In the past year, consumers who have tried to buy a pair of shoes, products for the home or back-to-school items have encountered a common problem: They can’t find what they’re looking for. Often the merchandise is on backorder, with no delivery date in sight.
Supply chain disruptions are still rampant across the board. Some experts say the delays could last well into next year. Worker shortages, the surging Delta variant of COVID-19 and a general lack of resources are just a few of the reasons to blame for the lack of availability of many items. While it could take months or even years for some parts of the supply chain to recover fully, one consequence of this unpredictability has been the need for more customer-service representatives.
Prior to the pandemic, consumers were accustomed to sellers’ ability to track the arrival of online orders, sometimes down to the minute. With disruptions to the supply chain, this capability has become compromised. Yet customers and vendors today are no less insistent on knowing where their orders are, and when they’re expected to arrive.
For this purpose, the role of customer-service rep becomes key. According to a recent survey of Liveops retail agents, the top reason that customers contact service agents is to track a shipment. The most common question: “Where is my order?”
The upcoming holiday season only serves to exacerbate the issue. E-commerce will again be king this year, with online shoppers facing a myriad of supply chain disruptions, causing them to begin their searches and purchasing earlier in the season. Retailers will need to hire more seasonal customer-service reps to keep up with the demand for tracking and responding to questions about shipment delays.
For many businesses, the process of hiring and retaining needed customer-service reps has been a challenge over the last several months. Many retailers, including Aldi and Michael’s, started recruiting seasonal holiday workers this past summer. The early push to recruit indicates a struggle to hire. Additionally, retail workers are quitting in droves due to burnout, the need for more flexibility in their schedules, and the desire for better opportunities. In April, 2021 alone, 640,000 retail workers left their jobs. Retailers are being forced to get creative with their workforces, or consider an outsourcing partner to meet anticipated demand.
It’s tough to pinpoint and predict supply chain disruptions, but their effect on the customer experience can’t be ignored. Although the seller might not be directly to blame, it will be held accountable by the customer.
The process of combatting and overcoming supply chain issues involves a complex narrative. A key aspect is transparency. In the event of a disruption, customers can be understanding if they’re kept in the loop about what’s going on. But to do their jobs effectively, customer-service agents need detailed and up-to-date information on the location of shipments and anticipated arrival times. It’s also essential to keep agents abreast of any known disruptions or delays. They can then pass this information along to the customer, promoting brand loyalty.
Digital tools and automation can help answer an influx of questions related to product location, but the human element is, and always will be, important to customers. When technology fails to understand the customer’s need, only a human agent can actively listen, balance various solutions, and smooth out the jagged edges of a challenging situation. Technology simply doesn’t provide the empathy that a real-live agent can bring to the table.
Technology is valuable for assisting service reps in understanding customers’ needs, and making the process as efficient as possible. Automation tools can relay the customer’s information from one channel to another, eliminating confusion for all parties involved. The customer should not, for example, have to reauthenticate when being transferred from one agent to another, or from a chatbot to a human agent. All notes should follow the customer so they’re not answering the same questions again. In addition, the agent should be aware of the customer’s previous call history, in order to provide the most efficient experience possible.
Sellers can go a long way toward enhancing customers’ experience by anticipating their needs and equipping service reps with the right tools and training. Don’t forget the community and extra support that agents will need during this time. A virtual network that allows agents to lean on each other is vital when call volumes are spiking.
The volatility of COVID-19, weather-related delays, shortages of truck drivers and scarce materials promise to cause supply chain disruptions for the foreseeable future. By accepting the new reality and understanding the need for transparency from all stakeholders, sellers can maintain customer loyalty and protect the bottom line.
Greg Hanover is chief executive officer of Liveops.