By Jordan Quigley, North American Vice President, Administrative and Customer Support Group, Robert Half

Without a doubt, the global COVID-19 pandemic had a massive impact on consumer purchasing habits. Retailers ramped up online services in a flash, allowing customers to order almost anything online for in-store and curbside pickup or delivery to their doorstep — from essential household items to exercise bikes and cars.

Even as consumers began shopping in person again this year, the e-commerce market has shown it has plenty of room to grow over the long term. According to the latest projections from Morgan Stanley, this market could increase from $3.3 trillion today to $5.4 trillion in 2026. 

Due to this paradigm shift, it’s safe to assume that virtually limitless e-commerce is here to stay, and along with it a voracious demand for next-level customer support teams.

As the year’s busiest retail season ramps up, it's critical for companies to field enough skilled professionals to support customers through the peak shopping and returns cycle. 

The e-commerce landscape is more crowded and competitive than ever, so keeping customers satisfied requires a thoughtful talent strategy — all while managing new and more difficult workforce challenges.

Customer service skills are becoming more advanced

As online retail has evolved, so have customer expectations. In addition to browsing through dedicated websites, they want the efficiency of also using text, chatbots and social media to shop and order — with instant access to customer support at every step.

That’s why customer-focused staff in the e-commerce space need higher-level, more advanced skills than before. The best service professionals have refined their written communication, creative problem-solving and the art of effective escalation. However, finding and hiring enough staff with these skills will always be a challenge for businesses unless they have the time and money to provide top-notch training and flexibility.

Talent — and time — are limited

With unemployment rates still hovering around 3.7%, the demand for skilled talent is still very high. Let’s face it: Employers simply cannot access enough qualified candidates in the limited amount of time they have, especially if they are looking to onboard customer service help during this time of year. And while busy managers try to cover open positions, other important initiatives oftentimes are being put on hold.

Turnover is still rampant

One of the biggest mistakes I see hiring managers make today is not anticipating and planning for candidate turnover. And when hiring, even with all the effort of sourcing, screening and making an offer to a potential employee, there is still no guarantee they will show up on day one. Nor can you be sure your current employees will finish out the busy season when their dream job may be just an online click away.

This year, try leveraging a flexible talent strategy

A great hedge against these perennial issues is to add contract professionals to your seasonal staffing strategy. Call centers, dispatch teams and order fulfillment centers can cut costs and manage increased call volumes by leveraging flexible talent models.

A specialized talent solutions firm can help fill staffing and skills gaps with tailored approaches to your specific business needs.

For example, as the holiday season approached at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, a national retail/e-commerce company was facing an unprecedented increase in online orders. Existing staff couldn’t handle the increasing volume of orders, and the organization was facing the bleak prospect of lost sales and dissatisfied customers. They asked Robert Half to help.  

Quickly, we were able to tap into our national database of virtual call center and customer support candidates, and using cutting-edge sourcing technology, to access and assess potential hires, we successfully placed more than 100 remote customer service professionals ahead of their historically busy e-commerce season.

Going even further, we provided value-added resources for our client, including customized virtual training methods, remote technology deployment capabilities and virtual accountability strategies.

When choosing a talent solutions partner, here are some advantages you should look for:

  • Turnkey talent. Look for an organization with a deep bench of thoroughly vetted professionals who can guarantee the work will be done on time and to expectations. The firm should also be deeply committed to quality placements, ensuring your satisfaction on day one and throughout the assignment. They should also be able to guarantee the quality of their placements, and any team member who isn’t working out or needs to leave the role unexpectedly should be swiftly replaced by another highly skilled candidate.
  • Trained in advanced customer support skills. Contract professionals should feel confident about leveraging the newest customer-focused technology such as digital assistants, live chat and various support platforms. They should also have excellent writing skills since a good deal of communication with customers happens in email and text. Robert Half, for example, can provide its own technology and customer service training to the candidates we intend to place.
  • Remote-ready. Companies today are often challenged by the new reality of managing lean remote or hybrid teams, so make sure the talent solutions firm can provide individuals who understand how to excel and thrive in these environments.
  • A range of job roles. Choose a firm that can serve as a one-stop shop for filling a variety of seasonal surge roles — for example, not just customer support and call center specialists, but also dispatchers, customer experience specialists, office assistants, data entry clerks and HR specialists.

Whether you are a small business or an enterprise-level operation, working with a specialized talent solutions firm to right-size your customer service team for the seasonal surge can save you precious time, resources and even your reputation. But make sure you partner with a firm that provides the white glove service that will help you meet your own high customer service standards.