee feedback positions agents to support customers with confidence based on little guesswork and quick solutions. You should also see a reduction in Average Handling Time (AHT) and an increase in your Customer Satisfaction Score (CSAT)

Delivering bad news to a customer

Giving bad news is challenging because of the common fear of backlash and escalation from a customer. 

Often it’s the approach that the agent uses that can hinder the situation further. The three biggest mistakes agents make when telling customers what they don’t want to hear are: Causing a sense of helplessness, an attitude of indifference, and belaboring the point. When employees fail to give options, don't convey empathy, or merely repeat what they cannot do, customers will likely escalate the situation. 

The agent should present the situation in such a way that the customer accepts the employee's words as final.

Agents must assertively and confidently give bad news using four steps: 

  1. Clearly explain the issue: Be brief, assertive, and confident in your delivery. For example, sit up in your seat, speak from the diaphragm, and expect that the customer will accept your word as final. 

  2. Acknowledge the impact: When customers feel heard and understood, they’re more likely to accept the employee’s word as final. You could say, “I know this delay throws off your entire day/schedule….” or “I realize this puts you in a bind.”

  3. Allow the customer to respond: Moving too quickly to the next thing after giving bad news might provide the customer with the impression that they aren't entirely confident in their delivery. This also protects employees from over-explaining or losing confidence.

  4. Guide to next steps:  Employees should tell the customer what's next or offer options, being careful to manage expectations, and not overpromise. 

A word of caution: Be careful not to set yourself up for a problematic response by ending the conversation with, “Is there anything else I can help with?” Communication Expert Leslie O’flahaven cautions customer service teams to avoid asking customers, “Is there anything else I can help you with today?” during the troubling COVID-19 times, explaining this question can open the door to, “I wish you could help me find a job,” or “Well, I could use some help with the rent,” or “My mother is sick.” 

Navigating challenging customers

To equip service agents to handle demanding customers and complex interactions, you can use data from the last holiday season to help you predict issues and prepare responses and solutions to the top concerns. 

After you gather feedback to help you anticipate volume and issues, prepare your employees to preempt escalations using my 3R De-escalation Method. 

The 3R De-escalation Method is: Recognize, Reframe, and Resolve. 

Recognize

Recognizing the customer’s concern helps employees preempt escalation by demonstrating empathy and concern. (This is the same technique we used in step two of the giving bad news framework.) 

When customers feel heard and understood, they’re more likely to accept the employee’s word as final. 

One sentence is all you need to recognize the inconvenience:

"I can see your point on that."

"I want to get to the bottom of this as much as you do."

"I understand and will do everything in my power to get this resolved immediately."

"I realize the situation I've put you in, and for that, I am sorry."

Reframe

Sometimes unhappy customers will vent, making themselves more upset, and making it harder for employees to cut to the business of fixing the issue. So, try these reframing statements to help customers move on: 

“We want to get to the bottom of this as much as you do.”

“I certainly understand your concern. Let’s take a look and see what’s going on.”

“While the warranty doesn’t cover this, we do have a couple of options for you today.”

Reframing statements are fantastic for getting customers past excessive venting about the problem.

Resolve

Resolving the problem is either a resolution to the customer’s issue or an explanation of what happens next, or perhaps you explain why you cannot honor the customer’s request. The feedback you gathered to predetermine responses to top problems from the Handling issues and crafting a complaint response section will help you here.

Extra pro tip: Combine the predetermined complaint responses you generated based on employee and contact management feedback with the Delivering bad news to customers section, and my 3R De-escalation Method and your employees will resolve issues faster, which reduces customer effort (CES) and improves customer satisfaction (CSAT).

Align training with your mission 

CCXP Founder & CEO, Experience Investigators, Jeannie Walters, talks about aligning customer service training to the organization’s mission. 

When designing training to prepare your employees for the COVID-10 holiday peak, make sure you align your mission's training objectives. Walters goes further, urging companies to stick to their mission, even if it means your path splits from every other organization. 

Jeannie talks about REI, a recreational equipment store that closes on Black Friday. The company is all about living life outdoors. Black Friday crowds and shopping frenzy don’t align with REI’s mission. Make sure your training and your processes for customer service teams align with your mission.

Pro tip 2

Prioritize empowering your team

There are three methods  to ensuring that your team stays happy and productive during the COVID-19 holiday season.

1. Communicate with your team

The flow of information is crucial at all times, but the pandemic safety measures and delays sprouting from the virus ups the ante. Frontline employees must be up to date on COVID policies, how the virus impacts everything from shipping to response time, etc. Also, ensure your team is clear on all promotions, social distancing procedures, and expectations. 

2. Empower your team to make decisions

Reduce delays and customer frustration by empowering customer service agents to make decisions so they don't wait for permission to resolve issues. It's common for brick and mortar stores to up the empowerment dollar amount for frontline employees during the holiday season or waive the need for supervisor overrides. Retailers make this change to speed up the customer experience. 

When I managed a contact center in the car rental industry, I raised my agents' empowerment level as a test during our busy season. My goal was to reduce unnecessary escalations and improve the customer experience through swift, first-contact resolution. The peak period empowerment trial was so effective in lowering escalations and average handling time (AHT) that I made the authority increase permanent.

