Tag Archives: Workforce Management Articles

How to Properly Monitor Your Call Center with Calibration

By Marcia W. Hicks

What is calibration and why do you need it? Calibration means standardizing a process by determining its deviation from the standard, in order to determine the proper correction factors. In a call center, calibration is the process by which you limit variation in the way performance criteria are interpreted.  Calibration is a critical element of improving call-monitoring performance. To implement it successfully, you should first answer several questions:

Is your organization committed to improving call quality? Do you have a paper and pencil call-monitoring system or an automated system? Or neither? Maybe your supervisors are too busy putting out fires, answering questions, writing reports, signing off on timesheets, handling escalated calls and solving customer service problems to institute a call-monitoring program.

The first step is to recognize that you need some type of monitoring system. You have your customer service representatives (CSRs) in place, but do they know everything they should? Are they acting in a professional manner? Are they providing your customers with correct and sufficient information? Do they have proper speaking and listening skills?

Every call center needs to have a monitoring program to guarantee its success. There are several key steps to follow when designing such a program:

  • Identify the key performance criteria that result in successful calls. These include product knowledge and listening skills.
  • Select measurable attributes that support each of the performance criteria. Listening skills could include not interrupting the caller, not asking the caller to repeat information, etc.
  • Determine the overall weight for each criterion in the total call score.
  • Select the scoring method (1-to-5, yes/no, etc.) for each criterion.
  • Define the monitoring process and performance benchmarks.
  • Train all call center members – both monitors and telephone reps – about the performance criteria and benchmarks.
  • And finally, conduct calibration sessions to work out any bugs before you begin live monitoring.

Each step in the process is critical to the success of the program. However, the calibration process is often overlooked. For a monitoring process to succeed, it is essential to integrate calibration into the planning, implementation, and ongoing maintenance of your monitoring program.

      Calibration is the best way to prevent allegations of inequity and favoritism. It eliminates perceived bias by ensuring consistent scoring. When calibration is achieved, it will not matter who did the monitoring and scoring, because the outcome will be the same. Once CSRs understand this, the coaching process can focus on recognizing achievements and identifying opportunities for improvement, instead of whether a particular score is accurate.

Calibration is not a quick or easy process. It takes a considerable commitment. It may take many hours of discussion and practice before your team begins to score a call in a uniform way. While it is difficult, the rewards will be considerable.

How to Conduct a Calibration Session: Anyone responsible for monitoring and scoring calls should have an excellent working knowledge of the call center’s customer service and/or telemarketing programs. This includes quality assurance representatives (if you have them), supervisors, and managers. It is also important to involve company executives, so they understand how the standards are administered. Then, monitors should be given formal training about the performance criteria and definitions that have been established for the monitoring program. Once this training is complete, calibration sessions can begin.

When planning a calibration session, be sure to schedule at least one hour for the session, and prepare five or six recorded calls to get the most from your calibration time. If recorded calls are not available, be sure to test the dial-in access and have an up-to-date CSR list available so you can quickly find live calls.

Start the calibration process by choosing a facilitator. The role of the facilitator is to direct discussions, take notes, and keep the team focused on the goal. The next step is to listen to a call. Have all participants use your evaluation form to score the call. Have one person verbally recap what they have just heard. Recapping the call reinforces listening skills and attention to detail; take turns doing this so that everyone learns how. During the recap, the monitor will identify the areas in which he/she subtracted points, and give a final score.

At this point, the facilitator should moderate a discussion to review the score. Be prepared–these debates can be passionate! It is not important to agree on a final score. The point is to come to an understanding of the accepted criteria for a successful call, and apply that understanding to evaluating calls in the future.

At the end of the session, the facilitator should review the notes, highlighting any changes or group decisions that have been made. These notes should then be distributed quickly to all people who actively monitor calls, since it is unlikely that everyone will be able to participate in each calibration session.

Some Ground Rules: In order for any calibration session to be a positive and productive experience, you should establish ground rules and communicate them to all participants in advance. Here are some tips to keep in mind as you get started:

  • Create an environment in which everyone can feel comfortable sharing his or her opinion. It is human nature to be wary of taking risks. Voicing an opinion is taking a risk.
  • Avoid being confrontational. Allow those on your team to finish explaining their thoughts before you begin to explain your position. It is important that everyone’s opinions are heard.
  • Talk about the facts, not feelings. The performance criteria should be defined by measurable tasks, so keep the discussion focused on what can be taught, not thought.
  • When making decisions, consider what would be best for the overall success of the program. Do not make a decision just because everyone has grown tired of discussing the issue!
  • Enforce compliance. It is critical to your overall program to identify and warn any person who monitors using their own standards, and not the standards agreed upon during calibration.
  • Do not give up or become frustrated when the process gets difficult and some people seem ready to quit. The calibration process is not a sprint; it is a marathon.

