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How to connect with your customers during the stressful holiday season

Stressed person hunched over a table, weighed down by symbols of travel, retail and expenses

The holiday season can feel chaotic for many, but over the past few years, the stressors seem to have multiplied. From the COVID-19 pandemic keeping consumers out of physical stores in 2020 to supply chain challenges in 2021, brands have struggled to deliver a superior customer experience (CX) under difficult circumstances. Now, the rising cost of living has would-be customers reassessing their finances and buying power.

Are eCommerce brands ready for what the 2022 holiday season will bring?

Seasonal woes

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, inflation rose by 8.2% in September. Since then, prices have continued to rise for everything from food to utilities and airfare.

Meanwhile, data from Deloitte shows that 37% of Americans are in a worse financial situation than they were last year. And in Europe, 71% of consumers across six markets have "already made significant changes to how they shop" as they adjust to the economic environment, per Bloomberg. Consumers in Europe are "absolutely feeling the purchasing power squeeze," Bert Colijn, an economist with ING, told the Financial Times. "Clearly, the consumer has to make choices about what to spend on," added Colijn. As a result, one possibility is that rising costs will lead consumers to overlook high ticket items in favor of smaller purchases in order to cross off more items from holiday wish lists.

While customer behavior may change in response to the times, spending this holiday season will not cease entirely. Despite higher prices, consumers are still planning on making plenty of retail purchases this year — Deloitte's holiday forecast for eCommerce sales predicts year-over-year growth of 13-14%, significantly higher than 2021's growth of 8%. The professional services firm adds that — just as in 2021 — online merchants will be the "preferred holiday destinations."

That gives eCommerce brands an opportunity to ease customer anxiety by offering a swift, seamless and empathetic customer experience. It's a stressful time of year, made more stressful by difficult circumstances, but brands can bring calm through top-notch customer care.

Easing stress through CX

In light of widespread economic pressures, retailers can help customers by optimizing for thoughtfulness in their customer experience strategies. Here's a closer look at how brands can unite people, processes and technology to ease stress and build loyalty.

Staff up

Speed always counts in customer service, but in stressful times, providing quick and painless solutions during support interactions is imperative. Research conducted by PwC shows that close to 80% of American consumers include speed as a top indicator of a positive customer experience, and that consumers outside of the U.S. value speed even more.

Scaling up your customer care operation for the holiday season is a good way to eliminate long wait times, even when you're faced with increased support volume. Having a friendly and knowledgeable team at the ready can work wonders for your CX.

It's also worth noting that your agents are subject to the stresses of this holiday season too. Ensuring that your team is not overworked is critical, both for their health and for the health of your overall customer experience.

Lean on customer support automation

Automation is invaluable if you're looking to create a more efficient experience for shoppers this holiday season. Research conducted by TELUS International and The Harris Poll shows that 45% of American consumers prefer self-service options because of the speed with which they can get answers.

Integrating self-service tools like community support forums and FAQs, along with customer service automation in the form of chatbots, can save your customers time and effort. Be strategic about how you deploy tech, and balance it with that all-important human touch. Our research also shows that 88% of Americans want the ability to access a live support agent at any point during a self-service interaction, if needed.

While automation is on your mind, don't overlook the opportunity to make your agents' work lives easier too. Agent-assist bots can tackle common queries at scale and reduce agent effort by digging up answers to customer queries within your internal documentation.

Focus on transparency

Your response times may be quick, but what about the fulfillment process? At a time when supply chain challenges and other delays are still a reality in the retail space, it's crucial that brands are honest with their customers. Leaving customers in the dark will only lead to added stress and more questions for your agents to handle. Being as clear as possible about shipping times, potential problems and additional fees can set clear customer expectations and mitigate disappointment.

Provide empathetic support

If customers are already aggravated and impatient when they reach out for help, empathy becomes even more vital. Customer care teams possessing soft skills like active listening, and the ability to remain composed and positive even in the face of criticism, can have a big impact on customer satisfaction rates.

Motivate your team to create a connection with your customers to help demonstrate your brand's commitment to creating a satisfying CX. Remind them to put themselves in their customers' shoes. The problems consumers are experiencing this year are real, and there's no substitute for making them feel understood.

Reassess payment solutions

Introducing more creative and flexible payment options is another solution brands can, and should, explore to create a more empathetic experience for tough times. When finances are a source of anxiety, offering discounts to loyalty program members and repeat customers, along with flexible payment options, can demonstrate how much your company values your customers.

Increasingly, shoppers are relying on buy now, pay later (BNPL) payment options, a trend that is likely to grow in prominence under difficult financial times. A Bluedot survey of 1,000 consumers found that 40% of respondents planned to pay for holiday items with BNPL services.

Keep customer data safe and secure

Shoppers don't need another reason to stress this holiday season. Ensuring that you're protecting payment information and other customer data is key. Today's brands should prioritize fraud prevention and detection, as fraudulent activity in eCommerce can have a devastating effect on levels of customer stress and trust. Adobe research indicates 74% of consumers will stop purchasing from brands that break their trust.

That's a wrap

Brands can't control inflation and the impact it has on their customers, but they can't afford to be passive either. Take the time to understand customer challenges and tweak your support strategy accordingly. With a considered approach, there is hope that you'll deliver the kind of customer experience that will ease stress and warms hearts this holiday season.

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