More shopper inquiries, slimmer warehouse workforces and customer service employees working from home create complexities for some online retailers during the pandemic.

As consumers continue to hunker down at home, more are shopping online, resulting in a spike in customer service inquires at many retailers.

Some packages are taking longer to arrive at shoppers’ doorsteps as increased online orders put strains on often short-staffed warehouses. Other consumers want to check in to see if orders from overseas are still being shipped. Meanwhile, many customer service agents are now working at home, which can create new complexities.

 

 

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New analysis from vendor BigCommerce of retailers using its ecommerce platform shows web sales for four of nine categories it is tracking are up more than 100% for the week of May 3-9 compared with a year earlier. Sporting goods sales are up 141%, vehicles and parts sales are up 119%, hardware 112%, and health and beauty 104%. Even the category with the lowest growth rate—business and industrial products—grew 56% that week compared with a year earlier.

More questions, more problems

All those extra orders have contributed to more customer service inquiries. Ecommerce vendor Salesforce Inc. says weekly chatbot customer service sessions for its retail and consumer goods clients have increased 426% in April compared with February. Salesforce chatbots can conduct tasks like check refund and shipping status and modify orders for consumers.

Several online retailers are informing customers that if they do reach out to customer service, they should be prepared to wait much longer than usual. Macy’s Inc., No. 15 in the 2020 Digital Commerce 360 Top 1000, has a message on its website warning shoppers of long wait times. Nordstrom Inc. (No. 18), meanwhile, has had extremely long hold times, according to Digital Commerce 360 staff. And consumers took to Twitter to voice their frustration with home goods retailer Crate and Barrel on delays in orders and refunds.

” @CrateandBarrel Customer service is not responding to emails from days ago on a price adjustment AND I have to sit on hold via phone for 20+ minutes and still not able to speak to anyone. This is #outrageous,” one tweet reads. Another angry shopper tweeted “@CrateandBarrel trying to place an order been on hold 30 minutes but being told my wait time is less than 5 min. What about offering a call back option” Macy’s and Crate and Barrel did not respond to requests to comment regarding customer service issues. Nordstrom declined to comment.

 

Web-only wedding dress retailer Anomalie has been fielding more questions from worried brides asking if their dresses will arrive on time since the outbreak, says Leslie Voorhees Means, co-founder and CEO of Anomalie. In early April, inquiries about dresses spiked about 50% as brides worried about dress production timelines. Because Anomalie dresses are made in China, consumers were especially worried because the outbreak originated there, she says.

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The heightened concern by brides led Anomalie to guarantee brides their dresses would arrive at least a month before their weddings or the retailer would refund the price of the gown plus an additional 50%, she says.

Addressing questions

“Once we saw that spike around inquiries, we wanted to nip it right in the bud and tackle it head-on,” Voorhees Means says. Anomalie stylists who work with brides on designs also reached out proactively to all brides working with the retailer to reassure them their dresses would be delayed. Voorhees Means also went on Instagram Live to answer brides’ concerns about the coronavirus. “We wanted to make sure we were putting it out there that we were feeling really confident their dresses wouldn’t be impacted,” she says.

Anomalie’s Chinese manufacturers haven’t been impacted by the virus because most of the retailer’s dresses are made in Suzhou outside of Shanghai and Southern China in and around Guangzhou—areas far from where the outbreak has been. Additionally, Anomalie’s manufacturing facilities are small, often consisting of about a dozen dressmakers, so its staff can use social distancing measures and take other precautions fairly easily, she says

One positive way coronavirus has impacted customer service at Anomalie is that brides are more open to video conferencing. Stylists are conducting more consultations via video using Zoom rather than over the phone, Voorhees Means says. “People are more open to video calls these days,” she says. That enables the retailer to provide better service by pointing out visual elements in sketches and providing sneak peeks of their dresses being made.

Research from customer service vendor Zendesk Inc. finds customer service-related inquiries at retailers have increased 43.4% in the last week of April compared with the last week of February. Of retailers experiencing a 10% or more increase in customer service inquiries, chat sessions have increased 22%, while visits to those retailers’ FAQ, Help Centers or similar online resource centers are up 89%. Meanwhile, phone calls are down 24%.

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Across all Zendesk retailer clients, visits to online help sections of websites are up 46.2%. This indicates retail companies are using their help center web pages to deflect requests that would otherwise fall to agents to tackle, Zendesk says. Zendesk says companies are shifting away from using traditional channels—such as phone and email — and are moving into channels where their customers already are, such as chat and social media messaging.

A trickle-down effect

For some retailers, the virus is creating a trickle-down effect. A workout gear and supplement retailer that asked not to be identified says about 10% of its fulfillment labor force is off mostly due to daycare closures. That’s causing delays in shipments, which is leading to more customer service inquiries. “We keep trying to add temporary [warehouse] employees and train them but the crop of temporary employees has been very poor and we have not been able to keep any due to performance issues,” the retailer says.

As a result, total customer service inquiries are up about 10%. Not a huge surge, but the figure is putting a strain on the retailer’s customer service team. Customer service employees are working remotely with the pandemic. However, staff members are unable to take calls from home because the retailer doesn’t have the technology in place and because of payment security concerns. For now, the retailer says it has turned off inbound phone calls and is only calling customers who request a call back.

“We are pushing customers to use chat and email so that they don’t experience extended wait times.  On our website we are also including messages about delays in shipment processing due to COVID-19,” the retailer says.

Retailers that already invested in the technology to enable customer service staffers to work remotely are benefiting from those investments. For example, furniture retailer Wayfair.com (No. 6) has 3,400 customer service employees. Many were working from home before the pandemic and now 100% are, a spokesman says.

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The virtual tools and processes put in place earlier for those who worked from home, such as Google Meet video conferencing and online courses that help train new hires, have kept “productivity and service levels high as we transitioned completely to remote service,” Wayfair says.

90% of customer service employees think customer service is more important as a result of the coronavirus, but substantially fewer agents feel equipped to handle massive changes in ticket volume, customer attitudes and policies since the pandemic hit, according to an April survey of 168 customer service professionals from Kustomer Inc.

That survey also finds:

  • 79% of customer service professionals say the global pandemic is significantly affecting their customer service organization (massive changes in ticket volume, customer attitudes or policies).
  • 64% of respondents reported a need for greater efficiencies during COVID-19, and 57% reported having to deal with more complex issues than usual.
  • 39% of reported difficulty working remotely and 23% reported that they did not have the correct tools in place to successfully work in a remote environment.
  • 48% say wait times are longer, and 39% report a lack of resources to do their jobs.
  • 50% feel they have the resources to solve customer problems.
  • 38% have seen more upset customers.
  • 64% report a need for greater efficiencies.
  • 77% have had to learn new policies.
  • 81% say their teams have had to reach out to customers proactively, such as to notify them that their shipment may be delayed.
  • 56% say their organizations need to invest in new technology and 59% say their teams need to adopt automation for efficiency.
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