4 Ways to Preserve Customer Loyalty When Call Volume Spikes

by Abby Saranchuk in Customer Experience, Lifetime Customer Value

Remember those sandcastles you built as a kid? Constructing sandy towers and driftwood drawbridges was a blast. That is, until a powerful, unexpected wave swept the beach and water flooded that little kingdom. Only those prepared with a deep and expansive moat remained safe. For everyone else, all of that hard work would be undone.

That’s exactly what a call volume spike can do to customer loyalty if you aren’t prepared.

As much as we manage forecasting and establish intricate service level agreements, we all know that call volume spikes are part of the natural order of contact center operations. Depending on your service or product offering, anything from extreme weather to product recalls can flood your contact center in an instant. Average handle times shoot upward, wait times escalate, and the frustration your customers are already feeling exceeds its boiling point.

If you want to preserve customer loyalty, and keep your CSAT scores healthy and your Net Promoters plentiful when call volume surges, you’ll need to make sure that your in-house or outsourced contact center partner have the right systems and safety nets in place.

1.) Stay Focused on the Right Metrics – It might be tempting in all the hubbub of a call volume spike for your contact center team to work on whittling down AHT above all else. But it’s important to remember that other contact center KPIs still matter.

Low handle times are desirable – obviously, the faster an agent can get through a call, the quicker the team can work their way through the queue – but first call resolution, customer effort, and customer satisfaction figures are inextricably linked to customer loyalty. Taking the time to get a call fully and accurately resolved even as the queue starts to stack up could prevent that same customer from calling back and enduring the frustration of wait times all over again. And when volume is at a critical level, any call back you can prevent is a good thing.

Remember, what encourages customers to go elsewhere is not a lack of extraordinary service, but an experience with bad service.

2.) Answers Lie in Your Data – Data is the lifeblood of any contact center – with or without call volume spikes. Every interaction is tabulated, calls are recorded, notes are logged in our CRMs, and even seasonal conditions and regional events are notated for later analysis. Why is that important? Because we can deconstruct prior call volume spikes to make predictions and better prepare in the future.

What drove your last spike? Will the same circumstances appear again in the future? Can you differentiate predictive historic data from one-off scenarios to help anticipate future events? While we can’t predict or prepare for every possible scenario that may impact call volume, lines of questioning like this are the key to making your contact center team more scalable during high volume, high stress scenarios.

For example, one of our clients was drastically affected by Hurricane Sandy with their in-house center and servers literally submerged. Customers flooded in across multiple channels, especially via our social media support channel, and we dealt with and adapted to the chaos of the moment. Even though there was no data per se to prepare us for this event, and we hope no other tropical storm will duplicate that level of destruction, we know based on the historic data from that event how things may unfold when disastrous events do strike.

On the other hand, we know there are times when data won’t be applicable, but will likely impact call volume. Right now, the PanAm Games are happening in Toronto, so our roadside assistance team can expect a higher than average influx of calls as regular traffic patterns are disrupted by the games. In advance, we planned and prepared for spikes in volume, but next year, we won’t base our forecasts around on this historic data from mid-July 2015. If we do, our office will be rife with idle agents and we’ll be wasting precious labor hours.

3.) “Expect the best. Plan for the worst.” –  Having a prepared, well coached, and emotionally intelligent contact center agent to assist a customer in positive ways during the worst of times can make all the difference in that customer’s loyalty to the business.

When your contact channels explode, would you rather your team panic and abandon ship or make overcoming an unexpected and overwhelming call spike a point of pride? We’d pick the latter every time. Half of that battle is fought with preparation.

The attitude that the agent workforce brings to a spike begins well before the volume ever starts to rise. It begins back with the recruiting team. Are they hiring for the right natural aptitudes to deal with the unexpected? Are expectations being set from the early interview stages? You want the challenges on the table clearly communicated from the outset.

One of our big lessons learned came from hiring for the launch of an emergency roadside assistance team. Our initial hiring profile identified call center experience as an asset. In fact, it turned out to be the opposite. We paid close attention to our trends (both successes and failures) around attrition and performance of those early hires.  It quickly became evident that call center experience was, in fact, not an indicator of success.

The sudden, vicious spikes that came with one of the worst winters on record were hardest on those who had worked in call centers where a rising call queue was something to be loathed and feared. The most successful agents were those who were used to high volume, high stress scenarios – people with bartending, retail, and food service experience, believe it or not, were among the most successful. With the right profile in place, your call center team is better prepared to deliver the kind of service that builds customer loyalty even during the worst of times.

In these types of contact center roles, spikes are the norm, whether it is the rush of last call at a bar, or the holiday sales stampede in a store, or a pre-theatre crush for dinner. You just handle it and move on. Those are the folks you want on your team when call volume hits 200%+ over forecast with no notice.

Additionally, your contact center team or outsourced partner should be able to provide you with “what-if” preparation scenarios for unexpected call volume. At Blue Ocean, we’ve deployed a cross-training approach which has proven to be a successful contingency tool for our programs. And if unpredictable spikes are the name of the game for your program, (hello, roadside assistance clients!) building part-time agents into the staffing solution can be a huge asset. With a deep pool of cross-trained agents and a solid base of part-timers who can contribute more hours during spikes, there are more resources to tap into when the floodgates open.

4.) Clearly Communicate– One major lesson we’ve learned from years of call volume spikes during the holidays is that your approach to communication is critical. Do you have a steadfast coach on the sidelines clearly running through plays or will your contact center descend into the chaos of school yard rules?

All channels of internal communication need to be clear and the team needs to be kept in the loop – even if the message is hard to deliver.  Don’t sugar coat the hard stuff. Agents would rather know the reality of the situation (Saying “Volume is not going to slow down for at least two hours, I know we can do this,” is better for your team than a coach who offers encouraging, but misleading, words like: “We’re almost there! Things are going to ease up soon!”).

Transparency creates trusts, especially when stress is running high. And that old adage, “nature abhors a vacuum” is especially true when people are tired and under pressure: if there is no information coming from the top, it is likely that the gap will be filled with speculation or rumor, and that is not going to help. We like to err on the side of over-communicating to the frontlines so no one is left guessing.

The other key to communication is to make sure that information is shared quickly and effectively when the rules change or you want to implement a quick work-around. If one of the agents finds an incredible time-saving fix to a common problem or learns a solution no longer works, that information should be disseminated immediately. Whatever internal measures you use to communicate strategic changes – a messaging application or internal mailing list – everyone needs to pivot together.

Even with all of the data, smart leaders, and capable contact center agents, call volume spikes can be costly for your business. You either understaff your center and risk losing business or you overstaff and eat through your budget. Often, the easiest solution is to leave these challenges in the hands of an outsourced contact center.

We are experienced at maintaining service expectations when call volume spikes go beyond the norm. We have the data to stay ahead of the curve, communicate evolving strategies, keep a shared pool of cross-trained agents, and stay focused on what truly matters: keeping your customers happy. That’s the Blue Ocean promise. If you want to keep spikes in calls from sinking your customer loyalty, contact us today.

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