Peaks, Spikes, Valleys and Troughs- How to manage your contact center in a high change environment
We have all experienced this moment, just when we finally seem to have all of the many and disparate elements of our center under control; the Service Level, our speed of answer, abandon rate, handle time and quality, that’s when it happens, the flood gates open and are KPI’s tumble into the cellar. It is like one of the corollaries to Murphy’s Law “If things are going well, just wait a moment and it will all change”.
Every business faces shifts in call and/or transactional volumes. Some businesses have challenges around seasonality built into their business model such as lawn care or snow removal. Others see seasonal peaks due to Christmas or summer; some catalogue companies see more volume in the fourth quarter than they see throughout the rest of the year! Still other companies experience peaks that happen based upon the calendar; the waste company that sees an increase in call volume with recognized holidays such as July 4th and unrecognized ones such as the Super Bowl. Lastly some organizations experience event driven surges in volumes such as the ‘first responders’ that experienced huge spikes in call volumes following hurricane Katrina or that any company can experience with a new product launch or marketing campaign.
Regardless of how your company experiences call spikes how you, the center manager and your team deal with it can make or break your center and even your company. Peaks and valleys are standard fare in the contact center industry. We see them every day: the mid morning or mid afternoon peak in our daily arrival patterns, the Monday peak volumes versus the slow Friday. These peaks we understand, plan and staff for, they are just a part of the business. But how can you manage peaks when they represent quantum increases in volumes? How can you handle 300% more calls for an hour, a week, a month or a quarter? These are the challenges that some companies face and in this article we will examine how companies and organizations can react and respond to these eventualities.
The starting point as always in contact center management must be the forecast. You need to know how many calls, emails, chats and transactions you will process in your center when and how many staff you will need to met your KPI’s in doing so. The forecast will tell you when you need to hire and train staff and you add these activities to your base volumes. You also add vacation time, special projects, marketing and business activities such as bill runs etc. It is here, on the forecast that you may first see the change in terrain as the line climbs upwards signifying increasing volumes.
As outlined above there are a number of very different types of peaks and each of these requires a different approach. There is no one approach that will meet every challenge or requirement, but we will examine a number of the major strategies that companies employ to address these challenges.
Seasonality: many organizations see a dramatic increase in contact center volumes associated with the Christmas rush. These companies include direct marketers, cataloguers and publishers whose products are being purchased as gifts. These companies have developed strategies that help them manage this expected, planned and essential increase in traffic. Management mechanisms include;
o Temporary staff. This is a tried and true solution. If you need 100 more staff you hire 100 temporary staff and run them through and abbreviated training. Why abbreviated? Most companies cannot recover their initial investment in hiring and training staff in just 3 months, so they will often only train the temporary staff on the most common call types, such as order taking and they may only work on a single product line. When this is done in conjunction with intelligent call routing the new staff can be brought up to speed fairly quickly.
o Seasonal staff. This is very similar to the temporary staff above, but where the temporary staff model is based upon bringing in 100 new staff, the seasonal staff model is based on bringing back as many of the 100 staff from last year and back filling and gaps with temporary staff. There are obvious benefits of this approach: the staff already knows the company, its customers and systems. Of course they will require refresher training but this is far less than temporary staff would require. The key here is to maximize staff return and retention. This is often achieved through the use of return incentives. The staff is informed before the end of the seasonal rush that you will have openings again next year and would like them to come back. This is sweetened with an incentive (cash or product based), for example a $200 gift certificate for company product or cash.
o Partnered centers. Not all companies experience the same seasonal peak. While the pre Christmas rush is likely the most prevalent it is not the only one. Tax preparation companies, banks and finance company call centers all experience surges in volumes associated with investment tax deduction deadlines and with tax filing deadline. Many contact center operators have found other contact centers that are counter cyclical. This means that staff could be shared between the gift cataloguer and the lawn care call center, with staff moving back and forth between the centers.
Event peaks: many companies experience short term often event driven surges in call or transaction volumes. These peaks may arise from a fixed event such a the Super Bowl or an opportunity event such as a very effective advertising campaign or the appearance of the spokesman on Oprah or Larry King. These events can be the most difficult to manage; the peaks may be unexpected, may last for a short duration or occur infrequently. Dealing with these challenges through traditional methods can prove expensive and ineffective. It is not always possible to add staff (temporary or otherwise), the costs of doing so can simply be too expensive. In addition to meet with spikes that are multiples of your usual volume would require similar multiples of your existing staff.
So what are the options available?
o Outsourcing. While it is true that outsource providers sell their services based upon economies of scale and the ability to handle rapid growth they are not very interested in adding additional staff to a program for a matter of minutes or hours. Some agencies offer short term support options through their DRTV teams or in a shared service group. When most companies look to outsource, they generally expect dedicated staff, that is staff that will work exclusively on their programs. This can offer the best combination from a company perspective, of value (dedicated and trained staff focused soley on their products or services). Shared staff in contrast work for a number of companies at the same time. One call for client A, the next for client B, etc. This of course impacts upon the level and detail of training that can be offered as well as the level of comprehension and recall. This generally isn’t a problem if they are simply taking order, but poses more significant challenges if a more knowledgeable and detailed understanding of the company, the customer, policies and procedures are required.
o Home Agents. Remote or home based agents can be deployed through an outsourcer an agency or established by the company. The most common approach is through an outsource provider. Home agents work a self employed contractors who agree to take the company calls. The receive training and bid for shifts often through a hosted scheduling environment. As the home agents are paid by the call and are self employed they often book short shifts and if the company cannot provide enough volume they will stop working for that company. It can require a significantly larger number of home agents to process the same volume of calls as in-house dedicated agents. This number may have to grow exponentially to meet call volume surges in volumes.
Self service provides another alternative. By developing and deploying automated service solutions (IVR, Speech Recognition, virtual agents, call back messaging etc.) a company can deflect a significant number of calls to the self service solution. By extending the same approach to the web with FAQ’s and chat even more customers can be service this way. There are downsides, most people do not like dealing with ‘machines’ and can find navigation difficult and frustrating. This is hardly the mindset you wish to instill in your customers. Automated solutions generally have a poor track record for converting leads into sales. This is a concern if the surge of calls is from prospective customers. Call back messaging doesn’t purport to solve the problem through self service but rather it employs self service and/or self selection technology to allow a customer to request a call back. This affords the company an opportunity to contact the customer once the peak has subsided. The challenge with this approach can be the difficulty then in connecting with the prospect. People have busy lives and they will not sit by the phone waiting for your call. So while this isn’t a lost opportunity it certainly requires addition time, effort and cost to chase down the prospect with a portion never reached.
A final alternative is often the most effective approach to managing peaks can be to look at the underlying processes and procedures that impact or create this peak in the first place. Peaks at one of our clients were caused by mailing hundreds of thousands of invoices out over three days each month. By spreading the invoices over the entire month the peak was eliminated.
There are a number of tools and tactics we have addressed in this article. There is no one magic solution the will fit all situations. You will need to assess your center, your company and your requirements. Good luck.
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