The Gift and the Curse: Handling Holiday Customer Service Surges

November 19, 2020

Q4 is the most wonderful — and challenging — time of the year for many businesses. While the holiday season often ushers retailers and other companies out of the red and into the black, the uptick in sales volumes also leads to a corresponding uptick in customer service requests. eMarketer forecast that 2020’s retail sales would total $1.3 trillion in the U.S., an increase of 0.9% versus 2019. While that’s not a massive increase, there are several other dynamics in play that made this holiday season one very few of us will forget.

The pandemic’s effects on holiday retail

For starters, ecommerce was projected to account for a much larger share than normal, given the circumstances of the pandemic: With a 35.8% jump to about $190 billion, ecommerce was expected to represent around 18.8% of total retail sales. Some online retailers — such as Amazon — were projected to do even better than the ecomm average. Amazon’s Prime Day already smashed previous records, bringing in $10.4 billion (even more than the $9.91 billion predicted).

Many businesses also shifted their traditional Black Friday sales earlier or spread them out over a longer period of time due to delayed shipping and the relatively short shopping window between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

According to our partner Freshdesk, during the holiday season, websites receive 63% more traffic on average, and customer service queries typically increase by about 75%. This could tick up even higher throughout 2021 with potential shipping delays factored in.

On a more personal note, those who were fortunate to keep their jobs might have had more disposable income than usual. Plus, given the pandemic, time spent with family and friends was likely to be minimal or nonexistent. Gifts may have been seen as the best way to treat ourselves and our loved ones to something resembling “normal” holiday cheer.

All that to say, for customer service leaders, Q4 2020 was quite the wild ride. Here are a few tips from our team on how to handle the end of the year’s customer service roller coaster.

Bracing for the holiday customer service surge

Responding to queries in a timely manner and keeping CSAT high gets proportionately harder with every extra inquiry putting strain on customer service operations. Surges that happen unexpectedly or on a different timetable than anticipated can throw another wrench into plans.

In the past, there was a relatively simple solution for this challenge. Just as brick and mortar retailers would hire extra seasonal help to man packed storefronts, customer service centers would hire short-term workers and students who were delighted to make some extra cash over the holiday break.

Hiring seasonal workers was actually easier in late 2020, if you can believe that: Amazon reportedly picked up 100,000 more workers for seasonal jobs. But while it’s fairly straightforward to train delivery drivers and warehouse workers, as you know, it’s more complicated to onboard and train customer service center employees. As the second wave of the coronavirus hits the U.S. and Europe particularly hard, the challenge is only magnified.

The good news

It’s not all doom and gloom, fortunately. We have seen many companies using these novel conditions as an impetus to think differently and try out more distributive strategies. Technology has opened up new options for the global chess game that is customer service.

In particular, COVID has taught many businesses that it pays to be flexible and nimble about where your customer service teams are located. With the advent of AI translations technology, it really doesn’t matter where your teams are or what languages they speak. Anyone can be empowered to respond to a customer service inquiry in any language with the use of machine translation. This is true all the time, but it is rarely so magnified as during the holiday season.

To that end, here are a few examples of retailers who are using machine translation technology to scale up and down flexibly in response to customer service surges.

Daniel Wellington

This Swedish watch company is well-known for its modern, sleek timepiece designs, interchangeable straps, and excellent value. They have earned the distinction of being the fastest growing business in Europe, and growth exceeded 4500% over three years. As you might imagine, with rapid growth comes customer service surges.

As Daniel Wellington expanded abroad, they had to find ways to cover new languages and deal with fluctuating demand, similar to what many retailers face during the holiday season.

They turned to Unbabel via its Zendesk integration to support global customers without leaving their preferred CRM. Now they’re able to keep up with demand in every language, and have increased CSAT scores by 3% while driving up CSAT response rates from 9% to 21%. They’ve even been able to increase their success in “long-tail” markets that would otherwise be too expensive to service.


This company offers both hardware and software to help travelers navigate using satellite-powered maps. Their goal is to create a cleaner, less congested world.

Of course, they aren’t the only map provider on the market, and they were facing stiff competition from the mobile segment. They knew they needed to deliver customer service excellence faster and more cost-effectively to maintain market share. However, hiring native speakers for seasonal spikes wasn’t sustainable — as many retailers have learned the hard way during the holiday season.

To solve this, TomTom integrated Unbabel via its API to enable their support team in India to launch multilingual support quickly. Just one year later, TomTom saw support costs drop 20% and CSAT rise 12% while reducing email TAT by 42% overall and decreasing chat abandonment rate by 10%. They are a perfect example of how machine translation can help retailers respond to spikes in demand during the holidays.


Another Swiss brand, Logitech offers technology products for music, gaming, video, and computing. Their webcams and other computer peripherals have been particularly popular to power 2020’s work-from-home dynamics.

Logitech knew they needed to provide multilingual support to their global customer base. However, when they tried out online generic machine translation tools, they quickly realized these did not power the quality and scale needed to keep their customers happy.

That’s when Logitech leaned on Unbabel to support their expansion of sub-brands into APAC and EMEA. Unbabel makes it easy for Logitech to respond to customers using a consistent tone of voice and accurate product terminology, no matter the language or location. This led to a 20% increase in CSAT and a 50% reduction in first response time as they expanded support across their sub-brands. Retailers looking to address more markets during the holiday season without skyrocketing customer service costs can learn a lot from Logitech’s approach.

What 2020 taught us about customer service surges

It’s no secret that 2020 has rapidly increased the pace of digital transformation worldwide, and this change has impacted retailers alongside every other type of business. The holiday season was the ultimate test of which companies have moved fast enough to respond to these seismic shifts while maintaining customer service quality. Let’s hope the lessons of 2020 will carry us into 2021 with more resilience and agility than ever before.

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