Ah, to be in customer service at holiday time—really the first line of customer experience and brand reputation. In high school or college you may have taken a retail job during the holidays. Perhaps you stood for hours behind a cash register, ringing out lines of Black Friday shoppers. Seeing that frenzy firsthand may have prepared (or deterred) you for a career in communication.
Today, social media managers and brand representatives are the front-line communicators for many organizations. For industries like retail, travel and food, holiday time can be the busiest—fueling questions about canceled flights, turkey recipes, or what to do when the hot toy is out of stock.
“As we enter the holiday season, brands can expect to see 18% more social messages compared to non-holiday months,” says Jamie Gilpin, CMO, Sprout Social. This "presents a unique challenge—and opportunity—for brands and social media managers,” she adds.
We asked social media communication experts how they prepare for the onslaught of holiday traffic. In addition, we asked about coverage procedures when teams go dark during the holidays.
Proactive Coverage Strategy
Jess Turner, senior community director, 1000heads, prioritizes creating strategies well in advance to prepare for potential social media crises. In addition, planning much-needed downtime for her team is a priority.
“If we are working with a brand that [normally] sees a spike in sales or activity during the holidays, our goal is to preemptively staff up ahead of time with a holiday team that can skillfully address a more active community,” she says.
“Training is also key here," she adds. Ideally, companies want service "as high-quality as always, even with a new team and an increased volume." Customers do, too.
Being a global agency can help with holiday coverage. For example, a good option is hiring an international team whose members do not celebrate Thanksgiving.
Preparing for Crisis
As we know, emotions can run high at holiday time. Some people may expel their energy onto a social media manager or customer service agent. That's why preparation for those on the social media front lines during holiday season can result in cooler heads prevailing. You may even win over your initial enemy.
In fact, 54% of people had a more favorable view of brands that responded to customer service questions or complaints on social media, according to Ledgeview Partners. Just being there means a lot.
Gilpin says companies can handle increased message volume using "customer-care plans" that follow "best practices." These include social listening, which can help uncover and address issues. In addition, Gilpin recommends developing pre-approved messages based on FAQs for speedy replies.
Similarly, Turner of 1000heads uses an audit strategy, defining expected engagements and setting [reply] procedures for each type of conversation, including emergencies.
1000heads recommends designating a crisis contact the holiday coverage team can message should a critical or emergency situation arise.
Sometimes an escalation plan for emergencies "includes a PR contact. But more commonly, [the plan] centers around a brand lead, who can then contact PR or whoever else is the next best reference,” she says.
And even if a brand does not anticipate an increase in holiday traffic, Turner suggests preparing a pinned post that can serve customers who may be trying to access brands when social teams are offline.
The post "serve[s] as a summary of key references your community can rely on should they need something over the period the team will be off,” she says.
And don't forget the personal touch. Looping a pinned post with content offering a friendly holiday message can help.
“The holidays are a great time to remind your community that you are a collection of humans, not a faceless brand.”
Not all social media outreach relates to products. The holiday season also sees traffic spikes at addiction treatment centers sites, as well as those for psychologists, therapists, doctors and lawyers, among others.
“The holidays can be an especially tough time of year for many who feel alone and are struggling with addiction, depression, anxiety and other behavioral health issues,” says Austin Armstrong, CEO, SocialtyPro, which works often with behavioral healthcare organizations and other professionals. As such, sites for companies it advises "get more traffic because people are looking for answers on social media.”
Since prioritizing such sites' social-based customer service is a must during the holidays, "the busiest and most emotional time of year," front-line personnel require lots of patience, Armstrong says.
“The holidays can stir both positive and negative feelings; anyone interacting online with customers must keep their cool,” he says. Sites and personnel who are "patient and compassionate" will "build customer relationships and loyalty.”
And if a social platform goes down, say Twitter, perhaps, Armstrong advocates a strong live chat function. Yet deploy live chat only “if you have the capacity to reply,” he says. Armstrong favors livechat.com. It connects "directly to your phone, so anyone on your team can answer user questions anywhere, anytime,” he adds.
Nicole Schuman is senior editor for PRNEWS. Follow her @nicoleschuman