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Make This a Happy Holiday Season

The holiday season is critical for retailers, accounting for as much as 40% of total annual sales, according to the National Retail Federation. The travel industry hits its annual peak during this same period, as do payment processors.

If you work in these or other industries buoyed by holiday spending, then you must ask yourself: Are your systems prepared to handle the rush? Will your websites hold up under the load? Will your contact centers and customer service networks respond to the challenge? Will every one of your customers have a positive experience?

Even the largest, best-funded retailers can have problems at this time of year. In 2015, for example, Neiman Marcus suffered an extended outage on Black Friday. Half a world away, in Australia, organizers of Click Frenzy, a one-day online sale featuring hundreds of retailers from around the country, insisted they were ready for the rush. They weren't. When the sale started, millions of people logged on at the same time and the Click Frenzy site crashed. It was perhaps the biggest retail fail in the history of that nation, with consumers heaping scorn on every one of the brands involved.

Passing the Test
So what can you do to make sure your systems stay up and running? You can test. Test early, test often, and test beyond the stresses you think your systems will experience in the wild.

Companies that build things like cars and airplanes conduct constant and rigorous testing. And when their products enter the market, they're capable of operating well beyond the everyday stresses they're likely to encounter. In IT, however, this concept doesn't exist. All too often, organizations just cross their fingers and hope all their systems will work. Granted, lives are not at stake (most of the time) but the health of your business could be on the line if your critical systems fail this holiday season.

Take an IVR system, for example. This time of year, many companies make IVR changes to support new holiday promotions. They add arrays of options and selections for customers who call in. But, nine times out of 10, these companies haven't done the necessary stress testing.

What's necessary? You need to test every single permutation of a typical customer interaction -- and a non-typical interaction. And you need to test continuously. If you make a change today, you have to test it today. Yesterday's test isn't good enough. This is the difference between closing the deal and losing the sale. If a customer calls in and gets transferred to a dead end or trapped in a loop, you've just lost the sale -- and probably the customer -- for good.

I remember a case where a customer was trying to reach a large national retail chain via an 800 number. The company had the same 800 number across the U.S., but would automatically route incoming calls to a local number. In essence, the company was managing thousands of local numbers. If the employee responsible for managing the phone tree incorrectly keyed in a local number, a missed connection would result. And that's exactly what happened, often. In fact, customers who called in from one city were actually routed to a competing retail chain!

Another reason you need to run tests is to ensure what you think you have in place actually is in place. I'll give you an example. Let's say you do your holiday homework and add a number of new phone lines to your contact center to handle the increase in call volume. Let's say you request additional lines from your telecom provider to take your total lines to 20,000. Then the season kicks into high gear, calls start coming in and you notice that your contact center is maxing out at 15,000 calls. What's going on?

You might reasonably think: OK, that's all the calls we're getting. But what may be happening is your telecom provider has under-provisioned your lines. Instead of 20,000 lines, your provider has given you only 15,000. Those other 5,000 callers are getting a busy signal. Many telco providers have limited capacity so they manage their phone lines via an arbitrage system. The only way to know for sure if you've been shorted by your telco is to perform stress tests and load tests that will tell you where the problem lies.

Happy Holidays
The moral of this holiday story is that the retail economy and that of other seasonally driven businesses is extremely complicated and getting more so every day. That's why you need to regularly test your systems and ensure capacity so you can meet customer demand during the critical holiday or peak season.