TAKE TWO

Aug 01, 2003 9:30 PM  By

When the holidays approach, you’ve got to ramp up, even during an economic downturn. Whether you prefer to put the pedal to the metal or to sit idling at the side of the road, you can choose from a variety of methods to make the most of your contact center staffing budget without damaging business or employee relations.

FRONT-LINE WORKERS

Many companies made significant staff cutbacks this year; some extended the hours of the staff they retained. It makes sense to take advantage of your incumbent staff, but be careful not to place too many demands on these assets. Overtime can be costly to workers as well as the company. Too many hours or too little notice will burn out employees and diminish their performance. There are two practical and relatively unstressful methods for expanding the productivity of competent, experienced workers.

ACROSS THE BOARD

The first procedure is to experiment with cross-training. A tenured employee who knows the company can come up to speed quickly and will benefit from learning something new and performing alternative tasks instead of just grinding along for extra hours.

Be sure managers and supervisors can actually perform the jobs under their control. In a pinch, they can spell front-line workers. Even relatively short stints in the trenches are likely to foster more empathy for the staff they supervise and may trigger needed changes in your operating methods.

BEEN THERE, DONE THAT

The second method for expanding productivity is simple, though it requires planning. Take the opportunity to reevaluate your overall practices for acquiring and managing staff. A little extra focus (and very few extra steps) will reduce your exposure from poor staffing decisions and management errors.

RECRUITMENT AND SELECTION

If you have to hire, hire slightly ahead of plan; you’ll be well positioned if business starts to pick up faster. If it turns out you’ve created too much of a staffing cushion, you can afford to be more choosy about which employees to keep after evaluation.

It’s when you build staff after you’ve been running short that you have to be especially rigorous about recruitment and selection. When times are tough, many companies are intentionally slow to hire, and then when they suddenly need people they relax standards to ensure that the seats are filled. If you decide you must lower your standards, back-stop this high-risk decision. Make sure you have a training plan in place to supplement the skills that aren’t fully present in the new recruits.

If you’re lucky enough to have a “rehire” list from your last peak season or from a recent layoff, review it carefully for satisfactory attendance and work quality before you call anyone back. Re-interview or retest borderline cases to make sure they’re still appropriate for the jobs you have to fill now.

And don’t just do what you’ve always done to find new candidates: Internal conditions are probably somewhat different now. If you haven’t used an employment agency before, try working with one to expand your reach. Consider in-house recruitment efforts beyond an employee referral program.

Screen new candidates carefully for non-standard English or significant grammatical errors, both written and spoken. Have interviewers note any problem a candidate exhibits in following written or spoken instructions. To ensure adequate literacy, have every potential contact center worker read aloud from material they couldn’t have overheard during the previous candidates’ interviews.

SCHEDULING AND AVAILABILITY

With so many people out of work, you’re likely to have candidates tell you they’re comfortable with the schedule you request, even though the hours aren’t really convenient for them. Check their availability even after they have accepted the offer.

Instead of assuming that the shift schedule or staggered start times from last season are still applicable, review your current incoming call and e-mail patterns; you may have to adjust schedules for both reps and supervisors to match changes in flow. And in the short term, you’ll need to recalculate interaction handling times. You can expect somewhat longer calls, slower chat and e-mail responses, and more after-call work until inexperienced workers get down the learning curve.

TRAINING

It’s a bad bargain to reduce training hours just to get new hires on the job faster. Errors resulting from inadequate training will create worse problems than just the size of the queue. Keep in mind that the presence of newly trained representatives lengthens the queue anyway. Not only are their calls likely to run longer than average, but dissatisfied customers who call back to get a better answer or a more experienced rep will increase your call volume.

Certainly review your training plan to see if you can make it more effective in less time by reducing straight lectures and increasing skill practices. You can also shift your training approach away from traditional classroom time. Smaller modules of skill and informational content followed by live practice can foster the quickest skill adoption. Interweave class time and live work time, followed by debriefing and coaching and more class time to integrate the experience. Groups adhering to this kind of schedule will learn faster and better and also deliver some productive customer handling even while they’re learning.

