How to Handle a Severe Staffing Shortfall
By Jay Minnucci
Understaffing is a fairly common occurrence in most contact centers, but there may be times when your center experiences a severe staffing shortage. We're not talking about the run-of-the-mill Monday with high call volume and an even higher number of call-ins. We are talking about a staffing situation where capacity is well below required numbers, and will remain that way for an extended number of weeks into the future. What could cause this? Any number of things, such as:
  • A mass exodus to a new, nearby contact center with higher pay
  • A particularly bad strain of the flu or other contagious disease
  • Unexpected increases in contact rates coupled with a hiring freeze

Obviously, you want to address the root cause of whatever the problem is (for instance, if you had a mass exodus and find that your center is on the low end of the pay scale, compensation needs to be reviewed). But in the meantime, how do you handle the severe understaffing?

Immediately, look at your messaging for two opportunities. First, put a message out there regarding the delay; and, second, see if you can use messaging to offload some traffic to self service. Under normal circumstances, short and simple are key thoughts when drafting the messages you put on your ACD. When service level is in the tank and there is no light at the end of the tunnel, you may need to improvise. Here are three things to address in your messaging when facing a prolonged (two weeks or more) period of severe understaffing:

Inform. Let callers know that wait times are higher than normal. If you can provide an accurate estimated wait time through your ACD, do it. If not, the message should give some indication of how long the wait could be (e.g., "Wait times could be as high as 10 minutes").

Apologize. Customers should know that this is not the usual case, and that you recognize their time is important. Try something along the lines of, "We are addressing the situation, and recognize that your time is important. We sincerely apologize for the inconvenience."

Give choices. Provide some options to the long wait. Clearly stating what services can be accessed through the website is one option. Virtual hold (where customers can leave their phone number, hold their place in line, hang up and get a callback when it is their turn) is another. Letting people know better times to call is yet another. (Be careful! If, for example, the message indicates that Saturday is a good time, you have to make sure that the same message does not run on Saturday!)

Your messages need to convey that you know it is a serious situation and that you value your customers' time. If not, they may invoke an option of their own—calling the competition.

Look around the organization—are there areas where there is staff available who can pick up on off-phone work normally done by agents? The more you can reduce off-phone time, the more you can get done with the staff that is left.

Segregate and offload simple calls, using another department, temporary help or an outsourcer.

Giving a voicemail option is a strategy that, at first glance, looks tempting, but is one that most contact centers should avoid. Someone will need to listen to those messages and make callbacks, which will invariably lead to more messages and more inbound calls. Voicemail typically turns a five-minute inbound call into a 15-minute transaction loaded with multiple inbound attempts, outbound attempts, transcribing and customer frustration. The last thing you want to do during periods of severe understaffing is increase call workload.

SNAPSHOT: CareSource Management Group
CareSource Management Group is a non-profit, public-sector managed health care company, based in Dayton, Ohio, with a mission-driven focus to provide quality service to its 840,000-plus members. As one of the largest Medicaid health care plans in the country, maintaining a low administrative cost ratio is essential to ensure that the operating budget can support the services that members need.

So how do you improve service without adding staff costs? Contact center leaders decided to cross-train customer service and claims reps by having them swap jobs. They moved four claims reps into the customer service department, while four CSRs took their places in claims department for three months. The job swap experiment proved to be highly successful—significantly reducing call-backs, and achieving a 41% reduction in call volume. Read the full story here.


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