Retail Checklist: Ten Steps to Improve Customer Service in Preparation for the Holiday Season

For many retailers, the holiday season is the highest revenue generating time of the year. Yes, it can be a stressful few months, but for those that are prepared and equipped to handle the added pressure, it can actually be “The most wonderful time of the year.”

At the centre of the season is the consumer. Your customer. The success of this season lies solely on their shoulders: the what, where, why and how much they decide to buy, or not. A retailer’s ability to meet customer’s needs, keep them happy, and turn a seasonal shopper into a regular customer plays as large a role in retail success.

BizRate recently conducted a survey of 13,000 people of different age groups and genders to see why they chose one retailer over another. Bizrate Insights Vice President Hayley Silver shared the results, which revealed that shoppers most value “customer support,” “product met expectations,” “on-time delivery” and “design of site,” for eCommerce stores.

The following retail checklist offers tips on how to improve customer service for both online and in-store consumers. It includes some tactics you may already be familiar with, but may not have used in some time. Other tips may be new to you, but are proven methods in retail that provide that invaluable one-on-one level of support today’s consumers demand.

  1. Stay on top of inventory levels to improve customer service. When customers make the decision to buy, the best way to serve them is to have that desired product in stock. Staying on top of your inventory levels ensure you can deliver. Through your retail management platform, when levels get to your preset reorder number, a supplier order is automatically generated to replenish your stock levels. When the numbers are going the other way and certain stock isn’t moving, the holiday season is the best time to discount that stock in order to make room for products customers want to buy. Having your inventory, sales, and purchasing data tied directly to your accounting system within your retail platform allows you to quickly run profit and loss statements and other accounting reports at any time, continually fine-tuning your operations throughout the season.
  1. Use inventory reporting to keep customers happy. Mistakes happen, especially during the holiday rush. If an order was lost during shipping, your inventory reports will tell you if you have a replacement product in stock. If the warehouse sent out an incorrect product, your inventory report will show the discrepancy to identify the error, potentially before the customer does. Then you can be proactive by contacting the customer to correct situation.

“Tracking stock levels is really important for us as we sell different quantities across so many different channels – we never want to let customers down by being out of stock – Brightpearl makes sure we don’t.” Daniel Rios, Technical and Operations Specialist, Paper & Tea

  1. Multichannel management to serve customers wherever they shop. Do your regular in-store customers like to shop online for the added convenience? Having all your sales channels – in-store, online, eBay and Amazon stores – tied to together offers numerous ways to better serve your customers. Sales orders automatically update inventory levels across all channels. Pricing can be managed centrally, so if you discover a competitor with a lower price, information which is easily found through eBay’s advanced search functionality, you can adjust accordingly to stay competitive. Offering the ability to buy online but pick up in the store is becoming more popular among shoppers, and as the days wind down to the holiday season, this option could really save the day during last-minute gift buying.
  1. Your Suppliers play a key role in improving customer service AND cash flow. Going back to monitoring inventory levels, having a solid relationship with your suppliers can benefit your customer in many ways. If you have a banger sales weekend, leaving you unexpectedly low or out of a certain product, drop shipping from your supplier to your customer to deliver product before your stock is replenished. You may list a lower sell-through item in your catalogue but may not stock it, knowing that if a sale comes through you can drop ship to the customer or get same-day delivery from your supplier. This enables you to direct that cash elsewhere versus having it gather dust on the shelf. Freeing up that cash flow allows you to spend it in ways the benefit your business, from hiring additional temporary holiday staff, to marketing and advertising, or other on products with higher sell-through rates.
  1. Simplify and improve your deliveries with cloud-based solutions. Third-party ecommerce solution providers such as ShipStation in the U.S. and Scurri in the U.K. integrate directly into your retail management platform and popular shopping carts (Shopify, Magento, Bigcommerce), automatically assigning a carrier for each shipment based on your pre-defined criteria. This increases efficiency over manual entry, providing real-time tracking for both you and your customer. Letting shoppers know exactly when their package is set to arrive is of value at any time, but especially during the holidays. These services also enable you to analyze the performance of each carrier, continually fine-tuning your delivery system to meet and exceed customer’s needs while monitoring costs to improve your bottom line.

