Mother's Day rings in increased call volume, sales for marketers

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Answering the call as the nation's leading direct marketers for Mother's Day, 1-800-Flowers and The Vermont Teddy Bear Co. approached their second-biggest selling season with changes to their teleservices operations.


The two retailers handled the influx of calls and 10 percent increase in volume during the recent holiday by using temporary agents, outsourced telemarketing, and tightened service standards. Mother's Day represents 20-25 percent of annual call volume for each company.


"We try to build our infrastructure for peak days and leverage it throughout the year," said Chris McCann, executive vice president, 1-800-Flowers, which handled about 3 million calls during the company's 10-day window around Mother's Day. "We have done a lot this past year not only to handle the holiday but to handle growth over the next few years."


At The Vermont Teddy Bear Co., a first-time piggy-back mailing with CUC International that hit 750,000 consumers prompted a surge in calls. The mail-order company revised scripting to address discounts made available through the ad and retrained call reps to improve customer service.


"Our call managers retooled and refined a lot of our training for the temporary folks coming in," said Jim Kane, telecommunications managers for the Shelburne, VT, company. "We covered things a little more in detail than what we did on Valentine's Day." Mother's Day ranks as the second biggest period behind Valentine's Day but only represents about half the volume with an estimated 40,000 calls generated throughout seven days.


Following Mother's Day last year, 1-800-Flowers overhauled its system and introduced a new customer database, intelligent call processing, a new order entry environment and a network architecture that aids sales agents. The system overhaul will be rolled out this month but was being phased in during Mother's Day. As part of the phase-in about 150 agents had access to the system refinements during the holiday period.


But even without enhancements the company's system was able to handle 1,500 calls simultaneously.


The company has six centers: in Marietta, GA; San Antonio, TX; Orlando, FL; Long Beach, CA; Phoenix; and Westbury, NY.


"Intelligent call processing allows us to treat our call centers as one center," McCann said. "In the past we had our command center serve as a bridge responsible for monitoring and maintaining our voice network and data network. We used a percentage of call allocation to one center and another."


Now, the system reads a call, and based on staffing, routes it to where it will be answered quickest. "It has allowed us to handle about 10 percent more calls with the same level of staff, " McCann said.


Additional changes to the system's architecture generates better presentation of product information to agents.


"There are more photos, images and information about the product to help associates in the sales process," McCann said. "Agents can pull up recipient information to speed up the ordering process."


McCann said the company's new database also provides a customer's purchasing history and a profile of the gifts sent to recipients, for personalized service and tailored offerings.


The information will enable agents to educate and ultimately upsell to customers. For instance, McCann explains, if a particular customer has purchased roses on five previous occasions, "We can tailor the offering around roses and talk about the different types of roses from different countries and the variety of roses that come in yellow."


Agents will also be able to access geographic availability of certain products based on a caller's ZIP code.


"Because our buyers are trying to find the best prices and best quality it is sometimes difficult to introduce new varieties on a national level," McCann said. "For Mother's Day and for different times of the year we have great daffodils. We know by ZIP code what specials might be available in an area."


The Vermont Teddy Bear Co., meanwhile, welcomed Mother's Day with vigor in temporary staffing and an expansion of its product line, which this year gave birth to the Coco Bear, modeled after Coco Chanel; the Bahama Mama; and an updated Business Woman Bear.


"In general we needed to provide system training, sales training, product training and order entry," Kane said. "We also had to review how to use the computer data collection capability in order to build customer history and communication skills."


The company that specializes in BearGrams used Portland, OR,-based TeleMark Inc. to assist during Mother's Day, which generated 9,000 calls on the peak day.


"We didn't bring on a lot of additional agents here at home until end of April," Kane said. "It was extremely compressed because of labor costs, and we ramped up for Mother's Day on a really tight schedule." Kane said the number of agents ran between 60 and 70 for the holiday vs. 20 for regular days.


Kane said TeleMark trained contingency workers directly. "Telemark is doing the training as a part of a new phase in our relationship. But they still need to be updated on product and system changes."


Before the holiday hit, Vermont Teddy Bear Co. and the teleservices company worked together to implement experimental test days to ensure that temporary agents met service standards.


"We actually rolled out the training early to those guys with a test amount of calls," Kane said. "Call program managers checked and double-checked orders as they came through the system to monitor quality assurance. We had two days in the beginning of the project in which all their newest people tried the system so we could see all the types of errors in order to flush them out."


The company managed call flow through a quota table that is forecast around the holiday. "We determine how the holiday is going to look based on forecasts and decide what calls to send where," Kane explained. "We use a per unit time system to route calls, not a percentage of overflow, so we have a defined number of calls for project duration. We know every half-hour period for seven days within a very narrow margin with almost no surprises how many calls go into the call centers."
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