Walking in an automation wonderland: how to automate your Christmas

The Christmas holiday season is key to boosting annual turnover for retailers, as consumers spend billions online. But although there are millions of willing buyers, many businesses struggle to keep up with demand.

Fortunately, automation software can lend a helping hand and lighten the festive (work)load. So, here’s a comprehensive guide on how to automate your Christmas.

The problem of personnel

The Christmas rush is a well-established fact as retailers on and off-line experience a steady increase in visits. The recent emergence of Black Friday as an annual “event” has only served to stretch resources to their limits, with huge volumes of traffic being focused on a single day.

Seasonal staff are often used to augment the workforce in the run-up to Christmas. The cost-effectiveness of this strategy, however, is questionable. Aside from the headline costs of paying temporary workers, your business also needs to consider secondary costs like training. Plus, there’s the provision of equipment to ensure your temp workers can assist properly.

And with so much of the annual sales cycle condensed into a single day – Black Friday – the cost-effectiveness of temporary staff for online retailers becomes even more dubious.

It’s called the holiday season for a reason

The Christmas period is universally accepted as a period of slow-down. Many traditional firms shutter their premises between Christmas Eve and the New Year, with all staff taking an enforced holiday.

For ecommerce businesses, none but the very smallest could afford to implement a similar program. Customers demand round-the-clock service, with near instant response to queries and requests for help.

This presents significant problems when trying to balance customer demands with employee leave. Many workers still choose to take annual leave around Christmas. Naturally, this further stretches resources and gives senior managers a second major headache.

Allowing employees to take annual leave, or introducing flexible working schedules, does have significant secondary benefits. (Not least a boost in staff retention.) So, it makes sense to find a way to fulfil their requests for time off and the soaring demands of your customers.

18% of employees would work more hours in return for flexible work options

20% would take a 10% pay cut in return for the option of working flexible hours

Pre-Christmas is about sales, Post-Christmas is about support

For ecommerce firms, December splits into two halves. The run-up to December 25 is concerned with the actual sale of goods and services. Immediately afterwards, the focus shifts to delivering service and support to customers who may have encountered problems with their presents and purchases.

32% of customers expect a response within 30 minutes. 24% expect a reply within 30 minutes regardless of when the contact was made meaning the same response time is expected at night and on the weekends as during normal business hours.

But ecommerce firms lack retail stores to provide a first line of support. So, they need to ensure they have the necessary online resources to support customers through any channel they choose – even if that proves difficult because of staff shortages.

Ecommerce firms could impose a holiday moratorium during December, banning employees from taking annual leave during the busy season. Such moves tend to be hugely unpopular. They damage staff morale and could potentially encourage your best workers to seek employment with one of your competitors. This is especially true if they are trying to use outstanding leave before they lose it at the end of the year.

The benefits of automation

Ultimately the whole issue condenses into a single challenge: serving more customers, at the busiest time of the year, with a skeleton crew of staff.

And as with many modern business challenges, technology can go a long way to providing a workable, profitable solution. You could automate your Christmas.

Automating early contact

Customer queries are inevitable. It might be shoppers looking to make a purchase before Christmas, or it might be those having problems with gifts afterwards. Either way, you must handle every query properly to deliver the best possible customer experience.

Human advisors will generally bring about the speediest resolutions. So, for human help, the use of live chat tools can dramatically reduce the time and effort required to provide a satisfactory outcome for a customer.

But in the seasonal rush, with stretched resources, intelligent automation can also help. It can direct customers to the answers they need with minimal manual intervention or human input.

For example, automation can ensure that web-based queries are routed automatically based on pre-configured rules. This could be as simple as directing inbound emails, using intelligent message parsing to ensure they are delivered to the team member most qualified to deal with the specific query.

Speeding support

The speed of response by the customer care team is crucial. Customers actually prefer to receive no response at all to their queries, than one which is slow to arrive and completely accurate.

  • 33% of customers would recommend a brand that offered a quick but ineffective response
  • 17% would recommend a brand that provided a slow but effective solution
  • 19% would recommend a business that provided no response at all

Companies that try to contact potential customers within an hour of receiving queries are nearly 7 times as likely to have meaningful conversations with key decision makers as firms that try to contact prospects even an hour later. Yet only 37% of companies respond to queries within an hour.