Determining Your Calibration Success: How do you know that you have achieved a successful level of calibration? It is best to take a phased approach. When your team is just beginning the calibration process, set an attainable goal: strive for overall call scores to be within five points (or 10 percent) of each other. In the beginning, scores may vary greatly from person to person. To achieve the first goal, it may take from 10 to 12 one-hour sessions (or more) of calibration for a customer service application, and four to six one-hour sessions (or more) for a telemarketing application.

Once the first goal has been achieved, raise the bar by lowering the scoring variation goal from five points to three points (or a comparable variation percentage). It takes from two to four hours a month to keep the team calibrated, depending on the complexity of the program.

Solving the Puzzle: The concept is simple: a good monitoring program with coaching feedback will help ensure a successful call center. Monitoring is also a key to customer feedback. You may be alerted to a trend if you hear more than one CSR handle an unusual complaint or comment. It is important to produce reports that show performance trends by CSR, team and your entire center. The last piece to solving the monitoring puzzle is to implement an ongoing calibration process. Once you have mastered it, you will have found the secret to a successful monitoring program.

Marcia Hicks is a senior consultant at Kowal Associates, Inc. She spent more than 20 years with AT&T and New England Telephone in customer service, project management, and data center assignments. At Kowal Associates, Marcia has worked extensively with a Fortune 50 company to design and implement inbound customer service, consumer affairs, and monitoring programs. She has performed numerous call center audits, providing clients and providers with feedback on how to better manage their call center (both outsourced and in-house). Marcia can be reached at mhicks@kowalassociates.com.

[From Connection MagazineJul/Aug 2003]

Workforce Management Software

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

Projecting incoming call center traffic and scheduling enough staff to match the projections are challenging, time-consuming, and thankless tasks. And the larger the call center, the more complex this process becomes. If a staff doubles in size, the effort to generate an accurate and effective schedule can be expected to increase four-fold. Fortunately, there is software available to make this task easier and quicker. This software is known generically as workforce management software. The offerings from six leading companies are covered below:

Aspect Communications Corporation‘s offering is called eWorkforce Management. It automates the tasks involved in contact center staffing. The software determines the number of customer service representatives (CSRs) with various skill sets that a contact center will need to cover specific shifts. It then creates work schedules, assigns CSRs, and tracks performance. The schedules are based on the software’s predictions of the volume and patterns of incoming communications (voice, Web, and email), the contact center’s desired service levels, and the CSR’s own schedule preferences. Supervisors can view real-time staff activity, compare it to assigned work schedules, and be alerted with color-coded alarms when staff aren’t adhering to their schedules. They can also provide staff access to their work schedules with the option to request schedule changes, time off, or overtime using a Web browser or an interactive voice response system.

Callcenter Performance Management, LLC provides two interrelated products: Callcenter Floor Manager and Callcenter Bid Manager.

Callcenter Bid Manager (CBM) automates the shift bid process. It allows the user to download employee and schedule information from other workforce management tools, allowing the call center agents to view schedule information online and define and maintain their own schedule preferences. CBM allows the call center manager to define specific business rules that govern the assignment process. One feature is CBM’s ability to dynamically match open schedules throughout the assignment process against the preferences on file, ensuring that each agent obtains the best possible schedule. The Callcenter Floor Manager starts at $15,000 (including 200 agent licenses); pricing is progressively discounted for incremental licenses.

Callcenter Floor Manager (CFM) completes post bid tasks such as creating supervisor schedules, assigning agents to supervisors based on optimal coverage criteria, and assigning agents to workstations. Newly assigned schedules can be downloaded from CBM or other workforce management tools. These schedules can be analyzed in CFM to identify seating requirements using a variety of different scenarios. For example, the application can assign a unique seat per representative, or perform a number of “hot seating” assignments to obtain optimal utilization of workstations. CFM attempts to balance utilization of space, coverage between agents and supervisors, and seating team members near their supervisors. Pricing for the Callcenter Floor Manager starts at $20,000 (including 200 agent licenses); pricing is progressively discounted for incremental licenses. (Note: the price of the Web-enabled version is slightly higher.)

