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Avoid Customer Service FAIL! How to Prepare Your Center for the Holidays and Beyond

For nearly a decade, throngs of discount-hungry shoppers have flooded retail websites on Cyber Monday. Though the 24-hour web bonanza (which is gradually expanding to a four-day shopping fest) has seen ups and downs over the years, 2011 is the year that many online retailers experienced complete customer service failure as a result of overwhelming amounts of internet traffic, in the U.S. and around the globe.

Epic Fail by the Numbers

Catchpoint Systems kept tabs on the website performance of the top 55 Internet Retailers for Black Friday through Cyber Monday, with grim results. Catchpoint reports that based on 1,020 minutes (17 hours) of monitoring on Cyber Monday, many of these retail sites experienced downtime, some for more than 10 minutes at a time. During this time, thousands of customers were unable to complete transactions or contact site customer service representatives. The hardest hit was Brookstone.com with 408.08 minutes of downtime, which translates to roughly 25% of the day. Crutchfield.com followed closely at 300.51 minutes (19%) and PCMall.com at 140.13 (9%).

If those results aren't enough to make you break a sweat, there's more. STELLAService conducted a comprehensive Cyber Monday Customer Service Study encompassing phone, email and live chat support statistics for the top 25 online retailers of 2010 (according to the InternetRetailer Top 500 Guide) which provides a closer look at where they derailed. STELLAService found that more than 25% of retailers made their customer wait longer than 5 minutes to speak with a representative on the phone. Email support results were also disappointing. Between Black Friday and Cyber Monday, only 67% of emails were answered within a period of 24 hours and five retailers of those studied responded to 25% or fewer of emails within 24 hours. Live chat results were actually somewhat of a redeeming factor for retailers, with 56% of the top 25 offering live chat functionality and maintaining decent transaction times. STELLAService captured data for total chat transaction times (in minutes); the top performers are Overstock.com at 01:54, Amazon.com at 02:29 and Sears.com at 02:56.

As a result of Cyber Monday's events, reports of overall customer dissatisfaction are looming.

Was this massive industry glitch just a fluke? Possibly. Could it have been avoided? Probably. The truth is, epic customer service fail can happen to any call center at any time of the year.

Four Steps for Success

So, what’s a contact center to do? ICMI’s Certified Consultant Laura Grimes suggests starting with a little philosophy. Grimes says, "First of all, Cyber Monday was a planned and scheduled event. If a company is going to plan an event, then it really needs to go all the way. None of us would dream of hosting an event for 400 people and planning food for 200. So why do we try to that in the contact center?"

With that approach in mind, Grimes has provided four simple steps, along with suggestions for how to implement them, to help prevent a failure and maintain continuity in your center:

    1. Plan
    2. Communicate
    3. Do
    4. Learn

1. Plan. Dwight D. Eisenhower said, "In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable." In the contact center, we need to realistically plan how a scheduled event will occur:

  • When do we expect calls to arrive?
  • Best case scenario?
  • Worst case?
  • Most likely case?
  • What will happen to our systems and support during the event?
  • How can get service our customers?
  • Have we considered the right things in the plan (e.g. volume, handling time, IT resources, telecomm requirements, food, staff, training, support, parking)?

If we can't service them the way we would like, we should scale the event back or distribute it over a greater period of time. In order to make these decisions, we need to involve the right people and PLAN.

If an event is an unscheduled event, that doesn't mean we can't plan - it just means that we plan differently. For example, I spent years working in emergency services and we were always hit with heavy call volumes during terrible weather. We couldn’t plan that the blizzard was going to hit Chicago on January 17th, but we could plan for a blizzards in general, so that when the weather forecast indicated that one was on its way, we could initiate a "flurry" of activity to prepare ourselves to respond to situation. The bottom line is: Planning takes a different form for unscheduled events.

2. Communicate. Communication is about sharing and exchanging ideas and information. In the contact center, we need to do more than tell employees just what the plan is - we benefit from hearing from them as well. Often agents can ask a question or clarify an issue that can ensure that both the organization and the customer find value in the interaction. Agents should understand what is expected of them and how they will be supported. This dialogue allows the organization and its people to prepare for the event.

3. Do. When the contact center understands clearly what it is expected to accomplish, it can set to work when the event commences. Contact center management and support personnel should be available to support the initiative.

4. Learn. Take time shortly after any event to assess how it went.

  • Was the forecasted volume close? (Why or why not?)
  • What worked?
  • What didn’t?
  • What where the surprises?
  • Where employees prepared?

Then, create a document that summarizes all of this (because people will forget!). This is an important step and often not conducted because companies lack the discipline or the understanding to make sure it happens. With documentation from the perspective of hindsight, the ability to better plan in the future is significantly enhanced. Organizations that take the time to do this really do get better at handling.

Staying Failure-Free

It seems that the retail websites affected by Cyber Monday’s heavy customer traffic had few reasons to have been so ill prepared for their downtime during this major, annual event. In the contact center, we know that anything can happen, but we also know the value of being ready to take on the unexpected. Keep Laura's four-step formula on-hand to prepare yourself, your center and your agents. If you start today, there is ample time to prepare your for Cyber Monday 2012 – or for any unexpected upsurge in the coming year.

Christina Hammarberg is the former associate editor at ICMI.