Tips for Staffing Customer Support Teams During the Holiday Season

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Customer support is an integral part of any organization, particularly as the point of reoccurring client interactions requires continual excellence regardless of the time of year. When it comes to ensuring essential questions are covered during the holidays, whilst balancing vacation requests from your team, it’s not uncommon to begin to feel the holiday stress before the holidays have even started.

For small to medium-sized customer support teams, there are certainly ways to help ensure you and your team can get through some stress-free planning for this upcoming holiday season. As a manager of customer support over the last 6 years, I have learned the importance of being creative when it comes to ensuring the right people are available on key coverage days. Although the world may look a little different today, and many support teams have moved to remote workstations in home offices, many of these tips remain evergreen in guiding you through your remote holiday planning:

Always plan and plan ahead — it seems like such straightforward advice, which doesn’t quite get enough traction without department and company policy to nudge behaviour in the right direction.

Like most people, recency inspires motivation, so often individuals may not think about vacation until something triggers that reminder. In order to plan appropriately for day-to-day, my team is advised to schedule vacation requests a minimum of 6 weeks in advance. We also remind the team of upcoming holidays and look to fill in potential coverage gaps 4 to 6 weeks in advance, to allow for appropriate planning on both sides. Support coverage is a team effort, so leaders are just as responsible for planning as the rest of their team.

Although everything may not be possible to plan in advance, in many instances, encouraging your team, whenever possible, to take vacation before the anticipated holiday rush can help to ensure you’re appropriately staffed during the holiday season. With many teams working from home this year, and travel restrictions in place, vacations can still be encouraged for earlier as a means to unwind before the busy season or to get some much needed holiday shopping completed before everyone else.

Aside from scheduling vacation and holiday coverage as early as possible, one area that is often overlooked when considering team coverage is to offer a volunteer system that encourages team members to contribute in a collaborative way. Not everyone celebrates the holidays in the same way, and with mixed interests, it’s not uncommon to find team members who may want to work on Christmas Day, simply to avoid family affairs.

Whatever the reason for the season, encouraging a volunteer system to fill in necessary shifts during the holidays is a great way to provide more flexibility to your team around when and how often they’re keeping operations up and running year round.

As an incentive to help boost participation, volunteer systems also work very well when the volunteer system proposed also ensures the same person isn’t assigned two holidays in a row (unless they want to).

While some support teams are much busier during the holiday season, there are also some teams that may find December to be an opportunity to consider a reduced coverage schedule.

With different ways to celebrate the holidays, smaller support teams can find offering the option for individuals to work full or partial days between family time a more palatable alternative to taking consecutive days of vacation time. This method works really well for a more agile and smaller support team as flexibility is derived from breaking up individual days to provide distributed coverage. A key area to note is even when schedules are flexible, it’s still a good idea to provide some parameters around communicating availability so that team members feel supported if shift handoffs is key part of your process.

For some teams, on-call coverage may make more sense, particularly if volume is much lower during the holiday season, or your department has elected to only cover high severity issues or high impact clients while the majority of the company is out of office.

Having dedicated shifts to monitor and be on-call for an emergency is a great way to encourage additional flexibility for your team. One key area is to have scheduled check points in your process, in order to set expectations on the type of coverage expected while on-call. For example, clearly outlining that emails are to be checked at least once a hour or implementing an alerting threshold based on keywords is a good way to gauge the success of your on-call coverage plans.

Offering monetary compensation for covering a holiday is a great way to not only incentivize for the additional help, it’s also a great way to recognize the extra hustle. In terms of how best to compensate, every team may offer different bands based on roles, schedules, and types of coverage. Regardless of how you decide to best compensate, do always encourage your people to also take an extra day off in lieu — your rockstars are rockstars for a reason, and deserve a little time for themselves, even if they may have been paid to cover for someone else’s time away from work.

Holidays are a year-round endeavour and can easily be planned well in advance. As a best practice, I recommend planning out shifts for the year and then readjusting quarterly when you have more data around volume trends and client behaviour. When team sizes change, as well as client portfolios, a yearly, quarterly, and monthly audit are all important in keeping your coverage schedule up-to-date and distribution equitable for everyone on your team.

Depending on team size and request volume, a one-size-fits-all solution would be quite difficult to coordinate. The most successful holiday coverage really depends on the needs of your team, and the needs of the company. Over the years, my team has iterated and improved on our holiday scheduling, all the while ensuring that even as leaders, I contribute to holiday coverage in order to foster a sense of team and teamwork.

For holidays where leaders are not actively offering coverage, maintaining a more on-call or escalations role provides you with an opportunity to gauge how operations are running when things are lean. We often unintentionally help our teams by jumping in and filling in the gaps day-to-day, so it’s no surprise that it can be so difficult to see how things are really running while in the weeds. Taking a step back enables you to be a better leader and for your next rockstar to blossom in your periphery.

An easily amused writer. Fond of notebooks. Loves a good cup of tea. Musing about life, lessons, poetry, culture and leadership.

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