“We love ShipStation! This was probably the first automation systems we took on as a small company. We initially did all shipments by hand. We were just starting out and didn’t know any better. Then in Christmas of 2012 our sales really took off, and we were swamped! Not to mention we went a little crazy trying to do all these orders by hand. So we Googled something like “magento shipping integration” and that’s how we found ShipStation. It was love at first sight.” Connor Hartnett, Founding Manager, F&V Lighting

  1. Increase the monitoring of your store’s shopping cart abandonment rates. People get finicky during the holiday season. It’s important to know the difference between a dropped sale because a shopper changed their mind, and a potential problem with your checkout process. Ecommerce shopping cart solutions like Magento will notify you when customers abandoned the sale, and then send them email notification reminders to finish the sale. These can be customized messages to contact your store if there were issues, enabling staff to personally resolve them, even by taking orders over the phone if need be, which offers that personal touch. Tracking if a customer abandon a cart from their mobile device, but completed it on their laptop, could indicate potential friction with your online store from a mobile device, an area you’ll now know needs improvement to better support mobile shoppers.
  1. Take advantage of real-time customer information to better suit their needs. Your CRM has a wealth of information you can use to improve customer service. Filtering by product type and amount of sales by customer, and viewing how they’ve interacted with your store enables you to send personalized one-to-one email messages. These could include a coupon to shop online or bring them back into the store, to invite them to a customer appreciation shopping night, or simply say “thank you” for their continued business. It’s a way to differentiate you from your competitors, where shopping is a pleasurable experience and not simply a lowest cost pursuit.

“Customers can be tracked, tagged, emailed and updated in no time at all. This has streamlined my sales and lead generation by making it easy to communicate with current and potential clients.” Laura Rudo, CEO, Evolve Beauty

  1. If you’re not yet using social media to improve customer service, what are you waiting for? Earlier this year, our partner Creare wrote a great blog post on how to use Twitter for customer support, including an eye-opening statistic: of the consumers who post a complaint on social media, 42% of them expect a response within 60 minutes and 32% expect one within 30 minutes. Closely monitoring your social channels will enable you to quickly address and resolve issues with online customers, or even a shopper Tweeting about waiting in a long line in your store. Use these channels to provide another service by sharing your store’s product expertise through helpful blog posts on the latest trends, tips, and recommendations. Butterfly Twists has a lively and active blog if you’re looking for inspiration.
  1. Small touches can go a long way in creating a welcoming in-store customer experience. Holiday shopping for many is a hectic experience. Having helpful, friendly and knowledgeable staff on the floor can make a world of difference to shoppers. The BizRate survey showed that shoppers of the Baby Boomer and Senior generation stated that service, “they have treated me well in the past,” was most important to them, even over price. Offering a cup of tea or warm cider and a place to rest for busy shoppers is a nice way of letting them know their patronage is appreciated. To help them with their shopping list, turn to your sales reports to see which product lines are selling well, then feature them in eye-catching displays that make buying easier.
  1. A well thought out efficient returns strategy benefits your bottom line and your customer. It’s critical, especially during the holiday season, that your return policies are clearly messaged within your ecommerce store and your physical store. When your returns system is running like a well-oiled machine, products can be added back into inventory quickly, ready to be sold to the next customer. Closely monitoring returns will red flag potential defaults with a product. If you notice a spike for a specific SKU, you can put a hold on a product to prevent future customers from receiving faulty items. At the same time, expediting exchanges ensures your customer receives the replacement product quickly.

According to eMarketer, U.S. retail sales for November and December is predicted to grow 5.7 percent over 2014, reaching $885 billion. This is the biggest increase in retail sales since 2011. Keeping your customers happy through this year’s holiday season will enable your retail business to benefit from what is expected to be, quite a wonderful shopping season.

To learn more on ways you can prepare your retail business for the holiday season, download ‘The Ultimate Retail Guide to the Holiday Season 2015’ today.

This guest post was written by Brightpearl. Brightpearl are a partner of Creare who provide multichannel retail management software.