Have you got your Christmas game plan on?

christmas.image.2014Is it too soon to be thinking about your Christmas game plan in your contact centre? The winning strategy, suggests Paul Miller, is to plan for success and manage with agility.

Christmas is fast approaching. For many retailers, Christmas is a one-off opportunity to make hay while the sun shines.

The farming analogy is a pretty good one. Just as farmers have to face the uncertainty of weather and the constraints of daylight when deciding when to harvest their crops, retailers face the dilemma of having to commit their buying, merchandising, recruitment and customer services resources well before they are sure just how the season is going to turn out.

Aim too low and customers may be left unsupported, items will end up being out-of-stock at a critical time and marketing resource may be wasted through lack of backup. Aim too high and potentially this means committing to higher expenditure which may not be recouped through the peak period.
Forecasting for the Christmas season

The only thing that is certain is that your forecast will be wrong. What you do to recover the situation is crucial. Contact centres need a drill.

No matter whether volumes of activity are higher or lower, you need to be able to swing the team into action to make the right decisions. The England World Cup Winning Rugby team of 2003 always had a scoreboard and a game clock in their meeting rooms. Clive Woodward would regularly set the game clock and the scoreboard, point to a member of the team at random and ask what they would do under the circumstances – “You are 12-10 behind with five minutes to play, it’s raining and you have a penalty five yards inside your own half – what do you do?” He was trying to get the whole team thinking in the same way. No matter what circumstances they were facing he wanted them to think clearly and make the right decisions.

We can set the game clock for Christmas now. Although it seems like a long time to go the time will soon erode. Some of the bigger decisions will take a long time to implement. If your forecast demands more capacity than you have there are some serious decisions to be made. In all probability, the first step in getting ready for next Christmas is the day after you recovered from last Christmas. Did you make a note of all those learnings? Did you remember what the workload looked like each of the last few days before Christmas? Did you make a note of the trading results which drove the activity?

The purpose is to ensure that you have some kind of comparative benchmark. If results are up 15% this year compared to 2013 – even in August – the best assumption may be that they we will be 15% up at Christmas. Is the whole supply chain capable of delivering at that level? How many extra staff will you need? Of course Christmas is the peak for everyone; it will be harder to recruit staff when everyone else is trying to. If you are successful, will you have time to interview them, have room to train them, have enough headsets, PCs and software licences to accommodate them? If the answer to any of those questions is “no” then you need to begin thinking about business cases or negotiating and outsourced partnership.

Executing your Christmas game plan

With three months to go you will begin executing the plan in earnest. Recruiting large numbers of staff is very different from recruiting in smaller numbers. All resources are stretched and so it is important to be efficient even in these early stages. There may be some parts of the process that you delegate to agencies which you would conduct yourself at any other time of year. The decision making process about hiring needs to be short and sharp so that classrooms are full and the required staffing numbers are met. Don’t forget to allow extra for attrition – you will lose some people no matter how hard you try and recruitment is even harder to carry out at peak. Better to carry a little extra headcount going in to the height of the season.

Once the work is underway the Christmas game plan is more important than ever.

If volumes are higher than anticipated you need to think about the decisions you want your operational teams to make:

  • Do you try and use IVR to avoid some calls?
  • Do you switch back office staff to answering telephones?
  • Do you offer overtime – and, if so, at what rate?
  • What can you do to control call durations?
  • Do you prioritise one call type over another?

If volumes are lower than expected how do you control costs?

This is often the winning strategy – plan for success and then manage with agility:

How do you assess performance of individuals?
How can you route contacts to the most qualified person to deal with them?
What order do you release staff during quiet times to maintain morale?
What other duties do you give to staff to keep them occupied?

During normal times operationally these are easy decisions but under pressure mistakes can be made. Following Sir Clive Woodward’s mantra ensures that the basic everyday operations carry on working regardless of the surrounding circumstances.

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