If you find yourself every year watching the leaves fall while sipping on your pumpkin spice latte worrying about the busy upcoming Q4… then it might be time to consider if the solutions you’re implementing each Q4 are really as effective as you thought.
As I was skimming through articles by other bloggers on this topic, I kept reading the same tips & tricks repeated over and over again. Now don’t get me wrong, all the advice is good, but it caused me to stop and consider: if there is this much great content out there on the “how to” of preparing your support team for the holiday, why am I just repeating it? And shouldn't there be a better way than the Q4 "rinse and repeat" each year?
There are still many principles mentioned in those blogs that are well worth repeating, which I will highlight in this blog, but despite these helpful tips & tricks it feels like these blogs are really only scratching the surface and not addressing the true underlying aspect of why so many companies scramble to prepare for a busy Q4.
The question those blogs fail to answer is this: how can I build my support team in a way that offers the ability to scale rapidly and abruptly when I need it to, without having to pay for it when I don’t?
This blog is aimed to help you accomplish this year's holiday goals, while also building a foundation for your CX org. that you can tap into year-round when customer needs demand it.
Tip 1: Re-frame the way you think about Q4 readiness.
Many of us tend to think of Q4 as a sprint to the finish line, just to start all over again next year. But what if we changed this way of thinking? Rather than thinking about "resetting" at the start of the new year, we should use this preparation for holiday readiness to build the foundation for a more agile and resilient customer service organization ready to withstand shocks that occur year-round, and even into the next holiday season.
We all know just how hectic work life can get, especially as the holidays near. And even though we know that major e-commerce and retail events are just around the corner, we often still find ourselves surprised that they snuck up on us so fast. So how can we avoid this inescapable shock when we seem to time warp from July to November?
First, we need to stop thinking about it as “gearing up for Q4” and start thinking about how to put more stable, long-term plans in place that provide resources we can tap into during times where demand is heightened.
From the bigger picture perspective, it isn’t really Q4 you need to “gear up” for, rather it’s structuring your overall CX team in a way that allows you to be agile whether you’re in a steady-state, holiday, or any other unexpected situation.
Really think about it:
- How much time do you waste training and onboarding new staff, whether it’s an internal or outsourced team, just to let them go at the end of the season?
- How many times have you repeated the process?
- How many internal staff members have had to side-step their daily duties to go all-hands-on-deck to clear ticket backlogs?
- Considering all this, how much time and money is this process really costing your business?
“You have to look at some of these scheduled and predictable events and you also have to look back historically and ask how many unscheduled and unpredicted events have we had and when you add all that up and you realize how well you were able to meetthat demand, that should tell you, hey, I have 2 or 3 events a year standard. If I have 2 or 3 events a year and I can count on that, then it might be time to talk about how you create a partnership that allows you to ramp up quickly."- Ben Collet, former Director of Support for Zendesk
It’s time to start thinking more holistically about our customer service success. Instead of celebrating making it through the holiday season without a tremendous backlog, let’s also plan for how to make things simpler on ourselves next year — how to truly future-proof our customer service operations, in busy seasons and during seasonal lulls.
Tip 2: Staff your organization in a flexible way that makes it easy to scale.
As I hinted earlier, there are a handful of common ways businesses increase their customer service capacity to prepare for a busy holiday season including:
1. staffing temporary internal hires,
2. outsourcing a portion of their customer cases to an external team, or
3. tapping into co-workers from different departments to help clear or prevent customer backlogs.
Each of these options have their pros and cons and deciding which one is best for your business is something you’ll need to consider carefully. If you’re on the fence about which makes sense for you, I’d recommend creating a pros and cons list for each.
The answer to us is simple. After working in the customer experience industry for years (and making plenty of our own pros and cons lists) we’ve found that the majority of businesses find the most value when working with an outsourced partner.
Whether you're an enterprise or an SMB, it’s extremely time consuming to try to recruit and hire temporary help internally. Preparing for a busy holiday season usually takes all hands on deck from all departments, so when you pile on the task of recruiting, hiring, training, and onboarding new short-term employees, this method can become extremely disruptive to your operations across the entire organization.
Once the holiday rush has subsided and the temporary employees are let go, you're left with the responsibility of finding, training, and onboarding new agents again next year. The entire process can take up enormous amounts of time and money, year after year.
Alternatively, when businesses rely on "recruited" internal employees from other departments to pitch in and help with customer service, it may seem like a more affordable & less time consuming option but it also takes full time staff away from the job they’re responsible for doing.
