Is Your Contact Center Ready for the Back to School Rush?

For retailers, the lazy days of summer are anything but. It seems as soon as summer begins, it’s already time to start planning for the inevitable surge that comes with back-to-school shopping. And then when that rush subsides, the one-two punch of Black Friday and the holiday shopping season is right around the corner!

The contact center is the core of customer service and often has a difficult time handling increased volume.  Zendesk data shows that ticket volume for the holiday shopping season at retail stores increases by 42%, while Freshdesk reported that customer service inquiries increase by roughly 75%. Non-retail travel-related companies like hotels and vacation resorts experience increased activity as well.

The overwhelming volume of requests can lead to long wait times, abandoned calls, agent burnout, and damaged brand reputation, among other unwanted issues.

Add to that new factors, such as the increase in online shopping due to ongoing pandemic concerns coupled with a shortage of employees resulting from the Great Resignation. (For tips on agent hiring and retention, check out “Tips to Attract New Agents (and Keep the Ones You Have.”)

With increased demand comes decreased patience from customers, as they expect the same level of support as other times of the year. And they are reaching out in many ways – they may be on your website, your mobile app, in a chat, or via phone – but they want the same seamless functionality.

During peak times of the year, it is more important than ever for shoppers to have a streamlined and stress-free experience. Customers should be able to go straight to what they want without any hassle or confusion. So businesses must ensure their contact centers are equipped to handle these seasonal spikes and the challenges that come with them.

Fortunately, there are retail applications that can automate many of these requests and help take the load off contact center agents by allowing customers to use self-service options. The key is to have a well-thought-out application rather than a specific solution.

We’ll walk through how this can work for some of the most common issues retailers face:

Order status/Tracking

How do your customers check on the status of their orders? Are they required to know their order number? Is your order management system able to provide a tracking number?

Most customers looking to check on the status of their order don’t have their order number in front of them. A way to simplify this process is by using their phone number as the primary method of identifying customers. One of our retail customers doubled their containment rate just by making this small change, from about 15% to the low 30s.

From there it’s very proactive. The customer doesn’t have to supply much more information as the system can locate their account by their phone number the next time they call in.

A great application will offer a notification to let the caller when their order ships and provide tracking information. Once an order shows as shipped and a tracking number is assigned, the customer can receive an SMS text message with that number. With most carriers, UPS, for instance, once they click on the tracking number, it will automatically bring the customer to the carrier’s site, where they can view up-to-the-minute status.

Use Notification Services 

In addition to providing order status and tracking updates mentioned earlier, notification services can also work proactively by keeping customers up to date on seasonal sales and promotions using real-time SMS alerts. Provide customers who have opted in with time-sensitive, targeted promotions.  This allows retail organizations to stay ahead of competitors by reaching out to their customers first.

Inventory/ Availability

Inventory and availability go together – customers want to know if you carry a product and if it is in stock.

Availability and inventory pieces are harder to automate. Unless your business’ products fall into a very specific niche with a limited number of options, this ultimately comes down to the business’ data inventory system – a detailed, up-to-date, and easily searchable inventory system is crucial. While these requests are usually better answered by a channel other than via phone (website, app), providing access via a user-friendly interface will help agents resolve inquiries faster by expanding their knowledge base should a customer opt for a phone interaction.


Back-to-school retailers tend to get hit with returns in late August and throughout September.

As in other areas, retailers have looked to Amazon’s model to simplify the return process for the customer.  Amazon allows users to go through their order history and select “make a return.” Amazon then emails a prepaid return label right away for the customer to print out and either drop it off or even have it picked up.

Automated return processes allow the customer to call in and simply say they want to make a return. They don’t have to talk to a person or wait on hold. Once they opt to make a return, the system sends a text message to their phone with a link for a prefilled return form. This automation helps businesses that have a large influx of orders because they inevitably also have a large influx of returns.


Chat is an ideal way to ensure that your team can solve customer requests as efficiently and quickly as possible. In fact, Gartner predicts that by 2027, chatbots will become the primary customer service channel for nearly a quarter of organizations.

The combination of an intuitive chatbot that can provide pre-programmed responses to common questions, automation tools, and well-trained live agents with access to a thorough knowledge base saves time and money – especially during busy periods like back-to-school or holiday seasons.

Simple requests are an opportunity for automation. For one of our retail clients, 50% of chat inquiries are automated, meaning that if 100 requests come through, 50 end up with agents. For straightforward inquiries like “what’s the status of my order?”, “what’s the tracking number?”, or “how many points do I have on my loyalty account?” a preprogrammed response can easily trigger an automated response with the information the caller is asking for, avoiding the need for that conversation to go to a live agent interaction. The agent doesn’t have to get involved, take the time to look at the preprogrammed response, push the button, etc.

This frees up agents to take the more complex requests and situations where a customer may ask a question that doesn’t have an automated answer. Skills-based routing features allow agents the ability to direct conversations toward those most qualified for assistance. A good chat agent can handle multiple chats at one time versus an agent that’s handling only one phone call.

Caller Elected Callback

Long hold times can be frustrating to a customer who is already dealing with the stress of preparing for the back-to-school or holiday season. One bad experience can be the difference between a repeat customer or that person taking their business elsewhere.  Enabling your contact center with the caller-elected callback feature gives the caller the option to receive a callback when they are next in the queue or to stay on hold until their spot in line is available – it’s all up to them! Learn more about Caller Elected Callback.

PCI Secure Payment

A big issue for retailers is data security. Many businesses keep their customers’ credit cards on file and take payments over the phone. PCI compliance standards are ever-changing with new (and often, confusing) security requirements being implemented often. How can you make sure your customers’ sensitive payment information is secure?

Rather than risk losing any customers due to perceived credit card fraud vulnerabilities, many retail businesses are turning to PCI secure payment technologies that offer self-service options. By removing sensitive data from their apps and networks to a hosted infrastructure that makes use of interactive voice response (IVR), they are effectively taking their agents out of the process, thereby relieving customer anxieties.

This is usually done using one of two methods. The first is with a direct to IVR option in which customers are directly connected to an interactive voice response system to make secure payments. These payments are then posted to system records. The second option is via an agent transfer to IVR. The contact center agent transfers the caller to IVR via a payment gateway, and when the caller is through and the payment has been posted to the system, he or she is transferred back to the agent. Learn more about PCI Secure Payment options.

Think of Your Contact Center as a Whole, Not Individual Pieces

The common theme among these solutions is a robust omnichannel contact center, which gives your customers the option to communicate the way they want and easily and securely access the information they are looking for. Again, the best strategy is to have a well-thought-out application rather than a specific solution. One that understands the journey that the customer is taking and what they need. We can help transform your customer engagement experience, adding value by increasing efficiency and effectiveness across all channels of communication. Speak to an expert today.

About the Author

Sarah Reitsma

Sarah Reitsma
Director of UI
Waterfield Tech

As Director of UI, Sarah is the lead voice strategist in support of Waterfield Tech’s user experience team. She brings over 20 years of speech science and B2C design expertise to the contact center space where she has been instrumental in guiding the transformation of voice and digital experiences for our top clients around the globe.


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