How to handle surges in contact centre demand

By Brendan Crawford July 4, 2024

It is every contact centre manager’s worst nightmare. 

A major weather event caused untold damage to infrastructure, with more than 200,000 customers losing service all at once. And we all know what happens next – a huge surge of contacts causing a bottleneck as the contact centre is overwhelmed by unprecedented call volumes.

There is nothing quite like a significant event to test a contact centre’s capabilities and, the sad reality is many fail due to a lack of foresight, planning and technological support. From the devastation of storms and flooding to the chaos of cyber outages and data breaches, one does not need to look far to find examples of events that prompt huge surges in contact centre demand and risk untold reputational damage for organisations.

In the case of the above scenario, this energy provider’s interactive voice response (IVR) system could only handle 160 concurrent calls at the time. The issue with this was that the IVR was overwhelmed as a result of the 160 calls per minute the contact centre received at the peak of the weather event - the IVR simply couldn’t handle the sheer volume of calls. Customers were greeted by busy signals or long queue waits and those who did make it into the queue were met with a traditional dual-tone multi-frequency menu that provided limited self-service capabilities and basic text-to-speech voice quality.

Cue a lack of timely information, customer frustration, widespread negative media coverage and ultimately, a government enquiry into the energy provider’s failure to deliver for customers in their hour of need.

The good news is the company did not simply keep on keeping on. It knew it had to overhaul its contact centre systems and processes to ensure it could respond better during large-scale outage events. 

The better news is this article will share several of those insights so other organisations can have confidence that their contact centres are prepared when customer demand soars during major events.

The power of tech

Results a leading wholesale energy delivery provider saw when implementing a SaaS conversational AI speech engine into its existing contact centre infrastructure.

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4 tips for handling surges in demand

Adopt leading technology

The role of technology in helping manage spikes in demand cannot be understated, yet many contact centres continue to persist with antiquated or inadequate infrastructure systems. For proof of why that is a serious misstep, look no further than the benefits reaped by the previously mentioned energy provider when it introduced a SaaS conversational artificial intelligence (AI) speech engine as an overlay to its existing contact centre tech.

The next time a severe weather event struck, call attempt rates spiked at 600 per minute (10 calls per second) but the newly established cloud platform was able to handle 900 concurrent calls, a 463% increase on the legacy system. Then, a couple of weeks later, the system handled more than 1,600 calls during a short-duration outage (10 minutes) but 66% were successfully self-served by callers who were able to automatically obtain updated outage information.

Optimise staffing

While technology has changed the game, human agents remain the heartbeat of any contact centre and even more so during peak events. Forecasting demand can be difficult but using the likes of historical data, predictive analytics and workforce management software can help managers strike the right balance between staff and call volumes. Similarly, outsourcing providers can be a lifesaver as they allow contact centre managers to seamlessly and cost-effectively scale workforce numbers with quality talent at short notice.

In the wake of its nightmare weather event, the energy provider employed an outsourced staffing model to support its technology. This included a pool of 18 permanent, full-time fault and emergency response team members, who were complemented by shift supervisors and casual agents who could quickly provide support during surge events. The result? At peak demand, 50 staff were deployed across 24/7 rotating shifts to keep call queue times as low as possible.

Provide round-the-clock support

Speaking of 24/7, some organisations may consider it impractical to provide such support internally but it is essential during emergencies such as extreme weather events. Creating a surge plan that factors in staffing via the likes of outsourcing and casual workers makes round-the-clock support possible and shows a commitment to CX that not only negates negative commentary but also builds trust between a brand and its customers.

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Top 8 call center technologies_mobile

Source: Top 6 future trends in contact centers (probecx.com)

Show empathy

For all the talk of technology, staffing and 24/7 support, few things matter more during a surge in contact centre demand than a trait that costs nothing. Empathy for customers is important in the best of times but even more so in the worst of times. Managers must provide agents with the training and tools they need to navigate potentially stressful and emotional encounters. That care should also be extended to the agents themselves, who may find themselves profoundly impacted by the heightened emotions they encounter and the sheer weight of customer interactions. Such support will go a long way to boosting internal morale, assisting staff retention and laying a positive foundation for the next surge in demand.

Summary

One does not need to look far to find evidence that customer experience is increasingly important for fostering customer loyalty. Half of consumers have left a brand they were previously loyal to in the past 12 months due to poor CX1. One in three customers will leave a brand they love after just one negative experience2. More than 50% of people expect a response from a brand within an hour3. Successfully navigating surges in demand is crucial to avoid adding to such statistics and that starts by investing in technology, people and processes. While we may not be able to control the weather, we can control how our contact centres respond to weather events and other crises.

Are your agents struggling with increased call volumes? Is your business straining under the high costs of providing voice services? Discover why more businesses are investing in cutting-edge call deflection technologies in their quest to save money and improve customer experience.

Reference

1. Emplifi_Report_Consumer_Expectations_US_UK_EN.pdf
2. Customer experience is everything: PwC
3. Emplifi CX Index: Our social media predictions for 2023

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