Left Bank Solutions, Inc. provides the Monet Workforce Management System. It is a forecasting and scheduling package. First, it forecasts agent requirements using service objectives and historical data, considering incoming calls, emails, and other non-call activities. Agent schedules are determined for each 15-minute period of the day, building shrinkage, maximum tolerance, and abandon levels into the forecasts. Customized shifts and schedules are then created to handle forecasted volumes after considering employee data such as availability, ranking, skill set, and other agent profile information. In doing so, the schedule can contain an unlimited number of splits or agent groups. There is also an option to manage seasonal fluctuations and holiday call volume. Cost information is provided for all forecasted shifts and agent schedules so users can produce staffing budgets. Reports can be exported to Excel and in .PDF formats; reports and agent schedules can both be sent via email.

The Monet Workforce Management System is available in a single server (stand-alone or shared) configuration for ACD integrations. Pricing is $4,995.

Professional Resource Management, Inc.’s PC-based Agent Power product helps call center managers find a balance between service level and productivity. Agent Power projects call volume and agents needed by month, week, day, or half-hour increment. It then develops agent work schedules to match projected need with agent availability using agent preferences and skills.

Pricing varies; a system for 30 agents is priced at approximately $16,000.

Symon Communications, Inc. provides Community, a Web-browser-basedworkforce management product that enables schedule planning and labor cost control. Community compares service level needs against historical and real-time data to create a schedule that attempts to balance quality and costs. Community can create schedules and forecasts, optimize staffing, and track adherence in real time. Symon claims the package is easy to use and says it doesn’t require a specialized scheduler. Community also collects and analyzes data.

It provides capabilities of larger systems, but is priced to be affordable for centers as small as 25 seats. It is scalable for various size operations. All modules are included so there are no additional costs and all modules and features run on one file server. Pricing for Community was not provided.

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine. He’s a passionate wordsmith whose goal is to change the world one word at a time.  Read more of his articles at PeterDeHaanPublishing.com.

[From Connection MagazineJune 2003]

On-call Scheduling Software

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

[Read our case study about On-call Scheduling Software.]

Virtually all telemessaging operations and many inbound teleservice companies have an outbound component to their work. In the broadest sense this is “information dissemination.” Sometimes this means sending orders and messages to clients via email, fax, wave file, or voice mail. In other instances, timely communications is essential and information is paged or relayed to a cell phone. This is dispatching. It is a frequent activity with clients in the medical field, property management and service sectors, and technical support lines. While one key element of effective dispatching is timeliness, another essential factor is accuracy. In other words, the correct on-call person needs to be contacted in the manner they specify.

Various means are used to effectively record and track on-call schedules:

Paper: The manual paper method can be effective when only one or two agents need to reach a relatively small number of on-call personnel. Methods range from posting the on-call information on a bulletin board in each cubicle to using an on-call book where schedules (or on-call calendars) are organized and inserted. However, as the number of agents or the number of on-call schedules increases, the manual paper method quickly becomes ineffective. The primary limitations to the manual paper method are ensuring that all agents are aware of updates and are using the same information. Add to this the reality that many on-call schedules are faxed to the call center by clients, which results in clarity and readability problems.

Computerized: With today’s computerized call processing systems, it’s easy to enter the details of on-call schedules into the network. The same information for the appropriate client is available to any agent at any time. There is no fear of old information being used or concern that all agents may not have received the updates (which is particularly problematic when agents work from multiple locations). In this approach, the on-call schedule is organized in a free-form text box or window. The agent needs to scan the text box to find out who is on call at that moment. There are benefits to this approach, but there is also the risk of an agent reading the wrong day or selecting the wrong time.

Database: The next level of computerized on-call schedule tracking is to enter the data into a structured database. Again, information is consistently and readily available to all agents, plus it can be presented in a much more controlled format. The database method can also automatically query the schedule by day and time, presenting the schedule to the person who is on call at that point, rather than presenting the entire schedule to the agent to scan. This reduces error and speeds dispatch. Common features of database on-call software programs are that agents can edit the schedule, update contact numbers, and add personnel.

These benefits are confirmed by staffers at call centers using database on-call scheduling software. “With automated on-call scheduling, we can display time and date sensitive on-call information when a call is presented to a coordinator,” said Betty Brashear, call center operations manager at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “Our coordinators can also view schedules by calendar, individual, date, or period profile.”