Agent feedback was crucial in my decision-making plan for increasing empowerment. I pulled reports from our customer relationship management tool to determine our customers' top ten issues during the previous holiday season. I looked at the frequency of the problems we handled, explored agent average handling time during the peak, and tracked the number of escalations to supervisors. I considered how much agents were spending to resolve customer concerns.

The data I gathered protected me from merely setting the empowerment level at an arbitrary level that put us at risk for throwing money at the problem, but rather to position us to give our agents intelligent empowerment.

3. Nurture your team and take the pressure off 

The busy holiday season is already stress-inducing for frontline employees, and you can expect COVID-19 to punctuate the pressure and anxiety of supporting customers this year. Prepare now to reduce tension for your team. 

For example, if you're a B2C retailer, hire security to enforce mask and distancing requirements in your brick and mortar stores. Or potluck lunch, so employees don't have to trek through crowds to make their way to the food court, only to lose most of their lunch break waiting in line.

You could also have All Hands-on Deck for Customer Support. Meaning, hire temp workers for phones, chat, or pull people from other departments to support. The goal is to ensure fast customer response during a peak period while supporting your hardworking employees.

Online retailer Zappos is famous for supporting its customer loyalty team during peak times. Every holiday season, when the company's call volumes reach their highest levels of the year, every Zappos employee from every department is asked to jump on the phones for a few hours to help out customer service.

The unprecedented pandemic may make it easier for you to make your employees feel supported. Gallup found that in early May, the percentage of engaged workers in the U.S.  reached 38%—the highest since Gallup began tracking the metric in 2000. 

One possible reason for the spike during the pandemic is employer COVID-19 response. Another reason for the surge in engagement is the record levels of unemployment; employees feel even more grateful for their jobs. 

Take some of the load off during these difficult times by continuing to support and nurture your employees, and you may find measurable increases in employee engagement.

Pro tip 3

Reduce customer effort (even more than usual)

In the COVID-19 era, your customer experience has to include a focus on reducing customer concerns. As masked customers bravely hit the malls, boutiques, and retail stores, they need to know you're taking steps to keep them safe. Your safety plan, well-executed, will lessen customer angst. 

You can minimize distress with both brick-and-mortar and online customers by lowering customer effort at every point of contact. 

Customers who reach out for support, want to quickly reach representatives with the knowledge and empowerment to help them on the first contact. When you proactively create experiences that reduce anxiety regarding safety and support, you're positioned to delight customers. 

Let's look at precise ways to reduce customer effort and concern.

Accessibility

Accessibility is meeting your customers in the space they favor. Research by Statista shows that 61% of customers prefer to get help over the phone. While 15% of customers reach out over chat, 12% opt for email, and another 12% want to talk to brands on digital channels. 

Certainly, COVID-19 shutdowns have impacted your workflow. Yet, the reality is, while the world experienced shutdowns, customer service did not and cannot shut down. Prepare your team to meet customers where they want to reach you. 

Look back over the past twelve months’ data to see how your customers reach out to you. Likely, your most significant contact channel is the telephone, followed by email and live chat. How significant is social and text support in your business? Whatever you do, don’t shut down your customers’ preferred channels.

Speed

Just as retailers ramp up staffing levels for Black Friday and the entire holiday season, including the busy merchandise return period, contact centers and online companies must scale up to support customers over the phone, email, chat, and social channels. You want to optimize staffing levels, not only to help customers but to serve them swiftly. 

Suppose you don't have a sophisticated forecasting application. Predicting staffing levels is a lot easier than it sounds, and you can do it without breaking the bank. Here's a simple free online application I point my clients toward when they need to forecast accurately and quickly.

First-contact resolution

Nobody wants to make a second trip to their favorite Mexican food spot because the chef forgot to include the guacamole. And your customers don’t want to have to make a second (or third, fourth, etc.) call to get their issue resolved.  

Multiple interactions for a single-issue increase customer effort and frustration and costs you money. The average cost for a phone call is $35.00-$50.00, and while chat is lower at $8.00-$10.00 per interaction, it’s still hefty.  

The biggest problem with not resolving support interactions on the first contact is the negative impact on the experience due to the high customer effort.

The Customer Effort Score (CES) is one of the most popular customer loyalty metrics. It’s used by companies to measure the level of effort that a customer experienced with a particular interaction.

This metric goes hand in hand with excellent customer loyalty. According to Gartner, 96% of customers with a high-effort service interaction become more disloyal compared to just 9% who have a low-effort experience. They also found that low-effort interaction costs 37% less than a high-effort interaction.

Focusing on the first-contact resolution will both improve customer satisfaction and shave costs. Prepare your employees through training, coaching, information sharing, and empowerment to resolve customer concerns on the first contact.

Pro tip 4

Don’t forget about social media

My internet kept dropping during a live webinar with my largest client. My client was patient, but after three outages, I decided to cut the webinar and reschedule. I was embarrassed. And angry. I vented on Twitter. 