Other options include using self-paced training workbooks or interactive computer modules, with results reviewed by supervisors or more experienced reps. Another way to get incremental value from your incumbent staff and give trainees extra attention is to establish a formal buddy or apprenticeship program. Whatever training methods you use, if you have separate training and supervisory staff, be sure the supervisors interact with trainees on several occasions before they’re released to operations. And have the trainers maintain at least some presence during their trainees’ first few days on the job so the trainees don’t feel abandoned on the floor, where things are usually hectic and intimidating, particularly when everyone’s under pressure.

COMMUNICATIONS

Talk up your plans incessantly, whether they involve additional hiring, streamlining of procedures, or just how you’re going to tough things out until you’re back to full strength. Reveal everything you’re trying to accomplish, how you’re going about it, and certainly how much you’re counting on everyone’s participation. You need consistent methods for delivering tactical information and updates on such performance criteria as staffing, call handling, stock status, shipping times, and processing backlogs. A daily triple hit of e-mail, paper memos, and pre-shift meetings provides the best coverage.

For strategic content such as projections, significant accomplishments, and major hurdles, add periodic face-to-face group interactions. Create conspicuous graphical representations (big, colorful wall charts) for meetings, then post them and keep them current to show progress and status.

ACKNOWLEDGMENT

Show your appreciation to everyone, consistently. Recognition can be an integral part of your communication plan or treated separately, but it needs to be done in large and small ways, for efforts made as well as results achieved. Acknowledgment can take a wide variety of forms, from impromptu applause to additional authority or an afternoon off. It is equally important to show appreciation to both new employees who need the acknowledgment to feel like they’re part of the game and to long-term employees who often feel lost in the shuffle during an intense buildup period. Extra recognition may be necessary for previously laid-off rehires; they may be glad to come back for the work but are likely to feel uneasy and mistrustful.

SUPERVISION

Supervisors must also have sufficient time to answer questions and provide on-the-spot coaching or other support. If they are unavailable to greet reps at the beginning of the shift and thank them at the end, you’ll lose much of the investment you’ve just made in selection and intake. Supervisors who are too busy or too stressed often let the responsibility of acknowledgment slip off their list of things to do, so keeping the supervisory span of control as small as possible will help.

Provide clear direction to supervisors about the priority that must be given to one-on-one interaction with reps. You may also have to help them delegate some of the less personal, more administrative responsibilities either to temporary clerical support staff or to senior reps who can pitch in on routine tasks.

SUPPORT

It’s worth looking for ways to give customers additional information and opportunities to help themselves while reducing employee involvement. In the short term, diverting some of the work from your own staff may be the simplest way to take off some of the pressure. Seek opportunities to automate repetitive functions or to outsource certain activities, even if it’s not the way you usually do business. Here are diversion strategies other companies have used successfully:

  • If you can verify that every link, search, and entry box on your Web site works as it should, offer customers the option to check their order status online.
  • Recorded on-hold messages that tell your customers they’ll get through more quickly at certain times of the day, or that their e-mails are answered within X hours, can shift volumes enough to make a difference.
  • You may also want to consider the merits of interactive voice response for customers who need to obtain standard information on products or procedures, such as where to send a return if they can’t find your prepaid return labels. Just make sure that the path to a live rep is obvious and immediately available.

If you choose to outsource any operational functions, you’ll need management staff with experience in both project and vendor management to set up and supervise the relationships. Possibilities include outsourcing some of your call or e-mail handling, working with an employment agency if you haven’t done that before, or finding a local business school or educational program that can provide temporary trainers, supervisors, or data analysts.

STAYING THE COURSE

Watch out for signs of employees folding under pressure, consistently missing their targets, and other danger signals. Document any changes you make to your plans, especially any new initiatives. You’ll want to track these efforts and periodically review what’s working and what isn’t as productive as you’d hoped. Taking time to evaluate progress, even if it slows you down a little, will be more than outweighed by the risk of forging ahead blindly and having to recoup later.

More attention to planning and potential contingencies translate into more efficient regrowth. Taking your vitamins and getting enough sleep will help too.

Liz Kislik is president of Liz Kislik Associates LLC, a consultancy that designs and implements strategic solutions in customer care and employee development. She can be reached at lizk@lizkislik.com or (516) 568-2932.