Surviving Call Center Peaks and Valleys, Part 2: Managing Call Volume Peaks

I previously discussed an article by Pete McGarahan,  “How to Survive Call Volume Spikes:  A Practical Guide to Successfully Handling Call Volume Peaks and Valleys.”  In my last post, I covered McGarahan’s recommendations for mapping both planned and unplanned peaks in call volumes at your contact center.  Identifying patterns is really only the first step; you also need to take steps to efficiently manage the peaks and valleys. McGarahan also offers several tips for managing service demands.

The help desk manager should … reward them for uncovering information regarding unplanned events. If all support members can maintain regular contact with the decision-makers affecting call volume, you’ll be surprised how easily unplanned events will turn into planned events and how quickly this will affect call volume and customer satisfaction.

Standardize.  “The fewer variances you have in desktops, operating systems, office suites, e-mail and printers, the better.”  Work with the various departments in your organization to do what you can to reduce variances that may cause problems with updates or releases, which could ultimately lead to call spikes.

Know Your Own Environment. Real-time performance management and keeping your agents informed to better self-manage themselves will free managers and supervisors to coach specific agents on specific skills. 

Call-to-Action Plan. “ An action plan for your emergency team includes training and preparing the support crew for any number of possible emergencies-invaluable in handling call volume spikes that are due to unplanned events.”  A key element of your action plan should be a trigger point that indicates when the plan should go into effect; for example,  digital displays from Inova Solutions offer advanced threshold alerts to let you know when you may be headed toward a critical call volume peak.

Awareness and preparation for the unplanned are key elements for successfully  managing the peaks and valleys in contact center call volume.  “Don’t let call volume manage your support organization! Get out in front of it, understand it, measure it, analyze it and pull together an action plan that puts you back in control.”

Key Terms for Four Winds Interactive Users

Contact center digital signageHere in the training department at Inova, we are excited to be developing training content for our digital signs that integrate Four Winds Interactive (FWi) with our LightLink middleware.  In case you’re not an FWi user yet, Inova Solutions’ partnership with FWi offers a tool for creating and presenting media-rich real-time content on high impact large format LCD screens, with LightLink as the middleware to provide the real-time data.    Within call centers, FWi signs integrated with LightLink can display dashboard gauges linked to real-time data, monitor ranges of acceptable performance, and set corresponding alarms for exception conditions.  FWi signs can also integrate multi-media content either on the full screen or in a window that leaves the rest of the display available for data and messaging.  Our companies partnered about two years ago to bring the best contact center digital signage available to the industry.

At Inova, we’ve found that much of our existing vocabulary still applies, since there are the same or similar capabilities with the FWi integration:  content schedules, RSS feeds, live data, grids, and gauges are all carryover terms still frequently in use.  However, we have had to expand our lexicon a bit to go with these exceptional new signage options:

Content Bin – the area on the Content Manager screen that shows you what information is being displayed on the sign.

Content Manager – the application you will use to manage your digital signage.  Within this application, you can add or modify content, create schedules, and preview your entire display.

Content Player - the device that will actually be displaying your sign content.

Content Type – the panel from which to select new elements to be displayed destined to populate the Content Bin

Playlist – a set of signage instructions for all content players within a location; it accepts templates and content just like individual players and acts as a “boilerplate” for all signs within that location.

Region – a specific area within a template, generally created as a specific size for a pre-determined type of content.

Template – the workbench where you design your digital sign; it defines the size of the sign; the horizontal or vertical orientation of the sign; the background color, image or flash animation for the sign; and the regions in which content can be played.

View Pane – the area of the Content Manager screen that allows you to view the timeline, design, or preview of the digital sign.

XML output capability – the LightLink functionality that allows for a connection with the FWi digital signage.

If you want more information about adding high-impact digital signage to your contact center, or if you have questions about our partnership with FWi, give us a call at 800.637.1077 or email us at

Maximizing your training budget

It’s been over a year since I’ve posted about training dollars; when I received a Contact Center Pipeline article about the topic, it seemed like a good time for a refresher!  Get the Most Out of your Training Budget by Mike Aoki offers ten tips to “maximize your training investments.” The article is worth a thorough read because all ten points are valid and critical in managing a training program.  However, I’ve distilled a few highlights for you regarding some of the key steps you must implement before and after any training program to help ensure its success.

