North American Customer Service Management Association

Support for Contact Center Professionals

Step 2 Seasonal Growth and Demand


Many products and services do not have demand all year round or they might be available only during a certain period like the Affordable Care Act, which has open enrollment from November 1st to January 31st. The holiday season creates extra demand for many products; a large grocery chain beefs up staff during the holidays to take online and phone orders the 6 weeks prior to Christmas.

Seasons are diverse and create many challenges for contact centers that are servicing seasonal products. Challenges, for example, are idling agents and fixed costs that must be paid. Seasonal products have a demand pattern and by studying the patterns can provide insights and predictions into demand cycles. These cycles help you determine how to staff the contact center for profitability.

Demand is not always a controllable factor; under every situation and industry demand varies. Demand can be both positive and negative and both impact the call volume in the contact center. Too many agents on hand are just as costly as too few. Negative demand can be a reaction to a new product and may show that consumers are not aware of the features and benefits. Marketing will need to regroup its marketing efforts. In the meantime, when there is no demand or negative demand, you will want to deploy agents elsewhere or use a workforce management tool to reschedule agents to other projects. Demand may not be controllable but it can be managed.

Forecasting the demand is just as much an art as a science. Forecasts are projections; they are not goals or objectives. Forecasts provide an expectation of the future based on facts, historical data, experience and insight.

Step one is gathering the data. You want stacks of historical data. History is the best indicator of the future. The first place to check is your contact center platform. A robust platform will have historical reports stored for up to a year. If your platform emails or FTPs reports automatically, many managers save those reports. Seek out those managers. Can you get two years’ worth of data? Much more than two years isn’t relevant with the fast pace of change. Less then 12 months doesn’t represent the full picture.

Then scour the data for any one-offs. Look for data that looks abnormally low or high, or missing data. Then determine what is triggering this out of ordinary data. Is that “zero” you see on a holiday when the contact center was closed? Does that holiday change to a different day each year like July 4th or is it the same day like Memorial Day, which is the last Monday in May?

If July 4th moves from a Saturday to a Tuesday, how does that impact call volumes on the days preceeding and the days following? This is the “art” part of forecasting where your experience, intuition and judgment come into play. The data is factual but not always representative.

In this step, you want to “normalize” the data up or down. Let’s say on Thursdays volume is easily 5,000 calls, but you notice that on the second Thursday it is only 3,000 calls. Further research shows that the contact center experienced an outage for four hours. Since that is not a typical Thursday event, you can assume that if there wasn’t an outage, the contact center would have handled 5000 calls. The actual number is correct but, you want to use 5,000 for forecasting purposes.

On the other hand, if every third Thursday the contact center completes mandatory compliance training, then the lower number is an accurate one and for forecasting this would be the correct number to use. If the event is repeatable and predictable then these lower numbers are realistic.

The key is to determine what is driving the data aberration. You must get to the bottom of that question.

It costs just as much to recruit part-time agents as it does a full-time agent but sometimes you just can’t find enough full-time agents. Perhaps changing the hiring strategy, you can attach more skilled part-timers and they can become your seasonal team. There are people you only work during the holidays, if you find good part-timers invite these agents back year after year. Take care of them just as you would your full-time staff.

At-Home agents are another workaround to seasonal demand. If you are using a hosted cloud based contact center platform you can set up home agents. They will need a computer with Internet access and a phone. The audio quality on soft phones from home is usually less then good. Set up agents with a quality desk phone like a Polycom to insure the best connection. Agents from home login as if they were in the contact center and are ready to take calls.
Outsource Overflow to a Business Processor Outsourcer (BPO) – Do your due diligence on choosing a BPO before seasonal demand hits. It is good practice to have one in your back pocket ready to go. There is nothing more irritating than the slow process of getting all the approvals and paperwork completed when you need the extra help now. Plan ahead.

