Holiday Season Scheduling: Are You Ready for The Most Wonderful Time of the Year?

Posted by Kary Horsley on November 01, 2023

The Q4 holiday season is here, that time of year when the demands placed on the Workforce Management (WFM) team are the most challenging. One after another they come: Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and New Year’s Day, when contact centers must balance the extremes of what customers want and what agents want.

On our Wish List for this blog: specific planning considerations that can help your WFM team strike that essential balance and win the Q4 Holiday Season.

Your WFM Team (The Gift that keeps on giving)

Even the worst Grinch in a contact center has to acknowledge the pivotal role of the WFM team during the holiday season. Their expertise and problem-solving insights play a huge part in determining whether a contact center’s holidays are Happy and Bright or will become a Blue Christmas.

It’s not just about meeting customer demands; it’s also about ensuring that your agents have the flexibility to spend time with their families. You don’t need Winter Warlock magic to make both the customers and the agents happy— proper planning and communication can help make it work.

Let’s dive into four key categories that will guide you through the process: Forecasting, Scheduling, Technology, and Coordinating with other Departments.

Forecasting (Not all holidays are the same)

Forecasting is the foundation of a successful Q4 season. Review previous holiday volumes, shrinkages, and any changes in customer behavior during the season. In these times of change, compare data from multiple years to create a more accurate forecast. Remember that not all of the holidays have the same predictable impact.

Thanksgiving is normally easier to predict since it’s a Thursday, just as you know what days Black Friday and Cyber Monday fall on. However, the actual date of Thanksgiving changes, and if your industry has end-of-month sales, you may be looking at a Cyber Monday + EoM promotional environment. Christmas and New Year’s are also challenging to project with the floating days and the observed days that go along with them, impacting volume in different ways depending on the day of the week they fall on, and how it changes from year to year. The key is to consider how the holidays may be the same year-over-year, and how they may change based upon new promotions.

Scheduling (A spoonful of sugar helps the OT go down)

Effective communication is key when it comes to scheduling during the holiday season. Start by communicating your scheduling plan early and do it repeatedly to ensure everyone is on the same page. If your contact center is open on a holiday and the volume is lower, solicit volunteers among your agents to cover the base and then assign the remaining hours—usually these will fall on lowest-tenure agents, but remember to plan for higher shrinkage for the agents who didn’t volunteer.

If your center is closed on a holiday, consider moving employees normally scheduled to work on that day to one of their off days during the week. This approach allows you to utilize additional staffed hours without incurring overtime rates.

To account for higher volume post-Holiday, add hours to schedules on the days following.  For example, if you are closed on Monday, add 2 hours to agent schedules on Tuesday and 2 hours on Wednesday before or at the end of the shifts.  Yes, it’s like mandatory OT, but wrapping the extra hours in with Holiday Scheduling and explaining the reason why this is unavoidable are always helpful.

Emphasize to your stakeholders that a team effort is vital to navigating the Holiday Season, and a manageable amount of pain from everyone on the team will help to avoid an unbearable amount of OT piling up on a few unfortunate agents.  Also, make sure to take into consideration any state or labor/union restrictions when making changes.

It’s not a bad idea to maintain excess staffing to handle unexpected volume spikes. This allows you to offer Voluntary Time Off (VTO) as a way to manage workloads without resorting to overtime or scrambling at the last minute to force agents to work extra hours. If you haven’t already done it this year, consider conducting yearly holiday bids in the future to help distribute the burden of extra hours fairly among your agents. Rotate holiday assignments yearly to prevent employees from working the same holidays each year.

Technology (No fast busies!)

Collaboration with your Telecom and IT teams is crucial to ensure that your center has the capacity to handle the expected contact volume on peak days. If your center uses cloud-based SIP trunking that offers the elasticity needed to automatically handle spikes, that’s amazing, but make sure your infrastructure can handle the increased contact volume. A real example from one of the Call Design team members was a Monday after Thanksgiving where the contact center ran out of Citrix licenses and agents could not log in to take voice calls!

Prepare for high volume by incorporating messages in your IVR to notify customers of potential long hold times; this can also help deflect calls to other channels if available. Regular communication with your IT department can also help keep you aware of any IT technology freezes scheduled for the end of the year.

Also, be sure to take full advantage of the agent- and supervisor-facing functionality that your WFM software should offer: communicating the latest schedule changes to agents’ cell phones keeps them aware of any sudden changes the WFM Team has to make, even if the agents are not online. The ability to push out automated VOT/VTO offers at a moment’s notice is extremely helpful, and the ability to process these requests automatically allows the WFM Team to respond quickly, which is crucial during a sudden contact volume change.

Flexible shift bidding can help turn those 2-extra-hours-to-your-schedule additions from mandatory edicts (which are not only demoralizing, but also might accidentally be distributed unevenly, making some agents feel unfairly taken advantage of) to more voluntary experiences that allow agents who want extra hours to choose to apply for them when they are available.

Lastly, What-If forecasting capabilities are an extremely valuable tool to allow you make contingency plans for: the possibility of sudden volume or AHT changes and the benefits of deflecting calls to digital channels.

Coordinating (Sharing is caring)

Effective communication with other departments is vital. Be in sync with your Marketing team and help them understand the impact of volume-increasing marketing drops that are timed during high volume seasons. You should also coordinate with Training and HR to be sure they complete any required employee training before the holidays.

Identify and source available trained resources that can be on-call to support the contact center if needed. Supervisors, trainers, and back-office workers can serve as backup support for various types of customer contacts.

The airline and retail industries have highlighted the need to plan for yourself and your partners in advance of the holiday and sale season, especially if there are BPO partners involved. As well as ensuring forecast accuracy, there’s the need to ensure adequate staffing both internally and externally. BPO partners should be notified as early as possible about the staffing required from them so they can conduct appropriate hiring and training for additional demand.

Snow Miser Got You Down? Contact us!

Having lived through it ourselves, most of us here at Call Design know exactly how the WFM Team feels at this time of year. If you got coal in your WFM stocking this year, we’re here to help. Contact us if you need support facing the forecasting and scheduling challenges that come around in Q4.

-Amazing advice by Kary Horsley, with assistance from Ken Tse and Nathan Hollman. Rankin/Bass references by Shawn McCormick