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Setting Up Your Reps for Success

Setting Up Your Reps for Success

/ Operations, Strategy, Customer Experience, People
Setting Up Your Reps for Success

How to manage increasingly complex retail customer service.

The retail industry has always been marked by its unpredictable sales peaks and valleys—and that can make managing retail customer service a significant challenge.

The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent repercussions (like supply chain disruptions and staffing shortages) have made it even more difficult to plan for and predict spikes in customer service.

Customer service teams are responsible for guiding the enterprise through volatile waters—and doing so is only getting more complex.

The scope of customer service has changed with the rise of eCommerce, 24-hour megastores, and the increasingly connected world in which we live. So, it’s essential that retailers’ customer service training, scaling, and staffing practices keep up.

The good news is it’s not too late to make changes that will set your customer service teams up for ongoing success. Here’s how.

Note Patterns That Aren’t in the Traditional Retail Calendar

Retailers expect spikes around fixed calendar events—like the start of a new school year or holiday shopping—but those aren’t the only patterns that arise throughout the year.

The first snowfall, for example, can lead to increased sales as people stock up on winter essentials, while the first warm day in spring might cause more people to seek out gardening tools.

As retailers know, more sales often mean more customer service needs. So, examining year-over-year customer service demand that coincides with these seasonal events can help managers plan and scale their teams appropriately.

Moreover, savvy retailers can expand this tactic even further and keep track of other factors that may affect the need to scale.

What happens to call volumes when there is a drought in a given region? Do certain geopolitical events like elections affect shoppers’ choices? Do they drop during certain sporting events?

Collecting data on these and other factors can shed light on why shoppers behave in certain ways at certain times—and knowing that can help you plan better schedules for customer service reps.

Make Your Scheduling More Flexible

The idea of a standard work week has benefits, but it doesn’t best fit the needs of every job or every employee. It also does not necessarily provide the highest level of productivity.

Retailers have long been familiar with alternative staffing arrangements for their associates, but they don’t always extend that flexibility, which can help match employee supply to customer demand, past the sales floor.

Entertaining the idea of flexible scheduling models for customer service representatives gives employees schedule autonomy.

Offering them flexible work arrangements can help retailers to have well-trained, reliable workers available to address rising service demand without wasting money on excess workers during slower periods.

For example, “flex” shifts that play with the traditional morning-afternoon-evening-overnight models can help retailers ensure that their staffing levels align with call volumes.

Combined with offering work-from-home options, offering flex shifts can help retailers better allocate a worker’s eight-hour day. Eliminating commutes means that a customer service representative could work from 8 am to noon, take a break, then work from 4 to 8 pm.

A worker on an arrangement like this would still be working 40 hours a week but would only be expected to be on the clock during those peak hours.

This person could be on-call to address a crisis and make overtime if they worked midday to account for higher volumes at that time.

However, flexible scheduling doesn’t have to stop there. Each retailer can examine their unique historical call volume data to identify unique flex schedules that works for its representatives, customers, and bottom line.

Plan For Extended Disruptions

Failure to anticipate these peaks and valleys can cause disruptions to linger as teams scramble to address backlogged concerns.

In times of crisis, retail decision-makers tend to underestimate the lasting effects of unexpected spikes.

Management can make the mistake of viewing customer service spikes as isolated incidents, assuming that related complications will be resolved and labor allocation will return to normal sooner rather than later.

These are dangerous assumptions—and they’re often incorrect.

If the spike is related to a global event over which the company has no control, there is no way to predict just how long the situation will last.

The COVID-19 pandemic powerfully illustrates the unpredictability of external events. It’s safe to say that few companies expected the pandemic’s complications to persist into 2022 and beyond, but here we are.

Retailers should then structure their customer service departments in anticipation of moments of uncertainty.

Those companies that acted fast and developed contingency plans that accounted for COVID-related customer service issues had a head start when it became clear that the pandemic was likely to last for years, not weeks—and they’re continuing to reap the benefits of their agility.

