The text of this article originally appeared on ICMI.
For many contact centers, there’s a fairly predictable ebb and flow throughout the calendar year. An outdoor home goods brand, for example, likely receives a much higher volume of inquiries at the start of summer compared to the middle of January. Therefore, effectively managing resources year round means that contact centers often rely on a sizable number of seasonal employees to meet rising customer demand and ease the strain. It’s important to recruit agents that can quickly ramp up to prevent higher queues and delays during rush periods when it’s essential to consistently deliver quality customer experiences.
While every industry has its own seasonality, there’s a one time of year that impacts a wide variety of businesses, with tremendously high stakes: the winter holidays. Last year alone, the National Retail Federation (NRF) found that holiday spending reached $998.32 billion, an increase of 5.4% compared to 2017. Furthermore, forecasts indicate that this year’s season just might break the $1 trillion threshold.
Given customer experience’s (CX) role as a competitive differentiator, contact centers need a strategy in place now that prepares agents with the skills they need to power exceptional experiences, both over the phone and increasing through digital messaging. With the holiday season around the corner, here are three top tips for getting your agents – both seasonal and permanent – ready for the winter rush.
Focus on Soft Skills During Onboarding
Contact centers traditionally begin to ramp up their staffing needs 1-2 months before high-volume seasons. But how that time is spent can have a significant impact on agents’ abilities to deliver positive experiences when the calls, chats, texts and more start coming in. Research conducted by ICMI and NICE inContact has found that when contact centers train new agents, the first priority is familiarizing agents with contact center processes (31%), followed by the technologies used to provide service (19%). Shockingly, only 2% of contact center leaders cite problem-solving as a top training priority – a critical customer service soft skill.
When so much time is dedicated to tools and process, that leaves little room for developing the emotional sensitivity skills needed to properly assess a situation with a customer. That emotional intelligence is especially vital during the holidays, as in some cases it can be the difference between a child receiving the right gift and a ruined Christmas morning. The right cloud contact center platform – that’s both intuitive and fully integrated – can reduce the training portions of onboarding, so agents can spend more time creating an emotional connection.
Shift to Digital-First Omnichannel Approach
No matter the time of year, omnichannel functionality is among the number one priority for customers. The latest NICE inContact CX Transformation Benchmark study found that 91% of consumers expect companies to provide a seamless experience when moving from one method of communication to another, such as from phone to text or chat to phone. Therefore, it isn’t enough to bring on a new team of agents who can work the phones – they need to be comfortable working across channels, guiding customers to the channel that will best meet their needs at any given moment.
Take, for example, an agent who is managing four different chats simultaneously in order to handle the surge in volume. They’re able to work through a higher number of low-impact issues, boosting their productivity. But say one of the chats indicates that the customer’s issue is much more complex than it initially seemed – agents need to be able to transition to a phone call without losing any context. They need to be able to work on the fly, so customers don’t get left behind.
Understand the “Micro” Seasons
Complicating the holiday season further are micro-trends that occur on a week-by-week basis. For example, there are often significant spikes in purchases and information requests in the lead-up to major holidays, which are then quickly followed after the holidays with inquiries like returns and exchanges or customer support issues. This shift literally happens overnight – agents and their tools need to be able to switch gears in real-time, too.
Agents need to be trained with the full holiday season cycle in mind, rotating roles in order to best serve the needs of the customer. Let’s say your brand is launching the latest gadget just in time for the holidays, specifically targeting older customers. It’s vital that the contact center switch priorities from selling during the pre-holidays, to becoming a resource after the customer has received the gift. This a is a role agents should be filling to help minimize returns and enhance customer satisfaction. It requires early preparation in the onboarding process, and tapping permanent staff who have the expertise to contribute to cross-training, coaching and skill development.
The Holidays Have a Lasting Impact
In our 2018 CX Benchmark research, we found that 83% of customers who have exceptional experiences are more willing to recommend that company on social media, and 81% who have a bad customer service experience say they are very likely to switch to a competitor – regardless of the time of year. During the holidays, however, emotions tend to run higher and stress is compounded, so getting exceptional experiences right the first time is all the more critical. Getting agents prepared now can help create a lasting emotional connection that can help drive brand growth year-round.