There are 4 options for dealing with peaks in customer contact volumes. Here we look at the pros and cons of each of them.
Peak contact periods are the bane of all contact centre managers and the enemy of good customer experience. Whether they are seasonal and predictable, or aligned with your business cycle, or in response to some unforeseen situation, they are always difficult to manage properly.
If you are responsible for running contact centres, or for the customer experience, you have four basic options for dealing with peak periods. You can stretch your current staff to their limits, you can allow the customer experience to suffer for a while, you can ramp up internally with temps, or you can work with a partner that is ready to take the extra load at a moment’s notice.
The thing to remember is that there is always a cost to managing peak periods. There’s either the financial cost of staffing up or using an outsourcer, or the less tangible but arguably more damaging costs of poor CX, staff dissatisfaction, and lost business.
There are peaks and there are peaks
Not all peak periods are the same, of course. Some require different management solutions to others.
Some peaks are predictable because they are seasonal – for example, pre-Christmas – or align with business cycles such as product launches or tax time. These vary from industry to industry but what they have in common is the fact that you know they will happen.
Non-predictable or non-recurring peaks can be more difficult to handle. We split these into two types. The first are emergency situations which you know will happen from time to time, you just don’t know when. These could include natural disasters swamping an insurance company with claims calls, or a car manufacturer doing a product recall.
The third class of peak period are the genuinely unforeseen, totally leftfield emergencies that might only happen once a decade. COVID is the most obvious and by far the most serious of these types of emergencies that we have ever seen. Others include natural disasters or other emergencies that force your site to close and your Business Continuity Plan to kick into action.
So, those are the three kinds of peak periods. Let’s have a look at the pros and cons of the four different options for dealing with them.
Option 1: Let CX suffer for a while
It’s well known that delivering a great customer experience always comes at a price. For brands operating in sectors that are productised and transactional in nature, where there is plenty of demand and little brand loyalty, customer experience is not usually an important differentiator. Customers are more concerned with price and your ability to deliver on time. So, an out-of-this-world customer experience is maybe not the highest priority and might not be worth the cost.
If you operate in such a sector and you experience a peak in customer contact volumes, just letting CX suffer for a short period might be acceptable versus the cost of staffing up or using an outsourcer.
On the other hand, if calls are going unanswered, or not being returned, you could still suffer reputational damage if the one thing customers in your sector do value is being able to place an order easily and receive it quickly. Only you can do the calculation. Every missed call is potential business lost, not just for that one order but also any repeat orders that customer might have placed.
Option 2: Work your existing staff
Assuming you’ve built some leeway into your workforce management schedules, your existing team could probably cope with an increase in contact volumes of 20% to 30%, at least for a short period. But for how long could they sustain that level of productivity? What if volumes shot up by 50%, or even doubled?
It’s likely that, as your team gets busier they will try to do things faster and maybe even cut the odd corner. They will certainly become tired and less accurate in their work. The result is highly likely to be similar to option 1, with a drop off in CX and related measures such as customer satisfaction and NPS. On top of that you will probably see a commensurate drop-off in your eNPS (employee NPS) and employee satisfaction rates, potentially leading to an increase in attrition.
Option 3: Ramp up internally with temps
It’s always possible to simply hire more people, at least temporarily. This solution avoids most of the pitfalls of the previous options as you’re not trying to do more with less. There are still drawbacks. If a peak is predictable then you should have enough warning to start hiring in good time. For unpredictable ones that is obviously not the case, and it can take time to crank up the recruitment machine.
During the recruitment drive you do need to maintain quality standards. It’s not just about getting people in chairs, you need to find the right talent that can do the job, and they still need to be onboarded and trained properly. The majority of contact centre agents need up to 4 weeks of training before they are ready to answer live customer contacts.
We also find that clients who take this route underestimate the additional burden on management of ramping up the team. If you don’t, or can’t, scale the number of team leaders, QA staff, trainers, and ops managers to match the expanded agent team then your management team is still going to be stretched. Potentially that gives you many of the downsides of option 2 even though you’ve recruited lots of new agents.
