Holiday Shopping Brings Customer Service Challenges

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.

Related articles: A NICE Way to Handle Cranky Holiday Calls As the shopping season approaches, retailers can expect disgruntled customers. A 2006 Online Holiday Spending Projection Thanks to convenience and consumer comfort with online shopping, a report states that this year's online holiday retail sales may touch $27 billion. Viewpoint: 'Tis the Season for Holiday Returns Seven tips for dealing with difficult customers. Getting Carded: An Early Holiday Sales Report Gift cards help retailers beat some holiday sales forecasts, with spending up 8.7 percent. Happy Holiday Marketing "You don't want to wait until next year to see what you should be changing." Shoppers Are Dreaming of a Multichannel Christmas Holiday consumers continue to prefer offline purchasing. Cyber Mondays, So Good to Marketers A new report stresses the importance of marketers understanding consumers' online purchasing habits -- the peaks and valleys -- between Thanksgiving and Christmas. E-Retail's Great Expectations A recent report reveals the best and worst retail Web sites evaluated by online shopping experiences. Thanksgiving, Black Friday, and Cyber Monday Web merchants are offering ways to lure in customers as online retail sales are expected to jump 25 percent this holiday season. Keeping Your Eye on the Presents New technologies from two vendors help shoppers better locate and track gifts this holiday season. Jolly Holidays Businesses gear up in the hope that shoppers soon will be there.
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