Meeting customer expectations during a holiday season like no other

A single pine tree on a rocky summit

The holiday season never fails to heighten emotions—positive and negative alike. Maybe you’re overjoyed to spend time with your loved ones. Or maybe overstressed trying to figure out what the heck to gift to those loved ones (seriously, Dad, I need one hint or it’s going to be socks again).

Maybe you’re thrilled to hear Wham!’s “Last Christmas” back in rotation. Or maybe you’ve already sworn you’ll do everything in your power to ensure it’s the last Christmas the world ever hears that song.

But 2021, as it has over and over again over these 11 long months, is proving to be different from other years. This holiday season is more challenging than ever. Between product shortages, supply chain traffic jams, and price hikes across a number of industries, shoppers are already seeing their deliveries delayed well into 2022.

Despite everything, holiday shopping isn’t slowing down.

There’s a timeless moral at the end of How the Grinch Stole Christmas: we don’t need extravagant presents to celebrate the holidays, as long as we’re surrounded by those we love.

As it turns out, the moral might not be so timeless. The story of How COVID Stole Christmas may have a different ending. The truth is, as shoppers, consumers aren’t used to being told to wait or sacrifice.

No one in Whoville had next-day delivery, after all.

Despite appeals from retailers big and small for customers to get their shopping done early this year, the National Retail Federation is projecting that holiday sales from November to December will grow by 8–10% from last year. And despite the supply chain, inflation, and staffing difficulties in 2021, overall retail spending has been on a steady increase all year. That’s leaving shelves particularly sparse and businesses under even greater pressure to meet customer demand.

The challenges aren’t just affecting retailers.

The supply chain and labor shortage issues are forcing businesses to get creative this holiday season. Certain bookstores, for example, in the wake of massive printing delays, are adapting by pushing older inventory and falling back on orders made months ago.

Business-to-business providers, meanwhile, are likely to be hit harder by missed shipments. Many of these companies rely on raw materials and bulk orders, a lot of which are still stuck on cargo ships. A clear solution to the problem hasn’t quite materialized. 

And then there are service-driven businesses, such as law firms, medical practices, and home services companies. This time of year is always busy for all of the above, but the end of 2021 is poised to be, once again, unique. Let’s consider the facts for various industries and professions:

  • Family law attorneys may want to prepare for a spike in demand from new clients, if this same period in 2020 was any indication.
  • The jumble of increased spending and increased financial pressure on families suggests accountants and other financial professionals should expect the unexpected.
  • Small businesses of all kinds will need to brace for emotionally charged conversations with customers who are feeling exhausted and exasperated—perhaps due to issues entirely unconnected to the conversation at hand.

If that weren’t enough, there’s the ever-present reality of extreme weather events. My hometown was already hit pretty hard by a historic Nor’easter in October, which led to dozens of downed trees and thousands of homes without power. As major storms threaten the United States this winter, the nation’s essential workers—such as doctors, nurses, pharmacists, electricians, plumbers, house cleaners, delivery drivers, and others—may have to dig deep and brave the elements to yet again go above and beyond for their clients, customers, and patients this year.

How can your business respond?

Heightened customer expectations are mentally and emotionally taxing for representatives of any business. And the inability to meet their demands can cost your business in the short and long term.

This season, many people may not be thinking about supply chain delays and shortages when unable to find the perfect gifts or access the services and help they need, when they need them. Instead, when those socks are out of stock, they’ll likely blame the bearer of bad news. Ditto for when there’s a two-week wait to see a plumber.

These conversations are particularly painful for smaller businesses that lack dedicated in-house customer communication teams. Being the person who is spread thin and the person who has to tell a caller you’re spread thin stings twice as much.

Plus, of course, it can also result in a lost sales opportunity. Triple bummer.

So, how can a business or enterprise navigate these demanding customer interactions—even when they know it likely won’t end with a guaranteed sale?

1. Keep your communication informative and consistent.

The last thing anyone wants to hear when they can’t get what they want is “there’s nothing we can do—it’s completely out of our hands.”

The tricky thing is, for many businesses this year, that’s the truth.

You may not be able to control the situation or relieve your customers or clients of their initial disappointment. But you can help them make informed decisions and realign their expectations. Rather than giving a “no” or a shrug, be honest and transparent. Tell them why the situation is what it is, as well as what you can and cannot do—and then, if possible, offer an alternative: Would they be willing to wait a couple weeks longer for service? Would they like to consider another product?

Make sure to keep your approach consistent from conversation to conversation. Now is not an ideal time to offer “special treatment” or prioritize one person over another. Fairness may not calm emotions, but it prevents a difficult situation from worsening.

The key is to shape your communication with the needs of your customers or clients at the center. Focus on what you can do for them. By using clear and consistent language that outlines the reality of a shortage or delay, and updates on the most recent developments, they may gain a greater understanding of the situation and return to you when you’re better equipped to help them.

2. Give them a timeline (if possible).

If possible, don’t let your customers and clients leave the conversation in the same place as they started. “We can’t help you now” doesn’t have to mean “we can’t help you later.”

Sure, your customers will likely look elsewhere if they learn that you can’t help them on their desired timeframe, but a promise of resumed service in the future offers hope of an eventual resolution.

That said, if you’re not sure when your business will be operating in its ideal state, it’s best to avoid making promises you can’t keep. Instead, offer your existing and prospective customers or clients insight into any causes of the difficulties, as well as what changes you’re making to get back on track.

3. Offer recommendations and referrals.

Paying it forward is a hallmark of the holiday season. If you can’t provide someone with what they’re looking for, but you’re aware of another business that can, give them a shoutout. Don’t think of it as losing a sale; you’re building a reputation as a helpful, community-minded business.

4. Practice empathy.

This year will likely be the most stressful and emotionally draining holiday season on record for many of us. Because of that, your callers may want to take out their frustrations on you and your staff.

Rather than matching their tone, remember to stay calm. You don’t know what kind of struggles the person on the other end may be dealing with. Try not to make assumptions about them. Instead, put yourself in their position and reinforce your commitment to their well-being by providing them with thoughtful and compassionate customer service.

Apologies and expressions of gratitude go a long way. Words and phrases like “I’m so sorry” and “thank you for your patience” are powerful for building trust.

Look for opportunities to connect. If someone complains about something that isn’t related to your business, commiserate with them and offer them comfort by embracing your humanity. Everything is slower, tougher, and more expensive right now than any of us anticipated, but we’re in it together.

Let’s put it all together. Here’s an example of what a helpful, compassionate customer service response might sound like:

“Thank you so much for contacting us. Unfortunately, our team is unavailable right now and our next available appointment would be on January 5th. I realize this isn’t ideal. We sincerely apologize for the delay. I would be happy to schedule an appointment for you in January, or I can recommend another option if you’d prefer not to wait. What would be best for you?”

5. Above all else, be patient and understanding. Especially with yourself.

Remember: your well-being matters too. Verbal abuse is never something you should feel the need to tolerate. Respect your boundaries and know your limits when it comes to engaging with difficult customers—and keep in mind that you don’t always have to be all things to all people.

Turning a customer away is always difficult. But if you feel that as though you’re being pushed to your limit, don’t sacrifice your mental health for the sake of your business.

Ruby can share the weight.

This holiday season, your business has enough on its plate without you and your staff having to worry about difficult customer or client interactions. If the stress of the holiday season is eating into your business’ time, now is the time to explore other solutions.

Ruby’s industry-leading, 24/7 virtual receptionist and live chat services can help lighten the load this holiday season and beyond. We tailor our communication services to your business’s unique needs and ensure that your callers always connect with a compassionate, highly-trained live professional.