Before you roll out any training program, you must carefully analyze your needs and establish a training plan.  Your first step must be to identify your training needs and goals.  Whether it is a multi-day new agent course or a one-page job aid, it is critical that you isolate the learning gap and ensure that training is the solution.  It may be easy to jump to training as your solution to a performance problem, but ensure that you are not facing an issue with the environment or motivation of your agents.  Once you’re sure that training is the appropriate solution, set clear training goals and objectives and ensure that the content strictly adheres to these.

Prior to implementing any training, you should find ways to obtain buy in from the rest of your organization as well as the participants themselves.  Ensure that the training content aligns with quality assurance goals, your organization’s mission, as well as departmental goals.  In addition, Aoki also recommends asking an executive to sponsor the training session because his or her presence will certainly highlight the importance of the material.

After the training has been completed, your job is still not done!  As Aoki writes, “going to a training session is like going to the gym…once!”  One visit is not enough to make a change; you must continue to reinforce the training content.  Team managers (who should have also completed the training) should coach their employees to reinforce the content.  Reinforcement tools are an immensely helpful addition for these managers.  Consider developing job aids for both managers and agents:  process flowcharts, posters, or quick reference cards.  Aoki also suggests stretching your dollars even further by leveraging existing channels of communication to reinforce training; email, wikis, and the intranet are all easy ways to share training updates, reminders, and tips.

Maximizing your dollars in the call center is a critical goal that can never be ignored.  Many contact center managers are not experts in the fields of training and education, so it can be overwhelming to try to ensure that you are getting the most bang for your training dollar.  Aoki’s ten tips are vital aspects to include in planning and implementing a successful training program.

I recently came across an article on the Customer Management IQ blog that discusses the hesitance of many customer service representatives to take on more of a sales role. This is not an uncommon problem in many call centers that hope to make the most of their human resources by cross-training agents. At Inova Solutions, we encourage cross training, because real-time contact center reporting tools can notify you when one skill group is idle while another is slammed. Our customers have improved efficiency significantly by automating alerts to notify the idle agents to jump on the line to help out busy queues. This often means an employee trained in customer service or tech support needs to jump on the sales line. Admittedly, this is not an ideal situation, but any call center manager looking at the bottom line would rather see sales calls handled by CSRs than dropped due to a high abandon rate.

However, if agents are not really on board with handling calls outside of their department, this strategy may not be successful. The problem is usually rooted in one (or both) of two things: a lack of interest in the sales process or a lack of knowledge about products/sales. Depending on the individual, these obstacles may be overcome.

First, it is important to address the agent’s lack of interest in selling. It is, after all, not what they were hired to do, and they may have no interest in pursuing it. However, a little training and an incentive program may go a long way for the hesitant CSR. After all, sales people get a commission, and it’s not fair to ask your customer service team to field sales calls without the same compensation. Their attitude towards selling may change dramatically just with this step.

In addition, it’s human nature to avoid tasks outside our comfort zone. If agents have received little or no training in handling sales calls, they will understandably feel ill equipped to handle the unexpected. Product brochures and talk tracks are a good start, but there is nothing like shadowing a sales agent on the phones for a day to give other employees a better idea of how to sell. Make this shadowing a regular, repeating training ritual, and the time investment will pay dividends.

Your non-sales agents may grow to enjoy handling sales calls once in a while when the call volume is high. After all, a change of pace and variety of tasks is key to a happy, well-rounded employee. However, keep in mind that not everyone will enjoy it despite your best efforts. Try to acknowledge this sentiment and charge this kind of employee with other tasks, if possible. It is important to show them that you hear their concerns, and value the good work they do too much to let a secondary task cause them too much stress. But you may find that with the right training and incentives, employees are willing to venture outside their department and try new things.

Using Scheduling and Thresholds in LightLink

The first several months of our LightLink OnCourse Complimentary sessions have been hugely successful.  We’ve used this platform to highlight some of the lesser known features of the LightLink system.  Many LightLink users are comfortable with the basic messaging features, but often don’t recognize some of these bonus features that can make the system even more robust!  Currently, we are preparing for our next topic:  using scheduling and thresholds for your LightLink messages.  Both schedules and thresholds allow you to better customize and control the messages on your displays.

