Holiday season service lessons for retailers

Retailers typically take something of a hit to their customer service satisfaction levels during the holiday shopping season, due to the high volumes handled during that time. But Zendesk‘s latest benchmark report shows that customer service staffing was especially overloaded in 4Q13, with a resultant, oversized drop in customer satisfaction:

  • The sequential volume of tickets handled per agent was up 42% for 4Q13, compared to just a 34% increase in 4Q12; and,
  • As a result, customer satisfaction was down 6% sequentially in 4Q13, compared to just a 2% drop in 4Q12.

Zendesk compiles these results based on the service records of the 16,000 companies among the 40,000 customers of its customer service platform that participate in the benchmarking.
Inadequate anticipation of and preparation for demand
The trouble was that many retailers hadn’t adequately anticipated demand and ramped up staffing accordingly. According to Sam Boonin, Zendesk’s VP of Products, some large catalog-sales retailers are quite sophisticated in anticipating demand based on the mailing and return patterns of their catalogs, but e-commerce firms can have a harder time predicting demand.
So what can be done about it?
There are several ways that retailers can prepare to better satisfy their customers through the next holiday season:

  • Think strategically with a longer lead time. As Sam points out, service departments are not used to thinking strategically with the lead times by which retail marketing departments, for example, are already preparing for Christmas 2014. Better technological, tactical, and hiring solutions all need planning in advance.
  • Use technology to segment and triage service response. By targeting high-value customers, those nearing a subscription renewal, or other factors by which customers can be segmented for the level of support to be provided, retailers can minimize the damage if their staff and system experience an overload.
  • Test solutions in advance. Just as marketing departments have become adept at A/B testing of mailings, campaigns, and the like, service departments need to leverage the ability to similarly track trials before launching full-scale changes to their support processes.
  • Use technology to optimize specialization among agents. Increased efficiency can be achieved in part by tapping the specialized skills and experience of agents to handle returns, account inquiries, or other functions via the routing of tickets.
  • Stay ahead of customers’ rising expectations of service. Zendesk benchmarking has previously shown that customers are expecting seamless, omnichannel support across in-store, on-line and phone interactions. Leading retailers are upping the ante on customer service by providing unexpected value, such as personal-shopper, stylist-level knowledge and advice on products over the phone. Retailers as always have to balance costs with premium service, but the integration of an online knowledge-base and community with exceptional telephone support is enabling some retailers to manage costs while differentiating themselves with an old-fashioned level of service.