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Take it from Zappos—holiday hiring is everything

Though it’s only September, many companies are already deep into preparation for the upcoming holiday season. Kohl’s, for example, started hiring seasonal store associates in July. At Zappos, planning for the next holiday season begins just as soon as the current season ends. Since holiday sales historically account for 20-30 percent of a retailer’s annual revenue, it’s imperative to begin early to make the most of the season.

Zappos starts a post-mortem on its holiday performance immediately afterward. “We look at all areas of the seasonal ramping process to understand what worked well, and what could be improved for the next season,” explained Rob Siefker, Zappos’ senior director of customer loyalty. “We gather feedback from everyone involved, including our recruiting team, and document what needs we’ll have for the next season. Starting in the summer, we discuss all areas that will require action and coordinate across the different role holders in order to get things moving along. Not everything moves on the same schedule,” Siefker said, “but we want to involve all parties so they’re aware of the moving parts as we go."

Do a deep data dive

The key, Siefker said, is to analyze and plan according to the data. Zappos looks at a variety of factors including the average handle time for customer service requests. It varies during different parts of the holiday season, Siefker explained. "For example, the week after Christmas is different than the rest of the season."

The company also looks at forecasts, employee attrition, marketing campaign performance, customer feedback, call review data, and historical data by day and interval.

"The most important thing is to look at the data that matters to you," said Siefker. "What really moves the needle or needs a lot of extra attention. It’s important to set yourself up for success during the holidays, especially in a retail environment—you don’t get a redo for an entire year, so you really can’t plan too much."

"The most important thing is to look at the data that matters to you - what really moves the needle or needs a lot of extra attention." - Rob Siefker, Zappos

Hire early; hire well

Retailers traditionally hire an extra 500,000 employees for the holidays; Amazon alone hired 120,000 in 2017. With the U.S. unemployment rate currently at around 3 percent, plummeting since 2010, it’s become more difficult to find great people looking for seasonal work. As many retailers know, people are everything and, as reported by The Society for Human Resource Management, many companies raised the rates they paid to summer seasonal workers in 2018 because of the shortage.

Some companies find their most successful strategy is to extend the possibility that employees can keep their jobs even after the holidays.

Many employers are finding that they’re having to bend over backward to get good seasonal employees by using self-serve kiosks, social media, and mobile apps to attract, schedule, and retain seasonal hires. Home Depot, for example, launched a tool that lets job applicants choose when to schedule in-person interviews. Customer service organizations or call centers, unlike brick and mortar locations, sometimes have the benefit of providing work-at-home opportunities for some employees, such as parents whose kids are out of school for the holidays.

But it’s not just about having enough people. It’s about having the right people in the right places, with the right training. Customer shopping habits are shifting: In 2017, online shopping during the holidays rose nearly 15 percent over the year before—a significant jump. Retailers need to make sure they’ve placed employees where the customers will be. Data collected by Zendesk reveals some clear customer service trends that retailers can expect in 2018:

  • Speed of the first reply is directly linked to customer satisfaction
  • There is a clear trend of ticket volume increases across all channels in November and December
  • Ticket volume has climbed dramatically in each channel year over year—and astoundingly so for newer channels like Facebook and Twitter
  • When ticket volume surges, disjointed support systems fail, sacrificing first-reply times and satisfaction scores

But it’s not just about having enough people. It’s about having the right people in the right places, with the right training.

For Zappos, getting the hiring right is “the biggest area” the company looks at operationally, Siefker said. "We also look at previous year’s attrition when factoring in our overall hiring plan, so that we find a solid sweet spot. You can never be perfect with managing to the data, but you can eliminate mistakes by really being in tune with the operational data."

Siefker said Zappos is stricter about its hiring standards for seasonal workers than full-time employees, That makes sense given that seasonal workers may be more likely to flake out than people who depend on the job for their livelihood and have built connections at the company.

Train, train, train

For seasonal employees, Zappos shortens its standard onboarding process to a week in the classroom with some mentoring sessions, followed by a week mostly on the phones.

"We still teach about our values and company," Siefker said, "but we focus on the things that are necessary to set them up for success for the day-to-day job they’ll be doing for our customers." He added that they ensure there are coaches and experienced employees working alongside the seasonal team. "We also want to make sure experienced coaches are involved in vetting the seasonal employees, since we look at the program as an extended interview for a full-time position."

Long before the hiring stage, it’s important that retailers have created plenty of accessible, easy-to-use training materials or can offer access to an internal help center to help seasonal employees bone up quickly. Employers may want to incentivize learning by offering rewards to seasonal or new employees who perform well on quizzes or trainings.

"We also want to make sure experienced coaches are involved in vetting the seasonal employees, since we look at the program as an extended interview for a full-time position." - Rob Siefker, Zappos

Make it merry

Companies do a lot of work to create fun, cohesive cultures for their regular employees and there’s good reason to do the same for seasonal employees. There’s typically less at stake, plus seasonal staff have more incentive to jump from one employer to another if they’re not happy and don’t feel connected to their team and the company.

Without some investment, you’re not likely to get the same level of performance and commitment that you would from an employee that you’re actively working to build a relationship with, even if over a short period of time. Make sure seasonal workers feel like part of the team, with access to mentors or support, and that they are included in group and holiday activities.

Remember, short term employees aren’t just going to get you through the holiday season—they’ll be ambassadors for your company, for better or worse, long after the tinsel is taken down and the champagne flutes are packed away.