Retailers can take immediate steps, such as updating FAQs and adding proactive chat, before the holidays. More extensive projects should wait until after peak season.

Lauren Kindzierski, vice president, Solutions and Capabilities, HGS

Lauren Kindzierski, vice president, Solutions and Capabilities, HGS

Peak season is more than two months away, but contact center managers across North America are already preparing for the busiest time in retail. Traditionally, much of this preparation has focused around staffing up to manage peak volume, strategizing to hit KPIs, hardening websites and IT infrastructure, and optimizing inventory and fulfillment. But, as a result of the proliferation of artificial intelligence (AI), automation and chatbots, tides are turning in retail. This may be one of the last seasons we can rely on tried and true ramp-up methods. Gartner predicts that “By 2020, the customer will manage 85% of its relationship with an enterprise without interacting with a human source.” What can retailers do – and learn – now and during the holiday rush to prepare for the next generation of customer experience (CX)?

Reduce Contact Center Chaos During the Peak Season with Automation, AI & Digital

Technology has long been an enabler in enhancing customer satisfaction and addressing peak season challenges. In the contact center environment, it has always been the job of customer service professionals to work with IT to find new ways to efficiently connect with customers. A pending peak season is a good time to tweak channels and evaluate options. For example, many customer care professionals in retail have opted to automate (e.g., using IVR, scripts, email reminders and alerts) some customer interactions – limited-time offer and warranty expiries, product and store locators, gift card balances and so on – to reduce the number of calls and agents in their centers.

Forward-thinking companies are already using a combination of bots and brains to deliver next-generation customer experiences and optimize operations.

In addition to staffing efficiencies, automation can positively affect revenues. In one successful e-commerce operation, a name-brand manufacturer and online retailer of camping equipment improved conversion rates by 40% by devising and embracing an abandoned shopping cart strategy. When a customer removed an item from his/her online shopping cart, a 10%-off promotion popped up. If the customer accepted the 10% discount, a live chat agent appeared to close the transaction.


Using automation to complete routine tasks, such as answering common questions, checking order status, resetting passwords, etc. can bolster customer and employee satisfaction. Even for those retailers reluctant to automate customer-facing processes, there are opportunities to automate back-office agent screen transitions and lookups to respond to incoming requests faster.

When introducing automation and AI, cross-departmental cooperation is important. In “A Survey of 3,000 Executives Reveals How Businesses Succeed with AI”, published by Harvard Business Review, executives provided insights on how they are preparing for and implementing AI. A key observation cautions against operational abandonment of AI responsibility. “Resist the temptation to put technology teams solely in charge of AI initiatives. Compartmentalizing accountability for AI with functional leaders in IT, digital or innovation can result in a hammer-in-search-of-a-nail outcome: technologies being launched without compelling use cases. To ensure a focus on the most valuable use cases, AI initiatives should be assessed and co-led by both business and technical leaders….” The CX team must take a lead role in shaping digital solutions to better interact with customers.

Steps for Automating the Customer Experience Over the Long Term

The labor-intensive, repetitive, error-prone nature of contact centers makes the industry ripe for automation. According to one recent (2016) Dimension Data report, next-wave digital techniques and technologies will soon overtake voice in the contact center environment.

Applying CX automation and AI is best done in phases. It can take 6 to 12 months to devise, implement and then optimize the model and find the right balance of bots (machines) and brains (humans). Taking the AI leap typically involves:

  • Engaging a data analyst to analyze historical contact driver reports.
  • Objectively determining the top 10 reasons customers contact you.
  • Determining which of those 10 contact types could be automated entirely, partially automated or prevented.
  • Mapping the customer (and agent) journey, in the front and back office.
  • Finding a partner who has AI, machine learning and natural language understanding and capabilities.
  • Actively maintaining and tweaking systems to respond to ever-evolving environmental factors.

What You Can Do This Holiday Season to Prepare for Automation

While the holidays are not the best time for piloting something entirely new like AI, making small changes now can improve peak manageability and prepare your organization for later automation projects.

When measured, straightforward tweaks can fuel your automation business case. Updating your help center and FAQ web pages to feature your return policy prominently, for example, can have a dramatic impact on volumes this season and beyond. Using IVR channel pivoting and proactive chat during checkout, on support pages or for visitors shopping for more than 20 minutes can retain customers. Adopting an SMS/text notification strategy for order status updates, shipping alerts and returns confirmations is entirely feasible within the weeks leading up to Black Friday.

Indeed, if your organization has not yet embraced AI, bots or automation, actions you take prior to and during the holiday rush can better position you for the next contact center peak season. These include:

  • Capturing data on everything and employing a data analyst.
  • Mapping the actual customer’s omnichannel journey to purchase and return products.
  • Documenting the most frequently asked questions and well-received answers.
  • Surveying agents for frontline insights.
  • Mystery-shopping the competition for inspiration.
  • Scanning social media for customer opinions.
  • Implementing a 1-to-2 question, after-engagement customer survey for each digital channel.

Forward-thinking companies are already using a combination of bots and brains to deliver next-generation customer experiences and optimize operations. Even with the 2017 holiday season looming, it’s a good time to start preparing for next year’s continuous improvement projects to remain competitive.


HGS specializes in seasonal staffing and contact center technology and services.