Even if the spike is due to a relatively limited issue—like an hour-long malfunction on a login page—the excess volume may monopolize representatives’ attention for weeks.

Consider all the extra tickets and calls that hour of downtime might create and how long it would take a baseline team to address them. All of a sudden, an hour of downtime turns into weeks of extra work.

Temporary spikes in popularity related to a product or brand going viral may also lead to unexpected spikes in activity.

Retailers should then structure their customer service departments in anticipation of moments of uncertainty.

Their regular operations should include buffer employees to respond to spikes immediately and a contingency plan that allows them to rapidly scale up or otherwise adjust operations over a long period should the issue persist. This may include an expanded team, reimagined call routing, or creating dedicated task forces to handle the most pressing issues at hand.

Then, when the spike begins, retailers need to think realistically about what parts of that plan need to be deployed when and for how long.

Small Changes Can Have Significant Consequences

Retail businesses run the gamut from small mom-and-pop shops to giant, multinational corporations. Still, they all have one thing in common: every decision affects those providing customer service, no matter how small.

Whether the business is a single storefront or has thousands of locations, the customer service team plays an integral role in shaping the customer experience. As such, management must factor staffing and scaling their customer service team into any decision they make.

They should assume that any change they make will impact the level of customer contact. It may result in, as examples, customers who are confused by higher prices, no longer know how to use the website, don’t like the new layout, or are upset that their favorite cereal brand is no longer on shelves.

Regardless of how small the change seems, customer service teams must be notified in advance so they can plan and staff accordingly.

Make Communication Your Number One Priority

All of these mistakes fall into one more significant category: failure to communicate. In many cases, it’s just as important (if not more!) for a customer service representative to be aware of a developing situation than for the CEO to be informed. And it doesn’t matter if that situation is a global disaster, an isolated weather concern, website downtime, a hot new product, a product flaw, or anything in between.

We’ve discussed how failing to inform customer service representatives of internal decisions can affect their day-to-day workload, but this idea extends beyond internal changes.

As we’ve seen time and time again, call volumes also spike in response to external events.

Too often, service representatives are left on their own as phones start ringing off the hook in response to a crisis in the outside world—and they’re completely unaware of what’s happening until a customer informs them.

Failing to alert these employees first leads to delays in scaling teams and second to lost time helping customers.

Whatever is happening, the customer service team needs to know, and you’d be surprised at the number of enterprises that fail to realize that.

...an efficient customer service department is a retailer’s most significant value-add.

Similarly surprising is the number of retailers that fail to listen when their customer service representatives try to give feedback.

It’s easy to see customer service as a department where money is lost through returns, refunds, uncertain staffing needs, and gestures of goodwill to unsatisfied customers—but any retailer with this view of customer service is looking at it wrong.

The High Value of Listening to the Reps

In reality, an efficient customer service department is a retailer’s most significant value-add. It’s a well of untapped insight into the business’ operations and how they can be improved.

Customer service representatives have intimate knowledge of how a company works, how customers respond to its operations and the changes that could make a difference.

These employees must understand numerous areas of the business and how each one’s practices affect customer experience.

These representatives’ insights from the front lines can guide everything from policy updates to ideas for promotions, display design, and everything in between. They can even offer solutions to help guide a retailer’s strategy for scaling service in times of need.

After all, customer service representatives’ job is to listen when customers tell them how to best meet their needs.

Even during relatively slow times, managing customer service staffing can be challenging. However, there are steps you can take ahead of time to ensure teams are prepared no matter the volume those teams face.

Once you do, you can rest easier knowing you’ve put the appropriate safeguards in place to set your representatives up for success and curate better customer experiences.

Giuseppe Ficarra

Giuseppe Ficarra

Giuseppe Ficarra is the Senior Vice President of Global Sales at Majorel. With a broad international background, Ficarra has 20 years of experience working in the BPO industry and has held several leadership positions in operations, account management and sales.

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