Following a “perfect storm” of COVID-19, HGV and labour shortages, as well as ongoing Brexit supply chain disruption in general, retailers and brands are expected to face one of the most chaotic and pressurised peak seasons yet, as the availability of gifts this festive season hangs in the balance.
For consumers, fears of being faced with empty shelves and delayed deliveries have resulted in an early scramble and heightened demand. Shipping containers carrying toys and electrical goods have already been turned away from the country’s biggest port as it hit capacity, and customers are being left wondering whether their orders will arrive in time.
Brands will be measured on how they have prepared this season by how they react and the service they are able to provide to minimise disruption. Central to this will be a strong customer contact centre offering visibility and responsiveness. Answering vital questions like ‘How long will this take to get to me?’ and ‘Where’s my order?’ have never been more important, and brands that can effectively track the movements of a delivery, provide resolutions if there are issues, generally and proactively update customers will retain loyalty.
Surfing the sea of supply chain disruption
Last year we were faced with the uncertainty of Brexit and high demand from Covid as retailers and consumers stockpiled goods ahead of the peak festive season. This year, supply and demand issues have increased – worsened by the burgeoning HGV driver shortage which has not only impacted the transit of products, but the availability of fuel in October. Whilst many large couriers claimed not to have been directly affected by the shortages of fuel at filling stations, brands themselves are suffering from a lack of drivers, with many feeling wary that the situation could escalate in the run-up to Christmas.
But it’s not just finding drivers that should be a concern, there has been a reported 41% decline in the number of EU-registered citizens applying for warehousing and supply chain jobs this year. Not to mention an increasing scarcity of warehouse space. In fact, experts warn that the UK could run out of warehouse space within a year following a surge in online shopping and supply chain disruption during the pandemic, which sparked a boom in demand.
With little time left before Black Friday, many retailers and brands will have already been reviewing contingency plans to minimise such disruptions. Unfortunately, disruption of any kind is unlikely to be completely out of the picture. Brands must plan for what they can – based on what they know now. And that is – despite the supply chain issues being faced – that customer expectations are still at an all-time high. They expect orders to arrive on time and they will take to a variety of forums to demand answers should this not be the case. Loyalty is on the line for brands that cannot respond effectively.
Customer service as a preventative measure during peak
It is easy to view this function as an afterthought when issues surrounding the supply chain are taking focus. Customer service, rather than just a reactive measure to an unhappy customer, can instead be a preventative measure to maintain loyalty. In addition to responding to inbound enquiries, brands should be considering proactively reaching out to consumers with carefully considered communications to offer transparency around any expected delays.
Thanks to advances in technology, we have witnessed a rise in brands providing apps where customers can save time by tracking orders themselves without needing to pick up the phone and contact directly. Chatbots have risen in popularity as a way of managing updates on where an order is in the delivery channel – however, it is important to quickly recognise when escalation to a human agent is needed. Orders during peak season often contain Christmas gifts, meaning delivery timescales are even more imperative to the customer. In these situations, a human agent armed with the right information can be make-or-break customer loyalty.
By integrating your website and order management system, agents can leverage real-time order information. This means brands can respond quickly to customer queries, letting them know instantly exactly where their product is within the delivery chain. Knowledge is power, and if there has been a delay, or a product is now out of stock, being able to keep the customer informed on when that item is back in stock is essential.
Having access to customer insights can also enable brands to provide a much more efficient and personalised experience for customers. By having easy access to notes and contact history features, agents are equipped with detailed customer information, including any previous contact, enabling effective responses, and negating repetition.
Transparency is key
One single piece of advice to brands dealing with peak promotions this year would be to be transparent – invest in the tools and technologies that enable you to manage customer expectations and respond effectively. Those brands that provide a positive customer experience despite disruption this year, will be those that stand out for consumers and capture their loyalty far beyond peak.
Return policies are just one area demanding such transparency. In a recent Which? report, customers who have ordered gifts earlier this year to avoid delays have been urged to check policies to ensure they are still covered after Christmas. For brands who haven’t been transparent, many will likely face an influx of enquiries and potentially disgruntled customers. Proactive communication with customers and ensuring contact centre agents are equipped with the knowledge to handle these scenarios will be key this peak season.
2021 has been another testing year for retailers and online brands. By investing in a team of highly trained, equipped, and informed customer service agents, retailers and brands have the opportunity to turn a potentially negative peak experience into a highly positive one. This year doesn’t have to be the year that Santa gets the sack – nor does it have to be the year that customers turn their back on your brand due to poor customer service. Whilst supply chain disruption may be outside of your control, customer loyalty doesn’t have to be.