Is Customer Service Ready for Holiday Supply Chain Shortages?
This year, a different type of grinch looms over the holiday season: global supply chain shortages. The same gremlin that earlier emptied out appliance stores and caused the price of microchips to skyrocket now threatens retailers still trying to rebound from the throes of the global pandemic. And this time, no industry is safe. With everyone from giant department chains to niche clothing boutiques echoing the same inventory concerns, two things are clear: holiday shoppers are going to be more stressed than ever, and customer service teams are going to be tested like never before.
We Have All the Conditions for the Perfect Storm
In the wake of the pandemic, we’ve seen supply shortages grow from sporadic inconveniences to routine disruptions. One could even argue that they're part of the fabric of “the new normal.” And while the days of consumer panic buying are largely behind us, suppliers are still feeling the squeeze — this time from within their own supply networks.
Even as retailers resume normal operations, their manufacturing and transportation counterparts lag behind, choked by lingering labor shortages, higher fuel costs, and never-before-seen logistical hurdles. From short-staffed manufacturing plants to quarantined ships to fewer longshoremen and domestic delivery drivers, every link in the global supply chain is groaning under the collective weight. And that’s during non-holiday months.
At the same time suppliers are feeling the pinch, consumer expectations have never been higher. Spurred by stay-at-home mandates, online shopping became the preferred channel for billions almost overnight. And with more retailers offering next- and same-day delivery on everything from luxury goods to basic necessities, consumers have developed a “click-it-and-get-it” mentality — with no room for compromise.
Customers Are in for a Shock
According to leading analysts, that mentality could be in for a rude awakening in the coming months. Deloitte predicts retail sales could rise by as much as 9 percent this holiday season, with e-commerce sales growing by 11 percent to 15 percent year-over-year. That’s on top of last year’s better-than-expected performance. In fact, the National Retail Federation reported that the 2020 November-December holiday season accounted for nearly one-fifth (19.4 percent) of overall annual retail sales. Retail sales during this period grew an unexpectedly high 8 percent to $787.1 billion. Non-store and other online sales represented $206.9 billion of total holiday sales, up 22.6 percent over the year prior.
This year, consumers have even more cash — but less patience — than before. In a bid to offset long shipping times, many retailers are kick-starting their seasonal sales early. Both Amazon.com and Walmart’s Sam’s Club announced plans to roll out savings well before Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year. Even so, consumers may be frustrated by lower inventory levels and greater delivery uncertainty than prior years, particularly for in-demand products.
Customer Service Will Be Put to the Test
When consumers are frustrated, they routinely turn to customer service. Like many industries, customer service underwent a significant transformation over the past 18 months. In response to higher-than-ever call volumes and an increase in overall call complexity, many doubled down on artificial intelligence-powered self-service and automated agent assistance technology. Those initiatives will be put to the test in the coming months.
According to hiring firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, retailers as a whole are projected to hire 700,000 workers this holiday season. That number includes a substantial increase to customer service teams. These new hires will need to onboard quickly to meet the anticipated spike in inbound traffic. Fortunately, advances in automation make training and onboarding agents faster and easier than ever. Automating knowledge management, for instance, can shave weeks from training time that would otherwise be spent memorizing countless procedures and protocols.
On the customer-facing side, the benefit of automation is twofold. Customers calling in with simple requests — e.g., checking the status of a delivery — can easily get the information they need through simple self-service prompts. No agent required. Those who do require agent assistance can expect less time on the line and fewer holds, as manual back-end tasks are automated and agents are guided in real time toward speedy, successful resolution.
Part of that real-time guidance includes managing customer emotions, which can run high during the busy holiday season. By using AI to analyze customer emotion and intent, even the greenest agents can “read the room” and adapt their call tactics as needed. That can significantly lower the stress on both ends of the line and add a positive note to customer experience — at exactly the moment when it’s needed most.
There’s no doubt that the 2021 holiday season will be particularly trying for retailers of all shapes and sizes. For customer service environments, the coming months will serve as a critical litmus test for the self-service initiatives and agent enablement tools each has in place. As the global retail industry braces for what could be the perfect storm, those in the best position will be the ones with the tools to consistently drive customer satisfaction — even under the most challenging conditions.
As chief marketing officer at Uniphore, Annie Weckesser leads the marketing and communications team responsible for building reputation, engagement and demand across the globe.
As chief marketing officer, Annie leads the marketing and communications team responsible for building reputation, engagement, and demand across the globe. Prior to this role, Annie spent three years as both the Chief Marketing and People Officer for Uniphore, which included leading all functions of marketing and HR. Before joining Uniphore, Annie was part of the leadership team at NIO, a next generation car company, leading US marketing and communications from startup through a successful IPO. Previously, Annie held various strategic communications and marketing roles for the global technology giant Cisco for nine years. Throughout her career, she has counselled and partnered with some of the world’s most senior corporate and government leaders and their teams. She has a passion for building companies, great spaces and achieving incredible things with stellar teams. Annie is an advisory board member for the Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University. She resides in Saratoga with her husband and three young children.