Calling All SEASONAL Reps

It’s April and, for most consumer catalogers, time to plan for their peak staffing needs six months from now. Catalogers that do most of their business in the fourth quarter will need to begin hiring in September in order to get new staff trained and ready to handle calls for the peak holiday season that begins in October.

Whether your peak is October through December, February and March, or April through July, catalog contact centers face a unique challenge in finding qualified staff to handle just a few months of peak demand. We’ve identified five basic options available to address the challenges of seasonal staffing requirements.

OPTION 1
RETURNING STAFF

The ideal solution to the seasonal staffing dilemma is to find staff who simply want to work the few months of the year that you need them and then happily leave when the peak is over, returning when you need them again next year. These workers will likely not need a full training period but only a quick refresher before they can hit the ground running. Nice solution if you can get them, right?

One mistake that many contact centers make is to assume that because their base workforce is made up of full-time staff, their seasonal workers should work a 40-hour week too. To attract more seasonal workers, you will likely need to hire mostly part-time staff. Many people, such as stay-at-home mothers and students, may be looking for a little extra income and would appreciate the opportunity to work three or four hours a day, but they may not be able to accommodate a full work schedule. Therefore you may need to change your recruiting and hiring protocol to look for people to fit these kinds of positions.

Though hiring part-time staff has some drawbacks, the practice also has many benefits to consider. On the downside, some contact centers point to the increased recruiting and training costs for part-timers. The same amount of effort may be needed to recruit, interview, hire, and train a part-time person as a full-time employee, yet the part-time staffer can’t put in the same amount of time on the phones as the full-timer, or his schedule may not accommodate the training hours planned. On the other hand, consider the additional scheduling flexibility that hiring part-timers gives you to arrange and piece together schedules that fit workforce to workload more precisely. And sometimes these part-timers can actually be better performers given that they’re fresh and not on the phones for eight hours a day.

Many contact centers attribute their success at covering seasonal demand to hiring people who fit the ideal part-time profile. Some people will be willing to work part-time during the holiday season as a second job. But sometimes they don’t have enough energy and enthusiasm left after the first job to perform adequately in the contact center. Others may take a part-time position but only as a way to get a foot in the door with the company; these people will never be happy with a part-time position and are certainly not likely to return the following year if they’ve been laid off after the peak season ends. It’s important to bear these factors in mind when screening applicants.

It’s also important to carefully define the part-time position in terms of working hours and the duration of the job. Those who take the position with full knowledge of schedule definitions as well as length of employment will likely be the ones who return the following year.

To find these ideal part-time workers, you’ll want to cast a large net and recruit in such a way that you’re reaching an optimal audience of candidates. Simple newspaper classified ads will likely not be sufficient. Use your existing workforce for job referrals, and reward them for bringing in qualified candidates. Expand the search to billboards and other advertising media to ensure you’re getting in front of as many potential candidates as possible with your offer.

Finding potential candidates will naturally be much easier if you have a peak season that just happens to correspond with a ready pool of available workers. For example, one camping supply company, which has peak demand from May through August, fills it easily with local college students and teachers off for the summer school break. These staff enjoy the change of pace from the classroom and happily return year after year to be welcomed back with open arms from the contact center just as the calls are beginning to ramp up.

Of course, not all centers have the luxury of having a peak season in the summer when there’s a more obvious and ready supply of part-time workers. If you’re like many multichannel merchants with a peak season that falls within the October-December timeframe, you’ll have to be a little more creative with where you look for staff. Ask what kinds of businesses may be having an off-peak time just as your call workload picks up. Who is slowing down in October just as you’re speeding up? How can you target these potential employees?

OPTION 2
SHARED-STAFF ARRANGEMENTS

As we just mentioned, contact centers with a busy seasonal holiday pattern often look to local businesses that may slow down in the fall. Some recruit workers directly with great success from businesses that have a spring or summer peak. You can choose to try to reach these potential staffers with wide and well-timed advertising, or you can elect to go directly to the source and work with those businesses directly.

