Holiday 2017 Retail Checklist: Is Your Customer Service Ready?

The holiday rush is almost here. As always, we’re curious to see how the 30 retailers in our StellaService Ecommerce Index—the biggest and best names in ecommerce—measure up this year.

We admit it: we’re obsessed with data. We want to know exactly what’s happening from a customer service perspective. But we’re equally focused on what retailers go through behind the scenes. We know you probably have a few issues weighing on you. Perhaps you’re wondering if others share your concerns.

This year, we decided to do something new: survey retailers about what they expect to happen this holiday season and what worries them most. Here, we’ll layer the survey results with past service performance data so you’ll know exactly where to focus your attention and efforts.

This Year, Being Understaffed Is Retailers’ Biggest Worry

Staffing is critical during the peak season. Customers come to you in buying mode, and many just need a quick answer on the path to purchase. But wondering how to handle that volume spike from Black Friday onward is enough to give service-minded retailers nightmares.

In our survey, we listed five concerns we frequently hear and asked retailers how significant these concerns are for them going into the 2017 holiday season.

Retailer Concerns in the Holiday Season

This breakdown isn’t surprising. Channels and technology are big decisions, and it’s probably too late in the year to revisit them. Sourcing and training are a mixed bag, but still concerning across the board. Being understaffed has the biggest implications for the service experience.

It’s also a problem most of our respondents are familiar with. Sixty percent of them told us they were at least somewhat understaffed in 2016.

Now, let’s look at hiring increases for last year and expected for this year.

Expansion of Total Workforce During Holiday Season

Holiday Staffing Retail Customer Service

We were surprised to find that 20% of those we surveyed didn’t increase hiring at all for holiday 2016. The largest group told us they would expand their workforce by less than 25%. Also worth noting are the percentages of companies planning to increase their total workforce by at least 75% (more than doubling it in 13% of cases) this holiday season.

We know that when it comes to seasonal hiring, finding that magic number is tough. It’s important to consider not only how well you managed holiday volume in 2016, but also what customers are seeing out there from best-in-class brands.

Last Year, the Top Performers Set a High Bar

Throughout last year, including holiday 2016, our best-in-class Index brands set a high bar for service speed and quality. They’re clearly investing in the service channels their customers (like all consumers) prefer above all: chat and phone.

We believe chat and phone are the future of customer service. Higher quality interactions and immediate responses make it easy for customers to get their issues resolved quickly and jump right back into the buying process. Meanwhile, reps have a great opportunity to build loyalty by connecting emotionally with customers.

One of the metrics that most concerns us is speed to live agent: how long customers must wait until they connect with a human being. Here’s how the top performers fared in 2016.

Index Brand Speeds: Phone and Chat

Holiday Phone and Chat Performance

As you can see, the leaders in phone and chat remained fairly consistent, and in most cases improved, during the peak holiday season. Our best-in-class phone brands kept average time to live agent under 60 seconds—including IVR! And our best-in-class chat brands’ time to live agent averaged 30 seconds.

When we stress tested Cyber Weekend speeds (Black Friday through Cyber Monday), here’s what we found:

Holiday Phone and Chat SpeedsAll weekend long, we audited our Index brands five times each day. And we saw some incredible performers.

When it comes to phone speeds, L.L.Bean is the runaway champion. L.L.Bean’s slowest day was Cyber Monday (if you can call 16 seconds “slow”). The brand continues to lead on this metric partly because it has no IVR—no menu to navigate, no difficulties or delays. Agents surprise and delight customers simply by picking up the phone.

We also encountered lightning-fast chat speeds. On their best days, Net-a-Porter and GNC barely made customers wait. All Cyber Weekend long, Home Depot averaged 11 seconds.
Speed isn’t the only indication that these retailers are invested in their chat channels. They also made chat available nearly 100% of the time throughout December. Being both fast and reachable is the mark of a best-in-class brand.

Your Top 5 Considerations for Holiday 2017

A quality service experience isn’t just fast. It’s personal, it’s helpful, and it solves problems. It not only removes obstacles to purchase, but incentivizes current and future sales.
If this is the kind of service you’re determined to provide this season, make the following five areas a priority.

1. Invest in chat.

Three years ago, 97% of Index brands offered email, and only 80% offered chat—on a somewhat spotty basis. This year, those numbers have flipped: only 76% offer email, and 90% offer chat (and are more available to customers than in 2014).
Chat is now king because it’s fast and easy for online shoppers, it boasts high resolution rates, and one agent can serve multiple customers simultaneously. If chat isn’t a priority for your brand, it’s time to swing into full gear.

2. Know your peak days.

Nearly half of the retailers we surveyed cited Cyber Weekend as their biggest holiday peak period. But the week before Christmas was a close second. Holiday shoppers are increasingly procrastinating thanks to the availability of last-minute shipping options.

If you’re bringing on seasonal hires, make sure you spread them out to cover higher volumes you’re likely to see throughout the peak period.

3. Define quality service, and train on it.

When we audit brands, we measure service quality based on missed opportunities, highlights, and offer to complete transaction (OTC).

  • Missed opportunities—Are agents resolving issues during the initial call? Do they have adequate brand/product/policy/promotional knowledge? Do they address all questions asked, unsolicited? And do they display professionalism (and good spelling and grammar during chats)?
  •  Highlights—Did the agent probe to understand the “why” behind the question/issue? Did the agent provide solutions with options? Did the agent provide additional education on related topics—what we call “next call prevention”?
  • OTC—Did the agent offer to place the order to make the purchase fast and easy? (Closing the sale is easy if agents avoid those missed opportunities and go above and beyond to serve.)

Your goals should be to minimize missed opportunities, maximize highlights, and close the sale (not in a pushy way, but as an act of service). Your training should reflect these goals. Make sure your best and most experienced agents are handling customers’ trickiest inquiries, and that you’re populating your chat channel with agents who write well.

4. Consider your carriers and delivery options.

For the first time in a long time, we’re seeing companies shift back toward standard shipping methods and away from economy carriers. Not only that, but our best-in-class Index brands are increasingly offering free shipping to capture those holiday sales dollars. These investments are ensuring a consistently great service experience all the way through order fulfillment.
Fedex recently announced it will not enact a holiday surcharge this year. How will that affect your carrier mix? And how much are you willing to invest in free and low-cost shipping to drive sales? We’re eager to see how the Index brands handle these issues.

5. Decide on a cutoff date.

Christmas falls on a Monday this year, which may force retailers to move up their cutoff dates. What will be the last day your customers can place an order and still get their items in time for Christmas? This is another big issue we’ll be watching closely.

Want to Learn More About Service Performance Industry Wide?

Download our free report, “2016 Holiday Insights: Service Performance Metrics and Trends.” In it, we’ll break down our Index brands’ seasonal service performance—including buy online, pickup in store—and how it has trended over time.