HAPPY SUMMER! It’s still hot, people are enjoying summer activities, picnics, festivals, vacations and barbecues, but for many contact centers, our season has arrived. We are in full preparation mode for what is about to hit us—the Holidays!
No matter when your big season falls, you deserve a less stressful rampup for yourself and an exceptional experience for your customers. In this article, I’ll describe in detail 5 tips you can use to make your busy season the best one yet.
1. Start early
It’s not too late to plan a great season. If the December holiday season is your busy season, you still have two months to get plans in place, allocate resources, and hire and train new agents.
A two-month window can work, but we all know you can’t plan too early. For years, I’ve recommended planning the next season as soon as the previous season is over. This is one of those ideas we all know we should do… but usually don’t. If your business seems to be growing steadily, why should you?
Here’s why. Unless we’ve made them into habits, the best ideas and lessons learned from last season fly right out the window when it gets busy.
How to beat human nature? Schedule a seasonal review meeting with your leads and supervisors immediately following the last big day of the season. If necessary, keep temp employees on a day or two longer to free up your key personnel. Put a date on the calendar, clear a white board, and ask everyone to come prepared with 10 things they learned during this season and 10 things they’re going to do differently in the next one. Then, implement the best ideas now, giving everyone many months to get used to the new process and catch any potential problems.
2. Understand your call patterns to make better forecasts
The first step to planning is to analyze your call patterns to develop solid projections. Start by looking at last year’s call volumes in comparison to this year’s in order to determine the growth rate. Then map out your projected increases or decreases based on your historical data. If you’re using a workforce management system, this process can be fairly straightforward. Those still using spreadsheets and Erlang calculations will need to spend a little more time working through the call patterns and volumes to create accurate forecasts.
Once you’ve developed projections based on careful analysis, you can create staffing schedules that reflect the projected increase in call volumes per hour, and start the process of filling those schedules.
3. Use all available options to build a viable ramp plan
Filling your new staffing schedules can be the toughest part of the season, but you may have more options than you realize. The magic formula for your season could include any or all of these seven sourcing strategies.
- OUTSOURCING—There are literally hundreds of contact center outsourcing firms. To learn more about whether an outsourcing model could work for your organization, please review my article, “Is Outsourcing Right for You?” (Pipeline, September 2015).
- TEMPORARY STAFFING—If outsourcing is not an option for your center, then bringing in contingent (temporary) labor is a great solution. “Temporary” does not mean “low-performing.” Temping may be either a lifestyle of choice or an interim job solution for lots of very good agents. Plan ahead and you’ll be able to count on the best talent available.
- REFERRALS—Your employees already love your company and what it stands for. They have friends and family members who could be great additions to your organization. An agent referral program—with an incentive for the referrer after the new-hire completes 30 days of satisfactory employment—can be an application-generation engine.
- RETURNING SEASONAL EMPLOYEES—Don’t forget to reach out to good employees who may want to come back year after year. Many people rely on seasonal jobs to earn money between semesters or to help supplement their own holiday spending. A returning seasonal workforce means agents who can hit the floor running with minimal refresher training.
- STAFFING FIRMS—You can source and hire your own mix of employees, temps and seasonal staff, but partnering with a staffing firm makes it so much easier. Staffing firms fully understand the 4th quarter—in fact, they live for it! They know how to bring in the right resources to handle dramatic rampups and ramp-downs. Whether you need to hire hundreds of agents or just a few, a staffing firm will have experts dedicated to helping you meet your goals.
- OVERTIME—The possibility of overtime pay may be very attractive to your employees, and money well spent by your organization. You’ll be able to rely on your experienced agents and the efficiencies they already have in place—like speed, training and soft skills—to make paying them overtime a worthwhile investment.
- PART-TIME AND FLEXIBLE SCHEDULING—When scheduling, remember that not everyone wants or needs full-time employment. Some are working around their own or their children’s school schedule. Some are in semi-retirement, or just looking for extra side income. When possible, offer flexible schedules that allow people to work around their other commitments, while still meeting your call pattern needs. This model may help you attract and retain a surprisingly high caliber of employees.
4. Allocate resources for applicant interviews, onboarding and training
Now that we have multiple options for bringing in talent, we need to enable great performances and retention by ensuring a positive experience on the job and in our call center. I have handled major ramps for over 20 years in the call center industry. The one message my clients hear again and again is about what I believe is the most critical phase—onboarding.
The message is this: I cannot stress enough the importance of investing time and resources into hiring the right agents, giving new agents the attention they need to have a positive experience, and making available the knowledge they need to provide an exceptional customer experience.
- HIRING THE RIGHT AGENTS. If you are hiring hundreds of people, then you either need to put faith in your staffing firm or allocate enough resources to conduct interviews of all the applicants. I always say you need a minimum of 30 minutes per interview. If you are hiring 100 agents, you will need to conduct at least 150 interviews. This means investing 75-100 hours of leadership time just to conduct interviews (and possibly much more). This is a time-consuming, but very crucial process. The wrong agent will cost you money—in time, wages, training and replacement costs. The right ones will make your business stronger and more successful. It’s as simple as that.
- GIVING AGENTS POSITIVE ATTENTION. Stephen Covey said it best, “Always treat your employees exactly as you want them to treat your best customers.” Great managers make every employee feel welcome and essential to the success of the team. There are a thousand free ways to build relationships with your employees that will inspire them to turn around and build those same relationships with your customers. Be kind, be fair, be direct, be generous with praise in public and punish only in private, and you’ll be halfway to a successful employee engagement and retention program.
- TRAINING AND KNOWLEDGE RESOURCES. Once you have hired the right agents, training is the next step. Prepare a rampup schedule that allows the appropriate resources for training. You need to allow the agents receive time for ample training as well as a nesting period to prepare them for live calls. You may need more SMEs (subject-matter experts) on hand to support the influx of new employees. This is an excellent way to take some of your best agents and see how they do supporting their peers. If successful, you’ve identified potentially viable candidates for future promotion (did someone say career pathing?).
5. Treat Seasonal employees as well as your core staff
I have supported seasonal ramps for over 250 companies, and one truth is apparent—agents who are treated the best perform the best.
I have worked with clients who chose to treat seasonal agents as second-class citizens. They excluded them from holiday festivities, parties, incentives and rewards. They were referred to and treated dismissively as “temps.” Stop a minute and ask yourself if your company treats seasonal agents the way you’d like to be treated. If the answer is not positive, make a change.
Remember, your seasonal staff are your newest and often most enthusiastic brand champions. If they’re treated right they may not only do good work for you, but they may boost the company on social media, buy your products, return for your next season, and bring friends and family when you need help.