If you live anywhere in the Northern United States or Canada, one phrase you would love to have stricken from your vocabulary this past winter is “Polar Vortex.” In addition to being the coldest, bone-chilling temperatures ever recorded across hundreds of cities in North America, Mother Nature supplied multiple blizzards that crippled transit and travel for 200 million people and motorists.
Northerners are a known for being a hardy bunch, but this past winter tested even the toughest cold-weather warrior. As salt poured onto roads – and the metaphorical open wounds of broken down motorists – millions of drivers called upon their first line of defense: their Roadside Assistance Membership Services reps. In the contact center industry, Roadside Assistance Call Center teams are typically the special forces of customer services – being able to ramp up for unpredictable and extreme peaks in volume is the name of the game after all. A normal calendar year, for example, would include 10 to 12 days with call volume exceeding forecast by more than 100%. The winter of 2013-14, however, saw roadside assistance call center teams from the East Coast to the Rocky Mountains handling 30 or more Code Red days sometimes with volume at 300% of forecast for days on end. From early December until the end of February, total inbound contact volume for our team, for instance, doubled from normal rates. Teams had never before experienced this type of volume for this long a period of time.
Lessons from the Polar Vortex:
Three Tactics to Adopt While You’re Under Siege
1. Constant Communication – When insane call volume starts rolling in, the most important thing you can do is communicate. A steady stream of effective communication across all levels has to be a top priority. If you are working with an outsourced contact center partner, ramp up the cadence of regular contact between your call center ops people and your in-house stakeholders. In our case, during the worst of the Winter from Hell, we had multiple calls between our ops team and our client on the calendar every day. On the floor, ensure that updates are effective and timely. Stress is exacerbated when expectation doesn’t match reality, so the more you can let agents know what to expect, day by day or even hour by hour, the better your chances of keeping stress under control. Minimizing stress helps mitigate against absenteeism. One more tip for effective communication: Distill the mission of the day down to a crystal clear, actionable message. Getting everyone on the same page and clear on the “Commander’s Intent” creates a foundation for delivering the best possible experience to customers who are facing less than ideal circumstances.
2. Re-Prioritize Metrics – As volume spiked and spiked again in the face of storm after storm after storm, the focus moved off some of the standard call center metrics and was directed squarely at metrics that were meaningful in the moment and would help drive outcomes appropriate to the extraordinary situation. The old adage “What gets measured, gets done” is undeniably true. Our team adjusted priority on metrics to drive agent behaviors that were specifically focused on member safety. Minimizing escalation time for certain high-risk situations was far more important than focusing on reducing the Average Speed of Answer during blizzards. By measuring escalations for those high-risk scenarios we could drive behaviors that focused on keeping people safe, even if it meant taking longer to field calls.
3. Motivating the Frontline for a Sustained, Extraordinary Effort – You can reframe a period of sustained extreme volume for your team: we’re in the big leagues now, baby, and it’s playoff time. And like top performing professional sports teams who have to maintain peak performance under great pressure when they make the playoffs, you need your agents to keep bringing it and working through the pain. To motivate agents to give their all for the common good when they are exhausted and mentally beaten up is no easy mission. You need extraordinary individual efforts from a cohesive team. So how do you rally the troops when the siege goes on for months?
– Nurture the bond between your band of brothers and sisters. Creating a sense of shared responsibility and rewarding team achievement (not just individual achievement) can positively impact attendance when the going is really tough. One way to build that sense of team is with a team “uniform.” Our hardworking roadside assistance team received specially printed t-shirts with the words: “Winter Sufferfest 2014. We’ve got this.” In a contact center with a business casual dress code, being allowed to wear team t-shirts was a great perk. Being publicly identified in our center as a team tough enough to handle the suffering boosted the sense of team pride.
– Focus on food. (Actually, the answer to most questions in the contact center world is “food.”) But in this case it can be especially important and we don’t mean waving a piece of pizza in front of an employee to try to persuade them to stay for another hour or two past their shift. On Code Red days, we stocked refueling stations where agents could quickly grab a protein bar, piece of fruit, and water or sports drink. We were asking them to expend considerable mental and physical energy and we supported that with appropriate nutrition.
– Get creative. We have made a tradition of tying incentive programs to things like the amount of snow that falls during a blizzard. When specific circumstances create really challenging conditions for agents, rewarding them in direct proportion to how much things suck can positively impact attendance and morale on the darkest of days.
When weather interrupts customer service operations, agent burnout and absenteeism can cripple your ability to respond to customers effectively. Mitigate this risk by choosing a partner who can deliver on the intangibles with a group of agents who can be counted on to rise to the occasion. If your customer service operations can find itself in the crosshairs of weather’s wrath or you are developing a plan for next winter, give us a call. We’ve got a team that can adjust the game plan on the fly.