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As we enter the holiday season, many centers are faced with the same problem: how to effectively hire and train employees for what may be a very short length of hire. There are five basic options available to address the challenges of seasonal staffing requirements.

Option 1: Returning Staff
The ideal solution to the seasonal staffing dilemma is to find people willing to work only the few months of the year you need them, and use them year after year. They will likely not need a full training period. After a refresher, they can hit the ground running. Nice solution if you can get them, right?

One mistake that many call centers make is to assume that because your base workforce is made up of full-time staff, your seasonal workers should work a 40-hour week too. To attract more seasonal staff, you will likely need to hire mostly part-timers to fit the requirements of this different labor force. There are many people who may be looking for a little extra income at this time of year and who would appreciate the opportunity to work three or four hours a day.

Many call centers attribute their success at covering seasonal demand to not only hiring part-time staff, but hiring people who fit the ideal part-time profile. Some people will be willing to work part-time during the holiday season as a second job. However, sometimes there's not enough energy left after the first job to devote to the catalog center position. Others may take a part-time position as a way to get a foot in the door with the company. These people will never be happy with a part-time position and are certainly not likely to return the following year if they've been laid off after the peak season ends.

The part-time position needs to be well-defined with both expectation of working hours as well as the duration of the job. Those who take the position with full knowledge of schedule definitions as well as length of employment will likely be the ones that return the following year.

To find these ideal part-timers, cast a large net and recruit in such a way that you're reaching an optimal audience of candidates. Newspaper classified ads will likely not be sufficient. Use your existing workforce for job referrals and reward them for bringing in qualified candidates. Expand the search to billboards and other advertising media to ensure you're getting in front of as many potential candidates as possible.

Option 2: Shared Staff
Some centers with a busy seasonal holiday pattern look to local businesses that may slow down in the fall. Some recruit workers directly with great success from businesses that have a summer peak. You can try to reach these potential staff with wide and well-timed advertising, or you can elect to go to the source and work with those businesses directly.

For example, a center with a holiday peak from October to January might work with building supply stores. With shoppers reducing building supply and gardening needs in the fall and winter, not as many staff are needed in these stores. A call center might work with these companies to advertise open positions from October through January. The call center benefits by having a ready supply of candidates with great customer service training, and the stores benefit by having a way to ensure employment for all its workers during the slower months.

Arrangements like this require creativity in the planning, processes and compensation arrangements. You'll want to ask what types of businesses or call centers have a peak time opposite to that of your business.

Option 3: Local Staffing Agencies
Some centers work through local staffing agencies to find temporary full-time or part-time staff. This "in-sourcing" involves the use of a staffing agency to recruit, screen and hire temporary workers. These staff are typically treated as employees of the temporary agency, but in some instances the call center may actually hire the employees.

In most cases, the training and supervision of the staff is handled by call center personnel, but in some instances, the agency actually expands their role into training and supervision of their temporary staff. The contract staffing agency may perform the recruiting, hiring and training activities at their site, or when there is a large staffing demand, may have dedicated agency staff actually reside at the call center site.

The call center typically pays more for a contract staffing person, since the staffing rate includes an "overhead" charge for the staffing agency, but the added cost is offset by the staffing expertise, flexibility of dictating schedule demands and a trial working arrangement.

Many contract agencies have a contract with the call center where the center can hire temporary staff to be permanent company employees. This arrangement lets the call center "try before they buy" in terms of adding permanent staff to the payroll. If there is a problem with any contract employee, the call center simply has to inform the agency and does not have to go through disciplinary and severance procedures that are likely required with company employees.

One of the advantages of contract staffing is also one of the major disadvantages. Since the agents work for the staffing agency and not the company, the call center has less control over them than if they were company employees. And since most of the positions are temporary, the staff may decide to leave if they find permanent positions elsewhere, making staff turnover a bigger problem.

Option 4: Non-Traditional Staffing Agencies
Another contract staffing possibility is to evaluate the use of staffing agencies that may not be in your local area, but can supply staff on an as-needed basis. Companies like Willow CSN or Alpine Access have a network of agents in a wide geographic area that primarily work from home. These agents are independent contractors with the agency serving as a broker for their services. These agents are trained in the area of customer service and handle a wide variety of sales and service calls. They can generally be trained quickly and can be available for whatever length of service your company requires.

Option 5: Call Center Outsourcers
A final option is to contract with another company to handle some or all of your call demand. The main reason that businesses outsource call center functions is to avoid the resource drain and costs associated with initial set-up and ongoing operation of a function that is typically not the core competency of the business.

Outsourcing need not be an all or nothing solution. A business such as a catalog can still maintain call-handling operations, but simply choose to send overflow calls or seasonal demand calls to an outsourcing partner as a supplement to internal operations.

The high level of competition among outsourcers results in high levels of performance. Outsourcers can be held to higher levels of performance than internal call centers, since the customer can simply take away business if performance standards are not met. Internal call centers may take longer to respond to customer demands and there is typically not as much of a significant consequence if performance levels are not met.

Getting the "just right" number of staff in place to answer the calls is one of the biggest challenges for a call center no matter what the time of year. Adding a peak, short-term demand makes this task all the more challenging. The key to successful seasonal staffing is a good forecast to accurately predict incoming call center demand for the coming period. You'll then want to weigh all the options carefully to ensure you fill those seats in the most effective way possible to take maximum advantage of those seasonal orders.

Penny Reynolds is a Founding Partner of The Call Center School, a Nashville, Tennessee based consulting and education company. The company provides a wide range of educational offerings for call center professionals, including traditional
classroom courses, web-based seminars, and self-paced e-learning programs at the manager, supervisor, and front-line staff level. For more information, see www.thecallcenterschool.com
or call 615-812-8400.

[email protected].

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