For instance, one Illinois-based contact center with a holiday peak season from October to January works with the local Home Depot and Lowe’s building-supply stores to find a base of staff. With shoppers having reduced building-supply and gardening-center needs in the fall and winter, these stores don’t need as many workers per shift as they do during spring and summer. The contact center works with these companies to advertise open positions from October through January for those staff who might be laid off temporarily or cut back to part-time hours in these stores and want to make up the hours somewhere. Some staff choose the contact center option, knowing that their store position will be saved and waiting upon their February return. The contact center benefits by having a ready supply of candidates with great customer service training, and the stores benefit by having a way to ensure employment for all its workers during the slower months.

Another contact center has a partnership with a neighboring contact center that happens to have peak calling times at different times of year. Each guarantees employment for six months of the year, but during the off-peak time there is the option to go to the other contact center. Both centers benefit by having staff bringing experience and skills to the job from the other company, as well as existing expertise in that contact center position.

Making arrangements like this work requires creativity and some “outside the box” planning, processes, and compensation arrangements. You’ll want to ask what types of businesses or contact centers have a lull during your peak season. Pursue these businesses to see if you can forge a staffing arrangement that benefits you both.

OPTION 3
LOCAL STAFFING AGENCIES

One of the most common ways that contact centers address the need for seasonal staffing is to work through a local staffing agency to find temporary full-time or part-time staff. This scenario, sometimes referred to as “in-sourcing,” involves the use of a staffing agency to recruit, screen, and hire temporary workers. These staff are typically treated as employees of the temporary agency, but in some instances the contact center may hire the employees.

In most cases, the contact center personnel handle the training and supervision of the staff, though sometimes the agency expands its role into training and supervising the temporary staff. The contract staffing agency may perform the recruiting, hiring, and training activities at its site, or in cases of a large staffing demand it might have dedicated agency staff actually reside at the contact center site.

The contact center typically pays more for a contract staffing person than if it were to handle recruiting and screening inhouse, since the rate it pays the temporary workers includes an “overhead” charge for the staffing agency. But this added cost comes with many benefits.

For one thing, local employment agencies have a core competency of recruiting and hiring staff, so they may do a better job of it than the internal contact center management team — especially in frantic times. These agencies are familiar with labor pools in various communities, and most have links to various state or local vocational training programs. They are experts at helping the contact center define job requirements and then finding suitable candidates, conducting careful screening to ensure a good match for the job.

Another benefit of agency staffing is the flexibility of procuring exactly the number and type of staff required. The contact center can simply inform the contract staffing agency of how many of each type of position it needs to fill and for how long, and the agency can fill the vacancies. This flexibility is particularly useful for companies with short-term campaigns where staff will not be needed for a long period of time.

Many contract agencies have a deal with the contact center in which the center can hire temporary staff to eventually become permanent company employees. This arrangement lets the contact center “try before buy” in terms of adding permanent staff to the payroll. Likewise, if there is a problem with any contract employee, the contact center simply has to inform the agency and does not have to go through disciplinary and severance procedures that are generally required with company employees. The workers also benefit from the opportunity to try out the job tasks and the employer before making a commitment to take a permanent position.

One advantage of contract staffing is also a major disadvantage: Because the agents work for the staffing agency and not the company, the contact center has less control over them than if they were company employees. And since most of the positions are temporary, the staff may decide to leave if they find other more permanent positions elsewhere, making staff turnover a bigger problem than with regular employees.

OPTION 4
NONTRADITIONAL STAFFING AGENCIES

Another contract staffing possibility is the use of staffing agencies that may not be in your local area but can supply staff on an as-needed basis. An agency that specializes in home-based call agents, for instance, might meet your needs. Companies such as Miramar, FL-based Willow CSN and Golden, CO-based Alpine Access have networks of agents in a wide geographic area who work primarily from home. These agents are independent contractors, with the agency serving as a broker for their services; they are trained in customer service and handle a wide variety of sales and service calls. These workers can generally be trained quickly and can be available for whatever length of service your company requires.

