Sudden Impact: How Vermont Teddy Bear Staffs and Trains its Holiday Help

The Vermont Teddy Bear Company, along with sister companies Calyx Flowers and Pajama Gram, faces the challenges of being a seasonal business. We experience over 60% of our yearly revenue during the Christmas and Valentine’s Day holiday periods. So one of our greatest accomplishments each year is the ease with which we hire and train our seasonal workforce.

During these seasons, we grow from a core employee count of 170 to over 1,400 total employees. The majority of our orders are placed either online or through our contact center in response to our catalog, email, radio or TV marketing campaigns.

Data collection has been an instrumental part of our ability to execute our seasonal hiring and training plans. There are five categories that we focus on in seasonal employment: identifying the need, hiring, training, supervision, and re-hiring for the next season

Understanding the information behind each of these categories helps us continually improve our management of this process.

Identifying the staffing needs
The process begins with each of our operational departments building a staffing model that forecasts how many employees are needed to perform each task each day, by hour, throughout the holiday period.

These models help us understand how many people are needed each hour and provide great insight into the availability we will be looking for when hiring.

Specific information that we track at each holiday includes hourly call volume intervals, and average talk time for both customer service and sales calls. The models will provide the daily staffing need and the overall need for the holiday.

There can be a challenge translating the need identified by the models into the total number of employees that we need to hire. If we need 200 agents on our busiest day we have learned that we need to hire at least twice that. However, we may need to hire even more depending upon the availability that our staff offers.

We are very flexible in our scheduling, which increases the variability of the total number of staff needed. When we hire employees who can work any schedule, we need fewer than when we hire employees who have limited hours and schedules. We generally find that we have a good mix of complete availability and limited hours.

We ask each new employee to commit, at the point of hire, to their available shifts for the period of time that they will be working with us.

We aim to build schedules from these availabilities that gain commitment from the employees for the entire term of their employment. We monitor the schedule each day leading up to the season to track how many more employees need to be hired and trained.

We track the overall performance of our training efforts in several ways. From a pure number perspective, we want to understand how many people we sign up for training, how many people complete each day of training, and what the overall graduation rate is.

We use this information to plan for attrition. We have experienced that an average of 20% of our contact center hires do not report for their first day of training. We have used this historical data to over-schedule each of our training sessions by 20%. The nature of a seasonal workforce is often reflected through a lower commitment to the company, and we plan for 25% “no shows” on a daily basis.

The range of reasons for call outs parallels what I imagine school districts have always heard—from the basic sick call, to family emergencies, to the oddity of a call stating “the Super Bowl is coming and we’ve got kittens.”

Our contact center training is compacted into five mornings, afternoons or evenings, or over a weekend. It is important that our training-session schedule works with our new employees’ availabilities.

Since our training program is fairly short, we focus on the information that agents need most. It can be daunting for both the training team and the new employee to try to cover every detail.

The key is to focus on the basics, to break down the process into steps, and to provide resources that the employee can use after training to get answers to any questions that may arise.

Each employee has an extensive training manual that can be used as a reference guide after training. We also encourage our employee base to use our consumer websites for product and other up-to-date information.

If we find that an employee has a difficult time keeping up in class, we have several options rather than just ending his or her employment. We develop a pool of agents who will answer only sales calls—no customer service calls—and allow them to enter all their orders into our website. This works out well for new hires who just can’t quite grasp our order management system, but have some basic computer skills.

When we find that an employee is really struggling with the basic computer navigation, we can offer them the opportunity to work in our distribution center. We find that this works out well for both the employee and for the company.

In the past several years, as the general population’s exposure to keyboards and computers has increased, we have found that the burden of training on keystrokes and general computer use has decreased tremendously. We have been able to shift some of the time spent on training basic computer skills to product and sales skills.

As we hire and train our agents, it is important to start giving them shifts as soon as possible so that they can become more efficient. It is just as important to have them start working immediately so that they will be content working for us for the entire season.

One of the challenges is that the volume of sales calls prior to the holiday period is low. We have used a variety of methods to try to increase their comfort and sales skills on the phones, prior to the influx of calls. One easily implemented method is to have agents call each other and practice their sales skills and order-entry speed. This requires no additional technology and only a limited amount of supervision.

Sample phone scripts for the agent posing as the caller help introduce a variety of scenarios for the agent to practice with. Listening skills are often one of the overlooked challenges for someone new to phone sales. Agents need to listen while entering information into a system in an efficient manner so that the customer feels as though the call is moving at an agreeable pace.

Our contact center employee base increases from approximately 30 full-time employees to close to 1,000 at our holidays. We rely heavily on our 30 core employees to serve as room leads and coaches to ensure that our customers’ experiences meet our expectations.

We maintain a database of all our contact center agents to track their skills sets, the individual KPI performance and their attendance. All of this information is important to the daily supervision of the team, but also important for planning the next holiday season.

We aim to make seasonal employees feel like a part of the company from the moment they are hired. Focus and effort needs to be applied to make this temporary workforce feel as though they belong and are valued.

We reinforce this message with our core employees throughout the year. We also offer great benefits to both our core and seasonal employees, such as a generous employee discount, snacks on our busiest days, fun contests and incentives. In the off-peaks we have several outreach programs to our seasonal employee base aimed at keeping them engaged with the company so that they will return for the next season.

For example, we will invite this workforce to any special employee-only sales and will email them our monthly “Bear Facts” newsletter.

Re-hiring for the next season
During the initial hiring process, we make sure that the employees understand the length of their seasonal assignment. It is much easier to maintain an ongoing relationship with employees if they know the date of their last day of work.

Prior to their last days, we will identify the employees that we would like to have return for the next holiday by using the information from the employee database.

We make sure that they are aware that we want them back, and we gather their commitments and schedule their first day of work for the next season. Collection of updated cell phone numbers and personal email addresses, in addition to regular employment data, allows us to stay in touch with them after their employment has ended.

As each holiday period comes to a close, we start planning for the next season. We gather and review all the information that we have collected throughout the season to adjust our plans for the next holiday.

Katie Camardo is vice president of operations for The Vermont Teddy Bear Co.