Every year organizations invest millions to deliver a high-quality customer experience (CX) during their seasonal periods.
There’s a reason for that: Retail sales hit a record of $6 trillion in 2018, according to the U.S. Census. That’s better than the pre-recession high of $4.4 trillion spent in 2007. It’s also a 50% increase from 2009’s record low of $4.06 trillion.
Department store sales rose by 1.2%. Department store sales were down 5.5% since last year. That’s due to strong competition from online retailers. Their sales were up 14.2% over last year.
These are just two examples – but with a strong economy putting more money in your customers’ pockets, their propensity to buy, travel, or make other purchases during these peak periods is expected to grow.
Increasingly I’m hearing the question, “Do we need to be thinking differently in order to do this better next year?”
Heightened pressure, heightened investment… mediocre results?
During these influxes in business, it’s not uncommon for organizations to more than double their staff to handle volumes, sometimes requiring 5,000+ extra agents to help cover the seasonal bump… at a cost of over $15 million… just in training!
But despite these extra agents and the enormous investment – the crushing truth is that usually there is still a massive amount of friction… and not just for the customer.
Time and time again, organizations are losing customers to the black hole of wait times and inefficient processes during their seasonal bumps.
We all know that today’s consumers often have an overwhelming choice, so even with the best forecasting and planning for your CX, change will inevitably happen. And when today’s customers are unhappy they are much quicker to act, with 50% of customers severing ties with a company immediately after a bad sales/marketing experience.
Yet… is this how it has to be? It’s time to do this differently.
Whether your peak volume period lasts a few weeks or several months, there is a multitude of ways you can smooth out the workload. And if you consider these changes in your planning for next year, you’ll undoubtedly be in much better shape to handle peak season.
The following are a few approaches that have worked successfully for many of my clients:
Review/revise your IVR
Human nature drives us to select the path of least resistance. If an interactive voice response (IVR) system is difficult to use, customers either hang up or zero out to an agent, raising inbound call volume and prolonging average handle time.
When IVR systems are programmed to communicate business hours, billing information, and even certain types of account information, CX can be significantly improved without sacrificing functionality. If a customer is calling for something as simple as paying their bill, they can avoid long hold times by selecting the “pay my bill” self-service option.
If you know the reason for the spike in call volumes – e.g., during the tax season – another proactive approach you can take is to add a message during the hold time that will most likely answer their question – such as that tax forms will be mailed on “xx” date.
Bottom line, take a look at your IVR flow, and how it is driving calls into different queues to optimize the user experience.
Are you using proactive notifications to head off problems like delivery delays, stock shortages, billing or flight delays? In a survey conducted by Wakefield Research, 63% of U.S. consumers felt critical customer service issues could have been avoided if companies had contacted them earlier. Proactive outreach can improve customer satisfaction by anticipating needs specific to the customer, especially if companies can deliver outbound messages via their preferred channels. This is a key aspect of personalizing the experience that makes the customer feel valued, even though the notifications are automated.
Forecasting: Variability should not be confused with unpredictability
Forecasting is the most important tool that businesses can use to anticipate a spike in volume. Collecting a substantial amount of data, which can then be used to put together a predictive model, is essential to developing an accurate forecasting process. But let’s not forget that forecasting is just as much an art as a science – because we are, after all, predicting the future. The accuracy of your forecast will be due in some part to your judgement and experience.
The first thing my team does with clients during the planning process is ask them for historical forecasts by half-hour intervals for the entire year (two years is even better!). We also request a schedule from their marketing departments for upcoming promotions, as well as any other factors that may impact call volume (e.g. social media strategy, billing changes). Variability in call arrival patterns in most cases can be attributed to these events. If you can account for them, you can in fact, predict the calls that will result. You can then decide whether you want to overstaff slightly and fill in the quieter times with other tasks or whether you want to understaff slightly.
Having inflexible channels driven by legacy systems and tools with scripting and code that must be locked down months in advance is a recipe for the same mediocre results – and a loss of customer loyalty. Cloud based application programming interfaces (APIs– basically software building blocks) are a great way to quickly add new features and channels as you need them. Combining cloud-based APIs with real-time data analysis will help your company make and implement strategic decisions at the moment of awareness. So if you are in the market for a major switch or IVR upgrade, consider a cloud-based solution without CAPEX (with pay as you go, based on demand).
Maybe it’s time for you to take a look at how flexible and proactive your customer care organization is so you can meet the unexpected demands of this year’s busy season.
About the Author
As a senior marketing & communications leader at VXI Global Solutions, Peter Mullen brings a passion for accelerating the commercial value of products and driving mass-consumer adoption (millions). Equally comfortable building and managing teams or rolling up his sleeves with startup energy.