As October hits, prepared consumers may already be planning their holiday shopping. But employers have no choice in the matter: the time to staff up is now.
As shopping habits change, so do employer practices. Quite a few brick and mortars have gone bankrupt this year, but there’s still a strong call for talent across in-store, logistics and remote positions. Seasonal hiring has averaged 604,000 job announcements per year since 2012, according to Challenger, Gray & Christmas, an analyst.
But some argue that the U.S. is nearing full employment, meaning it may be easier to find Santa’s shop than to find the right people to fill jobs. Luckily for employers, recent innovations in the customer service space could make these important seasonal jobs more effective and more appealing to potential applicants. Remote work opportunities and in-store job flexibility are helping employers differentiate themselves from the competition.
Where is seasonal talent growing and going?
The usual rules still apply. According to Challenger, Gray & Christmas, retail store jobs make up the bulk of seasonal hiring. But in recent years, transportation and warehousing employment has increased. Between 2015 and 2016, employment in that sector increased by 8%, or nearly 20,000 jobs. With continual pushes to e-commerce, those numbers are likely to rise.
More employers are moving their in-store personnel to last-mile, shipping and warehouse locations, Greg Dyer, president of commercial staffing and enterprise accounts at Randstad U.S., told HR Dive. Unfortunately, those jobs aren’t always easy to fill; they tend to be physically demanding.
“It’s created a bit of a shortage in certain markets,” Dyer said. “It’s very difficult to get the talent.”
As the markets change and technology improves, employers are getting creative in trying to retain those key workers. Flexible work schedules have begun to emerge in the hourly space, partly thanks to the contingent workforce. Apps like Shiftgig allow workers to pick up last-minute shifts for client employers that need to fill sudden schedule gaps.
Changing technology has even shifted how employees and the end consumer interact — though consumers always expect the same quality of experience be it via website, social media or an in-person conversation, Ryan Lester, director of emerging technologies at LogMeIn, said, meaning employees need to be skilled no matter the medium.
Developments in e-commerce have expanded the need for call center customer service agents, and many of those jobs can be done remotely. Jobs that can be done from home can have higher engagement rates than jobs that require employees to be on the premises.
Improving the employee (and customer) experience
But not everyone can go remote. What can those employers do?
That’s the question of the day, Dyer said. Retailers and seasonal employers of all types are figuring out how to become better brands in the market. Transparency tools like Glassdoor and Kununu have put the onus on employers to create better employee experiences, especially with unemployment at 4% in many places.
The classic lever is, as always, better pay. Financial incentives will likely increase, Dyer said, be it shift completion incentives or higher hourly wages. Target recently announced it was raising its base wages just as seasonal hiring season began, for example.
For those looking for long-term investment in the workforce (as well as long-term benefit), more employers are turning to better training programs to both prepare employees for the changing retail environment and improve the customer experience overall.
“There’s a separate trend that has to do with the complexity of products,” Lester said. “[Employers] are trying to diversify through better customer services. Products have inherently become more complicated and may complicate questions from customers.”
Remote workers are at a disadvantage due to this growing complexity of offerings. In the store, an employee can specialize in a department and gain deeper understanding of offerings — while having the added bonus of merchandise all being right there in front of them. Remote workers will need more training to accommodate customers who may have complex questions about merchandise that the employee may have never seen.
So what is the recruiting pitch here? Such complexity is actually a boon for employers that are prepared for the coming changes, Lester said. Improving the customer experience through better technology — think AI — can create a better job experience for agents, who can specialize and increase their own value.
"We think what will be successful in hiring and retaining good agents is that agents must feel empowered."
Director of Emerging Technologies, LogMeIn
The tech is still developing, but its potential is promising for employers. During a crisis mode — an airline facing multiple delays due to weather, for instance — AI can handle questions about flight times or options and human operators can handle more complex issues. It can also provide agents information about a customer’s previous buying habits.
In the long term, agents who are well-trained for such situations will feel more empowered to actually help customers. Employers won’t have to tell agents to focus on call-time or speed of transaction.
“We think what will be successful in hiring and retaining good agents is that agents must feel empowered. They must feel well-trained,” Lester said. “So your pitch is that you can remove the mundane, and we want you to do your job better — delight the customer.”
Well-trained agents can build customer relationships and curate expertise, which can transform customer service into a revenue generating aspect of the business instead of a cost driver.
“It will come down to treating employees as critical to the business,” Dyer said. “Companies that are willing to look at a very employee-centric culture will succeed, assuming they are paying market rates.”
The struggles forethought can answer
Employers can adopt a number of strategies to beat the competition. First: Start now.
“If you are late to the game, you could literally be out of luck in these situations,” Dyer said. Setting the right wages upfront for each job and market will be critical. So get on it.
- Vary the job experience. An in-store employee may be hired to do a particular type of job, but if another job role interests them, let that employee try it out. Get creative with alternative job formats and give employees opportunities to truly own their work.
- Optimize your tech use. For remote call agents, most interactions on the phone are already captured. Use those interactions, good and bad, to better train agents for future calls. And experiment where you can, not just in e-commerce but throughout the organization, Lester said.
“If you aren’t setting up now,” Lester added, “you are inherently setting yourself up to be behind your competitors.”