Calling for a Contact Center Review

Before the visions of sugarplums have danced completely away for another year, be certain to contemplate the performance of your contact center during the holiday season immediately past.

Consider two big and separate contexts for your assessment. One is the contrast between the quality of your operations plan and the effectiveness of your execution. The other is whether things went as well for your customers as for they did for your business.

What were your pinch points, bottlenecks, and fire drills this year? Were they exactly the ones you expected — because at least you understood all the factors well — or were they new ones that seemed to come out of left field? Or even worse, were there problems you thought you’d already licked but that somehow cropped up again despite the work of your wonderful planning task force?

If you apply these kinds of questions to the events of the holiday season, you’ll identify the practices you want to keep and the ones that you need to adjust.

Staffing ups and downs

What percentage of the seasonal staff that you’d invited back from previous years came back? Were you able to maintain an annual expansion staff? Did the temp hires and new hires last through the entire season? If you weren’t able to hang on to expansion staffers as long as you wanted them, consider how the falloff could have been avoided.

Having enough experienced customer service staff on hand to promptly handle service problems helps prevent processing backlog. If you suffered from a backlog, how long did it take after your final ship-in-time-for-Christmas day to clean it out? Did you also have enough service staff around on your peak Web days, or did it consistently take you till midweek to catch up from Cyber Mondays?

Overtime hours may take drastic swings. How much overtime did you need, and how did it vary by shift? Did you track the effectiveness of overtime staff and compare it with their performance during their regular shifts? Think about doing this next year. If your best folks are burning out, it may not help to hold them on premises; you may do better to give them targeted days off and make sure they’re fresh and rested for when you really need them.

Were all employees sufficiently trained and experienced? Too many organizations don’t plan their hiring far enough ahead to match their increasing need for staff or the availability of trainers. Under these typical pressures, training sessions and topics are often cut short or eliminated entirely, which can lead to higher error rates, longer queue times and shipping lead times, and more of a backlog that needs to be fixed.

Making and taking the sale

Planning for the ebbs and flows of merchandise availability is frustrating but highly beneficial. Did you have alternative products to offer as substitutes for backordered items? Were your alternatives better accepted online or on the phone?

Sometimes special promotions help to goose buying in the run-up to the holidays. Did you find that special price promotions led to differences in conversion? What about in average order values (AOVs)? Did you give too much away in price-based promotions, or was it a fabulous way to liquidate merchandise?

Next year you might want to track differences in response to price promotions and other specials by medium — specially marked catalogs, postcards, e-mails — not only in terms of overall performance but also to see if there are differences in the timing of the responses, so that you can offer specials when you’ve got the most merchandise on hand.

It’s also useful to track whether your reps were making add-on offers consistently. For future planning, it helps to know if different kinds of products or offers were most successful in terms of profitability, ease of shipment, desirability among customers, and likability for reps. You might want to consider stocking special merchandise for add-on offers or establishing easy cross-sell or upsell opportunities for next time round.

The customer experience

Assuming that you tracked your queue times, you can compare callers’ experience at peak days and times. Look for the spikes, not the averages. What were your worst delays, and did they happen consistently at different days or times? How did your average speed of answer (ASA) vary over the season? If there were problems, was your staffing level the primary reason, or were there other events contributing noise to the system? Start thinking about next year’s schedules now, so that when you’re staffing throughout the year you can start heading toward those schedules instead of having to fill the critical times suddenly in October.

When your circulation folks conduct source-code analysis, probe another level down to see if some of your reps were more successful than others at capturing source codes when they took orders. Ask about their techniques; you may find that the most effective technique is just asking consistently.

It’s important to know whether your phone customers were actively helped to buy or whether your reps merely acted as passive order recorders. Even after the fact you can identify changes in your call-to-order ratio as the season progressed, although you may have missed your opportunity to understand the meaning behind those changes if you weren’t monitoring calls for appropriate selling and service behaviors. It pays to diagnose what’s happening, because training and sales programs can lift results at almost any point in the season if reps can get comfortable with substitution selling.

Much of what you know about the customer experience comes from quantitative contact center reports. But you can also get a lot of qualitative information from call monitoring or focus groups with the reps to flesh out what the statistics provide. Sit with a few of the reps who have been with you for several years and discuss how happy your customers were this year and if they expressed any unusual concerns or preferences. Next holiday season you can also hold focus groups with some of your temp staff for a fresh perspective.

These questions do not cover the entire waterfront, not do they drill down very far. But as you think about how you managed to get through this year intact and start to plan for not just next year’s survival but next year’s success, these kinds of analyses will help you work toward increased profitability, growth, satisfaction, and whatever else is on your 2007 holiday wish list.

Liz Kislik is president of Rockville Centre, NY-based Liz Kislik Associates, a management and customer service consultancy.

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