Call Center Workforce Management

By Phillip J. Romero

These are exciting times for call center managers. As call centers transition from telephone-centric support operations to multi-channel communication powerhouses, they are increasingly recognized for their central role in cultivating and maintaining customer loyalty.

Managing a call center requires specialized knowledge and skills – you cannot simply “wing it!” Successful call center management depends on getting the right people and supporting resources in place at the right times to handle and accurately forecast workload, at the desired service level and with requisite quality.

There is simply no way to establish and operate an effective environment without a solid understanding of the principles behind workforce management: forecasting, staffing, scheduling, service level, queue dynamics, and real-time management of center operations.

The principle of service level is at the heart of effective incoming call center management. Without a service level objective, the answers to many important questions are left to chance. How accessible is the call center? How many employees do you need? How do you compare to the competition? Are you prepared to handle the response to marketing campaigns? How busy are your agents going to be?

Service level ties the resources you need to the results you want to achieve. It measures the degree to which you are getting the transactions “in the front door” and to an agent. It is a stable target for planning and budgeting. It is also a unifying concrete concept.

There are two major categories of inbound transactions. The first is calls that must be handled when they arrive (such as, voice calls, video calls, and calls integrated with the Internet). The performance objective here is service level. The second category is those calls that can be handled later (such as faxes, email, and video mail). The performance objective here is response time.

Service level is defined pure and simple as “X percent of calls answered in Y seconds,” such as ninety percent of the calls answered in twenty seconds. Many call center managers and directors misunderstand or mismanage service level. For example, some define it as a percentage of calls answered only. And it is unclear what that percentage really means. To others, service level means the percent of the time service level is met or the percentage of calls not abandoned. Still others define service level as average speed of answer or longest delayed call.

The only true measurement of service level is “X percent of all calls answered in Y seconds,” because this gives the clearest indication of what callers experience when they attempt to reach the call center.  You know exactly what happens to the percentage of callers you define. So why set a target service level?

  • It influences customer goodwill.
  • It affects levels of lost calls.
  • It has a bearing on agent burnout and errors.
  • It provides a link between resources and results.
  • It centralizes and focuses all call center planning.

A poor service level feeds on itself. As service deteriorates, more and more callers are likely to verbalize their criticisms when their calls are finally answered. Agents spend valuable time apologizing to callers, which drives up average handling time. That means they will not be able to handle as many calls as they could if service was more efficient. Consequently, agents will eventually pace themselves differently. If they cannot get a “breather” between calls because the “in-between” time no longer exists, they may start taking their breathers while they are on their calls as a survival mechanism. Turnover and burnout may go up, along with recruitment and training costs.

Quality also tends to suffer, which has a cyclical, negative impact on service level. When agents are over worked because of long caller queues, they become less accurate, lose their powers of concentration, and are generally less “customer friendly.” They make more mistakes. These mistakes contribute to repeat calls, unnecessary calls, escalated calls, and complaints to management, and callbacks – all of which drive service level further down. In short, poor service level then becomes a vicious cycle.

The relationship between quality and response time is similar. For example, if customers do not receive a reply to an email as quickly as expected, they may send another. This can be the start of a similar cycle of unnecessary workload clogging the system. In addition, if response time is too slow, what started out as a fax or email can turn into a phone call: “I’m calling to check on an email I sent you.” Or “I haven’t received a reply to my yet.”

Customers are demanding choices in how they are served and call centers are finding new and creative ways to meet those demands. The result is that call centers have more types of transactions to handle, which must be planned for and managed appropriately.

In most incoming call centers, calls arrive in repeating patterns, typically by season, day-of-week, and time-of-day. Accordingly, “time-series” forecasting methodologies, which assume that past patterns will continue into the future, are popular with call center managers. When time series forecasts are blended with appropriate client coordination and judgment, forecasts for the aggregate workload can be quite accurate, down to specific future periods of time.

