Catalina Express Finds Smoother Sailing

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A company that ferries tourists back and forth from an island off the coast of Southern California gained more control over its call-center scheduling using software that allows it to account for advertising response rates, changes in weather and other factors.


Robbie Sinteral, call center manager for Catalina Express, recently installed the Prime Time agent-scheduling software from Blue Pumpkin, Mountain View, CA, and has been able to format a schedule that more accurately predicts his staffing needs in as little as two hours, down from 20 hours previously.


The company offers boat trips to and from Santa Catalina Island, about 22 miles off the California coast, from its docks in Long Beach, San Pedro and Dana Point. The island is a mini-vacation destination where visitors can indulge in a variety of recreational activities, and Catalina Express works with tour companies and the Catalina Island Visitors Bureau to promote various hotel and activity packages.


The 35-seat center, which operates from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. throughout most of the year - during the peak summer months and slightly shorter hours during the rest of the year - handles 600,000 phone inquiries in response to any one of the company's various advertising media.


"The theory is that marketing goes out and spends millions making the phone ring, the phone comes in to us and, in return, we should attempt to get those individuals placed on a boat," Sinteral said.


Catalina Express uses nearly 100 toll-free numbers, distributed through various advertising media, including billboards, newspapers, TV and radio. Each of the different ads can generate varying response rates, depending where they are placed, how fresh they are and other factors. The scheduling software allows Catalina Express to create profiles based on historical response rates.


The software also can be programmed to account for other factors, such as the impact of the weather. Warm, sunny days generate heavy call volumes, so Sinteral said he takes careful note of the weekly weather forecast and uses profiles he has created in the software to adjust the scheduling. If the weather forecast calls for rain on a day that a major TV campaign begins, for example, the program can schedule for less volume than it would in sunny weather but more volume than it would on a typical cloudy day without a TV campaign.


The biggest time-saving feature of the new software, however, is the fact that it ties directly into the phone switch and records the volume of calls at 15-minute intervals for four weeks at a time.


"It looks at all your data and analyzes it every 15 minutes, instead of you going in there and looking at every 15-minute period," Sinteral said.


The center also employs skills-based routing, so that calls that come in on certain lines can be directed to agents who have experience answering calls for those types of ads. The company also has more highly skilled agents, who handle calls that come in on the VIP numbers, Sinteral said.


The schedule is assembled every Monday and incorporates call volume data for the preceding four weeks. Sinteral also plugs in an absenteeism percentage, which directs the program to schedule additional agents - based on the fact that some employees will fail to show up. In addition to taking much of the effort out of building the schedule, the software also allows for last-minute adjustments if necessary. A feature called Prime Time Pulse interprets the call volume as it comes in, compares it to what the schedule had planed for and reports on the deviation from the plan.


"The software does allow you to make on-the-fly adjustments," Sinteral said. "If four people call in sick and you only thought one would be sick, you can reshuffle the cards, so to speak."


About half the agents are students, and Catalina Express builds the schedule around their classes. The center also uses a bidding process in its scheduling that allows agents to call in and request certain shifts based on their seniority. Agents have a five-minute window each Tuesday during which they can call in to request certain shifts. The schedule then is finalized on Wednesday and begins the following Monday.


Sinteral said there are other technological enhancements he'd like to make at the center, but his budget is tight this year.


"We just went out and bought an $8 million boat last year, so 2000 is going to be a little tight from a budgeting standpoint," he said. "They told me all my toys are on the back burner all year."

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