Holiday Strategies for Contact Centers

As we enter the holiday season, many businesses are preparing for what most retailers have experienced year over year: higher sales and an uptick in consumer confidence.

While higher sales is great news for businesses, the busy season has historically put pressure on contact center operations. Increased sales are accompanied by an increase in call volume, email, chats, and social media interactions. Contact center agents are called on to help customers with issues ranging from shipping and delivery to general questions about products or special promotions.

Managers need to support their agents with the right information and the right tools so they can provide an optimal customer experience during this busy time. Operations managers must prepare for and adeptly respond to increased call volume, while also finding ways to manage it all as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible.

To identify strategies for the holiday season, I spoke with Jenni Palocsik, solutions marketing director at Verint Systems,. She offered her insight on these three key strategies:

1. Use Metrics to Forecast

One way to anticipate increases in call volume is to leverage historical data on volume and topics to help you forecast, plan, and schedule the appropriate personnel to respond to those calls. At times, this could also mean adding seasonal staff for a fixed period of time to augment your existing staff.

To respond in a timely fashion to unplanned increases in call volume, Palocsik described the importance of scorecards and dashboards in alerting supervisors of trends or when an issue has reached a predetermined threshold. "By establishing a set of key performance indicators (KPIs) that supports your organization's management process and making them visible through scorecards and dashboards, managers can more quickly respond when additional employees are needed, deciding to ask current employees to extend their shifts or to move employees from non-customer-facing work to answering calls, helping to alleviate customer wait times or dissatisfaction caused by unexpectedly high call volumes. Sharing these metrics and progress against goals with individual employees and managers empower a staff to help the organization be more successful.">

2. Optimize Inbound Call Management

Palocsik adds, "Offering flex time as compensation for taking on more shifts can be a great way to manage the excess call volume without adding expense, especially for unplanned or brief spikes in call volume. Another best practice to address high customer traffic is to proactively provide the necessary information to customers via multiple channels; for example, answers to frequently asked questions on the organization's Web site, live chats, social media, and interactive voice response (IVR) can quickly and conveniently help customers find the answer to their questions without the need to make phone calls.

3. Analyze Risks and Benefits of Virtual Call Centers

When evaluating the risks and benefits of integrating a virtual call center during the holiday season, there are several considerations. One risk that Palocsik cautions about is integrating virtual employees from outside your organization, which could result in agents who are less familiar with your products, services, and processes. This can reduce the quality or consistency with which they are answering your customers' questions and reflecting the culture of your organization.

Another approach to virtual agents could be to simply hire full-time employees who work out of their homes rather than in a central contact center. In either case, organizations need to carefully monitor what is being said on the phone as well as what each employee is doing on the desktop. Desktop and process analytics, recording, quality management, and speech analytics can help organizations analyze the content of calls and the activities being performed by employees so informed decisions can be made to respond to changes in the type of customer calls or other KPIs in a timely manner.

The Bottom Line: Ensure a Successful Holiday Season and Beyond

Whether using metrics to forecast call volume or preparing for a predictably busy holiday season of high sales and call volume, contact center managers have many tools at their disposal. These tools allow them to anticipate changes, address workforce needs, and ensure they are delivering optimal customer service without increasing costs or taking risks that impact the brand. Several technology solutions, such as IVR or speech analytics, can help streamline operations and identify where needs are not being met in terms of customer satisfaction. Time is of the essence during this season of high call volume, so organizations can't afford to sacrifice quality. Holding employees accountable for quality but also providing opportunities for them to have a more flexible schedule can lead to happier and more dependable employees.

Always keeping in mind the 360-degree view of the customer's end-to-end journey and staying on the pulse of volumes that shift internal operations can ensure that you are engaging your customer without increasing cost or sacrificing the quality of experience you offer. Employing these strategies will ensure a successful holiday season and new year ahead.

Audrey Ford is senior manager of program development at Consero, a provider of industry-specific events for senior executives.