Although these staff already know your business and have a sense of how customer service is handled, they're not customer service agents. They aren't trained in answering customer inquiries, especially if you work for a business that requires agents to have CPNI, HIPAA, or other compliances or certifications.
To empower your internal staff to confidently answer questions, some level of customer service training is still necessary. Unfortunately, this training and the time employees spend actually working with customers means they're not able to spend time accomplishing their missions.
Ultimately, having internal employees act as CSRs is taking valuable time and progress away from your business in other areas.
When you outsource your customer service, you're able to benefit from additional help for a relatively inexpensive cost without greatly disrupting your current business operations.
We often hear that businesses are hesitant to outsource as they’re worried they won’t be as effective as an internal team or they’ll take a long time to onboard with their business knowledge, but this isn’t usually the case.
If you have reservations about outsourcing, I encourage you to read this blog that debunks the most common outsourcing myths. You might be surprised just how far the outsourcing industry has come over the past few years.
Not only is outsourcing a great way to supplement your existing customer service team during the busy holiday season, but it also opens the door for you to create long-lasting, reliable relationships with trusted partners. This is what will help you build that long-term agility into your customer service operations.
Tip 3: Use your demand plan as a guide, but don’t rely so heavily on it that you can’t pivot when necessary.
This tip is one that nearly all blogs about preparing for Q4 highlight: The importance of your demand plan.
Whether you’re planning to use an outsourced support team, a fully internal support team, or a hybrid of both, your CS demand plan is critical to help give you a strong sense for what to expect and to ensure you have the right number of agents employed (outsourced or otherwise) to help handle your incoming tickets.
Using your historical data from previous holiday seasons is critical for understanding how you should plan to staff for the coming season.
How many customer tickets did you receive last year?
What was your average SLA?
If you get a similar number of cases this year, did you have enough agents last year to meet your customer’s needs, or do you need to plan for additional capacity?
If your forecast is severely off, or if something unexpected occurs that can’t be planned for, it can have major repercussions on everything from your staff down to your customers.
While we can’t overlook the importance of a customer service demand plan, we also can’t rely so heavily on it that we leave little room to pivot if our numbers are off. Forecasting is an art and science, and sometimes we simply don’t hit the nail on the head.
Another "pro" to add to the outsourced customer service list is that there is often a little more room for leniency if your demand fluctuates more than you forecasted. I’m not suggesting that BPOs have customer service agents waiting on standby twiddling their thumbs until the moment your business needs them, but often the contact center you use will account for demand fluctuation and may be more able to provide additional hands who can be quickly trained up and ready to help should the need arise.
Tip 4: Don't rely on a single center, whether internal or external, to handle all your customer service needs.
Q4 is a busy time for your business, but also for nearly all businesses everywhere, including contact centers and other outsourced resources.
That’s why we strongly recommend not relying on your internal team alone or a single BPO partner to handle ALL of your customer tickets.
Imagine if an ice storm hit your location and your systems were down during your busiest time and you didn't have another team or location able to keep your operations running. Of course, this is just one example, but those situations do happen and it’s so important to be prepared when they do.
The same thing goes for any external partners you use. Imagine a flu sweeps through the call center you're using and half of their agents are out sick and your tickets are only able to be handled at half of the planned capacity until they’re able to onboard more agents to handle the queues.
To ensure you have the right number of agents no matter what your business may encounter, you’ll want to have the ability to tap into a couple, or even a few partners. We call this method, taking a market approach to outsourcing.
And, like all the tips in this blog, this goes for much more than just the holiday season, but for any event at any time in the year where your business sees an unexpected lift in demand. Your internal team nor a single outsourced partner can provide you with the flexibility and agility your business may need if something were to happen.
It might help to think about it from a consumer’s perspective:
Imagine that you go to a store like Target or Walmart and they’re completely out of the one toy your nephew asked for for Christmas. They won’t be getting it in stock again until the holiday season is over. If you only relied on that single store for inventory, you’d be out of luck! Sorry, try again in the new year.
But with a marketplace, like Amazon, you’re able to check the inventory of dozens of stores that sell the toy your nephew wants and a marketplace seller is able to provide it.
Taking a market approach to your customer service operations works in a similar way. You don’t want to rely on a single point to have everything you need when you need it. Wouldn’t you rather have an entire network to tap into so that you’re always covered?
Tip 5: Say goodbye to repetitive training and onboarding new agents every holiday season.
