How to Scale Your Customer Service Team for The Holidays

A Guide for E-Commerce Companies

This year’s Cyber Monday sales are projected to grow 20% from last year.

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That’s great news for your e-commerce business, right?

But with an increasing volume of sales comes an increasing need to temporarily scale your customer service team. And that’s exactly why we’re here today.

In this guide, we’ll show you how to get through the busiest time of year without lowering service quality or breaking the bank. We’ll cover crucial topics like:

  • Developing staffing projections
  • Creating a hiring plan
  • Reducing ticket volume through process improvements

After reading this guide, you’ll be well on your way to building an effective scaling plan for the holidays.

Get the PDF version here

The importance of planning ahead for holiday customer support

Whenever you’re planning a big project, it’s helpful to start by asking one question: Why? In this case, why is it so important to plan for the holidays as early as July? If you need convincing, here are several compelling reasons: 

  1. 01

    It’s hard to build a plane while flying it

    Tech and Software as a Service (SaaS) companies have convinced many people that an iterative approach to business is the best approach: ship your product, learn, tweak it, ship again...it’s a cycle that results in quick learning and avoids incorrect assumptions.

    However, providing holiday customer support is not an area where this approach tends to work. It’s unwise to put yourself in a position where you have to find ways to deal with holiday volume while dealing with the volume. In particular, you need time to hire and train any new customer service agents you want to add to the team.

  2. 02

    It’s too big of an opportunity to pass up

    Viewed from another angle, your holiday volume also means that this is one of your biggest opportunities to impress your customers.

    Business Insider reported that e-commerce holiday spending in 2018 was $126 billion dollars, up 16.5% year-over-year:

    Business Insider report

    According to Digital Commerce 360, e-commerce sales have grown as a percentage of total retail sales every year since 2007. This increase means that your opportunity to impress customers and build a loyal customer base is growing every year as well.

  3. 03

    The most helpful tools often take the longest time to put in place

    Later in this guide, we’ll discuss specific high-impact tools and strategies to help you deliver great customer support during a busy holiday season. For now, let’s just note that many of these game-changing tactics — such as self-service options, improved delivery notices and outsourced support — typically require a significant investment of time, money or forethought.

    By deciding where you’ll make an investment now, your entire support team will be better positioned when the holidays roll around.

    Now that we’ve laid a foundation of why early planning for scaling your holiday support matters, let’s switch gears and look into how you can accomplish this.

Develop your staffing projections

Before you can determine exactly what your customer service team should look like for the upcoming holiday season, you’ll need to do some work to understand what your holiday season is going to look like.

Below are four specific steps you can take to gain the necessary insight.

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Work with other teams to understand projected sales growth

Customers love holiday promotions, and it’s likely your sales and marketing teams have some planned for the holiday season. These promotions have the potential to draw significant increases in customers, which often means significant increases in volume for your support team. A great first step towards scaling your holiday support is working with these other teams to understand the factors that will drive holiday support volume.

Factors to consider include:

  • Last year’s holiday season: how much did sales in November and December rise compared to the rest of the year?
  • The year to date: What has your year-on-year sales growth been so far this year?
  • Changes in marketing patterns: Are your marketing efforts yielding more than they used to? Or less? Do you have any new marketing or sales channels you’ll be trying this year?
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Choose the right metric

When considering sales projections, note that it’s critical to look beyond projecting the dollars your customers will spend. There are a number of different metrics you could potentially use to predict support ticket growth, including:

  • Customer service tickets per units sold
  • Customer service tickets per customer
  • Customer service tickets per order sold
  • Customer service tickets per dollar of revenue

What you’re looking for is the different ways to connect sales volume and support. In a perfect world, you’d be able to calculate each of the metrics above and identify which one is the most consistent over time. This metric is then what you can use to forecast holiday support volume.

Let’s consider an example:

  • After comparing the four metrics above, you find that tickets per order is the metric that has the lowest variance and is most consistent over time. The median tickets per order for the last 18 months is 0.12.
  • Your marketing and sales teams expect to drive an additional 10,000 orders per month this holiday season.
  • Using the median above, you can calculate that you’re likely to see an additional 1200 support tickets each month during the holiday season (10,000 x 0.12).

