Surviving in customer service: pandemic Black Friday edition (part 1)

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The United States continues to grapple with COVID-19. Remarkably, against a resurgent case count across the country and a continued high unemployment rate, reduced health and safety restrictions over the summer months helped the economy surge to a record 33.1% annual growth rate during the quarter ending in September. As a result of the population abiding by restrictions and making the choice to shop safe, online retail has been one of the winners in the recovery, on track to post an 18.5% increase for the year.

Now we are headed into the busiest shopping season of the year. With stores changing their safety procedures as a result of COVID-19 and preparing for holiday shoppers, it is expected this and continued safety concerns to drive even more traffic online. One forecast sees online shopping pushing that 18.5% increase even higher, up to 33% year over year. Additional research supports this, suggesting spending during the November to January period this year will increase 1% to 1.5%.

While this is good news for many businesses, it could spell trouble if customer service isn’t ready for the flood of volume that will accompany this activity. In the few weeks that remain, it’s time for customer service to quickly review and revise self-service options for the coming season.

Update, update, update

Self-service excels at taking the burden off of agents while providing anytime answers for customers. The problem? It’s only good for as long as the answers remain valid and useful. What worked when it was first created may not be working now. For this reason, solutions must be regularly reviewed and revised. Consider the following examples:

  • Knowledge base – an article explaining the return process and timeline might have been updated during the pandemic when shipping was slower and staff resources were limited, but the situation has since improved.
  • Chatbot – all of its conversations are pandemic-related and don’t address common holiday sales questions.
  • Automated solutions – the backend business rules and connected systems have been updated in anticipation of Black Friday. This may have improved the lives of back office teams, but the automated online order tracking form now doesn’t function.

Even prior to the pandemic, businesses had to move and adapt quickly to stay competitive. That means constantly reassessing the customer journey. If self-service offerings have not been monitored and regularly maintained, they can quickly become irrelevant, less useful to customers, and even cause customer frustration.

Trim the unnecessary

Besides validating self-service solutions, some just might not be necessary any longer. This might be due to product obsolescence, a change in process or policy, etc. An example is knowledge base articles. A high volume of unneeded articles clutters up the system. This makes it more challenging for customers to browse and also unnecessarily lengthens search results, potentially causing customers to choose incorrect solutions. This leads to confusion or frustration, which can result in customers taking their problem to live service channels.

Some self-service channels might also not be living up to their original purpose. Review customer usage by channel by running reports. For any that are underperforming, shut them down. Reallocate those resources to the channels customers prefer.

The bottom line is that the more challenging it is for the customers to use self-service, the less confidence they will have. That will make them less likely to use it in the future. It’s also creates a negative mark on their overall customer experience.

Plan for the post-holidays

Speaking of customer experience, consider customers’ expectations for self-service and the service landscape in general. While it’s probably a bit late to safely launch any new self-service channels prior to the holiday season getting underway and have it be effective, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start planning for the next holiday or the next high-volume period–National Returns Day will be here before you know it.

Consider the self-service channels competitors provide. Don’t stop there, also look at other companies’ offerings. How do you compare? Are you lacking any of the more modern options, such as a chatbot or online community?

Once you have narrowed the list ideas for new self-service channels, engage with customers to gather their opinions. Make them a part of the decision and design process through surveys and interviews. Offer incentives for their participation.

Prepare and prosper

The pandemic has changed behaviors across the board, but a few things will remain constant this holiday period: customers will be pressed for time and full of pandemic-fueled angst, and agents will have similar anxiety while also endeavoring to enjoy their own holiday season. With the spike in online shopping predicted, it’s more critical than ever to get customer service’s self-service house in order.

Providing answers online around the clock will help satisfy customers and reduce the workload on customer service. That means now is the time to perform a check on all self-service channels, verifying solutions for validity and that desired outcomes are still occurring. Remove any solutions and channels that just aren’t working. And plan ahead for the months that follow. Tying up these loose ends now will help ensure a smooth holiday season and a strong start to the new year.

Paul Selby
I am a product marketing consultant for Aventi Group. Aventi Group is the first product marketing agency solely dedicated to high-tech clients. We’re here to supplement your team and bring our expertise to bear on your top priorities, so you achieve high-quality results, fast.

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