OPTION 5
CONTACT CENTER OUTSOURCERS

One final option is to contract with another company to handle some or all of your call demand. The main reason that businesses outsource contact center functions is to avoid the resource drain and costs associated with initial set-up and ongoing operation of a function that is typically not the core competency of the business. Developing and running a contact center is expensive, and many companies find they can accomplish the call handling operation more cost-effectively by outsourcing it than trying to do it inhouse.

Remember that outsourcing does not need to be an all-or-nothing solution. A business can maintain call-handling operations but simply choose to send overflow calls or seasonal-demand calls to an outsourcing partner as a supplement to an internal contact center operation.

Inbound calls arrive in peaks and valleys, and traditional contact centers are therefore by nature inefficient. During periods of low call volumes, agents and equipment may be idle. In a third-party contact center, multiple clients’ calls tend to smooth out the peaks and valleys, resulting in a greater use of equipment and staffing resources and therefore greater efficiencies. And given the large size of most outsourcing operations, there are typically more staff and phone lines available to handle even the largest of spikes in call volume due to marketing or advertising campaigns. An inhouse center, on the other hand, may have difficulty dealing with unanticipated increases in volume due to insufficient telecommunications capacity or labor resources.

Internal contact centers tend to focus most of their training on specific products and services, with not as much emphasis on general call-handling skills or knowledge of contact center operations. Outsourcers spend much more time training agents to be generalists on the front end so that they are prepared to adapt quickly to a particular customer’s needs. Training may be more comprehensive in nature, actually resulting in better overall quality of the call-handling process.

Third-party contact centers typically have the most sophisticated equipment, and supervisors and quality specialists are highly trained in monitoring and coaching techniques. Daily performance assessment is part of the agreement with most clients, so that they can be sure the calls are being handled in a professional, top-quality manner. In fact, outside contact centers typically monitor calls more often and more thoroughly than in an inhouse center, where supervisors may be too busy to devote sufficient time and attention to it.

With so many outsourcing options available in the contact center industry today, the market is very competitive. This high level of competition typically results in high levels of performance. Third-party providers can be held to higher levels of performance than perhaps internal contact centers, since the client can simply take its business elsewhere if performance standards are not met. Internal contact centers may take longer to respond to customer demands, and there is typically not as much of a significant consequence if performance levels are not met for some period of time.

Some companies may be loath to outsource any of their customer services for competitive reasons, but economics may require them to overcome their objections. Despite growing customer expectations, many companies simply cannot afford to operate their contact center seven days a week, 24 hours a day. The small numbers of calls that arrive in nonpeak hours make it prohibitively expensive to operate at certain hours. Therefore, availability to customers during those times is limited to self-service options for many contact centers. An outsourcer can provide round-the-clock availability for a company at a much lower cost per call.

Getting the “just right” number of staff in place to answer calls is one of the biggest challenges for a contact center, no matter what time of year. Adding a peak, short-term demand makes this task all the more demanding. The key to successful seasonal staffing is a good sales forecast to accurately predict incoming contact center demand for the coming period. You’ll then want to weigh all the above options carefully to ensure that you fill those contact center seats in the most effective way possible to take maximum advantage of those seasonal orders.


Penny Reynolds is a founding partner of The Call Center School, a Nashville, TN-based contact center consulting and education company. She will be presenting two sessions at the National Conference on Operations & Fulfillment (NCOF) — “The Seven Deadly Sins of Contact Center Supervision” and “Best-Kept Secrets for Unlocking the Productivity of Your Contact Center Workforce” — as well as moderating a roundtable discussion about home-based contact center agents. NCOF is being held April 9-12 in Orlando, FL. For details or to register, visit www.ncof.com.

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