Building forecasts on accurate historical and current data is critical. It must correctly reflect the number of callers who attempt to reach you. If it ignores callers who receive busy signals or who abandoned their calls, you will not accurately forecast your future calling demand.

The forecast provides the basis for:

  • Determining base staff required to meet service level objectives.
  • Calculating system and trunking requirements.
  • Minimizing abandoned and blocked calls.
  • Formalizing accurate and workable schedules.
  • Meeting caller expectations.
  • Analyzing projected staffing and network costs.
  • Nurturing an environment in which quality service can be provided.

To improve the predictability of a call center’s workload and staffing requirements, managers and directors should concentrate on the following twelve points:

1)      Do not skew the ACD statistics: Each agent has an impact on the components of handling time (talk time and after-call work combined) and on the data that will be used in forecasting and planning for future call loads. When the queue is building, it can be tempting to postpone some after-call work (wrap-up) that should be done at the time of the call. Other problems occur when agents needlessly remove themselves from rotation or intentionally take steps to block new calls from being assigned to them. These all serve to skew reports and cause planning problems, which may lead to increased errors.

2)      Emphasize quality: The pressure of a backed-up queue often forces supervisors and agents to make tough tradeoffs between seemingly competing objectives, such as service level and quality. However, while service level and quality seem to be at odds in the short term, poor quality will negatively affect service level over time by contributing to repeat calls and other forms of waste and rework. The emphasis should be on handling each call correctly, regardless of how backed up the queue is.

3)      Avoid callbacks: Many call centers have discovered the hard way that giving callers the option to leave a message when the queue is backed up often backfires. This just causes the necessity for more calls into an already busy queued up system. In the final analysis, it makes more sense to handle the inbound calls when they arrive.

4)      Anticipate and manage growth: Analyze the likely impact of growth on your call center. This often takes the form of a chart or document that illustrates the projected costs of growing the center in increments. This document should include things like required lead times and key decision points associated with adding workstations, new equipment, or even a new facility.

5)      Develop better communication with key clients: The forecast is doomed if strong ties and communication does not exist with key and high volume clients. Most of what happens in a call center is initiated by personnel operating outside the call center operation. There is absolutely no substitute for knowing well in advance when a client is starting a new program, when new products are being introduced, or when a new ad or mailing is scheduled.

6)      Make forecasting a collaborative process: Involve supervisors and lead agents in the forecasting process on a rotating basis. This will give you two positive results: a) They will more clearly understand the pulse of the call load and the reasoning behind the schedule structure. Because of this, they will more readily adhere to them with better results. b) Supervisors and agents are the front line. They continual deal with callers and their “ear is to the ground.” Because of this, they can help anticipate caller reactions to changes and developments in the market place, and the organization’s services.

7)      Track absenteeism: Schedule adherence has a direct impact on the workload. It is important to anticipate absenteeism in advance. Contrary to conventional wisdom, absenteeism is reasonably predictable. For example, for call centers with typical Monday-Friday schedules, absenteeism tends to be higher on Mondays and Fridays than on any other day of the week. Track attendance and look for patterns in attendance compliance.

8)      Anticipate the factors affecting caller tolerance: The seven factors influence caller tolerance:

  • Motivation to complete the call
  • Availability of substitutes or alternatives
  • Competition’s service level
  • Callers’ level of expectations
  • Time available to the caller
  • Who is paying for the call
  • General human behavior

Putting thought into these factors greatly helps to anticipate caller needs and behavior.

9)      Track and manage non-phone activities: Forecasting non-phone activities is a challenge. Many call center managers and directors who are used to getting detailed information on the call load, long for similar reports on non-phone activity. These activities often occur in predictable patterns and usually have a strong correlation to other forecasts such as call load or other factors. Investigate the tracking capabilities of your ACD, forecasting/staffing software, or computer database. As a last resort, you can track these non-phone activities manually as they occur.

