Handling Holiday Returns and Cancellations in the Contact Center
Illustration by Justin Putnam

January is the toughest time of the year to be a new agent. Early in my career, I worked at a mobile phone company that got hit with sky-high post-holiday call volumes. There were two main reasons customers called to cancel their service at this time. Some people cancelled due to post-holiday belt-tightening. They had a New Year’s resolution to cut costs and saw cancelling their cell phone as the first step. Or, they had received a phone for Christmas, but did not want it. As a result, our main January goal was customer retention. We needed to save as many clients as possible.

If your company also gets hit with post-holiday returns and cancellations, here are 15 ideas to help your agents retain as many clients as possible:

1. Don’t depend on a specialized retention team. EVERY agent needs to be trained on basic retention skills. While a specialized “save” team can handle a certain number of escalations, they can be overwhelmed by the volume of post-holiday calls. To bolster their efforts and prevent unnecessary escalations, every agent should be trained on basic customer retention techniques. That includes how to calm irate callers, diagnose service issues and explain how customers can adjust their service instead of cancelling it.

2. Offer training to new customers on how to make the most of their product or service. Online tutorials, YouTube videos and website FAQs help customers learn to use their new holiday present. Make sure that your agents are aware of those resources so they can share them with customers. Also, promote those solutions via your social media channels. Include links to helpful resources in your tweets and post them on your Facebook page.

3. Update your IVR message. If there is a common—but preventable—problem driving returns and cancellations, you may want to offer that solution as an IVR menu option. For instance, if the customer presses “5” on their phone, it brings up an announcement such as, “You can go to our website to download a free patch that fixes…” This may prevent cancellations and lower call volumes by giving the customer enough information to fix their own problem rather than speak with an agent. Just be sure to allow the customer to press another key to talk to an agent, if they still need it.

4. Provide agents with guidelines for returned merchandise, if your company accepts returns. In addition, agents need to be trained on when—or if—they should make exceptions to that return policy. Exceptions include whether to waive service charges or accept merchandise that is beyond the listed return date. To supplement this training, agents must learn how to process returns, arrange return shipping and void service charges, if applicable.

5. Extend the return deadline for new post-holiday customers, if possible. Sometimes customers just need more time to use their new gift and see if it fits their lifestyle. Work with your marketing team to see if a retention offer of an additional X number of days will help improve “save” results.

6. Make welcome calls. If you have enough staff, proactively call new customers. Do not wait until a customer calls to cancel. Instead, greet them with a “Welcome Call” to explain how to use their new product or service and see if they have any questions. This can pre-empt cancellations by catching the customer before they decide to return a gift or cancel a new service. Also, educate customers on the benefits of their new product or service. Make them feel excited so they will want to continue with your company.

7. Do not punish customers for leaving. You cannot retain every single customer. Some customers may have been given a holiday gift they do not want. Some customers may genuinely need to cancel due to financial circumstances. Prepare your agents with guidelines for when they should waive cancellation fees, restocking fees, return shipping, etc. Otherwise, a disgruntled former customer may vent on social media or escalate a complaint to the CEO. While some rules need to be in place, there should be parameters on when to make exceptions. Create goodwill by making a cancelling client feel appreciated. Thank them for being a customer. Ask them to please come back if their circumstances change. They may return someday and also refer a friend or family member to you.

8. Monitor social media for customer success stories. Acknowledge customers who post positive comments about your company and its products by thanking them for their favorable tweets, Facebook posts and Instagram photos. You can also retweet or “Like” those success stories so customers who follow you and are thinking about cancelling can see it.

9. Monitor social media for customer complaints. Offer to help those customers by contacting them directly, if appropriate. Remember: Unhappy customers tell more people about a bad experience than happy customers tell people about a good experience. So, take those complaints offline and deal with them directly. Be sure to respond promptly to social media comments. Often, people expect an immediate company response when they complain on social media. A monitoring service like Hubspot can help you manage those channels.

10. Create prewritten phrases for common problems so agents can quickly cut and paste them into their emails and live-chat answer boxes. Normally, I am against heavy scripting. However, in a high-volume situation, “cut-and-paste” explanations save time. Just be sure that your scripted phrases sound like a real person talking rather than “marketing speak.” Also, ensure that agents still diagnose a customer’s problem properly so they use the correct “canned response.”

11. Listen to the Voice of the Customer. People cancel for a reason. Sometimes that reason is beyond the company’s control. For instance, a client may need to cancel a service because they lost their job and cannot afford it anymore. On the other hand, cancellations may also be due to customers buying the wrong product because your company’s salespeople recommended the wrong item. Or, your company’s TV ad created a false expectation regarding the product. To fix those problems, have a mechanism in place to funnel customer comments to the appropriate internal department. This data should be designed to help your sales, marketing, shipping and accounting departments improve their internal practices to prevent future cancellations.

12. Ensure that your workforce management team has enough agents scheduled to handle expected call volumes. Some organizations avoid training sessions, team meetings and even vacations during the post-holiday time period. Also, if you are adding new-hires, recruit and train them before January so, you have them ready and able to take post-holiday calls. Another option is to have management staff take calls to show their support and lead by example. A further option is to outsource certain calls to a third-party contact center provider to reduce the pressure on your team.

13. Share success stories. It is easy for agents to get discouraged by the constant deluge of post-holiday cancellations. Keep their morale up by celebrating successes. Show that they are making an impact by sharing positive retention statistics. Provide recognition to top “save” performers by having them share their retention techniques at a team meeting. Give out awards for the most saves. Share positive post-call customer satisfaction survey results. Let your frontline team know they are having an impact. People always perform better when they know they make a difference.

14. Support your agents during this challenging time with perks such as free breakfasts and pizza lunches. Have drawings for movie tickets or gift cards. Turn your break room into an oasis with decorations, music and games so agents can decompress when they are offline. Do whatever you can to boost morale. Remember, the way you treat your agents is how they will treat their customers, so be especially good to them during this challenging time of year.

15. Help your agents recharge after tough calls. Notice if they need a moment offline and give it to them. There no point in forcing an agent back online too quickly, if they are going to mishandle their next call. That just leads to agent burnout and customer frustration. Instead, coach them on how to bounce back from a tough call. In addition, equip them with techniques to handle the next call more effectively. Show your support and let your agents know they are not alone.

The post-holiday season can create higher than normal call volumes, returns and cancellations. Use these techniques to help your team retain more customers during this challenging time. Decide which techniques apply to your contact center and put them in place before your busy season starts.