These on-call databases can be configured to be accessible via the Internet and reside on password-protected or secure websites. In this case, clients can remotely add, delete, and edit personnel, as well as change contact numbers. With these options, clients can enter their on-call schedules themselves. This eliminates any chance for input error on the part of supervisors or data-entry personnel at the call center.

In fact, clients can completely plan their on-call schedule with these Web-based programs and most allow printing of a master schedule and individual schedules. Why would clients want to enter their own on-call schedule? There are several reasons. One is control. When clients enter their own information, they can be assured that it is communicated the way they want it communicated. Second is flexibility. The client can, at any time, update or change his or her on-call schedule and the changes are immediately available to call center agents. The third, and perhaps most compelling, enticement is that when properly presented to the client, the Web interface can become their scheduling software program. This eliminates the need for clients to buy, maintain, troubleshoot, and upgrade their own software; they merely use what the call center provides. A side benefit in this is that the client then enjoys greater value from the call center and may become a more loyal client. This is perhaps the most compelling reason to implement an Internet-accessible on-call scheduling database.

Several companies provide on-call scheduling software. Some offerings are platform specific, some can be interfaced to multiple systems, while others are platform independent:

Almond Hill Enterprises: Turbo-On-Call is a simple and inexpensive way to handle clients’ on-call schedules. It provides monthly, biweekly, weekly, and daily views along with reporting features. It allows real-time access by the call center and clients and integrates fully with TurboSchedule calendars to provide a unified scheduling system. Like TurboSchedule, Turbo-On-Call requires no capital outlay, special hardware, or software to load or maintain. It is Web-based and can work with any Web-enabled or Web-ready call-processing platform. It costs $19.95 per schedule per month or $9.95 per month as an add-on to TurboSchedule.

For more information, contact Almond Hill Enterprises at 800-398-6100 or cs@turboschedule.com.

Alston Tascom offers two on-call scheduling options. The first is its on-call scheduler, which is integrated into the Tascom Evolution system. It automatically indicates who is currently on call, along with their contact information. The call center agents can speed-dial the appropriate person directly from the on-call form. Also, if the person on call has an alphanumeric pager programmed into the Tascom system, an agent can initiate the page. Authorized agents can also look ahead to determine who is on call in the future and can make temporary adjustments as needed.

Alston Tascom’s other offering is AppointmentsOnCall.com. It is completely Web-based and is platform independent.

Contact Alston Tascom at 909-548-7300, info@alstontascom.com, or www.alstontascom.com.

Amtelco: The Infinity on-call scheduling module is flexible, easily adapting to meet a call center’s call handling needs. On-call scheduling is automated, making it easy to see who is currently on call for a particular client. On-call personnel are automatically placed on and taken off calls at designated days and times.

The companion feature, Web On-Call, allows clients to create and maintain their own schedules. Agents see this information immediately and have secure access to add or edit schedules as necessary. Reports include a daily and monthly report and an individual’s schedule detail, as well as a month display in calendar format.

Contact Amtelco at 800-356-9148, info@amtelco.com, or callcenter.amtelco.com.

Startel‘s on-call scheduling product increases productivity through features such as time/date sensitive on-call information display, auto-population of key account information for messages, drop-down menus, scheduling up to a year in advance, and an automatic audit trail. The schedule can reside on a LAN so each department can maintain its own schedule, record notes on changes, and access historical views. Schedules are password protected. The on-call schedule with Internet access maintains all of the local application functionality.

“It is so easy to maintain complex database information which can include names, specialties, account number, alpha pager number, home phone, hospital relationships,” said user JoAnn Brown, RN at Speed E-Z Physicians Exchange.

For more information, call Startel at 800-782-7835.

[From Connection MagazineMay 2003]

Call Center Staffing Mathematics

By Penny Reynolds

Sharpen your pencils. Dust off the calculator. It’s time for a math lesson.

Running a successful call center operation means managing by the numbers. And the most important number of all is the number of bodies responding to customer calls each hour. Since more than two-thirds of call center operating costs are related to personnel, getting just the right number of staff in place is critical in terms of both service and cost. This article outlines a systematic process for calculating call center resource requirements and evaluating the most important service and cost tradeoffs.

Calculating Workload: The first step in the process is forecasting calls, analyzing historical data, trends and seasonal patterns to arrive at monthly estimates, then using day-of-week and time-of-day patterns to break down the numbers into hourly or half-hourly forecasts.