10)   Educate callers: The inbound call load tends to be less erratic when callers are aware of other channels of service alternatives such as fax, email, or Web enhanced services. Billing inserts, targeted advertisements, newsletter articles, and customer support sections in user manuals are all examples of ways to better educate callers on the service alternatives available. These, of course, require cooperation from your client to effectively communicate with their customers on your behalf. Short of that, recordings can be played for callers to let them know of alternate points of contact or ancillary service mechanisms.

11)   Minimize transferred and escalated calls: An excessive number of transferred and escalated calls will wreak havoc on the workload forecast. Take steps to address the root causes. Common problems include inadequate training, insufficient authority, incomplete or missing database information, poor call routing, and in many cases agents and supervisors simply “passing the buck” because they are unwilling or unmotivated to find a solution for the caller. Agents and supervisors must truly “take ownership” of their calls to a logical conclusion.

12)   Accomplish as much as possible during talk time: Errors are usually reduced whenever tasks related to inbound calls can be completed with the caller still on the line. This minimizes the time agents would otherwise spend in less predictable non-live work modes, such as completing an order or revising a message.

Workforce Management is an all-encompassing multifaceted undertaking. No one person or group can expect to consistently manage this area efficiently as an entity onto themselves. This is a call center-wide process. This never-ending process is dependant upon the constant flow, input, reporting, and analysis of accurate data.

In the final analysis, world class call center operations management and its major component, workforce management, comes down to mastery of the following three management philosophies:

Understand the limits of policy and procedure manuals: You have to realize that policy and procedure manuals were written for ideal circumstances, which rarely exist in the reality of day-to-day operations. Policy and procedure manuals are simply basic guides to be applied with common sense and business sense, in relationship to the individual situation at the time. Factors like employee needs, client wishes, budgetary considerations, staffing needs, current company and mandates all dictate and demand a different intelligent interpretation of the rules. Many management people fail because if the answer is not clearly spelled out for them in the manuals in “black and white,” they do not know how to handle a situation. Everything and every situation is not “black and white.” Many times, it is “gray,” which brings us to the second management philosophy.

Be flexible and responsive to managing the “gray” area: The true measure of success for any manager or director is determined by how well they deal with, and cope with, the “gray” area on a consistent basis. The call center environment is demanding, ever changing, and multifaceted. There are constant changes in staffing needs, scheduling issues, service level agreement compliance, connectivity issues, hardware and software upgrades, training requirements, scripting changes, disciplinary issues, and attendance problems. The ability to think on your feet, to be flexible to change, to make an intelligent decision based on the information at hand and then be able to change direction on a dime and sell those changes in a positive way to your staff, really determines how successful you are going to be. But, you cannot do it alone. You have to be able to believe and trust in your direct reports to carry out your mandate. In order to do that, they have to believe in your capabilities and respect your direction. You cannot demand this from them; you have to earn it. And you earn it by leading by example, treating people humanly, being consistent in the administration of the rules, and the issuance of praise and discipline. This brings us to the third philosophy of management.

Get out of your “Ivory Tower:” Roll up your sleeves and be very visible in your center. In order to be completely successful as a director or manager, you have to get out of your office and to where the “real action” is out on the floor. You cannot simply sit back and say “do this because I am the boss” and really expect to get anything accomplished, unless you truly understand first hand, how things are “really working” on the floor. You have to roll up your sleeves, mingle amongst the front line staff and process calls yourself. This is the only way you can truly know exactly what is working and not working from an agent standpoint. Another aspect to being on the floor is that you are very visible and accessible to your people. You will have your eyes and ears closer to the action and you will pick up trends and information that you will never get sitting in your office. Best of all, your entire staff will see you in a different light, as a human being, leading by example, and you will earn their respect. And after all, is not this what it is really all about?

The Article has been written by Mr. Phillip J. Romero is the Director of Contact Center Operations at IT&T Ltd., New Delhi, India.

[From Connection MagazineJuly/Aug 2002]