The Holiday Support Rush Is Already Underway. Here's How to Stay Afloat.

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No matter how clever your marketing campaign, how fast your shipping times are, or how delightful your packaging is this year, a weak customer support strategy will leave customers frustrated.

With the onset of Black Friday and Cyber Monday (BFCM), combined with the normal holiday rush, extended shipping times due to high order volume, and COVID-19 restrictions, this year is sure to spark some challenges for support teams and small business owners alike.

You can lessen those support challenges for your business if you start preparing right now.

How to prepare your support offerings for the holiday rush

COVID-19 has turned the shopping experience on its head. While last year Americans were expected to spend more money online than in stores for the first time ever, this year online shopping has become the norm—and the necessity.

According to a recent Shopify survey, 90% of business owners think buyers will purchase more online than in-store this BFCM, a sentiment held even among merchants with permanent retail locations. The future has been pulled forward; now, every business is an online business.

A thoughtful approach to customer service can minimize time and money spent on returns.

Online ordering offers unmatched convenience for buyers and, recently, was a lifeline for many independent businesses. But it comes bundled with its own challenges: shipping delays, handling mishaps, and mismatched expectations. There are many ways for a customer’s purchase to go awry. As a result, you may face a flood of support escalations this year.

Coming at BFCM with a new marketing strategy and an organized, thoughtful approach to customer service means you can minimize time and money spent on returns. After all, despite the fact that BFCM is a high-volume sale season, you still need to cultivate lasting relationships with your customers, both old and new.

Get organized

Write down all essential information that your business partners or employees need to know. That includes things like your marketing strategy, BFCM promotions, anticipated demand and shipping times, and who’s going to be on call.

A clear and organized record of this information will help you and others who work with you—seasonal employees or otherwise—stay up to date. That means you’ll have a better idea of how to answer customer questions on promotions, shipping times, etc. It also will help you trace a message’s root cause more easily, e.g., the exact offer or promotion that prompted a customer to email you.

Make a list of what could go wrong

Your best business decisions are those that are fully informed by historical context. Based on past experiences, create a list of situations most likely to come up (or those that will be most stressful) during the holiday rush. Here are some examples many stores encounter:

Being out of stock on a popular item Delivery delays or lost packages Third-party outages in systems like payment processors

Identify areas where you can offer proactive support 

Proactive customer service, or reaching out to customers before issues arise, can preempt common issues and eliminate the need for customers to contact you at all. It involves learning from past issues that customers have reported or feedback they’ve given and implementing those changes, especially before high volume sales periods like BFCM.

Proactive support is powerful because it often reduces the number of simple, low-value questions you’ll receive—freeing up your time to help everyone else. 

1. Make sure your contact info is front and center 

Nothing frustrates customers more than when they have an issue and aren’t able to contact you. Think about your main support channels—do you offer phone support, live chat, email, messaging, texting, or social media direct messaging? All of the above?

Make sure that what you do offer is clear to your customers. That means adding your contact information in the footer of every email, front and center on your website, and across all of your social channels. On your website, be sure to include a Contact Us page, and add your info to your FAQ page in case customers don’t find what they’re looking for.

Proactive support is powerful because it reduces the number of simple, low-value questions you’ll receive.

Let customers know when to expect an answer from you, e.g., in two hours, one business day, or whatever you can commit to. It’s better to under promise and over deliver than to leave customers uninformed and feeling like they’re being ignored.

2. Act on previous customer feedback 

Similar to how a software company might use customer input to make product developments and updates, you can use your customers’ repeated feedback as a catalyst to search for the root cause of a problem. In this way, you’re using customer support as user research, and that’s a powerful way to increase conversion and retention.

Take this list of questions, for example:

Can this arrive in time for our holiday party? I wear a size 13 Vans. Will your shoes in size 13 fit me?  Do you think my father-in-law will like this as a gift? Will this coffee table match my living room furniture? Is this mountain bike a good purchase for a beginner?

Though each one is distinctly different, you can glean from these questions that customers are struggling with either clarity (didn’t understand) or visibility (couldn’t find further info). What questions do your customers ask most often? Can you identify a theme behind their questions? What could be clearer for them? Where can you add further information so they can read more without reaching out to you?

Once you’ve given this some thought, use the time before the BFCM rush to implement changes to save yourself and your customers the time to connect during this high-volume and high-stress time. 

3. Use automation tools to reach out to customers 

Use automation tools like bots to reach out to customers when they first enter your site to see if they need help finding anything.

You can also be proactive about selling, as well as supporting, when you reach out to customers first. Contact customers and offer them other products you think they may like—you’ll save them the time and hassle of finding gifts elsewhere.

