Peak season in Customer Service:
A nightmare before Christmas

9 min read
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Artwork by Nicolae Negura

On a scale of 1 to 10, how much do you like Christmas? I personally love everything about it: the lights, the food, the annual Michael Bublé appearance. Everything except for the fact that I need to travel 300km to get home to my family. Have you ever been on a train from Lisbon to Porto during rush hour, that is, any Friday late afternoon? I’ll try to describe it for you.

What seems to be the entire population of a small village is standing on the platform, waiting for the train to arrive and hoping their assigned car will stop right in front of them. When it doesn’t, people start running like maniacs, unaware that the train won’t leave without them. Once onboard, they struggle to find their seats. I don’t blame them because, on Portuguese trains, seat 22 will be right next to seat 76, and you just have to deal with it. Finally, after everyone has settled down, someone decides to eat the fried pork cutlet sandwich they brought along and make the whole place stink of fried meat for at least 3 hours, plus the amount of time the train will inevitably be delayed for.

Portuguese trains are my personal hell. Now imagine this with the added Christmas bonus. There’s not only the usual amount of people and bags, but also extra luggage, pets (yay!) and presents. Plus everyone is super stressed out and just dying to get home. The whole scenario makes my anxiety flare up.

I’m guessing a lot of us have our own Christmas pet peeves. For me it’s the trip home and for a significant number of people it’s the endless loop of Mariah Carey’s high-pitched voice. For anyone involved in dealing with customers this time of year, it’s most likely the consumer frenzy that’s powering the whole season.

Year after year it’s the same routine

As customers, we all know how hectic Christmas can be. Even though we promised ourselves we would be more organized this year and get all the shopping done on Black Friday, we make the same mistake again and suddenly find it’s the 20th of December and we have no presents to lavish on our teary-eyed mothers. It’s very easy to get into the spirit of the season while sipping on mulled wine by the fireplace, but it’s just as easy to go full-Grinch when gift orders get delayed. I can’t be the only one who starts emailing companies if it’s one day after the estimated delivery date and my package still isn’t there. We tend to forget that, on the other side of the computer, there’s another person who probably hasn’t gotten their shopping done, either, and who might not even be able to go home for Christmas.

A while back, we had a chat with Raquel Jacob, our Director of Operations, about customer centricity and other topics related to customer service. A big chunk of the conversation focused on motivation and how it can easily fall off the wagon during peak season. Agents are not only dealing with impatient customers that can get very angry very fast, but they’re also managing their own expectations about Christmas. Will they have to work through the holidays or will they be able to take a few days off to enjoy it?

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We’re making a list

As a manager, you need to make sure your team will power through the season and make it to the other side as motivated as during the rest of the year. Raquel has a few tips on how to do this.

1. Plan ahead

There is no such thing as “too soon” when it comes to preparing for the holiday shopping spree. Some say it should be a yearlong initiative and that the best time to start thinking about the next peak season is right after the current one ends.

The main challenge for businesses during peak season is to keep the same response times and customer satisfaction levels as throughout the rest of the year. If agents become overwhelmed by work, this will be unachievable. So you might have to hire more people specifically to handle the request increase of the holidays.

When doing so, you need to keep in mind that your temporary staff probably won’t have the same full skillset as your permanent, long-term agents. You should assign them the easier, routine tasks, and leave your experienced agents to work on the critical requests.

Regardless of what kind of tasks they handle, they will always need some degree of training before being able to put their hands to work. A way to keep your team motivated is to involve some of the more senior agents in this training, making them feel like their expertise is valued and worth passing on to the new hires.

2. Get people involved

Your agents are among the few people in the business who are in touch with customers on a daily basis. More than anyone, they are able to collect important feedback not only about your service, but also about your product, user interface, marketing strategies, and a lot more. So ideally they would have to be part of your solution for a better customer service.

Data is important to analyze and understand past results to see what solutions you can implement again or where you need to improve, but gathering feedback from your agents is just as valuable. They will most likely also be able to give good insights into previous peak seasons. Agents have a better notion of the work volume, of the channels it came in through (email, phone or chat) and of when they were busiest throughout the days. They’re the ones replying to the customers, so most of the time, they know this a lot better than their managers.

Let’s say an agent complains about having felt overwhelmed during lunchtimes before, because he or she was the only person covering this schedule while everyone else was out. In that case, you need to make sure you have enough people to have a bigger team in place instead of just the one person who will not be able to provide service at their usual level.

Ultimately, those who work closely with your customers have significant input on where the business is heading. So make sure they are part of the decision making process.

3. Communicate and be transparent

Breaking bad news to someone is never easy, but you will want to do it sooner rather than later. Be honest with your team about the work volume increase you are expecting and the possibility of not all of them being able to take days off during the holidays.

This can become especially tricky if you manage an international team. Take Trivago, for example. People from all around the world work there, which means that Carolin Wilms, Customer Service Team Lead Europe and LatAm, starts addressing the “topic of Christmas” as soon as possible, to make sure that everyone agrees on who will be working at what time. This way, she can try to comply with people’s wishes as best as possible while still guaranteeing a seamless coverage.

As with the rest of the planning around peak season, this is important to guarantee your team’s happiness. If they really need to work over Christmas, why not give them the chance to work remotely? Or give them a week off right after, so they can take a well-deserved break?

I fully understand if my team wants to take the holiday season off to spend time with their family and since we have such an international team, they also want to use the time to fly back home. So it’s important to find a fair balance between ensuring coverage and team’s (Christmas) wishes.

Carolin Wilms, Customer Service Team Lead Europe and LatAm at Trivago

4. Take a break

There can be a lot of negativity in customer service. People get mad, they complain and bring your agents down. During times of increased ticket volume, it can really drain all their energy. It’s important to remind your team to take a break.

Raquel Jacob recalls a time when she was managing a customer service team. She would gather her agents, they would stop working for 15 minutes, regardless of how many tickets they had in their backlog, and focus on a different dilemma. They would simply come up with a random question or a topic they wanted to discuss and focus on that. It had nothing to do with work, but it helped clear their minds for a few minutes, helping them feel more relaxed and ready to tackle the next round of emails.

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Santa Claus or Sandy Claws?

We hear a lot about how customers are always right and they should always come first. More so than during the rest of the year, the period before Christmas is especially stressful for customers, who will pass the pressure they’re feeling about getting everything right along to the agents who are assisting them. If the customer service team is not prepared to handle the increased number of requests, or they feel unmotivated to do so, it might have a negative impact on business and on a lot of people’s holiday seasons.

So maybe, in an attempt to avoid becoming the evil character who ruins the party for everyone, you should focus on your own people first. You can have the best, most efficient and customer-friendly processes in the world, but everything will fall apart if your team is demotivated, unhappy, or not working well together.

Christmas really is the most wonderful time of the year, so let’s not let angry customers, overworked agents and crowded trains ruin it.

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