If you’re like me, you probably haven’t started your holiday shopping yet. But I have started planning our customer service strategy for the upcoming holidays. While I know that I can easily Amazon Prime some last-minute gifts, I have to be proactive about scaling our teams to handle the holiday volume. If I wait until it’s already here, it’s far too late to hire new agents and train them, not to mention put any tools in place to reduce the volume in the first place.
1. Start planning your holiday customer service staffing early
Starting early is critical for two reasons. First, training: You need to build in time to make sure your new agents are fully trained by the time your business gets busy. Second, you need to build in time to change your plan. If holiday customer service ticket volume seems to be growing by more or less than expected, you want to make sure you can adjust your plan accordingly.
We typically start planning our hiring strategy in August, and hire our first round of agents in September. If you haven’t started your hiring process yet, now is the time!
2. Develop a holiday sales projection
You don't want your holiday customer service team to be under-staffed, but you also don't want to over-spend on customer service agents you don't need. To hire the right number of agents, you need a sales projection for the holidays. This is particularly challenging if your company is growing significantly year-over-year. How can you predict what your holiday sales will be? And what impact will that have on your volume of customer support tickets over the holiday season?
Here's the key: Ideally, you won't just have a dollar projection, but a projection for the number of units sold, number of orders, and the number of customers. Why? These sometimes grow in line with each other, and sometimes don't.
Maybe your customers are buying more items and spending more money per purchase compared to last year. If that's the case, the number of holiday customer service tickets may not rise in tandem with dollar sales, but with the total number of customers.
3. Find the right metric for predicting ticket volume
Next, you need to translate your sales projection into a projection for customer service ticket volume. To do that, you need to find the right metric. Does your customer service ticket volume tend to grow in line with dollar sales? With unit sales? Or with your total number of customers?
We start by breaking down our current volume with four simple calculations:
- Customer service tickets / unit sales
- Customer service tickets / dollar sales
- Customer service tickets / purchase
- Customer service tickets / customer
As an example, when we ran this calculation for one of our clients, we found that customer service tickets per unit sales had the lowest variance over a 16-month period, so we decided to use that metric for predicting their holiday volume. Depending on your customers, your business might be different.
4. Develop a hypothesis for your holiday customer service team size
Based on those calculations, we need to develop a prediction for our required holiday team size. The initial prediction for our example client showed that we needed to scale the team by three times (3x) to handle our potential holiday volume.
This seems high. We don't want our team to be overwhelmed with the incoming volume, but we also don't want to spend more money than necessary. We also don't want to over-tax our trainers. So we might decide to take it slow, hire a few people, and re-evaluate our hypothesis a month later when we had a little more data.
5. Consider volume trends
If all your calls and chats come in between noon and 2 p.m., you need to hire more people than you do if tickets come in a steadier flow throughout the day. If you only work over email, you can be more flexible with your staffing models. We developed a robust customer service queuing model that takes into account not just total ticket volume, but when tickets come in.
Using this model helps us know how many agents we need to have available during peak volume times. Because we want to make sure our customers are not waiting on hold for long periods of time, we’d rather overstaff and have quiet periods rather than our team always being stretched to the max.
6. Work smarter, not harder
We also need to consider how we can handle more customers with fewer agents. As our business grows, we want to be more efficient. To do so, we find places where we can either help customers find the answer they need before they contact us, or find ways to answer incoming tickets more quickly. Here are some examples of questions we ask ourselves while planning for holiday volume:
- Have we identified our top drivers of ticket volume? How can we address these drivers proactively through self-service or better delivery notifications?
- Are we committed to keeping our first reply times the same over the holiday period, even as volumes increase? Or can we let them slip a little?
- Do we need to turn off chat during busier times to ensure quick email responses?
- Have we updated our macros and canned responses for the holiday season? How can we make our team more efficient so they can handle more responses per hour?
These types of improvements will have a cascading impact on your ticket volume and your team’s capacity. Putting these projects in place during the slow season will set you up for success as things get busier.
Testing and adjusting hiring plans for success
As we continue to get more data over the next few months, we can test our hiring plan hypothesis to see if we’re on track. We hope we've laid a strong enough foundation to adjust our plan in November and December if need be. The bottom line: If you run a high-growth company and you're scaling your customer service team for the holidays, you have to be flexible. And err on the side of over-staffing -- having a few idle agents is better than providing sub-par support to your customers.
Psst! If you'd like to learn more about scaling your customer service team for the holidays, download a free copy of our newest ebook!