Do Busy Times Equal Busy Signals?

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 advertising campaigns can overload phone lines, e-mail boxes and your Web page, as well as frazzle your contact customer service representatives.

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?

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 do not all come in the same two- to three-day period each month.

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, e-mail, Internet) to save on training costs.

A contact center's staff is often put to the test when a new product or program is released. 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 questions are asked most frequently, how the customers felt about the product or service and whether the CSRs have the data they need to answer questions?

Companies often test products, but less often test customer reactions gathered from contact points, e.g., calls, e-mails 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 is 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 also cmayhange the information posted on your Web site, thereby reducing calls and e-mails requesting information.

Use 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 does not have the technology in your automatic call distributor for estimated time waiting, there is 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.

You also could 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 upfront cost, the savings can quickly recoup the expense. Most customers prefer an answer by machine rather than eternally waiting for a CSR.

For example, in England, a popular retail store ran sales for the two weeks after Boxing Day. During that time, 30 percent 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 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 work space or hiring employees.

Make sure 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.

It also is 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. Do not reward reps for handling a certain volume of calls. Short contacts are not necessarily good contacts. And do not forget your support staff when you think about rewards.

One of the biggest mistakes contact centers make is that they do not provide their reps with enough information. When callers have waited an extended period of time, 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.

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 customers.

The last thing you want to do is alienate callers. However, if you give them another way to contact you, there is a chance they will either use fax, e-mail, 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. 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.

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