This is a very straightforward example, but it gives you a good starting line. Based upon historical data, you know you’ll likely see an additional 1200 tickets per month this holiday season. From there, you can begin to estimate how many agents you’ll need to handle those tickets. You can check out this blog post for more details on this method of predicting ticket volume.

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Use a queuing model

Here is where it may get complicated, particularly if you offer phone or chat support.

We say “may” for a reason. Some companies may be able to accurately predict their staffing needs with a simple calculation: if each agent can process 600 tickets per month, you need to add two more agents to the team to handle the additional 1200 tickets you’ve projected.

This type of calculation may work if your ticket volume is fairly smooth over the course of the day, and/or if you only provide email support.

But if most of your tickets come by phone, and most of them come between 12 and 2, that won’t work. Even the best agents can’t be on four phone calls at once, so many of those calls are going to go unanswered.

You’ll need to have enough staff available to handle the peak number of phone calls (or at least a large percentage of them) that could come in at the same time. As a result, you’ll need to add more staff than you expect – even if many of those agents are idle the rest of the day.

This is where a queueing model comes in. If you’re not familiar with the term, a queuing model is a tool to help you understand when your tickets come in, and how many agents you need to hire as a result.

Queuing models can quickly grow complex, so we’ve put together a video where you can see exactly how a queuing model works.

In a nutshell, a queuing model ingests four main data points:

  • Your projected ticket volume per interval: how many tickets you can expect during a given time period.
  • Your service time: how long it takes to complete a ticket (e.g. five minutes per ticket).
  • Your goal time: how long customers perceive the time to resolution, calculated as service time plus wait time (five minutes per ticket plus one minute on hold).
  • Your service level agreement (SLA): the percentage of tickets you want to have handled within goal (e.g. you need to answer 90% of calls within one minute)

These four data points are entered into a formula that outputs the expected number of agents you’ll need during each interval to achieve your goals and service levels.

If you’d like to understand this in more detail, you can book a free consultation with Peak Support.

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Consider other factors

While the above three steps will build out the core of your holiday staffing projection, there are a few other factors that could impact your staffing and need to be taken into account:

  • Attrition: Even the best company in the world loses people at times, and you really don’t want to lose people and be understaffed during the busiest time of the year. Because attrition is a reality, it’s often best to slightly overstaff. If your projection says you’ll need ten people four months from now, it might be a good idea to hire eleven or twelve so you don’t end up in a bind.
  • Promotions or responsibility changes: If you bring in additional support for the holiday season, you’re going to need someone to help onboard those new team members. This responsibility often falls to senior team members. Don’t forget that if your best people are spending time training and managing newer agents, they will have less time in the queue answering tickets. A good rule of thumb is that you need one full time team lead — who isn’t answering tickets — to support 10 production agents.
  • Process improvements: While ticket volume may rise dramatically during the holidays, hiring more support people isn’t your only option. While you’re upping your staffing in preparation, you should also consider whether there are process improvements that can help you reduce total ticket volume.
  • Task specialization: If you have enough simple, tier 1 email tickets, it will be easiest to train new hires on those and let your experienced customer support agents take on more complex tasks. If most of your queries are complex, however, you’ll need more time to make sure your new hires are up to speed.

Create a hiring plan

If you’ve taken the time to work through the items above, then hopefully you now have a general idea of how much additional support you’ll need for the holiday season. That’s huge — and that means that now it’s decision time.

Internal support or outsourced support?

The first major decision you need to make is whether you should hire internally or whether you should bring on a customer service outsourcing company. This can be a complicated decision. While you’re the only one who can know for sure what the best approach is for your e-commerce company, there are pros and cons to both.

Most people are familiar with internal support teams. They work for you directly and you’re responsible for their pay, benefits, training, engagement and more. Because this setup is very familiar, we aren’t going to spend much time discussing it.

Many people are not quite as familiar with outsourced support teams, but there are a number of great reasons to consider hiring outsourced support for your organization, particularly when you’re expecting a busy holiday season. Chief among these are:

  • You’re getting expert help: outsourced support providers often have access to top-tier, experienced support agents. You’ll rest assured that your customers are in good hands.
  • You don’t have to deal with recruiting, hiring and managing: the least fun, most time-consuming, parts of leadership are often dealing with all of these HR-related tasks. With outsourced support, you simply specify what you’re looking for and they handle the rest.
  • You’re getting more flexibility: Because of their specialization, outsourced support companies can often scale far quicker than you’d be able to on your own. If you’re about to get slammed with tickets during the holidays, outsourcing for help may speed your preparations up in a big way. They can also downscale more easily, because they have other accounts where agents can be re-staffed. Once the holidays are over, you can choose to reduce the amount of support you need to handle the volume.