A few hours later, my cable company replied to my tweet! (This was eleven years ago, and not many companies were using Twitter for customer support). The company’s reply tweet astounded me:

“If you’re having problems with your internet, I may be able to help.”

I’d called the cable company for help and got nowhere, and thought, why not engage in a dialogue on Twitter. After I replied to the company’s tweet, “I’m frustrated and embarrassed after a failed webinar with my largest client,” the next tweet was, “Please DM us your modem’s MAC address, and we can look into things right away.”

I directly messaged my details and chatted with the company, set up an appointment for a technician, and resolved my problem. I was so impressed that I recorded a YouTube video raving about my experience.

My first complaint tweet (way back in 2009) taught me that social media could be a valuable tool for customer support and an essential portal for gathering customer feedback that might otherwise be missed.

When you spot a post about a poor experience with your brand, don't ignore it. Jump into the conversation so you can learn more and help. Here's precisely how to engage your customers on social media.

  1. Make a friendly offer to help.

  2. Move the conversation to a private dialogue.

Make a friendly offer to help

Here are some short conversation starters to use on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram when customers react to their experience with your brand: 

  • “How can I help?”

  • “Yikes! That’s not our standard. Please DM us so we can look into this.”

  • “Hey, Myra. It’s Gary from XYZ. I want to help. Can you DM us with details?”

  • “We’re sorry about your experience and want to help. Can you give us a callback number in the DM?”

Move the conversation to a private dialogue

My cable company urged me right away to reach out with personal modem identification over a direct message. Protecting customer privacy is one reason to move the conversation to one-on-one conversations. Another reason is, you don't want all of the social media to see the back and forth dialogue. Make sure you first reply publicly and then swiftly move interactions to a private discussion. Merely typing, “Can you DM us with details?” is all you need.

Respond and support customers on social media, just as you do on chat, email, and over the phone. And gather feedback from social, just as you do with other channels.

Pro tip 5

Use safety measures to build confidence

We can’t motivate employees without meeting their basic needs for safety and security. Ultimately, when you make employees feel safe, and customers see this, it builds customer confidence. 

Also, your safety response to COVID-19 isn’t a baseless lead-magnet to draw in customers. Pandemic safety is serious, and you must follow-through on your promises. Make sure you adopt and follow CDC-recommended guidelines.  

Now, let’s look at how to meet the security needs of both employees and customers, to ensure the best possible customer experience.

Show don’t tell

Domino’s pizza produced a safety commercial showing a uniformed and masked employee stepping out of a store with a box of pizza, heading to the customer's open hatchback–a touchless, safe curbside pickup. 

Southwest Airlines emailed customers early on in the pandemic with a link to a video showing crews wiping down tray tables, armrests, and seatbelts. All employees in the video wore masks, and airport employees served customers from behind protective shields.

Both the Dominos and the Southwest videos are excellent examples of showing customers what you're doing, rather than merely telling them what you intend to do to keep them safe.

In what ways might you show your customers how you’re working to ensure their safety?

Provide safety equipment

You’ll have customers who forget a mask and shoppers who want a quick sanitize cleanse after touching door handles and merchandise. Make sure to have plenty of masks on hand to give to shoppers. Provide sanitizing stations for customers, too. You can even use the mask handout as an opportunity to gift customers with a reusable mask with your logo.

Create safety path flows and consider hiring special COVID-19 teams

When the Apple Store reopened after the pandemic hit, they implemented temperature checks, social distancing, and mask requirements. Anticipating long lines resulting from both six-foot spacing guidelines and consumer eagerness to get back into stores, Apple added roping lanes to keep lines organized and hired security to contain and de-escalate any issues with frustration from the wait and safety policies. Customers in line could see a contract cleaning crew continually wiping down tables and merchandise.

How might you support your employees with contracted security or cleaning crews? Helping to support your employees with additional hands improves the customer experience, so it’s a win-win!

Apply extra safety measures

My family orders in more than I care to admit. I've noticed a focus on safety in packaging from many restaurants. Our meals now arrive in vacuum-sealed bags. The protective sealing gives us confidence that our food is shielded from airborne viruses while in the hands of delivery people and vehicles of delivery drivers. 

A hotel company now tapes off rooms in bright yellow markings as seals to ensure customers' rooms have been deeply wiped down. The tape serves to build customer confidence with travel during the pandemic. Consider ways to use your safety measures to build customer trust and confidence. 

Make a vigorous effort to keep your employees safe and customers safe, and you'll position your organization to deliver a stress-free, secure COVID-19 holiday customer experience.

Conclusion

A final word about customer feedback

You want to capture what you learn from the COVID-19 holiday season to prepare you and ensure business continuity for whatever lies ahead. You must know where you’ve been. You have to identify the speedbumps, detours, and hazard areas, so you’re well-positioned to consistently deliver the best possible customer experience no matter what roads you travel.

When you get through the COVID-19 holiday season, block time to capture and analyze feedback. Sit down with your team and ask: 

  • What were our biggest wins? 

  • What worked? 

  • What didn’t?

  • What should we keep, improve, start, or stop doing?

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