Using Speech IVR as a Holiday Staffing Strategy

This is the first in two-part series using speech IVR in the contact center during the holidays. Next week, we’ll discuss how to use and implement speech.

For many retailers, a happy holiday season means one that successfully captures all possible increased revenue. Staffing the multichannel contact center is crucial to holiday success and it presents unique challenges.

The key question is: “How do we get our increased calls answered quickly and handled efficiently so we don’t miss any holiday revenue?”

Simply hiring more personnel or outsourcing isn’t the complete answer. Instead, the discussion of seasonal staffing in the contact center incorporates many of the best practices of the multi-channel retail industry. Beyond outsourcing, among today’s best practices are: agent empowerment; dynamic seat scheduling; accurate forecasting; part-time, shared or other flexible work arrangements; and technology innovation.

Because of the peak nature of holiday staffing, contact center outsourcing has long been a favored practice of retailers. The logic for such action remains true today: less hiring and less training is required for each channel. Additionally, contracting for call overflow is less expensive than internal hiring, which includes administrative costs such as completing standard paperwork and funding employee benefits. Outsourcing also limits expenses stemming from time or regulatory obligations related to employee acquisitions and terminations.

When working with an outsourced call center during the holidays, merchants must not overlook necessary management and involvement, including any essential training. According to a recent Oracle survey entitled, “Holiday Season 2006: What’s in Store?” retailers “cite staff training as the single investment that [will yield] the greatest ROI for their organizations.”

Retailers sometimes have a tendency to hire additional contact center representatives and/or engage an outsourced call center with the belief that simply increasing the size of their call center during peak seasons will adequately address additional traffic volumes. Though increasing capacity is a start, simply increasing headcount does not take into account issues such as agents with language or accent challenges, agents that are not well acquainted with a retailer’s products, cultural issues associated with using offshore call centers and other similar problems. If handle times with outsourced agents actually rise, the “true cost” in turn rises for each call handled, and those longer handle times can lead to a negative customer experience, and lost brand revenue. Retailers need to partner with outsourced call centers to train for holiday issues.

The most important development in outsourcing, however, has grown both organically and tangentially out of the call center. Retailers today are depending more and more on speech automation. Also known as speech-enabled interactive voice response (SIVR), speech automation allows customers to interact through the telephone with computer retail systems using their own voices rather than touchtones. Customers simply speak to get information or to complete transactions, which are powered by customer account, inventory, logistics, or other retail information systems. Today, retailers have realized that by outsourcing the design, development, hosting, and implementation of a speech automation application, they can reap the ROI rewards quickly without the capital outlay required for developing and hosting in-house. And, they can facilitate the efficient capture of increased holiday revenues.

Mark Abramson is CEO at Atlanta-based speech technology services provider Message Technologies, Inc.

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