Winning the Customer Service Rush During the Holiday Returns Season

Winning the Customer Service Rush During the Holiday Returns Season

By Mark Abramowitz, SVP Marketing, Service Cloud at Salesforce

This holiday shopping season has been unlike no other as retailers faced new challenges, resulting in reimagined digital campaigns for Black Friday and innovative fulfillment solutions. Despite all the challenges and unknowns the pandemic created, the holiday shopping period has so far been a success, with global digital sales spikes of 30% on Black Friday and 18% on Cyber Monday compared to 2019, according to Cyber Week insights from Salesforce.

With these major shopping days behind us, some may understandably feel inclined to exhale just a bit, even if the holiday isn’t over. However, retailers should know we’re just now entering the second half of an unprecedented season: the customer service rush. 

The customer service rush is nothing new. It happens every year during this time, but like the challenges retailers faced selling goods, they now find an equal challenge in helping their customers with questions, returns, and exchanges. In today’s competitive retail landscape, excellent customer service has become a competitive advantage – something that can set you apart, create brand affinity with customers and help you grow.

Salesforce just released its fourth State of Service report, which shows the challenges customer service professionals have faced this year, including surges in inquiries, transformations to distributed workforces, and new technology adoption to handle the increased demand. It also offers two clear strategies that have emerged during the pandemic to help businesses deal with an onslaught of inquiries across all channels: flexibility and a clear AI strategy. 

Businesses that have these two ingredients will not only find success this holiday season but will be better prepared to handle challenges in another year of uncertainty in 2021. 

Flexible customer service will win customers 

The pandemic has shown that customer service departments need to be more flexible with policies and enable agents to handle the complex issues customers are facing. A May survey found that flexibility was the top quality customers were looking for in service departments during the pandemic. With fewer storefront workers resulting in an increase in remote inquiries, customers are calling in with more ambiguous problems. To account for this ambiguity, 85% of UK service pros say they’ve changed policies to provide more flexibility to customers during the pandemic. 

But even as the pandemic uproots norms across retail, customer expectations continue to evolve. Complex problems may require more complicated inquiry routing, but a full 83% percent of customers globally expect to interact with someone immediately when they contact a company, and 82% expect to solve complex problems by talking to one person, according to a related study of consumers and business buyers. To meet this expectation, flexible policies – for example, removing a managerial approval process for a return – allows companies to streamline processes and spend more time handling inquiries with empathy and care. 

This flexible mindset can also be extended to the workforce to create practical solutions to handle the increased demand. Fifty-two percent of UK service teams  have brought in  employees from other departments to work in service and support roles. However, challenges to customer service during the pandemic have shown the need for solutions that require more than just additional headcount.

As we look to 2021, with no expectation that customer service inquiries will slow down, fully prepared companies will have their agents working alongside AI tools for the best results. 

A cohesive AI strategy enables flexibility 

Three-quarters of global service pros surveyed said managing case volume has become more challenging during the pandemic and 63% of global agents say it’s difficult to balance speed and quality. When implemented alongside agents, AI can help scale customer service organizations, providing the tools needed to handle increased case volumes and complex inquiries. 

There has been much buzz around the use of AI in customer service, but we’re just now seeing the long-term benefits it provides. About 58% of global decision-makers say their organization has a fully defined AI strategy — up from 39% in 2018. That near half and half breakdown may be the difference this season. 

For the holiday, I’m not talking about any super complex AI either. More flexible customer service policies means less time for agents to do routine tasks – enter in data on the customer, look back at previous purchases, etc. At the same time, 59% percent of UK decision-makers say they are more reliant on data than they were before the pandemic.

Here is where AI tools can step in. Automating routine tasks and getting them out of time-consuming spreadsheets helps agents focus on more important issues. The report uncovered that 77% of global agents agree that automating certain tasks allows them to focus on more complex work.  

AI can also help call centers optimize and scale efficiently. It ensures organizations are properly staffed and can develop better scheduling plans based on individual company needs. It can help you prepare for surges and account for employee time off. When a call center is optimized and properly staffed, the quality of life for your agents’ increases. There’s less worry about being overwhelmed by inquiries and more time spent on the tasks at hand. 

This combination of automating routine tasks and optimizing the workforce enables the types of flexible policies customers have become accustomed to during this year. 

Winning the rush 

The customer service rush has already started and will run through the end of January due to retailers’ offering extended return policies during this time of year. As your organization handles inquiries this season, it’s worth asking yourself, “could we be more flexible?” and
“could we use AI to help us scale?” If the answer is yes, consider the tools you will need to enable that flexibility and scalability. It could be the difference between winning customer loyalty and missing out on new opportunities. 

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