A customer service retrospective on the Covid ecommerce flood

Spotlight on Gorgias & Acme Shop

If you’re flailing amid a flood of ecommerce orders, software tools promise a solution. You hope they’ll make it more manageable, efficient. That’s good.

But be careful. If your business prides itself on customer service, efficiency isn’t the highest goal. Maybe a higher goal ought be customer retention. And maybe that means you prioritize a certain warmth towards the customer. So you make the extra effort, extend a personal touch that takes more time. And still you try for efficiency.

In this article we’ll recount how a Shopify merchant with over 5 years of Direct-to-Consumer (DTC) experience balanced these competing goals while growing rapidly during the 2020-2021 Covid crisis.

(To preserve its privacy and share sometimes uncomfortable observations, we’ll keep the company anonymous. Let’s call them Acme Shop.)

Read our chronological breakdown of insights and lessons learned. We’ll focus in this article on what we learned implementing Gorgias, a customer service help desk tool.

In future articles in this series, we’ll examine how other tools like Klaviyo, CallRail and Frase aided the response to overwhelming growth pressure. (These matter, too!)

We’ll also observe where coaching people matters more than adding new tools. Throughout this unique Covid period in ecommerce history, events at Acme Shop demonstrated that tools alone are never “the solution.” Tools are limited by the team that wields them. People, for good and bad, are an ever-present ‘X’ factor. Leadership matters.

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Now, to the story:

A flood of orders: Spring 2020

Acme Shop created a retail Shopify ecommerce store years earlier, and had operated in marketplaces like ebay and Amazon even longer. At the time that Covid became a crisis in spring 2020, they already had all the operational components in place. So this is NOT a story of an offline business rapidly shifting operations online, scrambling to become an ‘ebusiness’ and figure out ‘ecommerce’ in 2020.

Instead, Acme Shop was already rockin’ and rollin’ with a confidence earned through years of ebusiness experience. How quickly that confidence would be shaken…

Shopify orders rose as consumer spending shifted online in April 2020. Amazon orders rose even faster. It seemed busy but manageable until Amazon FBA pushed delivery dates out 30+ days as Amazon prioritized delivery of critical items over Acme Shops non-critical items.

All at once, shoppers found Acme Shop’s backup Seller Central account on Amazon as the preferred choice in search results for product keywords. The proverbial in-box notifications of new orders rang out.

Ding. Ding. Ding.

It was exciting. It felt good to the owners who had worked so hard in years past to get to this point.

Acme Shop’s Seller Central account was soon swamped with orders, so they pushed out delivery days to lower expectations. This prompted shoppers to seek out their Shopify store to order directly. Orders surged into Shopify. When it rains, it pours.

Now flooded with more orders than ever before, Acme Shop also needed to take extra responsibility for fulfillment in ways they had relied on Amazon FBA. The fulfillment burden ballooned. Every Saturday and some Sundays became all about packing orders. Could they keep up with demand, or would their reputation get burned?

For safety, the front-office ‘closed’ for Covid prevention. Everyone not in a critical manufacturing or fulfillment role had been sent home. This felt like the responsible thing to do, and also risky. How could they keep up with so many on their team at home?

Competitors responded also to the Covid scare. One big, long-time competitor temporarily suspended all operations as its Covid response. This sent even more new customers to Acme Shop, searching for timely delivery.

Ding. Ding.

Ring. Ring.

With nobody at their stations in the front-office and all phones being land-lines, there seemed no alternative but to turn off the ringer and send all calls to voice mail. The desktop phones’ red lights silently flashed ‘new message’. They kept flashing that way for months….

Exasperated with shipping delays, customers phoned seeking a resolution. Help me! Returning their voice mails? Nice idea. Listen to the land-line recordings. Relay Post-It Note messages to a customer service team scattered across the city at makeshift kitchen tables? That seemed hopeless as call volume doubled, then tripled.

Check phone messages or pack another order?

Phone lights flashed perpetually.

Flash. Flash.

The flooding mind trick

Based in Austin, Texas, ebusiness pros knows a thing or two about flooding. People die in Texas every year from floods. When the ground gets saturated, a thousand trickles converge into a hundred streams. All the swirling wash suddenly becomes an impromptu river. It’s no joke!

Here’s the psychological challenge about flooding: it doesn’t seem so bad. I can drive across that road, no problem.

The water level seems manageable until it’s not, all of a sudden. Flash floods are deadly because of the mind trick it plays upon us. We’re poor judges of flow, depth, velocity and hidden swirling eddies.

There’s parallels to how we respond to business changes.

Acme Shop customers grew distressed and sent repeated emails. As messages piled up, the team braced themselves at the likelihood of opening angry flame messages.

