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Keeping sane during Black Friday: How to handle the impact of big retail events on service and support

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/lenetstan)

Black Friday has become a big deal in the retail calendar. From its roots around the United States Thanksgiving holiday, it’s become an international event similar to China’s Singles Day or Christmas. In the UK, research from the Centre for Retail Research and estimated that Black Friday sales would be around £2.44 billion in 2018, with online sales responsible for just over £1 billion of that total.

This increase in sales is matched by an increase in requests for support and service. When customers buy goods – or when they are thinking about that great deal but want more information – they will naturally reach out for more information. According to our own data, the following changes in help-desk requests took place:

  • We saw the overall incoming ticket volume increase by 70 per cent during the Black Friday season, which we defined as 15 days prior to Black Friday through to 15 days after. This is in comparison to the normal volume of tickets raised during regular business days.
  • We saw a change in the channels that customers chose to use as well. Customers are adopting chat or messaging channels more during the Black Friday period. For example, there is an overall spike in contacts through chat of around 86 per cent compared to our standard level of activity. This level of activity is also constantly increasing, as more brands adopt conversational messaging platforms and more customers choose this channel as their preference for service.
  • Alongside the increase in sales during Black Friday, there is also a spike in incoming queries and complaints. Due to the potential increases in the time taken to react to these requests, customers are reaching out to brands publicly through social media. The result of this is that there is an increase of 42 per cent in tickets logged as support requests through Twitter and Facebook

The main takeaway from these observations is that a big sales event will lead to more support requests, so preparing in advance is critical. In our experience, brands do add more staff and resources in the run-up to Black Friday – typically, around 33 per cent of companies add staff specifically to deal with the increase in ticket volumes.

Coping with the deluge

Alongside adding more staff, there are some other steps that you can take to improve your customer service around major retail events like Black Friday. These cover the whole gamut of how you run service and support operations, from technology to process and people.

On the technology side, it’s worth evaluating your customer relationship management and help-desk systems. Are they helping you support customers effectively? Do they support all the channels that you operate on as a business, and do they integrate all this data into one place? A Forrester Research survey conducted earlier this year found that 25 per cent of all companies running cloud CRM services are already looking at changing their CRM tools to ones that are more user-friendly.

For many teams that operate across email, phone, live chat and social channels, managing interactions and tickets can be made more difficult as each channel has its own tools or approaches. This can lead to work getting duplicated where customers have to explain their requirements multiple times to different agents, or longer response times during busy periods. Consolidating all customer requests and tickets into one place should make it simpler to respond around issues and fix them more efficiently.

The other benefit of this consolidation is that it should make it easier to see all customer service activities and report on the results. This data can demonstrate that the team is working efficiently, and it can also show where common issues or problems exist. In turn, this can make it easier to deal with larger numbers of common problems through updating Frequently Asked Questions guides, providing video instructions or sending other materials that can help people help themselves.

For customer service teams, consolidation can also apply through collaboration with the sales team and their IT systems. Rather than having separate views of a customer in different applications, this data should be consolidated so that everything is in one place. Getting a full picture of a customer’s history can help identify potential problems faster and make it easier to get up to speed for those temporary staff that are being hired to help with the extra volume of requests. This joined-up approach makes customer support easier in general and also improves the overall experience for the customer.

Alongside providing the right tools, it’s worth looking at processes that are taking place around customer interaction. Are there steps that can be automated to make support agents more productive even when they are under pressure? Alternatively, can AI tools like chatbots take over some of the common issues and recommend the right documents or fixes automatically? Chatbots can help deflect simple requests from needing a human agent to follow up, as self-service tools can step in instead. This can reduce the overall volume of requests.

Looking at your data, you can see where issues cause the most problems for staff and for customers. Over time, this data can be used to inform other stakeholders within the business, so that products can be updated or changed to meet customer demands. This engagement with other members of the business can help improve results overall.

Thinking about the people involved in providing service

Alongside investing in technology and better processes, it’s also worth looking at the people on the frontline of service. Your help-desk agents are effectively the face of the business during any incident, so helping them do the best job possible should be a simple decision for investment. However, this is sometimes not the case.

Equipping your people to do the best job possible involves looking at training and support. For companies adding more staff in response to events like Black Friday, training on products and customer handling should be essential. However, it is all too easy to overlook certain steps in the rush to get ready for an event like Black Friday. Making your support easy to deliver in the first place can help here. Ease of use around support tools should be top of mind, while confirming your issue escalation and collaboration processes early can make the handover process easier over time. By looking at how to make life easier for support staff to do good work, customer experiences can be improved even during testing times.

During busy and stressful periods, it is all too easy for customers and for business stakeholders to forget that customer support agents are people too, subject to the same strains and pressure. It’s therefore important to recognise that these times can have an impact on staff. Mental health can be a serious problem for IT support staff, leading to attrition and poor performance.

It is therefore worth putting an official debrief period in place after an event like Black Friday, where agents can share their thoughts and experiences. Not only can this help agents go through what they achieved and where there were opportunities to improve, it can also provide senior staff with the opportunity to recognise the work that these agents have put in and reward that work appropriately. This can help demonstrate that the company cares about its team and the results they deliver.

Providing the best service

During this busy time of year, it is all too simple to overlook the job that customer support and service teams carry out. Yet without this team, retailers will suffer through poor customer experience and reduced sales. By investing in better customer experience and engagement across the three elements – technology, processes and people – retailers should be able to achieve better results. More importantly, it will improve their teams’ morale and mental health during a particularly stressful time of year.

Simon Johnson, General Manager UK and Ireland, Freshworks (opens in new tab)
Image source: Shutterstock/lenetstan

Simon Johnson is General Manager UK and Ireland at Freshworks. He is responsible for helping customers with their strategic service desk, help desk and customer experience projects.