You Can’t Schedule for the Unexpected, but That’s No Excuse to Be Unprepared
By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD
Traffic at many call centers fluctuates with the weather, affecting some centers more so than others. Of course, non-weather-related events can also impact call traffic. This includes natural disasters, pandemics, riots, the threat of violence, media-produced frenzies—and the list goes on with as much variety as our imaginations can conjure up.
Although some traffic fluctuations occur with predictable regularity, other call traffic spurts strike with little warning. What’s a call center to do?
Deal with It the Best You Can
The first impulse in responding to higher traffic than you’re prepared for is to work faster, cut out all nonessential tasks, and answer calls with greater intention. This helps . . . a bit . . . for a while. You may tap non-phone staff to put on a headset and get to work. Cutting breaks and shortening lunches emerges as a tempting thought, but don’t give in to that temptation. Asking staff to extend shifts and work overtime is another approach many call centers pursue. Sometimes this becomes mandatory. It helps to get calls answered, but employee morale takes a hit.
An optional strategy is to ignore the escalating number of calls in queue and just process whatever calls you can while working at your normal pace. If the call is important, the caller will hold or call back . . . at least you hope so. Regardless, customer sentiment will take a hit.
Given this situation, call center managers may intentionally over-hire and overschedule. That provides a nice buffer to deal with traffic peaks and longer-term surges. The side effect of this well-intended strategy is that during times of normal traffic levels, you’re either paying for unproductive work or your staff isn’t getting as many hours as they wish. Neither outcome is a good one.
Throttle Incoming Calls
A third solution entertained by anxious call center managers is to reduce the number of incoming calls during high-traffic situations. One method is to provide a busy signal to callers. A second approach is to play a recording asking them to try later. A third possibility is to allow them to schedule a callback. Of course, for the callback solution to work requires that you’re not still dealing with the high-traffic situation when it comes time to make that return phone call.
Overflow to Another Location
If you’ve concluded that the first three options aren’t good ones, you’re right. If your call center is part of a multilocation operation, an easy solution is to send excess calls to another center in your network. For this to be a viable solution, however, requires that the other location is not suffering from the same malady.
Some multilocation call centers automatically route calls from one location to another based on incoming traffic and agent availability. In these cases, the overall traffic is self-regulating, which means that unexpected high call volume coming into one center will impact all call centers in the network. One center, therefore, can drag all the others down.
Outsource to Another Call Center
Another consideration is to form an arrangement with an outsource call center to take your overflow calls. Not only is this a great solution for high-traffic scenarios, but it also works well for understaffing. You can establish whatever events you want to trigger an overflow situation. It might be the number of calls in queue, the current wait time, or number of abandons.
Just as with sending overflow calls to another call center within your organization, select an outsource call center that’s geographically separated from your location to reduce the risk of them suffering from the same scenario as your call center.
Though there is no ideal way to deal with unexpected call traffic, there are steps you can take to reduce the negative impact on both callers and staff. But don’t wait until you’re in the middle of a crisis to consider solutions—plan now before you’re swamped with calls.
Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine, covering the call center teleservices industry.