Eventually your contact volumes will fall back to their normal level. The question now is what to do with all your recent recruits. If your operation is large enough you could absorb them into other functions (indeed, this is where you might have found some of them in the first place!). Otherwise, you have the cost and management overheads of complying with industrial relations laws when hiring and releasing casual staff. In Australia at least, the recently passed Industrial Relations Omnibus Bill has made this quite an onerous burden on employers.
Option 4: Work with an outsourcing partner
The one thing you can be absolutely certain of is that your contact centre will experience demand peaks from time to time. Whether you are able to predict when they will happen or not, you can still be ready for them. An outsourcer is able to provide you with the flexibility you need to ramp up and down quickly, cost-effectively, and with no loss in quality of service.
For example, we work with a health insurance company which experiences two annual peaks due to their normal business cycles. These occur in February when the government announces rate hikes, and in June just before the end of the tax year. For the majority we hold a skeleton team in-house during the year. We staff up for the peak periods and the core staff become the management, team leaders, and trainers for the temporary staff.
An Australia-wide childcare company that we support during their annual enrolment period claims that what we do gives them a market leading edge as our services enable them to maintain the customer experience even during their busiest times.
When it comes to managing unforeseen peak periods for clients, we generally do not need to keep a skeleton team, as long as we retain the knowledge, IT infrastructure, and processes. For our major telco clients these unpredictable peaks might include product recalls, misselling cases, or severe outages. In the insurance business clients often have a large influx of customer contacts in response to natural disasters like bushfires and floods. In these cases we ramp up a team quickly – moving them from other client projects if need be – then store the knowledge and hibernate until the next one, returning those staff to their normal work.
Whilst temp staff may be able to support for simple ramps we thrive when there is complexity and in fact one insurance company, which required us to spin down to zero staff when we weren’t needed, said: “Everyone else said it wasn’t possible, TSA said they’d make it work.” And we did.
During COVID we delivered 500 work-from-home seats for a major telco client within 2 weeks to pick up capacity lost when their overseas contact centres had to close down. We are responding in a similar way now for several clients whose Indian contact centres are working at vastly reduced capacity. For these reasons we generally recommend clients have a “two-shore” business continuity plan, which includes an onshore partner as well as an offshore partner.
Modern customer contact technology provides numerous tools which can be useful in helping to manage peak periods.
The most obvious way to use technology is to deflect incoming calls to other channels. Preferably these are automated channels, as otherwise we’re just diverting the problem from, say, phone to chat. It is becoming standard best practice anyway to screen incoming queries, whatever the channel, with an automated front end so they can be routed intelligently to the right place.
In our own contact centre we deploy Amazon Connect’s speech analysis and speech to text capabilities to triage queries.
Technology also plays a role in how you might work with an outsourcing partner. For example, for some clients we sit directly on their contact centre platform which is installed on our premises. With other clients we use our own Amazon Connect cloud platform and the client passes calls and other contacts to us.
As always, the rule with leveraging technology is to check that it helps you meet your business goals. Too much automation, even if it helps save you money, can potentially damage the customer experience and be self-defeating. Ultimately, the way you choose to manage peak periods has to be in line with your brand and what customers expect of you.
Many companies found themselves caught short when the pandemic first hit. For best practice, we now recommend a blend of internal flexibility, automation technology, and an offshore and onshore outsourcing partner for overflow and business continuity. We believe this gives most contact centres the best mix of resources to scale quickly and enough redundancy to continue to serve customers with little loss of quality in the event of unpredictable peaks.
TSA are Australia’s market leading specialists in CX consultancy and services. We are passionate about revolutionising the way brands connect with Australians. How? By combining our local expertise with the most sophisticated customer experience technology on earth, and delivering with an expert team of customer service consultants who know exactly how to help brands care for their customers.