Operations and Management: Cutting Back on Call Abandonment

A 2%-2.5% call abandonment rate — the percentage of calls lost because customers on hold hang up — is standard for catalogers, according to Richmond, VA-based operations consultancy F. Curtis Barry & Co. If your rate is higher than average, it’s not just a problem in and of itself. It’s most likely a symptom of a larger problem, says Kathleen Peterson, chief vision officer of Bedford, NH-based call center consultancy Powerhouse Consultants.

“You can’t fix call abandonment without fixing the root causes,” Peterson says. The most common causes: poor scheduling of customer service reps and poor volume forecasting, which are closely intertwined.

People who need people

“If I have 20% of my overall abandonment occurring within a particular half-hour or hour, it’s a scheduling problem,” Peterson says. “But if I wanted to add a body [for that period of time], I’d end up carrying that body for the entire shift when what I really needed to get by was just a piece of the body.”

To handle short bursts of heavy call volume, Ann Arbor, MI-based food mailer Zingerman’s cross-trains all employees so that anyone can be plugged into the call center when needed, says co-owner Mo Frechette. “Before our staff learns about food or our computer system, they learn how to answer the phone, how to handle a problem, and how to listen,” he says. New employees complete almost 40 hours of training their during first month on the job.

At the very least, during busier-than-usual periods you can enlist the help of supervisors who know your systems well enough to get on the phone. And if you have an outbound telephone sales group, have them take calls during heavy inbound periods.

Scheduling software may also help you reduce your rate of abandoned calls. It did for Plow & Hearth, a division of 1-800-Flowers.com. The Madison, VA-based mailer — which takes calls for The Popcorn Factory, HearthSong, and Magic Cabin Dolls catalogs as well as for its own home products books and overflow calls from its parent — aims for a call-abandonment rate of no more than 2%. What’s more, says Paula Atkinson, time management coordinator and outsource liaison, Plow & Hearth tries to answer at least 90% of calls within 30 seconds.

Five years ago, Plow & Hearth implemented the PrimeTime scheduling software package from Mountain View, CA-based Blue Pumpkin. (A new incarnation of the software is called Director Esssential.) Plow & Hearth fed four weeks’ worth of data from its automatic call distributor (ACD) into the software, along with corresponding information such as the expected in-home dates for catalog drops. PrimeTime then mapped out the likely peaks and valleys of call volume on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis.

“The software helped figure out the proper coverage and where we needed to plug people into,” Atkinson says. Plow & Hearth’s Madison call center typically has 125 order-takers per shift, but that figure swells to 450-500 during the fourth quarter.

Blue Pumpkin sells the licences and the software; prices range from approximately $200 per user through $1,000 per user depending on the applications and modules purchased. Add-on applications include time-off management, agent adherence, and multicontact forecasting and scheduling. Pricing for Director Essential ranges from $18,750 to $20,625 depending on the modules purchased.

Richardson, TX-based IEX also sells a workforce management system, TotalView, which allows for forecasting, planning, scheduling, and analysis. What’s more, TotalView enables supervisors to monitor and analyze agent activity. Other providers include Norcross, GA-based Global Management Techologies Corp., Salt Lake City-based Qqest Software Services, and St. Louis-based Pipkins.

Another option is to contract with a third-party provider of call center services to handle any overflows of calls, especially if your business is highly seasonal.

If you’re looking to outsourcing as a way of saving money, though, you might want to think again. Tony Cox, president of Richardson, TX-based consultancy Catalog Solutions, estimates that it costs catalogers about $3 an order to take a call internally, compared with $6 a call handled by a third party.

And while ideally all catalogers would strive for a nearly 0% abandonment rate, few companies could afford to meet that goal — and it’s probably not wise to try. “It is important to create a service level that matches your budget,” Peterson of Powerhouse Consultants notes. In other words, you need to “make a case for cost compared with revenue,” she says, taking into consideration such factors as average order sizes and lifetime value.

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