Staying ‘friendly’ as a customer-facing person in this situation asks a lot. Yep, we get it. It asks for attunement. The aspiration for Acme Shop agents to always express personal warmth and politeness in customer interactions was a tradition grounded in the company’s history and founding story. There was pride at stake. But in a hypothetical, blurry-eyed moment some early Thursday morning, surely a customer service agent fantasized about replacing thank you with f*** you!

It wasn’t for lack of hustle. As the team strained, so did the software. The status quo help desk had seemed good enough a couple years ago. Not so anymore. Unused help desk features that never mattered before now sounded important. But there’d be a learning curve.

It’s hard enough for people to learn new ways of working in ‘normal times’. It’s harder when growth pressures build. In the middle of all this mess, I’ve got to learn a new way of working, learn to use new help desk software features? Are you kidding?

In times like this, there’s tension between learning to swim a new stroke and simply staying afloat. Tempers rise. Patience lowers. And customers just want what they want.

Pro tip from Texas

If you find yourself in a raging river: bob along, head up, and keep your feet pointed downstream. Avoid rocks. Reach for a branch.

Acme Shop called ebusiness pros.

Salvage the  service help desk: Apr – Jul 2020

A first step in fixing a broken system is to identify the health of all the parts. What’s leaking? Importantly, what’s not leaking, still functional

Here’s another good question:

What parts of the system that you already have in place are unintentionally unused or intentionally ignored?

(Often this happens more than leaders realize. Ouch.)

This process and utilization problem is famously true of software tools: key features remain a mystery for years.

It’s also true for what you imagine are your in-house standard operating procedures that you expect your team to be following. Actually, they are not! Or not as much as you hope they would!


  • Because your new hire onboarding process is more of an intention than reality. (So many struggle here.)
  • Because people are not in an optimal role by temperament or aptitude, especially after a growth spurt changes an individual’s role.
  • Because personal work habits evolve or devolve (more likely) under pressure.
  • Because leadership is distracted with other matters, namely cash flow.
  • Because, because, because for all kinds of lesser reasons…

People are the ‘X’ factor in your (broken) system. But any good system needs a foundational base; a base around which leadership can organize the team. A help desk can be such a base for a customer service operation.

A help desk can:

  1. Provide a collection point for inbound emails, phone or text or social messages, and chats.
  2. Improve visibility of customer concerns and add accountability to the individuals tasked with resolving them.
  3. Spur automation, connecting to other tools and data sources.
  4. Become a training aid for new and old.
  5. Function like a CRM for customer service teams.

Gorgias customer service help desk

In summer 2020, Gorgias stepped fully into the ecommerce customer service spotlight. Gorgias promised an email focused help desk software tool that could reach inside Shopify and pull out order details automagically, viewable in the right pane of the same screen as the customer’s email. That was a simple enough vision for Acme Shop to build a migration plan around.

Ok, let’s go to Gorgias, we recommended. It might save seconds, minutes, at a time when every second felt precious.

But before migrating to Gorgias, the existing help desk powered by Teamwork Desk could be tuned up to bring immediate relief. Two ebusiness pros consultants came alongside the manager. Together we sorted out the existing help desk. With an 80/20 mindset, we prioritized what to optimize:

  • Check the help desk’s usage reporting to understand the team’s load, the bottlenecks.
  • Start assigning tickets to individuals, add accountability. No unassigned tickets.
  • Merge, deduplicate tags so that tickets can be meaningfully classified. (What’s meaningful depends on where the stress enters or accumulates in your front-office system.)
  • Create triggers (in Teamwork Desk, and what are known as rules in Gorgias) so that tickets can be auto-tagged upon arrival in the inbox. This can include automatically adding an internal note with guidance on how to respond to such tickets (a kind of Standard Operating Procedure guidance right in the help desk).

For example, the problem of returns. Tag relevant email tickets with ‘return’, and consider sub-classifications that identify reasons for the return. It matters whether the return was actually a mistake in fulfillment, more of a replacement for the correct item then a return of a deficient item. Tag accordingly.

The above examples are about the configuration of a software tool feature. But in keeping with our people are the ‘X’ factor mantra, much of the gain to your business comes from prioritizing people’s attention and inviting them to revise their expectations. Their decisions about attention matters more than the tool, in our experience.

Sometimes attention slips unavoidably. In the case of Acme Shop, the manager intentionally focused on the critical Amazon account:  product inventory, descriptions, etc. Also he managed other marketplaces like Wal-mart, which similarly grew from a stream to a river of orders all by itself. So in this moment of growth, the customer service manager became a dedicated marketplace manager. This shift in roles was a common sense coping response. But consequently, during this period, customer service leadership was absent.

What role-shifting coping responses persist in your business today?

In periods of growth, what one person accomplished in a fraction of their day may expand to require the entire day. So what happens to their other stuff, the other part of that person’s day that never got attention? It doesn’t get done. Then the days get harder for everyone across the team from the inattention. As the attention deficit persists, the emotional toll accumulates on all.

