Nearshore Americas

Unpredictability of Pandemic Puts New Pressures on Managing Peaks

Demand peaks and troughs are a natural part of the annual business cycle and  companies across industries prepare for them each and every year. 

But Covid-19 has thrown a curve ball that tested recruitment plans for contact centers, both on the vendor side and the buy side. Its vast impact reshaped the traditional business seasons and companies were forced to consider if  their pre-pandemic systems could withstand a still uncertain future. For call center bosses, the traditional peak demand periods look, for this year at least, to be scuppered.

“Organizations trimmed down their staff because of the pandemic and now they’re asking themselves whether they want to hire again, with the cost and management that entails, or if they should look at outsourcing. The cost play perspective is in focus right now,” Hui Wu-Curtis, President of contact center and BPO company, World Connection told Nearshore Americas recently. 

Managing Demand

The average year produces set periods of higher demand based around specific events or holidays of the year. Usually, major sales events like Black Friday and Cyber Monday – the first for brick and mortar stores, the second for online shopping – push demand for retail customer services up. Important health industry dates like signing up for Medicare or Medicaid also see demand rise, while the tax season can set phones ringing around the clock at contact centers providing support to clients in finance.

Hui Wu-Curtis says that sounds historical data provides the basis on which to predict peak demand

At World Connection, which employs 900 agents in Guatemala City and a further 250 in Boise Idaho, managing peak periods of the year begins with strong client-history data, says Wu Curtis. From there, provisions and preparations for recruiting extra hands can begin.

“It all derives from workforce management. We have a database set of call volumes for each of our clients that we can use to assess the seasonality and trajectory of growth for each of them,” she explained. “We can use them to review the trajectory of last year and look at this year’s forecasts to come up with an estimated headcount for what we believe we will need this time around.”

Discussions must be held with each client far in advance of a projected jump in demand, says Curtis. This is particularly true in the pandemic and post-pandemic period when companies are extending sales campaigns or creating special offers outside of traditional dates.

A lack of clear communication between the vendor and the buyer would have negative consequences for both sides, especially when providing customer services for more specialised verticals that require extensive training.

“It’s vital to have good visibility on what we can expect in terms of demand. Ideally, that visibility is created two to three months in advance” — Hui Wu-Curtis

“We work with the clients to check on whether they’re coming up with new marketing campaigns or offerings that will drive that expected volume of calls up. We collaborate very closely with them to make sure that going into the peak season, we know if there’ll be multiple growth in demand. As a contact center, it’s vital to have good visibility on what we can expect in terms of demand. Ideally, that visibility is created two to three months in advance” said Wu-Curtis.

Aviation Takes Off

Adapting to hikes in demand on services doesn’t only mean augmenting the number of agents at a contact center. 

Stuart Beame, Senior Manager Omni Channel Training and Communications at Spirit Airlines, which has vendor managed BPO centers in Mexico, Dominican Republic and locations in Kenya and South Africa, says that Spring Break, Christmas and New Year are usually the busiest periods for travel. 

Automation has taken precedent in efforts to reduce the guest journey, says Stuart Beame

“Our model is geared mostly toward vacationers rather than business travel, so when schools are out and when facilities want to get together, they come to us,” said Beame.

Historical data Beame uses to manage centers clearly outlines the peak periods, but the pandemic has disrupted those patterns. “During the Covid-19 period, recruitment and staffing has certainly been more challenging than during business as usual times,” he said.

But after a year of vastly reduced aviation activity, the company is expecting a boom in demand propelled by the success of the US’ vaccination program and the pent up desire of the population to reunite again. To adapt, and to ensure that guests who missed flights due to travel restrictions still receive a service, the company has increased automation efforts across the internal functions of its computer systems to more quickly process guests when the demand hits. 

“We gave guests ‘reservation credits’ that they can use when they are able to travel. Rather than put that through calls, we’ve been working diligently to automate that on the website,” Beame explained. “Guests can see the value of their credits easily, which flights those credits can be applied to and can then proceed quickly, rather than go through a more laborious process. By anticipating this uptick in travel, we’ve been able to reduce the customer journey down and make the guest experience easier.”

“We retrained the entire customer experience team for enhanced empathy and to help our guests” – Stuart Beame

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Interesting, while improvements have been made on the efficiency of the company’s systems, agents may take longer with guest services than before. Rather than focus on call time metrics, empathy is being placed center stage.

“We retrained the entire customer experience team for enhanced empathy and to help our guests. As people start traveling again, they may be heading to sad or emotional events. As families reunite it is important to be empathetic to their situations,” Beame explained.

The Return of Business

The dramatic downsizing that companies were forced to through during the worst moments of the pandemic has left many large companies without their customer service back office workers. Though in the United States the economy is growing rapidly as a success vaccination campaign continues, companies are still holding onto their purse strings tightly. The future remains uncertain and the brutal 18 months they’ve endured means expenditure is more scrutinised than before. They’re looking to shed expenses, and unpredictability of the current market makes managing demand peaks and slumps more difficult.

“I know of a debt agency that has 800 staff internally and they have been given the directive to aggressively outsource as much of that as possible this year. That’s a pure cost play from their perspective. Others are looking for staff augmentation,” Wu-Curtis said.

“We have the ability to stagger up or, if the need falls, let attrition take its natural course” — Hui Wu-Curtis

She believes the nimble size of her company is ideal to attract these clients now bereft of customer care staff but new to the world of outsourcing. New clients want to dip their toes into the industry with low numbers before increasing their headcount if their business returns to growth.

“We have a cruise company client that laid off their entire internal call staff due to the pandemic. As they ramp up they want to start with 20 people, low numbers. We have the ability to stagger up to that number or, if the need falls, let attrition take its natural course,” she said.

Peter Appleby

Peter is former Managing Editor of Nearshore Americas. Hailing from Liverpool, UK, he is now based in Mexico City. He has several years’ experience covering the business and energy markets in Mexico and the greater Latin American region. If you’d like to share any tips or story ideas, please reach out to him here.

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