Featured Image for the blog: How to Handle Agent PTO During the Holidays

Stroll through Target or your go-to shopping spot, and what do you see? Skeletons replaced with Santa Claus and tiny Fir trees with frosted tips where the pumpkins used to rest on the shelves. We still have one day until Halloween, but the holiday season is officially in launch mode. And, that means you’re jumping in with both feet to prepare your contact center for the changing demands of your customers.

If you’re in the consumer goods or event services’ industries, this might mean having additional staff on hand to answer the soon-to-exist swarm of customers reaching out. In 2016 CallRail did some research to determine who’s affected by an uptick in customer calls during several big shopping holidays. Turns out, retailers, digital marketing agencies, and companies in automotive, healthcare, home services, and telecom industries see call volumes increase by more than 100 percent. Plus, cruise lines and hotels see roughly a 30 percent increase in calls on Cyber Monday alone.

If you work in financial services, this might mean cutting back on agents’ time in the contact center to align with your off-season and keep costs at bay.

Whatever the case may be, you’ll have to juggle time off requests (and overtime requests) from agents. And, you’ll have to align them to meet the changing needs of your customers. There’s a tricky balance that comes in to play here. Some agents will need to travel to be close to family, others will want to work more to keep up with added expenses. And, you’ll still have to do what makes the most sense for your company and keep agent burnout in mind in the midst of it all. It’s a true balancing act, so we’ve come up with a few suggestions to help tip the scale in your favor.

Get the customer details nailed down, first.

First, forecast your customers’ needs.

Use your insights and analytics to run reports for last year’s holiday season. Pay close attention to contact center metrics like: inbound contacts per agent, daily agent absenteeism, average handle time, and agent utilization, so you can properly forecast the number of customer interactions you’ll get along with your agent’s capacity to handle all the outreach. Find out the exact shifts you’ll need to cover in full, at half-staff, or just with a few agents. Document it, then share it with your team as you begin for holiday prep. Fill in the shifts with volunteer workers first. Then, create a prioritization process to make sure you have enough agents on deck to cover the rest of the shifts.

Prepare your customers for changes.

Like days with no service or limited availability. Or, mention days when you’ll have extra agents ready to handle calls. Plan for your contact center closures and your contact center’s expected capacity. Depending on the nature of your product or service, this time of year means incredibly hectic, or incredibly dull. But either way, the right customer expectations need to be set. Set up call-back queues or route customers directly to voicemail when waiting times are too long or you opted to close up shop and give your team time to celebrate. That way customers get to deliver their message and move on to check the next task off their holiday to-do list without trying to reach an agent. Put together a list of FAQs to publish and point customers toward, too. Since 60 percent of consumers reach for self-service tools before the phone, use that channel to proactively answer customer questions during your uptick in calls or the days you plan to close.

Next, on to the agent scheduling piece.

Allow more remote work.

With a cloud-native contact center platform, your agents can handle calls and customer interactions from anywhere. This saves on commute time, so they’ll gain some much-needed minutes back in their day. Plus, if your agents have family out of town, it allows them to visit relatives and continue to work. Then, they don’t lose out on pay that’s extra useful during a spendy season. And, you don’t have to juggle as many time off requests or staffing issues because agents can answer Janet’s and John’s pressing calls from the comfort of their mom’s living room.

Ask for volunteers as tribute – and offer them added benefits.

Don’t make this a one-off offer. Have a policy in place for holiday rates and extra benefits for working the largely unwanted shifts, like additional floating holidays and first dibs on taking the next holiday season off. In many cases, putting some extra change in your agents’ pockets for gift-giving might be plenty of an incentive to volunteer to cover the undesirable shifts. Other agents may have a trip they want to take in January where they could really use a few extra paid vacation days. Then, they might not mind sticking around during the seasonal rush. Plus, with remote work on the table, agents will be more apt to help out. The holiday season means something different for each agent. So, be flexible and empathetic about obligations during this time of year.

Come up with a system for prioritization.

With incentivized volunteers on deck to fill in some of the shifts, you’ll have some of your capacity handled. But, you’ll likely still need additional agents to work holiday shifts. Or, you’ll need to trim a few agents’ time at work down to match your slow season. Create a system for prioritizing time off and overtime requests. You know that not every agent will get the outcome they want. But how do you, at least, make the process fair? Let your agents play a part in outlining the process so they feel ownership in the outcome and they can recognize your effort to prioritize their needs and well-being. Then, they won’t be caught off guard or negatively impacted by your decisions. You can go with straightforward methods like prioritizing requests on a first come, first serve basis. Or, you can choose a more methodical route, like looking up who worked last year during this time, checking in to see who hasn’t taken a vacation this year, or taking into account who has to travel in order to be with family.

Set a deadline for requests, and include an estimate of how many you can approve.

You’ve crunched all the numbers, so you know the capacity and number of customer interactions you need to plan for. Now, set a hard deadline for requests. Send out multiple reminders to your agents and bring it up in your one-on-ones. And, even have the deadline visible in the contact center. That way you can make sure every individual knows what to expect and can submit requests for consideration.

Avoid on-call scheduling if at all possible.

The unpredictability of being on-call leads to low morale and can easily cause added stress on families. It means your agent can’t travel or make real plans for the holidays “just in case” they’re needed. And if they’re not, they’ve missed out on precious time with family for something that was never really a need. It was just a safety net. Don’t make your employees be your safety net. If an agent knows for certain they have to work, they can plan around it. When it’s up in the air, they’re in limbo hanging on to hope that they MIGHT get to eat some pumpkin pie at their brother’s house. If there’s no way out of keeping additional agents on the line for added help, then opt to let them work remotely, instead.

Make sure your contact center is fit to scale.

If you have to hire seasonal agents to meet holiday demands, you can save on infrastructure costs by using a cloud-based, agent-first platform that’s suited for remote work. When you adopt work from home and Bring Your Own Device policies, you won’t have to scrounge up new computers and additional office space for your influx of seasonal agents. With tools that prioritize your agent experience, you can tackle more interactions with less staff, too. Because of Sharpen’s scalable, agent-first solution, Vibrant Credit Union cut needed staff in half and still reduced member wait times by 90 percent, and Dorel Juvenile was able to resolve 30 percent more calls with the same amount of agents.

Maintaining your SLAs and keeping your customers happy during the holiday season is crucial to your business success. But keeping agent morale high is incredibly important, too. Keep agents in mind this holiday season.

Click for more tips on keeping contact center employee morale high.