If you rely on staffing temporary hires internally, your team is likely familiar with the arduous process of recruiting, hiring, onboarding, training new agents, and at the end of your busy season saying goodbye and repeating the entire process again every time you need to staff up.
If this sounds like you, you already know how time consuming and costly running this type of operation can be.
On the other hand, if you’ve used a BPO for customer service support, you know that finding partners, conducting Request For Proposals, selecting a partner, and training & onboarding their agents to understand and align on your business is also no walk in the park.
Fortunately, there’s a better way. When you use an outsourcing marketplace, like ArenaCX, you don’t have to worry about the long process of conducting RFPs to find the right partners… we’ve done that for you. We know each partner in the network extremely well and are able to match you quickly with trusted, ready-to-onboard providers who are eager to start serving your business and your customers.
Once you go through the training process with an ArenaCX partner once, we capture all of your training materials so that if you want to use an additional BPO or try another BPO in the future, we can easily help facilitate your future training. All you have to do is send us new training materials as your business develops, and we help take the hard work off your plate.
If you're not ready to use an outsourcing marketplace, consider doing something similar internally by creating a robust library of training materials and updating them regularly with any business changes. Once you have these materials gathered, you can re-use them easily when training and onboarding new agents, which will help streamline the process and save you hours of time you'd have otherwise spent repeating and rebuilding those materials.
Tip 6: Invest in a robust self-service knowledge base.
Tip #6 is another common piece of advice you’ll find in many blogs about preparing your CX team for holiday readiness, but is definitely one that should not be underplayed.
Having a strong and effective self-service knowledge base will be critical in helping to deflect many customer questions. By providing helpful channels and making it easy for customers to find the answers to common questions, they won’t need to request a response from your team, saving you time and money and saving your customer the time and frustration of waiting on a response.
Not only does a strong knowledge base provide a better experience for your customers, but it also helps provide training materials for internal and external agents. It also serves as a content database where agents can conveniently direct your customers when there is an existing article that helps walk through how to troubleshoot an issue.
Interested in building or improving your knowledge center?We have an experienced team ready to help. CONTACT US >
Another way to deflect a portion of your tickets could be by setting up a new chatbot flow that asks the customer what their question is related to. Perhaps they want to know the details of a promotion that you’re running, or they have a question about how long items will take to ship.
If you have a robust knowledge base with articles that answer these questions, the bot can send them directly to the help article that provides the answer to the question they want to solve. This limits the number of tickets that require a human to answer, saving your business valuable time and money and allowing agents to focus on the more important customer inquiries.
Using a knowledge base to help you customers self-serve is one way to leverage a chatbot, but chatbots can also help with Tip #7, which is routing the ticket to the right team or team member.
Tip 7: Set up a triage and routing system to save time and improve the customer experience.
Not all types of tickets need to be handled the same way or with the same level of urgency. Having a system in place that helps you address customer inquiries more quickly and by the right team will help improve your efficiency tremendously during the holiday-driven increase in demand.
One way to identify how to route tickets is through the chatbot example above. If you have a chatbot that asks "How can I help you today" and then proposes common reasons a customer may reach out to support (for example: billing, shipping, order cancellation, etc.) it allows the customer to easily identify their problem area and helps your business route the ticket to the team is best equipped to handle that ticket.
For example, let's say a customer is having a problem paying her bill online. She interacts with the chatbot and selects that she's experiencing an issue with billing. Now, your business knows that the issue is related to billing, so her chat can be quickly routed to the billing department to be handled by an agent who can help.
Tip 8: Be proactive in letting customers know the best way to get help.
Finally, it's important to be proactive in letting customers know the best ways to get in touch with your support team, especially if you're offering different channels or have different holiday hours.
You might even consider making your "contact us" section more prominent on your website during the holiday season. It can also be helpful to tap into other teams for help spreading the word to your customers.
Request that your marketing team send an email to customers that addresses some of the most frequently asked questions and reminds them where to go if they need help.
Ask your social media team to post tips and easy solutions to address common customer problems.
If you have an app, you might even inquire if your engineering team may be able to make getting help through the app more accessible.
Putting some of these proactive outreach measures in place prior to the holiday rush can be critical in saving you time and energy in your busiest season (while also improving your overall customer experience).
If you're in full on holiday planning mode, or are ready to set the foundation for an agile CX team ready to take on all the holiday seasons to come, ArenaCX would love to help. We can help you decide if outsourcing your customer service is the right decision for your team and find you a perfect-fit partner that aligns with your team and your budget.
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