Agent Adherence 101: Three Simple Strategies to Improved Service Levels

By Bob Webb

There are a myriad of reasons why agents fall out of adherence and service levels plummet. It is an inherent problem for call centers. Agents arriving late to work, leaving work early, logging in to the wrong queue, taking lunch and breaks at unscheduled times, or getting tied up on a customer phone call when breaks or lunches are supposed to begin all can have severe repercussions for service levels. The delicate balance between under- and overstaffing can be easily tipped when agent adherence goes unchecked. Once a client is lost to poor service, it may be unlikely to ever regain their trust and business.

The statistics tell the story. If two percent of agents are not in the right seat at the right time, the percentage of calls answered within the designated performance objective typically will drop by ten percent. If ten percent of agents are out of adherence, one-half of the center’s incoming calls will be impacted and likely will not be answered within the target time frame.

While real-time adherence monitoring can help strengthen a call center’s performance, peak results can be achieved by following three basic rules:

1. Understand the Root Cause: Numbers can be misleading. Verify that an agent who appears to have fallen below the center’s adherence targets in a given week or month has not become a victim of someone’s failure to record exceptions in the schedule. A supervisor may have neglected to log an illness-related absence, a switch in a lunch schedule, or a reassignment from phone duty to e-mail duty. Or, perhaps call volume was twice what was expected, causing planned meetings to be cancelled.

2. Be Realistic When Setting Adherence Goals: Typically, adherence goals should be in the ninety to ninety-five percent range, meaning that agents should be engaged in scheduled activities ninety to ninety-five percent of the time over the course of a week or a month. This allows latitude for minor scheduling oversights and unforeseen developments.

3. Allow for Grace Periods: Adherence rules should include grace periods that must be observed before the agent is deemed to be out of compliance. It is impractical to take punitive action against an agent for returning to his or her desk at 2:02 instead of 2:00. Being too rigid will affect morale and, again, customer service. Different thresholds should be established for different activities. A late start at the beginning of a shift or a late return from lunch may have a grace period of two minutes, for example, while a late lunch start may have a grace period of five minutes. These policies are necessary to accommodate the realities of call center work, where an agent scheduled to go on break at 10:00 a.m. may be delayed by a call received at 9:59.

Managers need every option available to preserve service levels and avoid what could become a supervisory nightmare. The best option for monitoring agent adherence is real-time adherence tools which are available with many workforce scheduling applications. These adherence systems communicate with the call center’s Automatic Call Distributor (ACD) to determine each agent’s current activity and compare that information to his or her assigned schedule.  Supervisors can view adherence status at any time in a window that is refreshed according to the timetable set by the user. When an agent is out of adherence, the system typically spotlights the discrepancy by a visual device such as color-coding. The more comprehensive systems provide important additional information by indicating the nature of the violation (such as a late start, improper activity, or logged out early) as well as the agent’s current state (for instance, ACD inbound, logged off, or after-call work) and the duration of the problem.

An additional benefit provided by these systems is the ability for managers to establish adherence targets that define the amount of time an agent should be engaged in scheduled activities on a weekly or monthly basis. These targets are used in reports that track each agent’s performance over time to aid in personnel evaluations and ongoing quality-of-service efforts.

Another excellent option is the use of pop-up messages sent to agents’ computer screens when they are out of compliance for a certain period of time, as determined by the supervisor. This feature can be used to notify agents when they are logged into the wrong queue, not logged on at all, or in other situations that can affect overall operations.

The goal of real-time adherence monitoring is simply to reduce unproductive time by keeping agents in their seats when they’re supposed to be. If only a few agents are out of compliance, overall performance probably will not be compromised. But if too many agents are out of adherence for too long, the results can be catastrophic. While call centers with fewer than fifty seats may be able to track agent activity by a visual check, larger centers can greatly benefit from the use of automated agent adherence systems.

Bob Webb is vice president/sales for Pipkins, a worldwide supplier of workforce management software and services to the call center industry.  

[From Connection Magazine March 2007]