In early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States. Businesses shuttered and millions of Americans stayed indoors 24/7. Brick-and-mortar destinations like department stores, local shops, and the mall became ghost towns in an effort to avoid exposure to infected shoppers. Rather than don surgical face masks, gloves, and face shields, people around the country — and around the world — opted to do their shopping online.
Consumers went for the basics, buying toilet paper, cleaning supplies, and non-perishable foods. Then items like desks and office chairs saw increased demand as work-from-home mandates extended. As time went on, more industries were impacted by unexpectedly skyrocketing online product demand.
E-commerce was a growing sector before COVID-19 emerged, but the pandemic caused online purchases to skyrocket. One study found that “online retail sales increased 32.4% year over year in 2020 and are up 39% in Q1 2021.” Shoppers who switched from in-person to online shopping due to the pandemic have settled into the ease and convenience of clicking “add to cart,” and plan to do more shopping online from here on out.
This quick pivot to online shopping may seem guaranteed to benefit e-commerce companies. But those who sell online — or began selling online due to the pandemic — now find themselves in another crisis, this time of a supply chain nature. With significant shipping port congestion, businesses of all sizes and in all industries are struggling with shipping delays, back-ordered stock, and employee shortages. Unfortunately, these global shipping delays are increasing in the lead-in to the holidays, and the 10 busiest shopping days of the year, which include Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Green Monday, and December 23.
Customer Service Is Essential, Especially Now
Before COVID-19, businesses were expected to satisfy traditional customer priorities: timeliness, a good user experience, and a wide selection of in-stock items. But the pandemic has changed what consumers expect from businesses. Now, when shipping issues delay product delivery, your customers need you more than ever.
According to a survey from RetailMeNot.com, “41% of those taking the survey shared that they feel nervous that gifts getting shipped to them will not arrive before the holidays.” Today, customers need to know that you’re there for them, that you’re on top of it, and that they can turn to you for help if they experience any shipping issues.
With the holiday e-commerce surge quickly approaching, many businesses are wondering how they can maintain customer satisfaction when high-demand items are almost guaranteed to be delayed in delivery or out of stock. Here, we’ve compiled our top retail customer satisfaction tips for the upcoming holiday season, with additional advice from the experts at Staples.
Tips for Providing Great Customer Service During Supply Shortages
1. Always Be Transparent
When assembling your customer service strategy during the supply chain shortage, transparency should be at the top of your list. It’s difficult to share bad news with customers — especially those who are waiting on time-sensitive holiday deliveries — but that discomfort pales in comparison to the negative effects of over-promising and under-delivering.
“Customers want to know that you're being honest with them,” said Thom Kirst, Manager of Customer Care at Staples. “Everyone wants to deliver good news; they want to be the person who saves the day. But when you're dealing with something like this, you can't necessarily deliver great news all the time.”
To give more transparency to your customers and their delivery expectations, consider the following:
- Provide updates on shipping times. Customers don’t want to be left in the dark when it comes to their orders. If you know a product will arrive later than promised, let customers know as soon as possible so that they can plan accordingly. Don’t wait until the day before an item is supposed to be delivered, as this can lead to frustration and the impression that a company isn’t being totally honest.
- Communicate the reality of the supply chain crisis. Despite the far-reaching effects of the pandemic, many customers may not even be aware that there are supply chain issues affecting almost every business in every industry. If you explain the challenges that your company is facing, they are likely to be empathetic.
- Update on-site messaging: Prior to the shipping crisis, your company may have promised next-day delivery or other shipping guarantees. If you display these promises on your website, be sure that they are updated to reflect your company’s current shipping times. Products that are back-ordered should also have an estimated delivery date, so customers have a clear understanding before they purchase.
2. Express Sincerity When Responding to Complaints
Chances are, current shipping delays will result in a slew of customer complaints via email, social media, or call centers. Businesses need to be thoughtful with the way they handle this feedback. “When customers share negative experiences with us, we want to show our customers that we care,” Kirst said. “We want to help them reach a resolution by getting to the heart of the matter.”
When a company is sincere in its communications, customers feel heard and respected and may be more likely to purchase from the brand again. To express sincerity and empathy when addressing complaints:
- Listen to the customer to acknowledge the issue and validate their frustrations.
- Avoid expressing frustration to the customer and use a professional tone.
- Assure them that you’re committed to making things right.
- Ensure their feedback gets into the right hands.
- Thank them for their business and for reaching out to you.
- If possible, provide follow-up communication to ensure their issue was resolved.