Expand Interactive Voice Response (IVR) Self Service Options – By expanding IVR self-service options you can reduce the number of calls for simple tasks like checking balances, making payments, tracking shipments, making a reservation and more. IVR’s are open 24/7 making it easy for customers to use. IVR’s reduce staff for off-peak hours and holidays and can help when call volumes are high, as an option to a live agent. Consider using IVR’s to automate simple repetitive calls. It will free up live agents to handle more complex issues.

Optimize the agents schedule for high demand and seasonal peaks.Here are a few strategies and best practices.
- Flex Existing Schedules All Hands on Deck! Adjust all schedules to accommodate a maximum shift. Ask part-time agents if they can work extra hours or even full-time during peak seasons. This can boost schedule hours as much as 6%.

- Schedule based on Performance Rewarding agents that perform with the schedules they prefer.

- Shift Mix Filling in shifts with flexible part-time and split shift agents. To achieve optimal delivery a combination of shorter shifts durations in blocks of four-to-five hours, complement full-time staff. Use incentives like additional benefits to attract agents into split shifts. Offer higher vacation accrual, four-day workweek, no weekends or fewer weekends- those usually do the trick. This will reduce the amount of temporary part-time employees hired for the season thus containing hiring costs.

- Flex Shifts Voluntary “go home” and overtime opportunities are visible in the workforce management tool. Agents can self schedule and adjust their schedule giving them control over the their schedule. With a proper workforce management tool you can adjust the workforce in as little as 24-48 hours without the cost of hiring new agents.

No matter how hard you try to make it an accurate forecast it won’t be perfect. If you get 98% accuracy from your forecast that’s a good day. It is an estimate, a prediction of the future. Ask how off is your forecast and why? Are you using a complex method when the simpler ones are more accurate? Complicated methodologies hide key assumptions or make key assumptions that may not fit your business. Stick to simple methodologies.

If you don’t trust the raw data you can’t trust the forecast either. The quality of the data is proportional to how often you use it, believe it and correct it. When you use data regularly you become familiar with it’s inaccuracies and can get corrections made. When you clean up the data it becomes a powerful tool for forecasting and therefore you are more likely going to trust it.

Bias also gets in the way of forecasts. Let’s face it, when you must make assumptions it is difficult to eliminate the addition of some bias. Just be conscious that this happens.

And finally, technology doesn’t make forecasting better. A robust forecast comes from sound logic in your methodology. The technology is the tool to make the methodology more efficient and thus more successful.

Tips!

Get creative with the Schedule. Ask agents for suggestions on what flexible work schedules can look like in preparation of high seasonal demand. Get their buy in.
IVR’s are more sophisticated today. Utilize your IVR for high volume days and times of the year. Spend the money on the extra programing. IVR’s never call in sick.

Take the Next Step!

While many products do not have demand all year around, seasonal demand can be forecasted and planned. Good planning will eliminate idle agents, too many calls in the queue and hiring extra agents. Planning and forecasting begin with solid data both real-time and historical captured from comprehensive contact center software. A cloud based contact center platform is a manager’s dream with reports and data that go as far back as 12 months. A good forecast needs 12-18 months of historical data. Most contact center phone systems are limited and put mangers in the dark. There is no reason today for managers to be operating by the seat of their pants.
Planning includes lining up a potential BPO, not that you will use it every time but when you do need the support all the paperwork will be completed. You just pull the trigger and run. At-Home Agents work well when demand is high and you are short inside agents. A comprehensive cloud based platform makes it easy for At-Home agents to login and take calls. And finally, expanding the IVR with more self-service options frees up live agents for more complex calls.
Schedule optimization is a powerful strategy to get around hiring more agents. Using flexible schedules and getting creative with schedules like splitting shifts can give the contact center the coverage it needs while providing flexibility to agents. Agents enjoy being in control of their schedule and will gladly volunteer to go home early or work overtime. Agents have a life too and appreciate flexibility.

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