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Expert's Angle: Seasonal Ramp Down: Like the Rotwild on the Autobahn

If you operate a seasonal call center, you have no doubt experienced the adrenaline rush that comes from the "season." Regardless of whether your center sells flowers, costumes or lawn mowers, there is a common feeling of accomplishment and excitement once you have successfully handled that peak – the same feeling you might have from test-driving a Porsche 911 Turbo on the German Autobahn. We’re invigorated by its top speed of 196 MPH (adding 500 seasonal customer service reps) and the ability to leap from 0-60 in 3.2 seconds (training 100 customer service reps in 3 days). But, just as you're cruising with the wind blowing through your hair, out of nowhere comes… a Deer! (or Rotwild, since we are driving on the Autobahn). At that point, all thoughts of top speed and the acceleration are out the window, along with anyone not belted down in the car. Now, we are only concerned only about the brakes working properly.

Alex Wyatt and Burg Hughes at ACCE 2012:

Session 503: Managing Seasonal Peaks Through Effective Strategic Planning
This session will explore a case study where two very different companies will share their common approach for effectively managing seasonal peaks – with minimal resources. Their secret: Advanced strategic planning, and the best practices to support it. You’ll hear their approach to recruiting and selection, expedited training, short term leadership development, minimizing turnover, and quick strike QA and CSAT processes. You’ll be armed with tools to manage cost and meet service levels, without losing focus on service.

The financial impact of ramp down on the contact center is just as significant as the ramp up. Contact centers need to apply the same level of analytics and detailed planning to deceleration as they do to their seasonal growth. This means knowing by day and hour exactly what to expect as you move out of peak season mode. For many contact centers, not only the volume but also the type of work shifts dramatically after season. It is critical to understand the implications that the shifting workload has on your center’s productivity and staffing requirements. While contact centers are data rich, data for planning ramp down may be the least understood because centers often look and feel very different in the days and weeks immediately following peak. Seasonal agents may shift to tasks such as returns processing or to handling call volumes that suddenly spike from 50 to 90% post sale. In order to minimize your operating expenses, you need to fully understand the drastic shifts that are occurring in a short amount of time.

To understand these shifts you need to define your center’s ramp down needs by position, as well as to have clear data that shows which members of your seasonal team would be the best to retain for a particular CSR role. For example, if a center needs to keep 25 people for 2 weeks to do data entry on returns then it needs to know which of these seasonal employees have the strongest data entry skills and don’t mind repetitive work. If your calls are known to suddenly shift from sales to service, then there may be no point in holding on to your top seasonal sales people if they are not adept at supporting the service after the sale. It’s important to keep team members who will be the most effective during the post-season ramp down, even if they may not have been the top performers during season. Planning ahead for ramp down during season and evaluating the future potential of your seasonal reps is the only way to make sure that the data is readily available when its needed.

The Software as a service (SaaS) model works well for many highly seasonal contact centers, because the center only pays for the number of CSRs that are being scheduled or using the ACD, etc. However, now that so many contact centers are conducting business in the cloud, it is not only labor costs that we incur if ramp downs are not expeditious. This requires us to have a thorough understanding of SaaS contracts and know exactly when seasonal employees need to be removed from cloud-based ACDs, WFMs, etc, to avoid paying for them for additional days, weeks or months. As the old Dale Evans’ tune goes, "Who cares about the clouds when we’re together?" Well, if we stay together with our seasonal associates one day too long, it could result in hundreds in charges from SaaS vendors and then our Accounting department will care very much about the clouds.

Our Relationship with Seasonal CSRs

No matter how cutting-edge our technology is, or how perfect our processes are, contact centers will always be about people. The individuals answering our phones, chatting on the web and replying to emails are the voice of our company to our customers. During season, we invest training dollars, QA resources and coaching time into molding our seasonal team and then just when they get comfortable our season ends, and say goodbye to perhaps hundreds of valuable team members. Preserving the relationship with seasonal staff and enticing them to return for future peak times can reduce our training costs, increase productivity, increase sales and improve service. We know that not every seasonal CSR will return, but there are ways to build a relationship that will encourage them to come back.