Build a hiring timeline

Once you’ve answered these questions, you can draft a timeline that will help make sure you’re on track. A sample timeline might look like the one below.

 

July

  • Build out staffing projections
  • Assess projected volume and capabilities
  • Explore outsourced support options
 

August

  • Internal: Create job postings
  • Outsourced: Engage preferred provider
  • Search for process improvement opportunities
 

September

  • Internal: Interview and hire, prepare onboarding plan
  • Outsourced: Work with the provider to clarify needs and requirements as they hire/train.
  • Plan for and work on process improvements
 

October

  • Internal: Begin onboarding process
  • Outsourced: Support agents begin handling tickets
  • Implement and monitor process improvements for the desired impact
 

November

  • Monitor volume, closely manage new agents
 

December

  • Internal: Continue supporting team and monitoring, make adjustments as needed
  • Outsourced: Continue working with the provider to ensure all stated expectations are being met
 

January

  • Retain your agents to make sure you’re fully staffed to handle ticket volume around returns and exchanges
  • Monitor volume to see how many agents you’ll need to keep for the coming year

Reduce ticket volume with process improvements

As mentioned above, growing your support team is only one way that e-commerce businesses should be preparing for the holiday rush. Implementing process improvements is a great way to both reduce ticket volume and improve your customer experience before the holiday season.

There are a number of different ways you can achieve these two goals. We’ve highlighted two different categories and some specific examples below, but remember that you should use these to spark creative ideas based upon your knowledge of your unique business.

Analyze your most common tickets

Spending some quality time reviewing your most common tickets can be a very eye-opening experience. You’ll walk away with plenty of ideas on how to eliminate the need for customers to contact your team. For e-commerce companies, some examples include:

  • Where is my order (WisMO) inquiries: you can eliminate the need for these inquiries through things like automated delivery notifications, multi-channel support, and chatbots.
  • Returns & Exchanges: if you’re getting lots of questions about returns and exchanges, consider revising your policies to give shoppers more time. You could also look to make your policies more accessible, implement an FAQ, or update your order confirmation emails with clearer information.
  • Product Questions: if you can identify products that drive high ticket volume, there may be an opportunity to improve your product descriptions, FAQs, and so on.

Improve your support team’s efficiency

If there is an unavoidable need for the customer to contact your support team, then you need to find ways for your team to assist them quickly and effectively. Several examples of how to achieve this include things like:

  • Setting targets for productivity: an effective team needs clear goals. You can do this in many different ways, but once you’ve landed on the right goals, make sure you keep them front and center for your team.
  • Add more macros or templates: macros and templates are simple tools that can have a large effect on your support team’s efficiency, particularly with common questions or issues.
  • Provide refresher trainings: your team will be more efficient when they are confident in their product and process knowledge. Consider organizing short training sessions to sharpen their knowledge and ensure they’re prepared.

As you’re working through the options, remember that process improvements can require a fair amount of time and energy, particularly from your senior agents and leads. Make sure you’re building these realities into your timeline and staffing projections!

Test and adjust

Unfortunately, planning your support for the holiday seasons necessitates making certain assumptions. Even when you’re using accurate data, volume and staffing projections are never guaranteed.

Because of this reality, you should make sure you’re always monitoring your staffing model to make sure you haven’t missed anything. If you see your ticket volume begin to veer away from your projection, it’s time to dive deep into your recent data to look for discrepancies. Once you’ve found out what you’ve missed, make adjustments and continue monitoring as you move forward.

Conclusion

The holiday season is a huge opportunity for every e-commerce company. When a new customer is introduced to your brand, you don’t just want a single sale. You want to seize the opportunity to win a loyal, recurring customer who will keep coming back.

If you want to achieve that goal, you need a solid plan to support your customers.

This e-book has covered the foundational topics you need to accomplish this: developing staffing projects, creating a hiring plan and finding ways to reduce unnecessary ticket volume.

In short, now is the time to start planning for an unbelievable holiday season. Click here to take the first step and get expert help from Peak Support today.

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