As the annual shopping season opens, retailers need to allocate resources more effectively.
Posted Nov 23, 2007
The holiday shopping season is still traditionally said to begin today -- the day (known as "Black Friday") that follows Thanksgiving -- but retail promotions have been pushed earlier and earlier each year. The elongated "peak" period has put additional strain on retailers in general and, in particular, on those retailers' customer service operations as they attempt to address the seasonally high demand.
"As more people shop online, it gets [to be] more of an issue each year," says Steve Morrell, founder of analysis firm ContactBabel. According to a recent JupiterResearch report, online shopping accounts for 5.2 percent of U.S. retail spending, up from 4.1 percent in 2005. (The figure has gone up in each of the last several holiday shopping seasons.)
Online shoppers typically have little alternative other than Web- or phone-based customer service operations for additional product information, returns, or other service issues. Complicating matters further, many offline customers also initially choose those same channels, escalating the drain on these resources during the holiday period.
"I think it's going to be vital to staff the Web-site support area more effectively around the Christmas period--both the email and especially telephone channels in the evening, as people browse for presents but have specific questions that need answering straightaway," Morrell says. "Using outsourcers for out-of-hours and overflow calls is a good way to deal with sales support issues, but currently only 3 percent of U.K. contact centers and 5 percent of U.S. contact centers use outsourcers for these purposes."
To deal with the holiday rush for customer service, Morrell recommends that firms take few steps to make things a little less hectic at the contact center.
"Take a hard look at your company's Web site, in particular the FAQs," Morrell recommends. "Talk to your agents and track the type of calls they are getting. Are they mostly about the returns policy or guaranteed delivery dates? If there's a pattern, put the right information on the Web site or in the IVR announcement and cut the number of unnecessary calls you receive. It may mean you don't have to take on more staff or pay so much overtime if you give the right customer information at the beginning."
Morrell also recommends that firms consider implementing live text chat or instant messaging on their Web sites to deal with the little questions that browsers have.
"It's quicker than email, and an agent can run half-a-dozen chats at the same time, as opposed to one phone call," Morrell explains. "It's more casual for the browser as well, who may just want a quick clarification rather than have to give all of their details and sit in a queue for however long."
The long lines for those who still shop at brick-and-mortar locations can be aided through more self-service options, according to a survey conducted by Opinion Research Corp. on behalf of NCR.
When asked to identify the self-service options that could help alleviate holiday shopping frustrations, product locator kiosks topped the list at 68 percent. Not far behind was return of gifts or purchases (66 percent), followed by gift card kiosks (63 percent), Internet purchasing (59 percent), and checkout (57 percent).
The survey found that 57 percent of consumers are interested in visiting brick-and-mortar retail stores that offer self-service for the purpose of improving customer service, According to NCR, this trend is likely to increase, as indicated by the 72 percent of young adult consumers (aged 18 to 24) who say they look to self-service to improve the overall holiday shopping experience.
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