Peak season: A hard day’s night for customer support

August 23, 2018

It’s that time of the year! People are spending, money is coming in, your business is booming. What could go wrong? Everything, really.

For some industries, there’s this relatively short period of time when you get to radically increase your revenue. This can be the holiday season for travel or Christmas for retail. And it all sounds great, until the moment you actually realise what’s coming your way — meaning a ginormous volume of customer support tickets, requests, phone calls, live chat messages, that makes you scream in despair at the end of a very long day: ‘Where are all these people coming from? What do they want from me?’.

Peak seasons are an exciting and stressful time for customer support (I guess like a Hard Day’s Night for the Beatles), and this is why you need to know exactly what you’re doing and prepare your team for the times ahead.

In my role as the Director of Customer Operations at Unbabel, I helped companies like Under Armour, Pinterest and Skyscanner scale their customer service teams across multiple markets and deal with crazy amounts of queries. I have also been through many peak seasons myself, enough to understand the mistakes that were made and how to move forward.

And if my experience stands for anything is that the people who are working in customer care should be the priority. Although that’s not usually the case.

If you’re a customer support leader or a CS agent, you’ll probably get this quote I read in an article on First Round Review the other day:

If building a company were like planning a wedding, customer service is frequently the second cousin who’s invited when slots open up on the attendee list.

Yeah, I know that hurts a little. But that’s how most people see customer service. And yet it is a company’s most direct line to customers that at peak times, can represent an organisation up to 60 times an hour. A hell of a second cousin if you ask me.

However, getting customer support right is no easy task (let alone in peak season). You need to know where to look and focus. There’s no such thing as a silver bullet, but if there’s anything that comes close is your CS team.

I truly believe that the secret sauce to a great customer experience is actually the people who provide it. Managing a team of even the most talented customer support professionals can be difficult, and even more during peak seasons. 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. Happy employees lead to happy customers.

You might be thinking “Hmm Raquel, that’s easy peasy lemon squeezy.” In fact, this is not as easy as it seems and during peak seasons the risk of ending up with a burnout, and highly uninspired and tired team is huge.

Now, for most companies the main challenges during peak seasons can be summarised in two:

  1. Keeping the same response times and level of customer satisfaction
  2. Keeping a small team and operations lean

But how can you tackle this when all odds are against you?

Customer support calendar

1. Plan and be ahead of the game

Seasonal customers are highly impatient, and the longer they wait for an issue to get fixed, the edgier they become. Plan ahead and prepare your team to create a great experience for customers.

Communicate. Train. Empower.

Gear up your customer support team with information, tools, training and empower them to make sure you exceed customer expectations. Get the team ready for a high volume of queries. Avoid overwhelming your team and cluttering your inbox with disappointed customers.

Make sure your team receives hands-on experience with each product to learn about all the features, benefits and operational functions. I strongly advise you to build (if you haven’t already) an easy-to-search product database filled with FAQs, step-by-step installation instructions, troubleshooting guides, operations manuals and product photos.

Predict the future

Get your Sherlock Holmes mode on.

Dig deep into your message volume by day and hour and analyse the busiest times for support requests. Check out which channels customers are using more often. Then use this insight to help you identify the speed at which you need to respond.

For example, 32% percent of the customers who contact you on social media expect a response within 30 minutes, and 42% within 60 minutes (starting to feel the pressure as I write this). By having a full view of where and when your customers are likely to contact you — both you and your agents are empowered to tackle the busiest times, keep on top of the volume and create a smart workflow for the most active support times.

Automate what you can

A great way to handle the surge in volume and keep your response times is by automating replies to your most common support queries. The advantage of using templates is that you only need to write it once and then you’re good to go. Use these templates to automate responses to specific customer support queries, or to speed up individual messages.

Oh, and remember to make sure that your self-service options are up to date as 81% of all customers will try to find their own solution before reaching out to a customer support agent. And if you’re wondering how to get self-service right this blog post might come in handy.

Get ready to hire

Hiring can be a big part of your peak season planning as you’ll need all hands on deck. Some companies hire temps during peak seasons (and here’s the kind of professionals you should be looking for). Others, decide to outsource their front line customer support effort to a BPO. Both options are time-consuming so make sure you plan ahead in order to have time to pick the best solution for your business and then implement it.

Customer support peak season problems

2. Hit the ground running

It’s time to shine and go from theory to practice. Peak season demands your full attention.

Provide the best possible experience to your customers and take this opportunity to build brand loyalty. It’s all about being personal, transparent, and reducing the work your customers must do to get their problems solved.

Be personal. Be transparent.

I can’t stress this enough, take the time to add the human touch every step of the way. It’s just like Dale Carnegie said in his book “How to Win Friends and Influence People”: “remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language”. And it breaks my heart to read that 70% of brands are failing to send personalised emails.

One of the main reasons why you automate certain processes before you’re hit with the peak season is to allow you to have more time to recognise your customer as an individual. Customers are extremely likely to switch brands if they feel like they’re being treated like a number (according to this report from Salesforce). So humanise all your responses.

Remember that your customer would rather relate to you as a person other than a faceless company. Encourage and empower your agents to go the extra mile.

Focus on solving the hardest issues

Because of self-service technologies and artificial intelligence tools that improve customer experience, support agents are getting to the issues customers can’t solve on their own. This means that your team is under constant crossfire and dealing with the complex problems that machines can’t solve.

Your team should be focused and prepared to solve the most complicated issues because that’s where the real challenge lies. Let them take control of the situation and guide your customers through the best possible experience, which in this case is getting the problem solved fast.

If you are a customer support leader, be on the ground. Roll up your sleeves and help wherever is needed. Keep a close eye on what’s happening. Be quick to iterate processes that are not working or need improvement. If something’s wrong with the product or any particular feature let the other teams know as soon as possible so that they can take action and prevent the same problems from happening over and over again. Feedback is everything.

Air planes queueing up

3. Look back (but not in anger)

Don’t be a hermit. It’s not enough to sit in a room, pulling the strings, making decisions and letting them trickle down. Now is the time to ask your team for feedback. What could we have done better? What MUST we do next time?

The main takeaways from peak season should also be shared across the company, as it can help you make strategic decisions that are not just related to customer support. They help you identify and create opportunities, understand your current customers and employee satisfaction and can have a major impact on how your product evolves. The whole company has a lot to learn from this.

And if it helps, make a poster with the key outcomes and lessons learned from the previous peak season, and put it up while you plan for the next one.

In the end, it all comes to down to how well prepared your team is. Regardless of results or seasonality, your customer support team should be ready for whatever happens. Having a committed and passionate team is halfway to success, and if you manage to get that then everything else will fall into place — even in peak season.

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