You can create message schedules so that messages play at particular times.  You can specify the time, day of the week, date, and duration for your message.  While you preset the time for scheduled messages, threshold messages are triggered by a predetermined data point.  Creating thresholds as part of your LightLink displays allows you to set a trigger that will initiate a new message or change on your display.  Threshold messages are especially beneficial because, once created, they essentially run themselves and there is no need for you to continually manage the messages.  Consider some of the following common examples of thresholds:

  • A color change from green to yellow and a warning sound to indicate that calls waiting is approaching a dangerously high number.
  • A new, full screen message that asks agents to apologize for exceptionally long delays when the average speed of answer is unusually high.
  • A new message that covers the whole screen congratulating employees for achieving a milestone goal.

Customers with active support agreements are invited to join us at 2:00 pm EDT on February 23 to learn more about creating and managing message schedules and thresholds.

LightLink Display Groups and Virtual Displays

Many Inova LightLink users manage large numbers of displays, in a wide variety of physical locations.  Thankfully, LightLink has built in capabilities to help these users manage messages and data for these displays.  Through the functionality of display groups and virtual displays, users can more effectively communicate vital information to contact center personnel.  These features are key, particularly for agent desktop applications and LED wallboards.

LightLink display groups are used to combine separate display devices into a group so one message can be sent to multiple displays.  This is especially useful if you have a large number of displays and often wish to send messages to select groups of those displays such as specific agent groups, physical locations within your building, or even certain geographic locations.  Once you have created a display group, you can then select that group as a destination for relevant messages.

LightLink virtual displays allow you to divide a single display into different grids.  In effect, each grid can then be treated as a separate, or virtual, display.  This is helpful in a wide variety of situations because you can send messages to individual lines of a display or even send the same message to the top line of one display and the bottom of another.  Possibly the most useful application of a virtual display is that it allows you to lock certain regions of displays so that other users cannot make changes.  If you haven’t already done so, once you’ve devoted the time to creating just the right display of data on your display, you’ll understand the criticality of being able to lock that region!

Creating and managing display groups and virtual displays is a relatively straightforward process.  It is well-documented in the LightLink materials; in addition, this month’s LightLink OnCourse Complimentary training will be devoted to helping you understand the process of creating and managing both of these LighLink functions.  Customers with active support agreements should look for an email invitation to join us at 2:00 pm EDT on January 19 to learn more about these incredibly useful capabilities.

2012 Contact Center Resolution: Improve Integration

After a quick review of the 2011 postings, it was easy to identify a consistent theme: integration and alignment!  As the new year begins, now is a great time to assess integration within your contact center.

Integration between customer service, marketing, and product management

Have you made any strides in integrating your customer service department with your marketing department?  Strong relationships among your departments will both make your contact center more productive and increase the success of other company departments.

Ultimately, this integration will allow you to pursue options for proactive customer care, which offers the potential double whammy of increased customer satisfaction and additional revenue:

Integration of agent training and tools

Are your agents fully equipped to handle all of their customer contacts?  Providing them with training to enhance the appropriate depth of knowledge as well as the proper tools to do their jobs will have clear impact on your contact center productivity.

Integration of smart phones and other devices

With the increasing trend for smart phone use, it is critical to find ways for you, your customers, and your employees to integrate these devices.

Does your Contact Center Need a Stress Test?

Thanksgiving and Black Friday are over.  In the blink of an eye Christmas will have come and gone.  What’s left on your big list of preparations?  How about keeping your agents sane!

Lauren Carlson, CRM Analyst, has the answers for you.  Last month she featured two posts about holiday help desks.  In the first, Four Tips to Make Your Holiday Help Desk Shine, Lauren reviews some quick solutions to keep everyone on track.

Create a holiday-specific FAQ list 

A simple FAQ list might be one of the easiest things to brainstorm, and also the most helpful.  Carlson discusses thinking about and educating your staff on the simple questions like delivery and giftwrap options.

Cross-train your staff

Many organizations spend time training their seasonal employees for the holidays.  Experts suggest that everyone at the contact center be trained as a support agent to enhance the image of the entire organization.

Communicate availability ahead of time

Remember all of those emerging media outlets you joined?  This is a perfect time to use them!  Utilize every possible medium to inform customers of the special hours or availability of your company.

Develop a plan of agent support

Don’t forget that your employees are one of the most valued assets to your establishment.  The holidays are a perfect opportunity to say “thank you.”  Recognize their hard work and alleviate their stress with rewards, bonuses, or incentives.

Lauren Carlson wrote her second article, The Holiday Help Desk Stress Test, to help you identify the strengths and weaknesses that are potentially hiding in your call center.  She proposes five examinations.