By reducing the manual administration required to deal with the very early stages of customer contact, agents are able to handle more requests each day. This means more efficient use of their time, and allows the team to cope even during periods of reduced headcount. More importantly still, automation can help to provide customers with feedback and ideas quickly, even if it doesn’t give them the exact answer they need.

20% of businesses prioritise reducing the cost of serving customers

Improving data accuracy

Manually capturing data from multiple systems decreases accuracy. Unfortunately, inaccurate data can cause a number of problems of varying severity, including:

  • Fulfilling customer orders incorrectly
  • Supplying incorrect advice and guidance to customers
  • Inventory errors

Data accuracy issues waste up to 17% of departmental budgets every year. The ongoing costs may be even higher, however, if these mistakes stop customers coming back to your business in future.

Aside from data simply becoming out of date, the next largest cause of inaccuracy comes from simple mistakes at the point of capture. Transcribing data from customer emails into the corporate CRM system is prone to typographical errors. The same goes for any operation that involves manually copying data between systems. Little surprise, then, that some estimates suggest that as much as 20% of all corporate data is inaccurate.

Again, this is where automation can step in to help. For instance, it can automatically push information about each customer interaction into the company CRM. This frees agents up to move onto the next service query, and ensures the information entered is exactly as it was submitted. Updating and automating processes also keeps things transparent. It reduces the likelihood of data ending up in decentralised spreadsheets, or other inefficient mechanisms that increase errors and prevent your team from realising maximum value from information assets.

Data accuracy goes up, and the requirement for manual intervention goes down. Perfect, then, for helping better manage the increased demands of the holiday season.

Moving beyond the festive season

Like the best presents, the benefits of automation extend far past the Christmas period. Automation can speed up and refine customer service processes all year round.

Social media monitoring

Whether customers follow your business online or not, many are actively discussing your products and services. Automation tools provide a way to capture these discussions, giving you an opportunity to engage in the conversation, improve the customer experience, and raise the company profile. (Again, without the need for initial manual intervention.)

Proactive support

This analysis of publicly available information can be extended to providing proactive support to customers. By scanning messages for tone and content, automation allows for an appropriate response to be sent to the customer, getting the ball rolling in terms of working towards a solution.

Increasing insights

The data collected automatically from support and social channels can be put to work for Christmas and beyond. Sentiment and trends analysis will reveal customer interests and preferences that can be used to shape future campaigns too.

Again, automation rules can be applied to how this data is captured, stored and analysed, helping to reduce the manual workload of the marketing team. Reduced intervention means that the cost per lead can be reduced as the total customer value increases. Automation has the potential to significantly boost the effectiveness of communications and deliver the service your customers — present and future — demand.

Stop trying to be amazing and start being useful. I don’t mean this in a Trojan-horse, “infomercials that pretends to be useful but is actually a sales pitch” way. I mean a genuine, “how can we actually help you?” way.

Extending the use of automation to outgoing marketing activities also helps realise dramatic benefits:

  • Businesses that use marketing automation to nurture prospects experience a 451% increase in qualified leads
  • Companies that automate lead management see a 10% or greater increase in revenue in 6-9 months

Automate your Christmas

Black Friday, the run-up to Christmas, and even the January sales, all represent fantastic opportunities for ecommerce retailers to boost their annual takings. But as true customer loyalty becomes less common, businesses need to do everything they can to raise service standards and establish their support as a competitive advantage.

Balancing the needs of workers, customers and shareholders is a challenge at the best of times. During the festive period when resources are most stretched, service can quickly break down.

But using tools to automate common tasks, and to carry out low-level, first contact-type activities, businesses can easily improve their customer service communications. Moving forward, you can create similar efficiencies throughout the rest of the business by identifying, and automating, other processes that consume resources and waste time.

To simplify and automate your Christmas sales period, start your free trial of ThinkAutomation today.

Useful links

Is your Christmas customer service a lump of coal?

Business process automation for customer service teams — a 101

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