Support teams in every industry are impacted by seasonal variation, whether it’s the holidays, product releases, or special events. This holiday season, experts are forecasting a growth in sales of 4-4.5% over 2017, with online sales increasing up to 21%.

Spikes in demand for customer service can test your staff and your systems, but planning and preparation can help you come out the other side stronger than ever.

Structural changes

  • Impact: High
  • Level of difficulty: High

Creating a business that can better handle shifting workloads takes more up-front work, but it can generate ongoing benefits in efficiency, employee happiness, and financial savings.

1. Update your onboarding playbook

Ramp up new and temporary hires faster with a documented onboarding process you’ve tested and improved throughout the year. This will make it easier on the rest of the team, in addition to new staff.

McDonald’s simplifies training process

McDonald's often has new or potential managers work at a McDonald's location inside of a department store, rest stop, or other partnering business. These locations often tend to have fewer moving parts than stand-alone restaurants.

Amazon uses tech to prepare orders in advance

Amazon adds around 120,000 temporary workers to their U.S. business over November and December. They use technology such as mobile training touch screens and even robots to help teach new hires, which saves money and shortens training time to 2 days, according to an article in the WSJ.

What can you do?

  • Invest in updating and expanding training materials.
  • Simplify and improve internal systems, giving staff easier access to the information they need to help the customer.
  • Give the authority to the frontlines: Reduce delays waiting for permission or transferring between people.

2. Modernize your hiring process

Look for people who have the flexibility and skills to ramp up quickly. For example, Help Scout customer Revolution Food Network, a healthy food community, found that actors were perfect for event support roles, because they love flexible, temporary work involving communicating with customers.

3. Work with outsourced resources

Outsourced support doesn’t have to mean super cheap, script-driven call centers. Today there are companies that function as remote partners, flexible extensions of your own team. You can benefit from their vast experience in flexibly scaling up and down. With a relatively small investment from your support team, you can shape them to your company’s standards and style.

4. Automate like a human

Adjust your auto-reply message. Update your message for the holiday season to set expectations and include links to the most common issues.

Update your contact page. Address common questions and link to self-help resources so customers can get answers quickly, without needing to contact you. Learn more.

Simplify your offering. Surprise and delight is a great strategy on an idle Tuesday, but during the holiday rush, some customers need resolution and answers — fast. Give your support team permission to not offer some of those ‘little extras’ during a rush.

Use historical data. Plan your staffing schedule according to historical data, and don’t leave it to the last second! Give your team notice about any holiday staffing requirements (or constraints).

Synchronize across the company. Big marketing promotions can drive major support traffic, and IT maintenance operations can be disruptive. Work closely with your colleagues to plan around busy periods.

Update your support documentation. A comprehensive, intuitive, easy-to-navigate knowledge base is a massive time saver and resource for both customers and your team. See our knowledge base for practical tips.

Prepare responses. Review last year’s customer conversations and frequently visited knowledge base articles for common rush time scenarios (delayed responses, shipping issues, etc.), and pre-write answers. Learn more.

Preparing for the rush

  • Impact: High
  • Level of difficulty: Medium

Even if you don’t have time for structural changes right now, there are a ton of things you can do to prepare yourself and your staff for rush times.

  • Use workflows and filters to tag or split out basic questions that non-support team members can help with.
  • Assign a triage expert to oversee operations, identify new issues, sort conversations to the right place, ask for help as needed, and spot conversations that don’t need immediate answers.
  • Record what you learn. Though it may seem like one more task, taking time to record learnings during the holiday rush is an investment in your whole team’s future, saving them time and headaches next year. For example, take note of things you tried that didn’t end up being necessary, systems that slowed you down, and documentation that was missing or needs updating.
  • Keep systems stable. The holidays are not the time for a big development release or live testing, so collaborate with product and engineering teams ahead of the rush to ensure their schedule won’t create unexpected work.
  • Adjust your goals. Busy times call for scaled-back measures, so you may need to reconsider how you prioritize your team’s workload, and your target response times may need to change.
  • Proactively communicate with customers. Let them know if your response times are going to be significantly longer than normal. Setting accurate expectations helps inspire patience and understanding from your customers.
  • Care for your team! Make sure they take breaks — burnout is a real risk. Consider offering incentives to fill added support hours and recognize your team’s performance.
  • Increase your social monitoring. People can move to social channels to complain if their expectations aren’t being met, and being responsive there can head off larger issues.

Regardless of your budget or resources, you can prepare more effectively for the holiday rush. If you haven’t invested in training and planning, adding new staff or tools during a busy period can be counterproductive.

Simplification, documentation, organization, and preparation — those are the most impactful tools during busy times. Start now, and revisit this list after your next busy period. Your team, and your customers, will thank you for it.

Mathew Patterson

Mathew Patterson

After running a support team for years, Mat joined the marketing team at Help Scout, where we make excellent customer service achievable for companies of all sizes. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn.