Operations Management

Peak season planning: proven solutions to painful problems

Charles Watson 11 min read Download as PDF
Peak season planning: proven solutions to painful problems

Is your contact center ready for Black Friday?

It’s not just about Black Friday, of course. Depending on where you are located, at this time of year, you may have to deal with Halloween, Thanksgiving, Black Friday, and the countdown to Christmas and other celebrations. One festival after another conspires to push our plans out of kilter by increasing volumes, increasing average handling time (AHT), or both. This is peak season, especially for retail, travel, and the customer service industry generally.

To make matters worse, the economic climate is compounding the problem this year. Customers are faced with runaway inflation, higher interest rates, and soaring energy prices. Meanwhile continuing supply chain issues are creating empty shelves in stores and out-of-stock labels on retail websites. This all increases stress levels for consumers and when customers become stressed, they frequently vent their frustration on your front-line agents, who are suffering the same challenges themselves.

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The questions that contact center managers and planners ask themselves at this time of year are:

  • How do I successfully maintain service level?
  • And how do I ensure the wellness of my agents?

Let’s explore the top 7 peak season planning issues that contact centers face and find some solutions.

1. No contingency to flex up for the peak season

One of my favorite idioms is “You don’t build a church for Easter Sunday”. It means that you don’t invest in the cost of a church large enough to fit everyone on the busiest day of the year. Instead, you build to something for less than 100% of peak and then have contingency plans for how you seat people on the busiest day. The same thinking applies to staffing a contact center.

Let’s assume a contact center has an average monthly requirement of 100 FTE, the peak month is 120 FTE, and the lowest month is 80 FTE. In this case, you have a few options:

  • Option 1: Staff to the peak and offer voluntary time off (VTO) to the excess staff
  • Option 2: Staff to the 80 FTE and offer overtime (OT) - or miss service levels at peak times
  • Option 3: Staff to the midpoint and do VTO during low months and OT during peak times

But which option is for you? This depends on how your business balances the customer vs. the employee. If you want to prioritize the customer and cost isn’t an issue, staff to the peak. If you have to keep costs minimal, staff to the minimum.

2. Lack of workforce flexibility

Once you’ve got your total weekly or monthly staffing set, how do you handle a spike in volume or average handling time (AHT) on a given day or in a few intervals? If you’re managing to a weekly or monthly service level, you may not worry about this. But if you want to provide a consistent customer experience, and measure service level on a daily or interval basis, you need to have peak season planning tactics in place to solve this.

First, let’s address why this happens. It can be as simple as an inaccurate forecast. But with the extra seasonal volumes, the impact is magnified. It can also happen if you have several agents on similar shifts call in sick at the same time. Sickness levels are typically higher in the winter months. And you can also have an external event that drives an increase in demand. Airport closures cause unplanned spikes for airlines. Flash sales cause them for online retailers. In each case, a lot of customers call in within a short period.

You should aim to have shifts that have built-in flexibility. In some contact centers I’ve worked in, we had schedules identified as Perm, Flex, or Semi-flex along with the hours and working days. So a person may have a 9 am - 5:30 pm Monday - Friday Flex shift, for example. What does that mean?

A perm shift means the hours are fixed. Employees on such shifts work at the stated times with no changes until the next schedules are published. A flex shift means that with, e.g. 2 weeks' notice, agents' hours can change +/- 4 hours, and their days off can change. For a semi-flex shift, the hours can change by +/- 1.5 hours, but we don’t change their days off. The flexibility that flex and semi-flex shifts offer will help you cope with peaks and valleys in demand generally. If you have several agents sick at the same time or if your interval-level forecast is wrong, you can compensate by using these flexible shifts.

>> Learn more about how to introduce flexibility into your contact center in this blog post

3. Sub-optimal real-time management

When it comes to peak season planning, you need to be at the top of your real-time management game. A good approach is to have a written, one-page, pre-agreed plan to react that shows actions you take when your service level falls below a threshold, or if volume or AHT exceeds a threshold. You may have a rule that if service level falls 5% below the goal, non-critical offline activities are canceled or rescheduled. If service level falls 10% below the goal, all offline activities are canceled or rescheduled. At an extreme drop (20% below goal), you could introduce All Hands on Deck. Not only are all offline activities canceled, but team leaders, coaches, quality assurance analysts, etc. all log in to handle calls and other contacts. This immediately gives you the capacity your need to help clear the queues. This is the ultimate sense of urgency and gets the entire call center focused on solving the immediate challenge.

>> Learn how to be a real-time management wizard in this video

4. Neglecting the employee experience

Your agents really are the most precious resource in your contact center. It’s vital to have their back during peak season when they are facing pressure from increased volumes, longer AHT, and more irate customers. Peak season planning needs to take employees into account. But what practical steps can you take to make sure that Black Friday isn't Burnout Friday?

Customers hear “all of our representatives are busy right now” and your agents become stressed during periods of understaffing. The main goal of workforce management (WFM) is to eliminate periods of understaffing - and periods of overstaffing - by accurately forecasting demand down to 15-minute interval levels, then optimally scheduling the right number of agents to handle that demand so that service goals are met. That naturally improves service level and abandonment rate while reducing agent burnout.

Good WFM applications take into account agent skills and other properties when building optimized schedules. That increases first-contact resolution rates. WFM also includes real-time management functions that enable team leaders to keep track of performance on the day. They need to make informed adjustments to schedules, etc. to maintain the customer experience even in the face of unplanned spikes in demand, longer-than-expected calls, or higher-than-average sickness levels.

Last but not least, WFM puts employees front and center. The best applications engage and empower agents by giving them a say in the scheduling process and self-service functions around shift swaps, time off requests, and team collaboration.

Other steps you can take to improve the employee experience (EX) include introducing employee-led scheduling and improving the work environment. You should engage with your agents and empower them. Hint: Those two are completely different things.

>> Read more about employee engagement, employee empowerment, and how to make your contact center more employee-focused in this blog post

5. Long hold times

Long hold times (meaning your customers are waiting in the queue for a long time) can be a real frustration. They get the customer experience off to a bad start, which then may then drive up your handle times. I'll come back to handle times in the next section. There may be no getting around this if your demand is too high. But there are a few ways to mitigate it and improve the customer experience.

One solution is to look at a technology that offers callbacks for long hold times. There are a lot of products on the market that can do this for you. Fonolo for instance is a leading provider of cloud-based call-backs. You set the threshold (it may be an estimated wait time of 2 minutes, or 5 minutes) and the system will offer callbacks to the customers. This is great for customers because it means they can go about their business and get a call back based on the time they were quoted. It’s also great for you because it moves volume away from busy intervals and into subsequent intervals where you may have better availability.

Another solution is to have someone “triage” the call. This may not be ideal for all, but for some, this is a really good solution. To do this, you take some of your agents to screen incoming calls. See if their issue can be solved by someone with a lower skill, or if they can be directed to self-service, a website, or some other place other than an agent if that can solve their problem quicker and easier. This filter means that the callers have been acknowledged and that they only wait if it’s absolutely necessary. In doing this, you may also be able to quickly get lesser-trained agents onto the phones to relieve the stress.

6. Long Average Handling Time (AHT)

Long handle times can become an issue during the peak season for a few reasons. First, if more people are buying items, it increases the likelihood they need assistance, vs. just shopping around. Also, as people buy, it means there will be more returns or dissatisfaction with the purchase. Lastly, it can be a result of long wait times. When customers wait in the queue for a long time, they want to share the feedback (and by feedback, I mean complaints).

When your handle times are high, it increases your demand and further hurts service levels. So you really need to manage this.

There are 3 components to handle time:

  1. Talk time
  2. Hold time
  3. After-call-work time

When managing talk time, look at staffing each interval to service level. Doing this increases your overall service level and reduces the likelihood of calls in queue that drive up handle time. It does require more staff to plan each interval to hit service level, so take a look at this cost vs. the savings by not having the talk time impact of queuing.

Generally, agents put people on hold because they need to do research or ask a question. This really falls outside of workforce management, but as you’re looking for suggestions to offer, get the agents educated on the top call drivers. Consider an FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) document for your agents. If you get the top call information into their hands, they can get answers more quickly and reduce hold time.

Managing after-call-work (ACW) time can be tricky because some of this is legitimate (e.g. documenting the previous call) and some is behavioral (e.g. taking a break by pressing your ACW button). Set achievable targets for ACW. Look at the behaviors of your top agents, train to that, and set your targets at the level the top agents perform at.

>> You can read about tactics to optimize AHT in this blog post

7. Absenteeism of staff

Managing absenteeism is always important but it is a key ingredient of peak season planning. Do you know your absenteeism policy? I’ve seen huge diversity in these policies. Some are generous and some are extremely strict. Enforcement of the policies can also be inconsistent across team leaders within the same call center. Because of this, you can’t rely on policy to ensure your absenteeism targets are met. And with winter overlapping with the peak season (for those of us in the northern hemisphere), legitimate illnesses can increase.

Let’s tackle this in a few ways. First, during peak season, consider running an incentive for agents who have perfect attendance. This can be something as simple as extra time off (in January). It could be gift cards, cash, or other rewards. The key is it needs to be meaningful to your teams. If you want to manage the budget a bit, consider having the winners go into a drawing for prizes. That can give you even more value for the incentives. If you want to build the case for this, do a cost-benefit analysis of hiring extra staff for high absenteeism vs. the cost of the incentive. This may also help inform your budget for the incentive.

In reality, you’re still going to have days and times of days where you have high absenteeism. This is where you want to have a flexible workforce. You can read about ways to make your workforce more flexible in this blog post, but the main thing to remember is that you need some 'levers' that you can pull quickly. It can be as simple as having some of your agents who can log in from home when needed to work extra hours.

>> Read more about controlling absenteeism in this blog post

Conclusion

However you decide to prepare for - and manage - peak season, make sure you take an intentional approach. October is a great month to lay out all of the plans and contingencies. Educate your partners in operations about how the season will flow and ensure you have the right points of escalation on both sides documented and communicated. I recommend creating some materials that you can just reuse each year. So as you create the documents with your plans, don’t create them exclusively to solve this year’s problems. Think about the systems and structure of your staffing and service level management plans.

Peak season is your time to shine!

Would you like to discuss the challenges that you are facing around Black Friday, Christmas and peak season planning?

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