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Handle with care: CX tips for navigating holiday supply chain challenges

The holidays are coming. There's just one problem: the gifts may not.

Due to factors that include everything from crowded ports, to cargo delays, to labor shortages, the supply chain seems destined to put a cramp in the 2021 yuletide season.

"It's going to be a rough holiday, and I think it's going to be a holiday unlike anything we've seen before," Matt Garfield, managing director of retail and consumer products with global business advisory firm FTI told Retail Dive. "We're going to see a lot of bare shelves." In fact, we're seeing shortages already. According to Adobe, in October alone, consumers received more than two billion out-of-stock messages online — an increase of 250% when compared to a pre-pandemic period.

That means companies will be relying more than ever on their online customer experiences to keep things 'jolly and bright' into 2022. Customer care departments can expect a flurry of inbound queries on all support channels as customers attempt to cross everyone off of their shopping lists. Indeed, this year, Santa might need more elves.

Four ways eCommerce brands can prep for success

Customers are very eager to get shopping. The National Retail Federation (NRF) estimates that this year, U.S. retail sales in November and December will amount to somewhere between $843 and $859 billion, an increase of up to 10.5% over last year's holiday spending. At least a quarter of that will be driven by eCommerce, notes Adobe Analytics. And most of the activity is projected to happen during Cyber Week (Thanksgiving through Cyber Monday), which could generate up to $36 billion in online spending.

The holiday season can be a demanding time for customer care teams, but trends indicate this year's battle between supply and demand — plus a persisting labor shortage — may make it even more challenging. To keep customers satisfied and coming back, companies need to reassess their customer experience (CX) strategies to ensure they're able to provide productive, empathetic support. Use these tips as a guide to keep the Grinch at bay and help you make it through the holiday season.

1. Prep your customer care team

Experts are saying that "supply will likely play catch up for some time, particularly as there are bottlenecks in every link of the supply chain." This includes labor, containers, shipping, ports, trucks, railroads, air and warehouses. As mid-December rolls around, expect less-proactive customers to be scrambling , which could exacerbate the strain. Even items people might need for a Christmas dinner or Hanukkah party could be hard to come by.

The holidays are already a time when people are stressed about time and money; macroeconomic supply chain problems that the average individual feels no control over won't make it any easier.

In preparation, your first step should be to ready your customer care team. Provide context, set expectations, answer questions and iron out processes in advance. Consider scaling your team, and if that's not feasible, look to technology like chatbots that can handle requests and ease the pressure placed on agents.

As customer stress levels climb, your team will have to be prepared to manage expectations and unhappy customers. Ensure you have a strong, streamlined escalation system in place that limits the need for customers to repeat themselves, and also empowers your customer care team to "save the day" on behalf of your brand. There may even be an opportunity to route customers from the start through IVR and text-based support channels. Remember: It is harder to win new customers than retain existing ones.

2. Be upfront with your customers

Delays are bound to happen. This holiday season, more than ever, it's your job to help customers navigate them — and that requires transparency. It's important to be honest with your customers about delays during the fulfillment process, both to set expectations and mitigate disappointment. An Adobe survey reports that 65% of shoppers are worried shipping delays could interfere with their holiday shopping plans.

This is the time to revisit your automated communications. The goal is to keep customers up-to-date on their order, from fulfillment, to package tracking, to delivery and post-purchase care.

Finally, look for every opportunity to encourage and facilitate early purchases, including deploying reminders via email and incorporating suggestions into your website, social media channels and chatbots.

3. Expand your communication channels

Communication is always part of a good CX strategy, but this year facilitating query resolution will be paramount for success. Your customers need to know how, where and when they can get in touch with you.

Promote all available communication channels across email, social media and on your website so customers have no doubt about how they can contact you for help.

Build out your self-service options, too. One study conducted by The Harris Poll in conjunction with TELUS International found that 85% of Millennials want visible self-service options on a site, while 21% of Gen Z prefer virtual assistants. When customers can find the answers they seek on their own, the volume making it through to your team of customer care heroes is lessened.

Naturally, you want to offer the channels your customers prefer, so take a good look at your customer query data and the questions that are being asked to guide your decisions about building and augmenting your help resources.

4. Always show empathy

The holidays are stressful for a lot of customers, and there's a good chance they will need some extra 'TLC' during this frustrating time. To help dial down tensions, a customer care team that shows empathy and compassion is key.

Motivate your team to tap into their soft skills by personalizing conversations and adding a little small talk into their interactions to show callers your brand understands their stressors and needs. Empathy means putting yourself in your customers' shoes, and that includes considering that some people may experience real difficulties this year.

But just as you work your empathy muscles to show customers kindness, remember to show it to your team members too. Your employees are also human after all, and could be experiencing many of the same stressors as your customers. As you work to improve the customer experience, don't forget your employee experience; check in with your talent.

Prioritizing health and wellness can ease the tension and boost their moods. Team building initiatives and celebrating department wins are other useful ways to keep your employees happy, productive and loyal.

You may not be able to completely control your customers' ability to have a great holiday shopping experience, but you can deliver the kind of eCommerce customer support that will help them make the best of a challenging time.

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