Simple gestures, like as sending seasonal team members cards for major holidays and birthdays, can help maintain a positive relationship by letting them know you are thinking about them year round, not just when you need them. Another suggestion for keeping in touch would be to have a "shopping day" at least once a quarter where seasonals from the most recent peak can shop on the website or retail stores and receive the employee discounts. Some companies may be able to even tier the discount based on how many seasons the individual has been supporting them. Of course, only show the love to those team members that you truly want to return.

Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow

In the movie Cocktail, Tom Cruise's character says, "Everything ends badly or it wouldn’t end." Contact centers often believe that their relationship with seasonal associates has to end badly. We tend to be afraid that if we tell our reps in advance when their season will end that they suddenly will stop showing up for work, or worse yet, act out destructively. Burg notes that, like everyone else, he had those same concerns and was shocked when our COO asked us to begin notifying departing seasonals at least a week in advance when their employment was to end. No amount of showering him with “gloom and doom” figures of 50% absenteeism and disgruntled CSRs jamming vending machines with Canadian quarters would dissuade him from the delusion that it was right to tell people a week before their job ended.

The truth is, we are kidding ourselves if we believe that seasonal employees do not know when the end is near. CSRs handling calls about taxes have April 14 marked on their calendar, those taking costume orders are definitely frightened by the thought of Halloween and the thousands handling retail calls during the pre-Holiday rush have a pretty good idea there will be no merry Christmas for them. This reality finally came flooding home for us when we sat down with each rep about a week before their season ended. After giving them a comprehensive evaluation of their performance and asking for their feedback on what we could do better, nothing happened. Despite my dire predictions, we saw no spike in absenteeism or turn over. There was no vandalism or malfeasance in the contact center. Instead, what we did get was 93% of CSRs telling us on an exit survey that they wanted to come back and work with us again next season. We treated the team professionally and they reacted in kind. Taking additional steps to help support departing seasonals can also help improve the company’s reputation in the community and increase the likelihood that seasonals will return (or at least recommend you as a great place to work next season). Some options here include bringing in other employers to conduct interviews for their open contact center or customer service positions, offering resume writing support, and even interview skills training for departing seasonals. Not only is there value to the company, but at its most basic it helps us as contact center leaders feel better about having to release hundreds of good employees.

The Circle of (Seasonal) Life

In the seasonal contact center, we know that the last day of this season is the first day to start planning the next. So, as one team departs, it brings a great opportunity to learn from them what worked and didn’t work. Exit surveys should seek to provide details on everything from training to the exit strategy. These reps have more insight on all of our internal processes and systems than our executive leadership will ever have. However, its not just the departing seasonals who are a wealth of information; there is also the opportunity to learn from core year round associates, who may have moved into elevated roles during peak. These individuals will also have unique insights on details that might other wise go unnoticed. Holding roundtables while peak is still fresh in their minds can be the starting point for key process improvements for the next peak.

Its also important to remember that core agents have to reacclimate themselves to the steady state of the center as well, and that this has to be done quickly and seamlessly in order to keep up with business. Provide core team members that take on elevated roles during season peaks, with a thorough evaluation of how they performed and a "road map" to help them rapidly return to success in their regular position. This road map may include a brief refresher training, sales contests to build excitement about suggestive selling again, and/or additional monitoring to help quickly correct any bad habits that may have formed. This readjustment period is also a great time to have a conversation with each associate and ask them to explain what they learned during season - this will make them better at their core responsibilities. This can be a challenging time for some associates, because they view the end of a season as a demotion. In some organizations, not only do these associates lose the opportunity for more varied work, but premium pay also ends. Understanding their emotions and helping them quickly become more successful in their core job at this stage is critical to their effectiveness now and their ability to continue to develop and help in future seasons.

So, while the roar of the engine gets our adrenaline going as we race through season in that shiny new Porsche, its important not to forget that we are going to need to apply the brakes at some point. Planning for how we do that can create a better experience for our seasonal teams, reduce costs, and result in long term improvement in service and sales. Moreover, that rotwild is really going to appreciate it if we are prepared to brake before he darts into the road.

Alex Wyatt is Sr. Contact Center Manager at Servantage Dixie Sales, www.dixiesales.com, [email protected]. Burg Hughes is Director of Customer Service at BUYSEASONS Inc., www.buyseasons.com, [email protected]