1.)    Employee Onboarding

There is no doubting the impact of seasonal employees to help keep ASA down.  The real problem is identifying the impact after they’re gone.  Are your seasonal employees trained properly?  Can they answer the appropriate questions?  Do you have an influx of problems launching the new year because customers have been given the wrong information?  Make a goal to measure post-holiday operations.

2.)    Internal Collaboration

Stress levels are likely at their highest during this time of year.  Look at the collaboration between all departments within your center and help problem solve and plan for future success.

3.)    Peak Load Management

Assistly’s Senior VP of Marketing, Matt Trifiro, quoted “If you can figure out how to best distribute the work load between temporary versus full-time employees, you can experience a huge amount of savings and also provide a better customer experience.”  If you are thinking that perhaps your seasonal employees aren’t quite at the level you hoped, consider training them only on the basics and allowing the tougher questions to be answered by your long-term professionals.

4.)    Emergency Response Processes

When you least expect it, unforeseen emergencies creep up.  How will you and your company deal with them?  Are you ready to respond to and manage a disaster through all of your channels?  Being proactive is vital to the health of your organization.

5.)    Customer Satisfaction

Have you ever thought about asking customers to candidly give you some feedback after your busiest time of the year?  By listening to your critics after the most intense season in the call center you’ll get the feedback you need.  This also can help you align next year’s strategy with the responses and goals you’ve created.

Use this holiday season to learn, engage and celebrate!  

Inova OnCourse Complimentary

Certainly you know by now that Inova Solutions offers real-time tracking and communication technology through its Inova LightLink® suite of applications.  However, you may not be familiar with (or may have forgotten how to use) some of the best features of the LightLink suite.  As part of the Inova OnCourse training program, Inova is rolling out a new element:  Inova OnCourse Complimentary.  These sessions, which will be offered cost-free to our customers, will focus on a variety of topics to help LightLink users take full advantage of the system features.

The first session, scheduled for October 18 at 2:00 pm EST, will be a refresher about the LightLink System and will include a review of System Manager, Message Editor, Marquee, and OnTrack LED displays.  We will review how to:

  • Send an instant message
  • Add special effects to a message
  • Insert real-time data in a message
  • Schedule a message
  • See all the messages on your system
  • See only the messages for a particular display
  • Cancel a message

This is the perfect opportunity for you or your employees to learn (or even relearn) some of the most popular LightLink elements.  In one short hour, you will be better equipped to use LightLink to communicate with your contact center employees.

As we continue to develop these sessions, we will focus on additional commonly used LightLink features, possibly including:  configuring data sources; creating security manager settings and default profiles; and using desktop autosweep, virtual displays, and display groups in LightLink Administrator.  Stay tuned for additional topics and dates!

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Economy down. Tech-savvy hires up.

According to the National Association of Call Centers (NACC), call center employment has grown for the past eight consecutive calendar quarters.  This industry is clearly proving to be one of the first to move out of the recession, and is already approaching the recovery line.

For your business, this means it’s the perfect time to employ the out-of-work individuals who may be struggling for income but eager to get back to the workplace.  In an ABC report, Cecille Williams, general manager of Messages Plus in New York City said, “We’ve doubled the size of clients we serve and we’ve doubled the size of employees that we’ve hired.”

Knowing the industry is booming as much as it is, are you reevaluating your call center needs?  If you aren’t, maybe it’s time that you start.

Nosa Eke of Call Center Times noted that emerging technologies such as instant messaging, webchats and emails are playing an important role in the changing atmosphere of call centers.  “It used to be that 100 percent of call center (interactions) occurred over the phone.  That has diversified.  Now companies need people who are comfortable with new technologies.  The needs [of a customer] have become more sophisticated.  Now you need people who can write, communicate at a customer’s level.  There has been a change in skill set required in call centers.”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Occupational Outlook Handbook, customer service representatives make up one of the largest cohorts of the nationally employed.  In 2008, there were 2.3 million jobs in the field and it’s projected to grow faster than average.  Looking at the chart below you can see that it translates to at least a 20% growth in ten years.

If the statement reads:

Employment is projected to:

Grow much faster than average Increase 20 percent or more
Grow faster than average Increase 14 to 19 percent
Grow about as fast as average Increase 7 to 13 percent
Grow more slowly than average Increase 3 to 6 percent
Little or no change Decrease 2 percent to increase 2 percent
Decline slowly or moderately Decrease 3 to 9 percent
Decline rapidly Decrease 10 percent or more

With the new year approaching it’s an excellent time to start thinking about hiring more talented and enthusiastic individuals to your call center.