The holidays have finally drawn to a close. While the rest of the world is busy making New Year’s resolutions, e-commerce retailers are already busy thinking up ways to better prepare for next holiday season—and customer care is a fundamental part of that. So, where do you start?

Create a Customer Care Peak Staffing Plan

Start with a solid customer care peak staffing plan. At TradeGlobal, this process involves projecting our call volumes, analyzing our average handle time (AHT) and determining our peak days (usually Black Friday and Cyber Monday/Cyber Week). Next, we calculate our peak hours and determine how many agents we will need on the phone at one time. We have worked backward to determine a training schedule that gives new agents adequate training and ramp-up time without blowing the budget. This is old news to anyone who has managed a customer care center and is involved in scheduling and service level management.

Even with the best plans and the right number of agents at the right times, you can still fail. Why? The biggest reason, in our experience, is lack of agent monitoring and coaching—and we don’t mean QA monitoring, although that is important. We are referring to making sure agents are on the phone when they should be on the phone and improving their average handle time. In a small customer care center, it’s fairly easy to monitor everyone since you can see and hear most of your employees. In larger centers with multiple departments and several hundred employees, monitoring their activities in real time can be challenging. Can a couple minutes here and there really make a big difference?

Let’s assume that every agent in a 300-person customer care center comes back from their lunch and breaks one minute late. They are all working five days per week and get lunch and two breaks every day. That is an extra 4,500 minutes per week that agents are not at their desks. If the average handle time is five minutes, you have just missed 900 calls that you should have been able to handle. Now, let’s add an average of five minutes per agent per day spent in the restroom. That’s 25 minutes per agent, for a total of 7,500 minutes, per week. If the agents are handling 12 calls per hour, we would need five more agents to account for this lost time.

Now, let’s look at average handle time. If we assume a five-minute average handle time, with 3000 agents working 40 hours per week, you would be capable of handling 135,000 calls (7.5 working hours per day, factoring in two 15-minute breaks). If the handle time increases to 5.5 minutes, you can now only handle 122,625 calls. That’s a difference of 12,375 calls. You would now need an additional 30 agents to handle the original call volume—and that’s just for an addition of 30 seconds per call!

We realize that these numbers exist only in a perfect world, but this goes to show that small variances in expectations can make a huge impact on your results—so it’s important to forecast accurately. These don’t take into account things like the impact of training, coaching or other unscheduled “off phone” activities; staff forecasting should take these activities into account as well.

Improve Agent Efficiency

In order to minimize the impact of handle time and non-adherence on lunch and break schedules, constant monitoring of agents is necessary. Daily or weekly status reporting and disciplinary action are necessary—as well as call monitoring to coach agents toward better call efficiency and reduced handle time. There are many different coaching methods, and it may require a bit of research to determine which method works best for your business.

It takes a significant amount of effort on the part of all managers, supervisors, trainers and quality assurance specialists to create an efficient customer care operation. Agent expectations can be set in training, but the training never really ends; it continues in the form of constant coaching, refresher classes and skills training. In short, the agents will respect what you inspect. If you make it a point to discuss the importance of average handle time and adherence, they will focus on improving these metrics. Agents will also appreciate the feedback and feel more invested in the success of your customer care center.

The best way to prepare your customer care center for peak is to sufficiently staff your center to handle the influx of calls. By taking the time to educate your agents, you can also drastically increase their efficiency—potentially reducing the number of new agents needed to support your customer base. It may sound like a daunting process, but the good news? If you start now, you have all year to prepare.