Will success spoil your call center?

Your last two seasons have come in over projection. Unfortunately, the good-natured, “all hands on deck” excitement that has sustained you and the entire call center staff is wearing thin.

As a result, service levels are down in both order-taking and customer service. Customers are frequently hitting busy signals during peak times, backorders keep increasing, and even the most loyal long-term customers are losing patience. Making matters worse, you had to loosen your hiring standards as the operation stretched; the newer reps have neither the full complement of job skills nor the desired experience. You also had to shorten the initial training period to get new reps on the phones faster. And supervisors are too busy handling customer problems and putting out administrative fires to spend time working with reps. Burnout and turnover are increasing at all telephone rep levels.

Does this sound familiar? If it does, you’re well on your way to outgrowing your call center, and you should start looking for process improvements and short cuts to put into place immediately.

Your first thought may be to divert calls elsewhere until you come up to speed, or even as a long-term strategy (see “The outsourcing argument,” page 142). Your next thought may be to press for changes in other areas of the company. For example, better communication with the merchandising department might reduce backorders, eliminate multiple callbacks, minimize the length of order calls, and relieve rep stress. Similarly, increasing packing time, delivery speed, and accuracy in the warehouse could cut down the number of “Where’s my order?” calls and increase rep confidence when dealing with customers. Remember, any steps you can take to enhance operating efficiency will reduce the load on the call center staff and help you accomplish more for the long term.

As for changes you can implement within your call center now, consider the following suggestions:

Take advantage of existing technology If increased call volume has put your phone system over capacity, you’ll probably need to upgrade or replace your switch. In the interim, however, you can at least change the on-hold message on your automated call distributor (ACD). For example, you can suggest that customers call back during off-peak hours-if indeed you have any.

You may also be able to implement interactive voice response (IVR) solutions to reduce customer dissatisfaction and pressure on your reps. For instance, you can give on-hold customers the option of leaving a message that will be returned within a specified period of time (make sure it’s no more than four to six hours).

Or you can direct certain types of calls to a voice mailbox for transcription and later follow-up, or to a special group of reps assigned to handle them. For example, you can divert all calls for catalog requests and address changes to a group of “rookie” reps who haven’t finished training or to your more seasoned reps who need a brief respite from the pressure of complicated calls. And you can direct all customer service calls checking on backorder status to the reps with experience in substitution selling.

Increase rep authority Sometimes a small change in a policy can boost both rep morale and order processing efficiency. To enable reps to resolve a greater number of customer problems faster and more efficiently, consider increasing the spending limits reps have for refunds, apology gifts, make-good discounts, and other programs. Particularly when your operation is swamped, it’s often cheaper in the short term to give away a little more money than to tie up scanty supervisory and managerial resources in dealing with problems that have escalated.

Be prepared When it comes to managing call volume, in addition to preparing a general operating plan based on the marketing projections you receive from management, you should calculate the effect of response rates or sales figures that are both higher and lower than expected.

Say your marketing department gives you a projection that translates to 1,000 calls during your peak week, and that projects to a certain number of calls for the peak day and the peak hour. Keep in mind, though, that every catalog experiences slightly different patterns in the distribution of calls across a season, a week, or even a day-those 1,000 calls you receive during your peak week may also be on average a minute longer than the normal, for instance. So to assess how many employees you need, increase the projection 10%.

Next, you must consider how you’ll find and absorb those extra people. Plot out the major steps you will take and the resources you will need to handle various scenarios-projected calls plus 10%, the strict projection of calls, and perhaps a less-than-projected volume of calls-and be sure to evaluate the length of time it will take to get each version up and running. Then, whatever the actual volumes turn out to be, you have the rudiments of a plan, schedule, and cost projections ready to go.

Strengthen organizational structure As a rule of thumb, you need one supervisor for every 10 to 18 reps, depending on the complexity of the work, the experience level of the reps and the supervisor, and the other resources available.

If your current call center structure has all reps reporting directly to supervisors, it may be time to formally introduce intermediary positions-senior reps, team leaders, or assistant supervisors-to relieve the supervisory burden and ensure a closer connection between reps and an authority figure. Look for good performers who, with some additional training in call analysis, can perform some of the call monitoring that is necessary to help individual reps improve performance but that strapped supervisors never seem to have time for. This may include identifying people in the organization who can move into critical call center management functions such as supervision and training, even if they currently work in other departments.

You can also ask these intermediate-level telephone reps to field typical questions about policies and procedures from other individual reps on the floor, and depending on their skill and experience level, have them deal with escalated customer questions or problems as well.

You should also seek staffers who can serve as experts in a particular subject-upselling, for instance-for both initial and on-the-job training, and employees who can act as administrators for scheduling, payroll, and other clerical duties.

Above all, make sure there is a readily accessible chain of authority or decision-making. If the employees in the intermediary positions are unable to provide answers to other reps or the customers, they lose credibility fast.

Hire now if you can If your phone system is close to maxing out, you’re probably already evaluating how much capacity you’ll need and the features you’ll want in a new system. In the meantime, you should consider bringing on more staff even before you expand your call system capacity.