The heavier the emotional load, the lower the energy of the people on the team. The lower the energy, the more things fall behind. Then team tension flares, and their energy rises, but in a way that doesn’t feel good.

Flow versus pressure. Pressure versus flow. Finding the equilibrium challenges lots of companies in growth situations.

No problem, or actually pissed?

Have you noticed a certain personality challenge as it relates to the customer service department?

They may put a happy face on what feels like an impossible situation. “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming,” as Dory sang in Finding Nemo. Short-term coping has a place, as does having “a good attitude.” But there are costs that accumulate if the root of the problem goes unsolved.

These costs may be larger if the customer service manager is temperamentally inclined to ‘people please.’ It’s not uncommon for such a manager to have been promoted from a junior customer service agent position. This promotion makes sense so long as the new manager acts with attunement

The customer service team’s good nature cannot be taken for granted. Be wary the next time you hear “everything’s great, no problems.” Ask the same question reworded. Ask again. The friendly folks in CS hired to be “great with people” are themselves people with feelings and frustrations. They may be actually pissed!

Listen, ask for them to share their otherwise squelched, frustrated squeaks. Leadership seeks out the roots. Leadership among small teams impacts productivity more than tools.

This seems important looking back: Our presence as temporary adjuncts to the team, helping the earnest but distracted Acme Shop manager, shifted the mood. It affirmed to everyone the significance of customer service as a company priority. Something proactive, not just reactive, was to be done.

We asked questions like: what’s not working?

What’s slowing you down?

What’s agitating customers?

What should be different?

The customer service agents felt the energetic shift that came with these questions. I’m being heard. A sense of initiative returned. They upped their energy levels to match ours. It will get better.

A new clarity about what it looked like to be ‘done for the day’ helped focus the team’s energy to push onward. Productivity improved.

Let’s look at short-term results:

Before any migration to Gorgias, using same old tools, the customer service metrics quickly improved. Comparing the prior 90 days with the following 90, the ticket resolution that had averaged 40 hours decreased to 29 hours. That’s an improvement of 37% while climbing uphill, so to speak, because orders increased 68% during the same period.

But more significantly, what about the time to first respond to a customer’s inquiry? In the prior 90 days, it had averaged 14 hrs. This meant customers were NOT getting same business day responses. In the following 90 days, that dropped to 6 hours. So a bigger improvement of 122% faster even as orders grew 68%.

Now customers got SAME DAY replies. Sentiment softened. The tone improved. The team felt the energy shift. Flow.

Replacing the help desk with Gorgias:  Aug – Oct 2020

Gorgias replaced the old help desk on a hot Wednesday in August. It was the same day that a new customer service agent joined the team. She would be the third. Plans were to let her observe the first week, get comfortable with the new software and processes, and then start replying to customers the next Monday.

Instead, she started replying as a full Gorgias user after lunch on the very first day. After a couple hours, it seemed easy and obvious. Cool. Flow.

The department’s foundational base was coming together. The decision to not import any historical tickets or customer records into Gorgias meant a fresh start. Acme Shop wanted good data, updated processes; a clean slate. A simplified set of tags would be applied automatically by Gorgias rules. (We love the rules feature.)

Still playing catch-up, attention needed to focus first on what was urgent. But what WAS truly urgent? We configured a rule to make this determination specific for this business, in this moment. Then we tested it. Again we refined the URGENT view that made sense to the team. (Tip: revisit these rule decisions.)

Order growth had not abated by August but capacity had expanded. Feeling less overwhelmed, Acme Shop was now swimming downstream, as compared to its earlier flood experience of trying to keeping its feet pointed forward and just avoid rocks.

Acme Shop’s long-term partnership with Search Scientists as pay-per-click ad manager continued. Ad spend resumed on Amazon. Ads also restarted on Google, sending new prospects to the Shopify site. With a new tool and a new customer service teammate, Acme Shop bet they could keep up with orders. Flow.

Let’s look at what happened the first 90 days of using Gorgias:

  • Ticket resolution time dropped from 29 hours to 3.6. WOW!
  • Ticket first response time dropped from 6.2 to 2 hours. Wow, again!

So now customers were consistently getting their issues with returns, refunds, sizing and selection questions answered the same day, just about always. It was a 700% improvement.

An answer was coming back within a couple hours, well within reason for the average customer’s expectations of email support. Anger dissipated. Tone softened. The days felt more spacious.

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Gorgias’ Statistics feature brought new metrics like how many tickets were being solved with one touch, essentially answering it in one reply to the customer. That number the first 90 days averaged 25%. And that metric remained static until it finally improved six months later in spring 2021. (We’ll explain in a future article why that improvement had nothing to do with Gorgias nor typical customer service department responses….)

