How to Help Your Customer Service Agents Survive the Holiday Season

This is a guest post by Djuradj Caranovic

The last characters on record to be happy during holidays while working in customer service were the elves. And Rudolf. And Santa.
… but they’re all fictional.

While the holiday season is synonymous with all-things-jolly for most, customer service agents despise it. The atmosphere is usually toxic, and there’s nothing jolly about it whatsoever.

Are Things Really That Bad During Holiday Season?  

You know that feeling when you’re downright uncomfortable about someone or something, and you’d rather eat glass than continue a specific conversation, but you still have to because you are tied to that convo with a contract? Well, that’s how it is for customer service agents for the majority of the holiday season. They may sound like they are super sweet and chill AF, but they’re profoundly frustrated, some of them humiliated, and all of them straight tired.

Tired of repetition.

Tired of rudeness.

Tired of being anyone’s therapist or a go-to punching bag.

Us humans can be the worst to one another, and – paradoxically – the holiday season is when that’s mostly the case. Luckily, not everyone fits the pattern, phew!

What Do The Employees Say?

In one of the employee satisfaction polls, one particular conversation stood out and it pretty much sums up the collective feeling. This is what my agent said – and I quote: “A single call from a bad-mannered customer can kill your job satisfaction on the spot and even ruin your after-work hours. One comment, just one last straw and you imagine yourself selling everything to your name and becoming a sheep whisperer somewhere in China or Australia. Anything but this. Naturally, that never happens because I need my job, and I need the money, and I actually do want to help because I’m not a total jacka*s… But it’s frustrating, man. It’s so frustrating sometimes.”

As a former customer service agent myself, I related. I always relate, even though I’m in management now.  

Not Everyone Is That Bad, Are They?

No, of course not. There are plenty of super sweet, cultured, polite people calling and asking for assistance, far from. Most of our customer service representatives told us some of the best on-the-job talks they had were with a lovely old lady apologetically asking for clarifications, a cheerful student needing more information, a middle-aged man trying to find his way around the website. They say it’s adorable. But, unfortunately, the erratic dominate the line the majority of the time – especially during the holidays. The pressure is always on.

Can You Find the Middle? Like, Help the Employes Not Get Stressed as Much?

I like to think you actually can. As managers, we do strive to get the ROI going, but we also want to find the best ways for our people to work comfortably and stress as little as possible. The truth is, no matter how attracted one is to explore the career of a sheep whisperer (I kind of dig the vibe), our customer service agents want to make the customers feel good, get their answers, and have them come back.

So, how can a customer service agent keep their sanity during holidays while being helpful at the same time? This is where the management jumps in. We need to provide the right guidance, stimulation, leadership, and share the best tricks of the trade to help them out.

As a manager overseeing a team of 80 agents, I’ve talked to both them and my colleagues, and we’ve come up with a guide-post that’s been proven useful for two years now. So, here’s what up:

Divide and Conquer

If you are a good manager, you know your people’s strengths and weakness: Jim’s patient, Lara’s persuasive, Samantha gets emotional easily, Steven’s a fantastic salesperson, Gordon cracks under pressure, etc. Okay, but what’s that got to do with the my-ears-will-soon-fall-off sound on the floor? Pretty much everything.

When you know how your people are in different situations, you know who to assign various customer interactions to in order to get great results instantly.

The moment a customer issue/ticket comes in, tag it, and pass it to the employee(s) you know will solve the problem best (and easy). Don’t waste time letting the issue escalate further (and potentially cost you a customer) by assigning it to an agent who can’t solve it because you want to test them. The holiday season is no time to test anyone by putting them on the spot. There’ll be plenty of other times to make someone hate you; this time around, focus on setting up a check-mate arrangement. If there is a way to automate the process, even better. Divide your people per specialty/speed/etc. for the best results.

By assigning the right customer interactions to the suitable teams you both get a happy customer whose issue was almost immediately solved AND a happy employee who was assigned the domain that is his forte.

Encourage Customers to Help Themselves

Finding a system that’ll make it easy for the customers to help themselves will:

  1. Make them feel important
  2. Take a load off of your employees’ shoulders.

But, why would customers want to help themselves when there are agents who can help them? Actually, I was wondering that myself until I stumbled upon this little statistic that sums it up: rather than being hand-held at every step of the buying process, 72% of the customers prefer helping themselves through self-service, Forrester reports. Go figure.

How can you encourage clients to help themselves? Here’s how:

  1. Create an FAQ page specifically for the holidays by gathering up all the questions you’ve been getting during this high volume season. Address each of the questions as thoroughly as possible on that page.
  2. Make sure the information you lay out are easy to read, complete, and informative. Most questions revolve around exchange policies and shipping schedules, so make sure these are included and highlighted
  3. Make the FAQ page visible, easy to access, and clean
  4. Check for any broken links or unclear answers. If the customer can’t find their way around your website and FAQ page, they’ll get annoyed
  5. Make sure all the online knowledge and base materials you’d put up are up-to-date. Information such as correct support schedule info, quick links to updated FAQs, an updated phone number, etc. are crucial

Empower Your Front-Liners by Providing the Right Tools and Training

If your customer service agents and front-liners get a feeling you’ve left them hanging, they’ll feel unenthusiastic, incompetent and, well, betrayed by their managers. The idea is to encourage your people to handle problems efficiently on their own without coming to you the moment they face an issue or a client escalation. Sure, you’ll be there to help if needed, but you want to give THEM power.

Why employee encouragement matters? It’s easy: When an agent feels like you believe in them, and like they have control over the situation, they immediately get more confident to solve virtually any customer problem.

A TIP: Aside from providing the right training, be verbally supportive as much as possible. Speaking of training, gather everyone around (divide them into groups if it’s impossible to leave the floor unattended for a few hours), and go through holiday season client procedures, SLAs, customer etiquette, etc.

Proactively Inform Customers of the Holiday Season Changes

In case you still haven’t informed your customers of the holiday season hours and other changes, this is the right time to do it. While your customers are aware that the support might be limited during the holiday season, they still need detailed information.

Why do you need to be proactive? Because

  1. You don’t want to risk losing a customer who finds your company unprofessional for not updating them
  2. Your agents would rather do without angry and frustrated customers as well

NOTE: In the future, make sure you proactively reach out to customers ahead of the holiday season to provide information on everything they may be interested to know.

Some ways to inform your customers of holiday season changes on time:

  1. Create a specific holiday message before customers get to your IVR (Interactive Voice Response) system
  2. Add a customized offline message to your chat box
  3. Add in-app pop up that reminds the customer of changed holiday hours every time they log in
  4. Remind customers of the changes regularly using your social media channels
  5. A few weeks before you switch to a reduced holiday schedule, email the customers informing them of the change

Final word

If you are a manager to a team of customer service representatives working during holidays, it’s up to you to keep their spirits up, provide the right tools and models to help them do their work better, and encourage them to adopt a positive attitude. FYI, a little bonus wouldn’t hurt either.

Anyhow, I do hope the above model helps a little – it does the job for me! If you’ve got any more ideas you think we could all benefit from, please share them. We’ll be all be grateful!

Djuradj Caranovic is a creative and inventive thinker who craves a challenge and is not afraid to work outside of his comfort zone. He has worn many hats in his career such as of Accountant, Controlling, Finance, Digital, Innovation, Executive, Coach, Entrepreneurial and Strategist, which has helped him grow a unique ability to manage multi-disciplinary projects and navigate complex challenges.

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