8 'Crazy' Insights: The Retailer's Guide to Holiday Customer Service Success

With the right customer experience approach, retailers can master the methods necessary to satisfy consumers during the holiday season, while establishing their reputation for reliability year-round.
Customer Service

Before retailers deck the malls, they must look within their own walls to assess their current customer service experience. For many, the holiday season presents an outstanding challenge, as brands are unprepared to handle such high volumes of inquiries and service requests. But, for those who focus on building customer relationships and strengthening loyalty year-round, great holiday customer service remains the gift that keeps on giving as consumers return for every occasion.

"It's not just visions of sugar plums dancing in retailers' heads," says Ken Bisconti, business leader at IBM Tealeaf. "Many retailers are asking themselves: Am I set up for success? Will we be able to handle customer demand and provide quality service, not just for orders and last-minute shipping, but exchanges and returns, as well? Most importantly, can I deliver an engaging customer experience while maximizing business success and driving revenue?"

Ultimately, to serve the customer means to serve the customer experience, for support trickles into every aspect of the basic brand interaction. The following tips, though geared toward the holiday season, offer retailers insight into ideal strategies and popular trends that will continue to soar even after Santa's reindeer return to the North Pole:

1. Break down internal silos to establish the basis for long-term success.

Retailers must think of brand engagement as part of their continuous customer strategy. However, many still fail to bridge the departmental gaps that hinder real-time efforts. Before brands can even begin to focus on their holiday service strategies, they must develop the proper infrastructure to ensure success throughout the season and beyond, Bisconti notes. Those retailers that have yet to address such issues are already at a disadvantage, for they lack the internal ability to properly align customer service initiatives across the enterprise. Such issues live far beneath the surface, disrupting any and all strategies created to overshadow said inadequacies. Thus, retailers must audit their inner workings before they can convey the desired outward experience.

2. Embrace an omnichannel approach for year-round loyalty.

Once retailers have addressed and eliminated the silos that exist within the organization, brands can then begin to implement the omnichannel strategy consumers crave. To effectively embrace omnichannel, retailers must be able to develop an internal customer service approach that reaches across departments, allowing their entire brands to maintain unity and consistency throughout the customer experience. Consumers seek assistance from an array of contact channels, thereby requiring retailers to meet their needs across all touchpoints. Doing so, however, doesn't stop once their gifts are unwrapped, as establishing an omnichannel customer service experience encourages consumers to return over and over.

3. Equip associates with the knowledge necessary to achieve customer satisfaction.

Customers now enter the brick-and-mortar store with research in tow, expecting the flexibility that comes along with online shopping. Thus, retailers must not only make sure that they're staffed properly, but they must ensure that these employees have the knowledge necessary to properly serve customers no matter the channel of choice. Because the holidays typically require an influx of part-time, seasonal help, brands must be sure to hire and train associates early to ensure the customer experience won't suffer as the rush gets underway. Despite their temporary nature, these forward-facing service employees can make or break the consumers' first impressions of the given brand. Therefore, associates must be equipped with the right skills if they are to uphold and maintain the desired level of customer satisfaction.

4. Alleviate struggles by providing an effortless experience.

Despite the overwhelming desire to "wow" consumers with exceptional service, the need to dazzle and delight remains minimal, for consumers often prefer simplicity and reliability over bells and whistles. Effort is as much about what customers actually have to do as it is about how much they feel they have to do. Thus, retailers that provide proactive assistance that satisfies queries and prevents problems position themselves as leaders within the space.

"Loyalty is driven by how well a company delivers on its basic promises and solves day-to-day problems, not by how spectacular its service experience might be," says Matt Dixon, executive director at CEB. "Most customers don't want to be wowed-they want an effortless experience. They are far more likely to punish you for bad service than to reward you for good service. And, as you can imagine, this idea of an effortless customer experience becomes even more valuable during the holiday season, when customers want their shopping and returning process to be as painless as possible."

For instance, as Peter Whibley, product marketing manager for KANA, highlights, co-browsing technology allows agents to guide consumers through their online shopping experience, thereby maximizing potential by reducing the risk of abandonment. Often times, when consumers cannot find information readily, they will turn to the competition for streamlined service. Co-browsing, however, allows agents to detect issues and answer questions in a way that replicates the in-store customer experience, bringing an element of ease and personalization to an otherwise independent, frequently frustrating channel.

5. Manage online and in-store inventory to ensure consistency.

Retailers must ensure that all inventory information accurately reflects item availability no matter the channel. While brick-and-mortar employees require insight into what's accessible in-store and in the warehouse, online shops must provide real-time visibility and reliable delivery estimates. Such elements are increasingly essential as ship-to-store, site-to-store, and direct-from-store options gain momentum.

With last year's last-minute shipping snafu still fresh in the minds of the masses, retailers must also pay special attention to their carriers' performance so they may effectively meet customers' needs, as this final leg of the buying journey also serves as the brand's ultimate impression, says John Kruzan, senior director of partnership management, distribution solutions at Pitney Bowes. By establishing control over inventory and order fulfillment, retailers will inevitably reduce frustration and satisfy needs across channels so they may replicate the personalization of the in-store experience online and bring the convenience of Web stores to the brick-and-mortar space.

6. Monitor social media mentions to repair potential problems.

Social customer service continues to gain momentum, for both consumers and retailers benefit from the interactions that take place. While consumers often find the answers they've been searching for, brands gain access to granular insights that guide strategic development. To truly take advantage of social's vast scope, retailers must deploy social media monitoring technologies to pinpoint and address customer frustrations, predict potential behaviors, and influence customized campaigns. However, retailers must remain aware of the risks of social service, as the tendency to respond quickly and minimize impact may inadvertently teach consumers that they can cut to the front of the line by publicly complaining. Instead, brands should use said networks to identify issues, primarily, so they may provide solutions for all.

7. Incorporate mobile capabilities to engage consumers via their channel of choice.

IBM's Online Retail Holiday Readiness Report claims that, on average, mobile site traffic reached a record 38.2 percent in March 2014. Thus, IBM predicts that mobile will account for more than 20 percent of site sales and more than 43 percent of site traffic come November 2014. With that in mind, retailers must not look to mobile as an enemy, but as an ally, for such tools may allow the given brand to expand its reach and improve customer relations. While many are hesitant, as mobile devices often lead to showrooming, offering mobile conveniences that aid the in-store experience have the potential to boost engagement and sales. From location-based tools that direct consumers to products within the store, to applications that allow customers to skip the checkout line and pay for items independently, such technologies enable retailers to move beyond showrooming, says Daniel Ziv, vice president, voice of the customer analytics at Verint. Embrace mobile in an effort to enhance the buying experience, not detract.

8. Prevent exploitation by remaining aware of scams in the space.

Because many of today's retail transactions take place online, brands are increasingly vulnerable when it comes to fraud. Greg Mancusi-Ungaro, CMO at BrandProtect, emphasizes that scammers often exploit such virtual environments, particularly during the holiday season, by publishing their own counterfeit offers, websites, and mobile applications to fool unsuspecting consumers. Retailers must remain aware, as it only takes a few fooled customers to ignite an unexpected customer service nightmare.

"Retailers should start raising their vigilance now, monitoring all online forums, domains, and Web stores for potential brand and reputation affecting activities," Mancusi-Ungaro adds. "Only by getting ahead of the scammers and mitigating threats as they're identified, can retailers improve their chances of getting through the heavy seasons unscathed." By protecting their reputation and looking out for the consumers' best interests simultaneously, brands can effectively stave off any Grinch that may try to steal the show.