Whenever there is such a marked improvement in a system, broaden the view, soften the focus. What else might explain such a change?

Understanding systems

The theory of systems dynamics concerns the art of understanding stocks (or accumulations, as in a bathtub) and flows (inputs or outputs, as in a faucet or drain). Also, systems are about the rates of inflow or outflow.

What is accumulating in your system? What are its flows? What are the rates of inflow or outflow?

What ought they be? 

Such system dynamics can be modeled with tools.

Here’s another factor during the big changes in the first 90 days of Gorgias:  the rate of inflow of new orders declined. It dropped 16%. So not much of a decline, and certainly a small fraction relative to the overall 7X improvement in customer service response times.

Amazon FBA also returned to normal delivery times. This removed a big load on fulfillment for the team. Competitors started to come back online, too, retaking a bit of the market share. Seasonally, this would also be a typical period of decline. OK, all this allowed the team to catch their breath.

And another big change in this period, something we’re still trying to make sense of in 2021:  the front-office team returned… to work in the office!

No longer working at home, in bedrooms or kitchen tables, they returned to big desks, double monitors, within earshot of one another. They regained all the focus (and distraction?) an office brings. If people are the ‘X’ factor, then ‘work environment’ is a ‘Y’ factor, right? Going ‘remote’ made a difference at Acme Shop, it wasn’t neutral!

And another change that happened August to October 2020, something we didn’t place as much value on, but should have:  we integrated a couple of third party marketplaces that sent order notifications to an old Gmail email inbox.

Now these marketplaces could be aggregated into Gorgias, and then grouped into specific Views.  The customer service team could consolidate their attention in Gorgias, not jumping as much between Gmail and other marketplace systems where notifications used to be collected.

As a measure of caution, being new to Gorgias in 2020, we did NOT integrate the most significant marketplace:  Amazon. Fearing that there might be an unintentional email reply via Gorgias back to Amazon’s Seller Central customer support system that contained Acme Shop branding or links, we delayed this. In retrospect, this was a mistake. The efficiencies of Gorgias would not be applied to all the Amazon inquiries until later in 2021 when we finally made the integration live with Amazon.

This Gorgias marketplace integration feature enables a very important positive consequence for the team: it focuses attention. Attention (focused) is everything (almost). Don’t delay this like we did!

A slide backwards in customer service:  Nov 2020 to Jan 2021

In the last two months of 2020, the traditional Christmas peak season didn’t peak. So much growth earlier in the year evened out the order volume at the end of the year. But a curious thing happened nonetheless:   customer ticket resolution times increased by 4X. Ugh.

Similar order volume as the prior period, but no longer were customers getting same day replies. In this period the average resolution time became ‘later the NEXT day’!

A couple observations about what was also going on during this period:

  • The weekly check-ins with ebusiness pros consultants paused. No longer was there a recurring prompt for problems to be identified, wrinkles to be ironed out.
  • The prior period’s burst of tool optimizations (tweaking Gorgias macros, views, and more) stopped. The intent was to free up the team to focus on customers during the holiday period.
  • The front-office team left the office, returning to work remotely in reaction to the latest Covid safety scare. (The timing of this change doesn’t match up exactly with this period, but overlaps. Still it’s a reason give pause. Is there a correlation to remote work? Hmmm.)
  • Gorgias’ Chat feature had not yet been enabled. Nor had a chat bot been yet introduced. (These would come later in 2021, with important consequences…)

The CS metrics worsened again in February, relative to order volume. So we started asking questions.

How’s it going?

The reply from customer service agents:  “Everything’s great. No problems.”

No squeaks, so no grease needed, right?

Gorgias’ Statistics feature may not be something the Acme Shop agents know exists. Or at least, they’re not checking on them. While we value soft skills, empathy, and personal warmth, we also dig numbers. Numbers don’t lie. This is not to suggest that people lie by comparison. No, it’s more subtle. More often, most people are not aware of the larger trend or pattern as its unfolding before them.

To supplement our birds-eye view, we aggregated Gorgias Statistics with other data from Shopify, CallRail, Klaviyo, Google Analytics, and more sources. Our Airtable mashup showed us the positive trends of 2020 had slid backwards. How could 2021 be looking worse?

When a springtime audit turned up a phone conversation with a customer that had turned profane (…call me a f****** b**** …), it was time for another change. Time for the next phase in leveling up.

To be continued…

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In the next article, we’ll look closer at what it means to manage a customer service department. We’ll also describe how Acme Shop extended its implementation of Gorgias. And we’ll explore the importance of phone support and how CallRail meets that need for Acme Shop.

Later in this series we’ll look at the extraordinary power of chat bots, consider the importance of what need be done BEFORE introducing a chat bot, and identify the tool we recommend to run them.

Date published: July 9, 2021

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