3. Offer Various Channels of Communication
If a customer has a question about when an item will be delivered or has an issue with an order, it is imperative that your customer service team is available for assistance. But remember, you have customers with different personalities, professions, and schedules. One strategy to address this is to offer alternative channels of communication.
“Offer customers the opportunity to connect with you the way they feel most comfortable,” Kirst said. “If they’re the type of person who wants to speak with somebody so their point is heard, have a voice option available. If they are running short on time, offer a chat function for them to ask their question.” Communication channels to offer your customers can include:
- Website Chatbot
- Social media messaging
- In-person support services
When customers have more options to communicate their issues, they’re likely to feel more connected to your company, knowing that their concerns are your concerns. Just make sure that your teams are able to respond to requests within a reasonable amount of time, and be sure to communicate what that time is. For example, send out an automated email response that lets the customer know they can expect a response within 2-3 business days. This can be especially helpful if your company is experiencing a staffing shortage.
4. Take Cues From Customer Satisfaction Surveys
A Net Promoter Score (NPS) measures customer satisfaction and acts as an almost real-time indicator of the health of your company. Importantly, the score also shows you how customers are feeling about their experiences with your company — valuable data that can inform your decision-making moving forward. The score is generally based on customer responses to survey questions like, “on a scale of 1-10, how likely are you to recommend this business or product to a friend?” If your company isn’t already utilizing NPS data, now is the time to do so.
If your scores are lower than you would like them to be (a score of about 50 is considered good, while a score of 70 or more is considered excellent), your goal might be to improve customer experience, increasing your number of “promoters” over “detractors.” You can also utilize other customer satisfaction measuring tools, including the customer satisfaction score (CSAT) and the customer effort score (CES).
5. Come Up With Creative Solutions
When popular items are out of stock and customers are frustrated, companies often gravitate toward the usual solutions: offer a refund, send a promo code, or deliver a gift card for a future purchase. These solutions can be effective, but during a crisis as significant as the current one, they may lead to company losses. Crucially, they also do not provide customers with the item they set out to purchase.
Sometimes a refund may seem like the right move, but surprisingly, it is not always the best way to make the customer happy. “Customers just want us to make it right,” Kirst said. “They want resolution, not compensation. They're looking to us to fulfill a need, and that's really what they care about — it’s ‘hey, I chose you, so help me.’”
Instead of jumping directly to refunds, credits, and gift cards, Kirst says to consider creative solutions. “It's about understanding your customer's needs,” Kirst said. “And if there's a barrier, what could be causing that barrier?”
The following strategies can help companies break down those barriers and offer quick solutions to shipping delays:
- Educate customers about alternatives: When many items are unavailable, don’t be afraid to offer customers alternative solutions they may not be aware of. For example, if a certain product is out of stock, help the customer identify another model with similar features that’s in the same price range.
- Source from brick-and-mortar locations: Items that are out of stock online could actually be available in your company’s physical stores. Customer service teams should check availability at those stores, then offer them a way to get that item to the customer. They can also offer another in-store item while the customer waits for their original delivery.
- Get ahead of heavy shopping days: Many companies are prompting customers to place orders ahead of time — before Black Friday and other busy holiday shopping dates — to better guarantee early delivery. Some are even offering discounts or holding sales to encourage customers to buy now versus later.
- Limit purchase options to in-stock items: To make sure customers cannot purchase out-of-stock products, set e-commerce purchase limits. For example, Shopify offers users the option to automatically hide out-of-stock products. Other e-commerce platforms like WooCommerce also offer the option to hide the product, as well as its price, from Google Searches. Users can also add a “notify me” feature, where customers can enter their email address to be alerted when the item is back in stock.
- Partner with last-mile delivery services: Last-mile delivery services like USPS, UPS, and FedEx are facing delays due to lack of staff and increased delivery volume. If you depend on these shipping partners, consider partnering with another delivery company. For example, Many Petco and PetSmart locations now offer same-day local delivery on items like pet food through the third-party delivery service DoorDash. Pharmacy giant Walgreens did the same, partnering with both Postmates and DoorDash.
Prepare Now for the Holiday Shopping Season
The effects of the pandemic supply chain shortages are extensive and likely to impact almost every e-commerce company and customer. Customer frustrations and complaints are bound to reach your customer service team, but the difference between a happy and unhappy customer is the way you respond. By implementing our customer satisfaction tips now, you can approach this perfect storm of economic crises armed with the tools to retain or even gain satisfied customers.