You can send customers an automated email after they’ve abandoned their cart or after they’ve made a purchase. The abandoned cart email might share similar products to the one they didn’t pull the trigger on. And an email after a purchase might include products that complement what they’ve already bought.

4. Preempt customer frustration with known issues 

During the rush, use proactive support to reach out to your customers about known issues, like shipping delays, low inventory, or tracking issues. This could be as simple as sending a text or an email letting them know you’re aware of an issue and that you’re working hard to fix it. Shop helps with this, as it automatically sends updates about a customer's order to keep them in the loop.

You can be proactive about selling and solving problems when you reach out to customers first.

Ready your customer comms

Take a look back at the list you created of the most frequent (or most challenging) issues that might crop up. For each scenario you should create, review, or revise pre-written customer service replies. An answer created during a quiet moment will likely be clearer and more thorough than one written under pressure.

This will allow you to create consistency between your responses. And if you’re looking at any helpful templates like the one we linked above to get started, keep in mind that they’re meant as a jumping off point—personalization is key. The following actions will improve the majority of your saved replies:

Increase clarity

Concise, direct language will reduce the chance of confusion and thus reduce the chance a customer will need to ask additional questions (a situation you’d both prefer to avoid).

Add links to further information

Are there any common follow-up questions you can answer in the first response? Make clear how your customers can access more information if they need it. For example:

Question: What’s your return policy if I don’t like the sofa I ordered?

💡 Answer: We are happy to offer a best-in-class return policy within 60 days after you’ve received your order. We’ll cover the cost of return shipping, with a 50% processing fee.

🎯 Add the follow-up: To ensure you know exactly how your fabulous piece of furniture will look in your home, order free fabric swatches here.

Revamp your self-serve support to reflect the holiday season

Making sure all of your self-serve support offerings are accurate lets customers find the help they need without reaching out to you. It also eliminates that element of frustration when customers can’t find accurate or up to date information on your website.

Update your FAQ page. Ensure you’re sharing accurate information and make your answers easy to find. For example, you can link to an FAQ page from your order confirmation emails, shipping update emails, and contact page. The perfect targets for an FAQ are questions that are reasonably common and where the same answer applies to most of your customers—situations where a human service rep would not be adding much additional value.

Updating self-serve support content lets customers get the help they need without reaching out to you.

Update your help content. If you have a help center in addition to an FAQ page, make sure that it has all of your up-to-date shipping times, costs, return policy, etc. For example, online surf shop West Path tells customers when they should expect their orders to ship and provides estimates during both normal and peak times.

Use last year’s numbers to predict this year’s workload

Even if you don’t have hard numbers, you probably have a sense of how many extra hours were needed to handle the incoming chats and emails. Here’s a very basic example of calculating your workload.

“Last year over this period, I had X unique customers and handled Y support requests.”

Y requests / X customers = Your contact ratio.

So 35 requests / 100 customers means a contact ratio of 0.35. For every 100 customers, you should expect 35 questions to come in.

If you can estimate roughly how many paying customers you’ll have, you can also predict your need for customer service. Knowing that ratio is also a great way to measure how effective your “quick wins” have been. If you can help customers get answers themselves or fix the underlying cause of their questions, then your contact ratio should go down over time.

With your predicted workload in mind, you can come up with a solid plan to maintain your service levels over the holiday period.

Create a plan for customers who reach out on social media

One big mistake many businesses make is not having a plan for customers who reach out with support concerns on social media. I’ve seen this play out so many times: one customer leaves a negative comment on an Instagram post, the company responds back, and it ends up dealing with a pretty serious support situation in full view of current and prospective customers.

What’s worse is that this often can open the door for other frustrated customers to leave comments, especially if they feel like they’ve been ignored on normal support channels.

Do you have enough people on your team to support escalations on social? If the answer is no, then you need to create a pre-written response to customers who reach out that redirects them to a different channel. It’s also important to note that it’s better to focus your energy on one or two social channels rather than to dilute your presence across many. Especially during BFCM, customers will be looking to your social accounts as sources of truth.

On Facebook, you can create automatic responses to let your customers know that you’ll get back to them soon or that they’ll need to give you a call or send you an email to get help. On other channels that don’t allow auto-responses, write a short reply that includes how, where, and when they can reach you:

“Hi there! Thanks so much for reaching out to us. While we’re not able to respond to direct messages on Instagram, we’d love to chat. Give us a call at [your phone number] or send an email to [your email]. We’re online and here to help from 8 am to 5 pm PST Monday through Friday.”

This gives you the ability to see a customer’s full record while you’re helping them, rather than trying to piece together who they are and what they’ve purchased based on a username. 

Hire temporary help 

Consider asking a friend or colleague to step in for a few hours on your busiest day. Even if they can only handle basic questions, they’ll free you up to work with higher value customers and on trickier situations.

A virtual assistant can be a cost-effective option for expanding your support coverage. Worldwide101, for example, provides experienced virtual assistants each year to ecommerce businesses that need to scale up their customer service for temporary busy periods.

Part-time help can free up your time to work with higher value customers and on trickier situations.

The costs will vary, but a skilled VA will be able to hit the ground running and create space for you to focus on the work nobody else can handle. Just remember that whoever you ask for help will be the voice of your business to many of your customers. Make sure they’re aware of your company’s voice, tone, and style before asking them to dive in. 

Managing the BFCM rush effectively

Even if you feel thoroughly prepared for the upcoming season, you still need to think about how you’ll steer through BFCM during your highest traffic days. Here are a few ways you can take the reins—despite everything going on. 

Leverage support automation to work for you

Automation is a powerful tool, especially during high volume periods. It can do several things: answer simple customer questions so you never have to get involved, rout low-value conversations to a different inbox so you can focus on high-value conversations and escalations, and let your customers know when a human will get back to them.

Automation can also triage requests to the right place, whether that’s the correct inbox, person, or department. It also can organize your conversations in order of urgency, based on sentiment.

The key to making automation work for you is keeping it personal. That means setting up clear customer expectations for when a human will get back to them, and letting them know how long it’ll take until their issue is resolved.

An auto-responder doesn’t have to sound like Corporate Auto-Bot 3000 either. When you write an auto-responder, think about how you’d talk in a physical store to a customer waiting for you to serve them. Make friendly contact, acknowledge that you see their need, and let them know when you’ll be free. Just be sure your bot isn’t so human-like that your customers think they’re talking to a real person.

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Shopify Ping connects to the messaging apps you already use to bring all your conversations into a single mobile location, making it easier to respond to questions and build relationships with customers—even when you’re on the go.

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Use email to your advantage 

An inbox that’s overflowing can cause all sorts of anxiety. But speaking directly with your customers can be one of your greatest advantages this holiday season. Email gives you the power to reply back on your timeline, rather than in the moment. It also offers more robust automation capabilities so you can cross- and upsell products your customers will love.

Here are two ways to use emails this holiday season:

As a support tool 

If you’re not able to offer quick email responses, set an autoresponder that feels personal to your brand. Let customers know that you’ve received their message and what your typical response times are. This is a great opportunity to include a video thanking your customers for their patience and letting them know how important they are to you.

Then, follow through: if you told customers you’d get back to them in three business days, make sure you do it. 

As a proactive method of communication

The holiday rush can be a busy time for your customers, too. Send them an automated email before the madness begins to let them know you’re here for them if they need anything. That way, they’ll know exactly how to get a hold of you. Outdoor Voices and FedEx do this really well:

Outdoor voices example customer service email during a holiday rush Source: Really Good Emails

You can use these emails to offer support as well as share a few products you think customers will really love.

And remember, any marketing emails you send should include clear options for support: let them know if they can respond to that email or link them to your phone number or chat support on your store.

The key to making support automation work is setting clear expectations for when a human will get involved.

Tips for providing shipping and delivery support

There’s nothing worse than getting an email from a business saying your order’s been delayed—or worse, lost. With so many BFCM sales moving online this year, getting shipping, delivery, and returns right will be one of, if not the best way you can support your customers. Here are a few tips for how to best help them if things don’t go as planned.

Ensure your automated emails providing tracking information are functioning properly so customers can see exactly where their orders are. This will save you time answering emails from customers who just want to know where their stuff is.  Fix up your return process before the rush. The easier you make it for customers to return an item and the easier it is for you to process that item and issue a refund, the lower your support inbox will be. End of story.  Have a plan for how you’ll handle the inevitable: damaged and lost items. A quick solve and apologetic note will go a long way toward convincing a customer to shop with you again. Go the extra mile when gift wrapping to really delight customers.

For example, San Francisco watercolor business Case for Making really goes the extra mile on shipping. Not only does it include a handwritten thank you card in every package, it gift wrapped my birthday present without being asked. Pretty stellar customer service, and it made the occasion that much more special.

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Go the extra mile to show customers you appreciate them 

With everything we’ve all been through this year, many are looking to this year’s holiday season to bring a much-needed sense of normalcy. So, take a look at your customer support offerings. How will you ensure your customers get the help they need, when they need it this year?

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