Preparing for the holiday rush: 7 tips for customer support teams

Preparing for the holiday rush: 7 tips for customer support teams
By Diana Potter | On Nov 18, 2021
4 min read
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It may only be November, but it’s never too early to prepare for your holiday support needs. In fact, depending on your customer base, you might already be running a little behind, which is why we suggest you start planning for 2022 now — no, really!

The period from Black Friday until just after New Year’s Day is intense in the best of years. During an ongoing pandemic, with the increasing popularity of ecommerce, it’s going to be even more challenging than usual.

Typically, we recommend you prepare year-round so you can respond to lessons you learned in previous years. Plus, you’ll want to ensure your team is in place and trained, running like a well-oiled machine, before the holiday rush begins.

Regardless of whether you’re just starting now or you’re revising your existing game plan, here are our seven best tips to help you prepare.

1. Come up with a plan early

The key to good support planning is having a mental model of your typical year. If you’re in ecommerce, you probably already know that certain months are busier than others, and, if you’re supporting a software product, you likely know your engineering team’s release schedule. Understanding this fluctuating demand for customer support can help you start to anticipate the issues your team might face over the holidays.

Create an outline of what the year might look like and how your support team will handle it. We recommend you do this at the beginning of the year (calendar or fiscal), but if you haven’t done this already, start today. You’ll iterate on this document over time to finetune it, but this is your starting point. (If you’re interested in learning more about planning, stay tuned for an upcoming post.)

2. Look at historical trends to project your needs

While history may be… history, it’s still useful to help you predict where this season might go. Start by reviewing your data from the last year or two. This will give you a sense of how much your team can accomplish given its current size. 

Pay close attention to your volume and how it changes throughout the year. And review other metrics that can help you track your team’s performance, such as: 

  • response times 
  • average handle time 
  • types of support tickets
  • Customer Satisfaction Score (CSAT)
  • the percentage of purchases or user sessions that lead to a contact
  • current purchase volume
  • current traffic volume

If you’re looking at response or handle times, break those down by team tenure as well. This way you have an idea of how a newer team member performs versus someone who has been with the team longer. If you’re adding new staff for coverage, you’ll want to be able to project their capabilities based on team members with a similar amount of experience in your environment.

The goal is to know “if this happens, I’ll have this many support tickets and they’ll take this much time to resolve.” Based on this knowledge and your company forecasts for the season, you can project your support team needs. Don’t forget to add a buffer for unexpected situations, sick leave, and vacations.

3. Scale your team appropriately

Once you’ve finished your projections, you should have an estimate of how many hours per week you need for queue coverage. Your next step is to decide if your existing team can handle the workload. Can their hours (if part-time) be increased to cover fluctuations? If so, start working on potential schedules and black-out periods.

Odds are, if you have a seasonal business, you’ll need additional team members. If you already work with a staffing agency or business processing outsourcing (BPO), this is the time to contact them. If you typically hire directly, post your job listings online as soon as possible. Otherwise, reach out to temp agencies for less specialized hiring, or work with a support-specific company, such as xFusion, Influx, Partnerhero, FlightCX, Boldr, Modsquad, and others. Or, you could hire through a platform like Upwork or even Fiverr in a pinch.

If you’re adding new team members, remember to factor in the amount of training they’ll need and how much time it will take before they’re fully productive in their role. You might need to hire more support agents than you think if you have complex needs that require extended training.

4. Update your FAQs

Self-service is vital when you’re scaling, even if that scaling is for seasonal reasons. It’s often the first stop for your customers, so the more FAQ resources you provide, the lower the burden on your team. If you don’t already have some basic customer education or frequently asked questions on your company’s website, bookmark this post so you can come back to it later, and go create your FAQs now!

For ecommerce companies, as a bare minimum you’ll need to include details about ordering, shipping costs and timelines, refunds, gift ordering, and everything related to buying your products online. For those in software or services, you’ll also need to include answers to basic questions about your service. You can get a good sense of which questions need answers by reviewing the last 50–100 questions you received from customers.

Don’t forget to review your FAQs or other customer documentation periodically to ensure everything is still accurate. We suggest at least once a month, but for critical information like shipping timelines, a more frequent cadence might be better. Even for things that don’t change often, like your refund policies, we still recommend a monthly review.

5. Make contingency plans

There are many things you can’t predict, but it’s worthwhile anticipating potential issues as much as you can. 2020 has taught us all that things don’t always go the way you expect.

Here are a few things to consider:

  • What if there’s a shipping or supply chain slowdown?
  • What if a new product has issues?
  • What if there’s an outage that takes your software down for three hours? 
  • What if half your support team is out sick at the same time?

You don’t need to plan specifically for each possibility, but it’s useful to have some potential solutions available. For example, you could authorize overtime if you suddenly need more staff hours, offer a discount on future orders to make up for product issues, or inform your customers of unavoidable delays to manage their expectations.

Now is a good time to work with company leadership to decide how you’ll handle these things. Whether you hold meetings or sync offline with the rest of the team, the important thing is to discuss general emergency themes and possible solutions. Then write it all down and store it with your policies.

If something goes wrong, you’ll know that decisions have already been made to extend return periods or offer free shipping upgrades. You can then focus on figuring out the logistics and putting things into action without slowing down to discuss the issue with everyone in leadership first.

6. Don’t make big or non-essential changes

TestBox is a company that’s all about helping you try out and switch platforms, but this is the one time of year we don’t encourage you to implement a new solution. If you’re heading into a busy period, the last thing you need is to be learning new tools or risking an issue occurring. 

We recommend putting a blackout period on your calendar for when things need to stay the same. Keep in mind both your own blackout periods and those of your customers. If you know that mid-November to the end of the year is when all your customers are actively using your software, that’s a bad time to implement new processes or features. Changes should come before the busy period so everyone can adjust and be ready. That doesn’t mean you have to refuse essential changes. But you should keep in mind what is or isn’t avoidable and then avoid whatever you can.

7. Take some time off

This might seem counterintuitive, but the simple fact is that the period from late November until mid-January tends to include long hours and not enough rest. The end of October and the beginning of November is the perfect time for you and your entire team to take a bit of time off (unless you’re a Halloween store, in which case enjoy December!). Work together to plan a schedule of breaks. Then get some R&R. Don’t burn yourself out before the race begins.

In conclusion

We hope this has given you some food for thought and areas to work on before the holiday rush. If it’s too late for your team for this year, think about starting now to prepare for next year. And stay tuned for our recommendations for dealing with problems and planning ahead.

As always, if you’re struggling with an issue or there’s something you want to learn more about, let us know. Leave a comment on Linkedin or reach out via email. We’d love to understand what information you’re seeking!

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Diana Potter

Diana is a support, success, and experience leader. She’s currently the Head of Customer Experience for Qwilr and previously led customer departments for a number of leading companies. When she’s not writing or helping customers you’ll find her off in the woods taking photos or curled up with a book.

TestBox empowers you to have a self-serve, customer-led experience so you can buy new software and feel confident that you made the right choice. Currently focused on Customer Support, TestBox allows you to test out Zendesk, Freshdesk, HubSpot, Dixa, and other products side-by-side. It takes a matter of minutes to sign up and take these products for a test drive. Find out more at TestBox.com or follow on LinkedIn.

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