It’s generally better to have enough staff available to ensure adequate coverage for absenteeism, burnout, and turnover, as well as to create “cushion time” for ongoing training and communication. New reps can get up to speed more comfortably on the smaller number of calls they’ll have to handle initially on your existing system instead of being overwhelmed by a barrage of calls if you open the floodgates with a new expanded system.

Review rep recruiting sources In many respects you can recruit new staff as you would in a seasonal ramp-up crunch, but with a longer anticipated tenure. If you can provide potentially permanent and even full-time work, you have the advantage of offering longer schedules and benefits, both of which are a critical draw in attracting workers.

Placement agencies that provide temp-to-perm staff can also help you weather a growth situation. They’ll enable you to get a better handle on the level of staffing you need before you make any employment commitments, and you’ll be able to keep only the best people.

Given the extremely tight labor pool, you should also consider some nontraditional sources of new employees, such as senior communities, preschool and elementary school parents’ associations, and high school business departments.

And don’t forget to try referral bonus programs to encourage current employees to refer friends and family to fill the ranks.

Maintain training standards Make sure that you give each new hire the full measure of training. Do not stint on training time just so you can quickly get people on the floor to take calls. If the trainees handle calls poorly, not only will they increase your call lengths, but dissatisfied customers will increase your call volume as they call back multiple times to get better information, make corrections, or try to receive an answer they like better from a more sympathetic rep.

Of course, maintaining your training standards is easier said than done when you’re busy. But there are several things you can try. For instance:

* Draft more trainers by using “buddy” trainers (senior reps), supervisors, and experts in a particular subject.

* Schedule multiple training courses throughout the day to accommodate trainee schedules more flexibly. Also, you can often cover the same material faster in small groups than large classes, particularly if you can schedule trainees who have similar levels of knowledge and experience.

* Flip the sequence of some of your training activities. For instance, you may be able to put some rookies on the phone sooner than you normally would, so long as you take them back off the phone to review, debrief, and give them additional training.

Check documentation and job aids With so much of your operation in flux and so many new faces on board, it’s more important than ever to ensure that you have clear documentation of all policies and procedures and that accurate reference material is available for reps and team leaders, and as a support to consistent training. At the very least, check to make sure that only the most current information is on the floor, written in plain English and supplemented, wherever possible, with charts or tables for codes, prices, and schedules. If you find that multiple versions of a policy exist, meet with the critical team members to resolve the confusion quickly.

Communicate to staff Particularly during difficult and uncertain times, employees feel better and work better when they have some idea of what’s coming down the pike. Be sure to keep all affected groups well informed of projections and plans: the reps who are at risk of running out of steam, the senior executives who control resources, and the colleagues who deal with day-to-day order processing. Use staff meetings, e-mail, memos, and bulletin board postings-multiple approaches have the most impact.

It’s important to display graphic representations of plans and status, such as a rising thermometer showing how close you are to meeting your staffing needs. Other worthwhile exhibits include charts showing call volumes, service levels, fill rates, and orders shipped. You can also post various aspects of your upcoming plans with milestone dates and assignments. Public communication of conditions, performance, and goals will keep everyone on track. It also helps keeps morale up and constantly reminds management of the need for additional resources.

You’ll certainly know when your call center has reached its capacity-more incomplete calls, service snafus, and flaring tempers on both ends of the phone line. But even if you’re not over capacity yet, you need to keep on the alert for warning signs of potential overload.

The first sign that you may be headed for trouble is that your marketing department has given you forecasts showing that you’ll be outside your ability to answer the calls within the time frame of your desired service level given your current level of staffing.

Such an overload may last only a week, or it could be clear that every season will exceed capacity during the peak days. Either way, you need to plan on increasing call center staffing to serve customers adequately.

Regardless of projections, if service levels are suffering consistently over several days or weeks-with the assumption that they will continue at that level-or over a couple of seasons, that’s another warning that things are getting out of control. Monitor customer complaints about busy signals or long waits; if you find an increase in such problems, you could be approaching overcapacity.

You may be inclined to outsource the call volume you can’t handle today to provide temporary relief while you gear up internally. And outsourcing some of your volume either temporarily or for the foreseeable future can be a successful tactic for coping with growth-if your calls are straightforward, and systems and processes can be smoothly integrated between you and the vendor.

If you decide to outsource part of your call volume, make sure that the service agency with which you partner can provide a satisfactory level of customer care, including online inventory information and upselling. Also, you need to ensure that you have the staff available to manage a vendor relationship.

Assigning the responsibility for outsourcing to an employee is comparable to giving her a complicated special project. On a pure maintenance basis-once the arrangement has been established, that is-you’re talking about a minimum of several hours per week, and that assumes no glitches. As for setting up the relationship with the vendor, depending on the complexity of your needs, the vendor’s capabilities, and the available lead time, the employee assigned the task could end up spending more than 40 hours a week planning and coordinating the arrangement. Optimally, the employee in question would have project management experience and be comfortable setting deadlines and managing milestones. It would be even better if she had specific experience managing external suppliers and knew how to establish and communicate requirements, document agreements, analyze performance, and ask tough questions.

And finally, beware of how long it will take to manage systems coordination and debugging, ensure appropriate rep training, and put quality control mechanisms in place. If you find that you don’t have the necessary capability, lead time, or resources, outsourcing is probably not a good option.

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