Every company has its busy times of increased demand and stretched resources. Retail stores have the holidays, doctors have flu season, and airlines have Thanksgiving.
Incoming contact centers are especially hard hit during certain times of the year. Anything from gift-giving seasons to billing cycles to new ad campaigns can overload phone lines, email boxes and your Web page as well as frazzle your contact Customer Service Representatives (CSRs). Peak times are here to stay and are an integral part of the business model. A peak time can be defined as any consistent period of time with contact volumes that are 40 percent over normal. Ironically, contact centers are often ignored when new campaigns are planned. For instance, people discuss projected sales volumes, but do not plan for the additional calls or other contacts those anticipated sales will bring.
So how do contact centers deal with peak times? How can they find a balance between being profitable and remaining responsive to their customers? Below are some suggestions on how you can avoid giving customers a seemingly endless recorded message telling them how very important their call is or an extended delay before you answer an email message.
Whenever possible, control the peak
Sometimes this can be done fairly easily by staggering mailings or ad campaigns. For instance, many companies send out their monthly bills daily, sorting them by last name, phone number, or other criteria. This way, if customers have questions about a bill, the contacts don't all come in the same 2-3 day period each month.
Most of the time, however, everything happens at once-the product hits shelves across the country, the ads start their rotation in the media, and so on. If your center can't handle the subsequent increase in contacts, it may be wise to plan the upcoming program in stages. One idea is to stagger a direct mail campaign by mailing to different parts of your target population on different dates. This may be impossible for some programs, but it should be considered as an option when you attempt to even out the amount of contacts handled during peak days and/or hours. You will then be better able to handle customer contacts promptly.
Contact Centers should start planning at least three months before peak periods. This time is needed to determine staffing needs, hire and train temps, and if necessary, schedule longer shifts for existing employees. Training new and temporary employees can take anywhere from a week to a month. A common strategy is to assign new CSRs to handle only certain types of contacts (e.g., calls, email, Internet) in an effort to save on training costs. You may even further specialize the type of calls such as catalog requests, new orders or order inquiry.
A contact center's staff is often put to the test when a new product or program is released. It's helpful to have a dry run for everyone involved. In this dry run, a percentage of the new product is introduced or a catalog is dropped in a limited geographic area. The goal is to determine how many people call (what percentage of the group that received the catalog or were introduced to the product), what questions were asked most frequently, how the customers felt about the product or service (positive or negative) and whether the CSRs have all the data they need to answer customer questions?
Companies often test products, but less often test customer reactions gathered from contact points, e.g., calls, emails, and Internet transactions. This is very shortsighted, as the customer may have only one contact with the company. Do you really want to start that relationship without testing it first?
The test period can make a big difference, even if it's done only for a few days in advance. With responses front-tested, you can then modify your scripts and fact sheets, or even determine if you should handle some frequently asked questions through an automated message. You may also change the information posted on your web site, thereby reducing calls and emails requesting information. The most important point is to solidify customer relationships, or at least reduce the chance customers will go to the competition.
Use technology and automation to your advantage
In the majority of peak time cases, callers will be greeted by a recorded message. In some instances, the system can announce how long a caller has to wait to speak to a CSR. Companies using this technology are in the minority because of the added cost of software, but its noticeable increase in customer satisfaction can validate the cost.
Even if your company doesn't have the technology in your ACD for "estimated time waiting," there's a work-around solution. You can estimate the average time a caller waits to speak to a CSR, by day and busy hours. Then you can manually record the estimated wait time in your greeting and program different greetings for different periods. For instance, if your callers usually wait 5 minutes for a CSR, in your opening greeting, tell customers that you welcome their calls; however, due to heavy call volumes, the wait is approximately 5 minutes. You may want to give them other options, such as a web address, answers to frequently asked questions, or a better time of day or day of the week to call.
You could also bypass the CSR during peak periods by using a fully automated system such as speech recognition. Dismissed as unreliable a decade ago, speech technology is now a viable and customer-friendly solution to help absorb heavy call volume. While there is an extra up-front cost, the savings can quickly recoup the expense. Most customers prefer an answer by machine rather than eternally waiting for a CSR. Once you have invested in this equipment, you can use it 24 hours a day - 7 days a week.
For example, in England, a popular retail store ran sales for the two weeks following Boxing Day. During that time, 30 to 40 percent of the callers phoning the store received a busy signal. To solve the problem, the store inputted a speech recognition program and their busy signals went down considerably. The system paid for itself in a single two-week period, since more callers were able to get through and place orders.
Consider outsourcing at least part of your center services
Another solution is to outsource contacts during busy periods. Outsourcing can be a way to control costs without having to worry about modifying your workspace or hiring new employees. You may decide to outsource a specific type of call and keep the more complicated calls in house. A consulting firm can help you find an outsourced contact center that would be right for your particular needs.
Make sure your reps feel appreciated
If you expect your employees to work additional hours, let them know your plans as early as possible. If they can volunteer for specific time periods or additional shifts that work for them, their commitment will be stronger. Many employees have family obligations and need as much notice as possible to reschedule other commitments.
It's also essential to reward everyone for working through stressful peak times. Gift certificates for a restaurant or movie tickets are great incentive items. "Social" gifts are best, because they offer the reps a chance to do something with their family or friends. Don't reward reps for handling a certain volume of calls. "Short" contacts are not necessarily "good" contacts. Often, the opposite is true. And don't forget your support staff when you think about special treats such as lunch or rewards that you provide during stressful times. They may not be on the "front lines," but they are an important part of the team and should be rewarded too.
One of the biggest mistakes contact centers make is that they don't provide their reps with enough information. When callers have waited an extended period of time to talk to a CSR, it would help the CSR to have this information available. The CSR can open a call with "Hello, I'm sorry you had to wait so long. How can I help you?" Just that slight change in greeting can make a world of difference. CSRs should know when callers might be irritated, so they can be ready to defuse anger.
A last resort
In a worst-case scenario, consider using a forced-disconnect (not allow a caller to wait). If you have too many callers waiting, you create a cycle of wait, abandon and call in again. A recorded message can explain your situation, provide callers with alternatives such as a better time to call and attempt to "save" the customer. The last thing you want to do is alienate the caller. However, if you give them another way to contact you, there is a chance they will either use fax, email, web, or call back at a better time. Of course, you must have sufficient coverage for answering customers if they use another method to reach you. While it might seem a bit abrupt to force-disconnect a call, it's preferable to having your caller wait 30 minutes or longer. Also, remember you pay for every minute a caller waits on your toll free numbers.
By using these methods, your center should be able to better plan for peak periods and provide customers with the service they deserve. Planning, good use of technology, and knowing when to make tough decisions can ease the stress.