Retail contact center agents (aka customer service heroes) typically deal with stressed-out shoppers during the holidays and the return period that extends through March. The shipping and supply chain crisis, however, will make the interactions of the past a walk in the park compared to what’s to come this season. As the season progresses, expect to see time-starved shoppers panicked and frustrated over items and gifts that are delivered late or simply out of stock earlier than usual in the season.

Get Ready To Support Your Heroes

At this point, most retail companies and their contact centers are in code-freeze lockdown for the holidays. Therefore, we need to focus on the human side of the equation and how to properly support our customer service heroes to help get them through what is going to be a tough holiday season. To make a difference this holiday season, prepare your customer service heroes for what’s in store (or not in-store, as the case will be all too often this year). Remember also that, if you have a lot of customer service heroes working at home, the challenges will be multiplied by the sense of isolation that can come with that.

Focus On The Human Side Of The Equation: Seven Practical Steps That Can Make A Difference

  1. Arm your heroes. Give your contact center agents scripts that emphasize empathy: Better yet, give them talk tracks and help them to be authentic, up-front, and honest with your customers in their own words. Give them alternative gift suggestions so they can say more than “I’m sorry.” Make it easier for your agents to meet customer requests, do what you can to empower them, and reduce red tape. Helping your heroes say “yes” more often will make a big difference.
  2. Engage management to provide support. Have your supervisors check in more often than normal. Find things that can be pushed to January to give supervisors the time to reach out, and maybe have higher-level managers do some skip-level check-ins. Have your executive team encourage your customer front line and show their appreciation. Make sure everyone understands that this season is challenging.
  3. Use messaging, chat groups, and forums to build a support community. Provide chat groups or other forums where customer service heroes can seek the support of the broader customer service community after dealing with a particularly difficult customer interaction. Create chat groups that are focused on positive, fun topics to enable some more relaxed and positive interactions.
  4. Stop the surveys. If you know it’s going to be a hard winter, don’t beat yourself up on it, and ease up on your Customer Satisfaction Score or Net Promoter Score surveying for a couple of months. You will want the data to see how well you make it through — but give your heroes a break from being measured on customer satisfaction when you know it’s going to be more variable than normal for reasons beyond their control.
  5. Give ‘em a break. Give your customer service heroes a little more breathing room than normal. Schedules will be packed and backlogs will be long. If agents are stuck giving bad news all day long, just a few extra minutes of downtime or the ability to “take five” after a particularly hard call can make all the difference.
  6. Have your heroes’ back. Companies have gone as far as “firing” customers who erupted at their agents and behaved in a manner that was completely inappropriate. While this is an extreme measure, the agents knew that it had happened, and it let them know how important they were. While you may not need to go to that extreme, think through what tangible actions you can take to show your agents that you have their back.
  7. Celebrate and recognize their efforts and accomplishments. Your heroes will be going above and beyond daily — don’t let that go unnoticed. Stock up on gift cards and give them out liberally. When it’s all over, celebrate and make sure that every agent understands how much you appreciate their effort. Showcase the performance of the team — be loud and proud of all they accomplish.

Your agent heroes are the heart of your contact center, and in a lot of cases, this coming holiday season is going to be hard on them. Go the extra mile now to support them — it will make a world of difference to them AND your customers.

A special shout-out and thanks to Daniel Ord of OmniTouch International, who provided great insights for some of the points above.

And if you’d like to speak with me about your contact center agent heroes and best practices, please schedule an inquiry with me.

(Hailey Colin, senior research associate, contributed to this blog post.)