Pamela La Gioia
Published: October 05, 2017 | Comments
Over the past thirty years the contact center has become a business’ biggest resource. Larger companies no longer need to staff and manage customer service or lead generation departments. Smaller companies can keep their workforce focused on other activities and let a center handle all their customer inquiries. This eliminates their need for extra real estate, dealing with related HR issues, and it frees businesses up to focus on what they do best: make product or offer services.
A contact center’s level of activity mirrors those of the businesses they serve, so they must be prepared to meet the precise needs of their clients at any given time. This can be especially challenging during peak seasons when their resources may be already stretched to their limits.
Mary Paige Forrester, AS Project Manager at Cisco, explains how challenging this can be:
“The process of ensuring enough agents are available to receive contacts and respond to them with minimal delay is called ‘workforce management.’ It can be defined as having just the right number of staff available within each interval of the day to meet established service levels while minimizing costs. Having too few can be as costly as having too many agents staffed.” (Emphasis mine)
As any contact center knows, the causes of anticipated peaks are as varied as the products and services they represent. Peaks may be holiday related (Christmas, Mothers Day), seasonal (vacations, Back-to-School), and even event-related (Super Bowl, a client’s special promotion). Add to this an unanticipated peak (perhaps created by a surprise media mention), and it becomes clear why an contact center must prepare for and handle these peaks with engineering precision to prevent long customer wait times or overwhelmed staff.
According to Sean Hawkins, editor of Call Center Weekly, “Planning should occur well before peak seasons.” Not only that, but peak seasons are often the times when regular staff want to take time off, too. One way to prepare, he suggests, is for management to over-staff and trim as needed.
Another solution used by contact centers to help soften the demands of a peak season is “gamification.” In other words, turning a normally stressful period into a challenge to encourage staff to do exceptionally well, or to stick around during such a demanding period. Just remember, notes Ann Ruckstuhl, CMO for Unisys, “People don’t always want more stuff to stack in their garage...sometimes bragging rights and informal/formal recognition is better.”
But what if a contact center doesn’t have the physical capacity to over-staff? Attempting to over-stuff a facility in an effort to over-staff isn’t good. Likewise, there are times when no amount of rewards, games, or accolades will make an agent happy about working during a particular peak season. Try as they might, s/he simply can’t muster up the motivation that was hoped for.
Perhaps the best solution is to design a program where extra staff can work from home and be ready at just the right times. Teddy Liaw has been running an entirely remote call center for six years. He said the benefits of using a cloud-based solution are enormous. As CEO of NexRep, Liaw runs an entirely virtual, 600-seat contact center. Being virtual not only allows him access to a larger pool of people ready to work, but he is able to cherry pick some of the best, most experienced agents around the US.
Talent is just one reason he recommends employing remote agents. According to Liaw, even during peak seasons call flow doesn’t come at precisely predictable times. Staffing needs can fluctuate hour to hour as well as week by week. While lulls are anticipated, their timing can’t always be calculated. When staff are onsite there will be times when they are merely keeping their seats warms, which is expensive and inefficient.
Another benefit to employing remote staff, according to Liaw, is that training virtual agents is easier and much less expensive than providing onsite classes. Free or low-cost programs such as GoToMeeting allow people to train in the actual environment they will be working: their home offices. Furthermore, training dates can also be more flexible.
Just like their onsite counterparts, remote contact center staff can also desire time off during holidays or for events. Liaw says that at NexRep having remote agents allows him to take staffing flexibility a step further: shorter or even intermittent shifts. Around holidays, in particular, Liaw can actually allow some staff to work a couple hours in the morning, and come back to work a couple of hours in the evening. This gives the staff breaks they need, and they come back to work refreshed and unstressed. It would difficult to imagine an onsite center being able to offer this flexibility, even if they were willing to do so. Furthermore, with high gas prices and commute times, these intermittent shifts would actually impose a burden to most agents.
Finally, a happy agent is usually a more productive agent. Remote working and using intermittent schedules are not the only tools Liaw leverages during peak seasons. He, too, makes the use of holiday bonuses and other rewards to create a sense of community and encourage higher performance. Liaw highly recommends a center consider how remote work can benefit their agents as well as their own firm. It’s easy to see why NexRep has no shortage of applicants.
Sean Hawkins agrees that employing remote staff, even just for peak seasons, is a good idea. It can let management increase staff without having to hire full-time. It also eliminates the need for extra floor space. However, this decision needs to be planned with input from everyone involved. Says Hawkins, “Workforce Management, marketing and sales all play a vital role in assisting with staffing….[I]n addition, training should be planned to ensure agents are not just hitting the floor as volume increases. Building in time for them to become proficient should be at the forefront.”
Whether choosing to create a telework program or to outsource to another BPO provider that is already experienced with virtual staff, the use of remote workers can mean the difference between a profitable, efficient peak season or a frustrating one. Afterall, notes Hawkins, “[t]he goal is to take every measure to avoid degradation in quality and [customer] satisfaction.”
(Note: To talk to someone experienced in operating an entirely virtual call center, NexRep’s CEO Teddy Liaw welcomes questions. He may be reached at