With these call volume forecasts and some assumptions about average handle time (AHT), we’re ready to perform a simple calculation to arrive at staff workload. It is simply the number of calls forecast for each hour multiplied by the average handle time of each call. The average handle time (AHT) is made up of two components: actual conversation or talk time plus any after call wrap-up time associated with the call. The wrap-up time can include almost anything – filling out a form, updating the customer database, etc.

This handle time will likely vary by time of day as well as by day of the week. For example, you may find that AHT is higher during the evening shift since you may have newer staff working the undesirable hours, or simply have callers who like to talk a little longer during the wee hours of the morning! Most call centers simply use an average number for handle time across the board, which can be dangerous if there is significant variance. Imprecise numbers can contribute to understaffing or overstaffing, so it is best to use numbers that actually reflect time-of-day or day-of-week patterns.

The workload number is then used to determine how many base staff are needed to handle the calls. What makes staffing for a call center different than any other kind of staffing situation is that this workload does not represent typical work patterns. Let’s compare an incoming call center to a group of clerical workers processing mail in the same company. Between 8:00 and 9:00 a.m., the clerical staff has 400 pieces of mail to process and each piece takes three minutes to handle. That is 1,200 minutes, or 20 hours of workload. How many people need to be working to accomplish all the work by 9 a.m.?

Okay, this isn’t the tough math part yet. To process 20 hours of workload, 20 staff would be needed. The reason for the one-to-one ratio is that the mail tasks represent sequential workload. In other words, the staff can process the work as back-to-back tasks and each person can accomplish one hour of work in an hour’s time.

Determining Call Center Staff Requirements: Now it is time to staff the call center. These employees are getting 400 calls and each one takes an average of three minutes to handle – two minutes of conversation and another minute of after-call work. Again, we have 1,200 minutes or 20 hours of workload. How many people are needed?

Unfortunately, we cannot handle the calls with only 20 people. At 8:05, there may be 22 calls arriving, meaning all 20 agents are busy, with another two calls in queue. Then at 8:15, there may only be 16 calls in progress, meaning four of our staff are idle. Those four people won’t be able to accomplish a full hour’s work, simply because of the way the calls have arrived. In an incoming call center, the work doesn’t arrive in a back-to-back fashion. Rather, the work arrives whenever our customers decide to place calls, so we have random workload instead of sequential work. This brings us to the first math rule of call center staffing: You must have more staff in place than hours of actual work to do.

So how many extra do we need? For 20 hours of workload, will we need 21 agents? Twenty-four? Thirty? The number of staff needed depends on the level of service we wish to deliver. Obviously, the more staff we have, the shorter the delay. The fewer the staff, the longer the caller will wait.

Determining what happens with a given number of resources in place to accomplish a defined amount of workload requires a mathematical model that replicates the situation at hand. There are several telephone traffic engineering models available and one in particular is well suited to the world of incoming call centers. We use a model called Erlang C that takes into account the randomness of the arriving workload as well as the queuing behavior (holding for the first available rep) of the calls.

An Example of Erlang C: Let us look at Erlang C predictions based on the 20 hours of workload we defined earlier. The table below shows what would happen with anywhere from 21 to 28 staff (Column 1) in place to handle the 20 hours of incoming call workload:

Number of Staff Delayed Portion  Delay of   Delayed Callers Average Delay
Service Level
(in 20 sec)
21 76 % 180 sec 137 sec 32%
22 57% 90 sec 51 sec 55%
23 42% 60 sec 25 sec 70%
24 30% 45 sec 13 sec 81%
25 21% 36 sec 8 sec 88%
26 14% 30 sec 4 sec 93%
27 9% 26 sec 2 sec 96%
28 6% 23 sec 1 sec 97%

Let’s take a look at each of the columns and measures of service. The second column shows the portion of calls that would find no agent available and go into queue and the third column shows how long those delayed callers would wait, on average. Therefore, with 24 agents in place, the Erlang C model predicts that 30 percent of callers would be delayed and that they would wait an average of 45 seconds in queue.

The third column represents the average delay of all calls, including the ones that are answered immediately. So, with 24 staff in place, 30 percent of calls would go to the queue and wait there 45 seconds, while the other 70 percent would be answered immediately. The average delay, or average speed of answer (ASA) is the weighted average of both these groups [(45 x .30) + (0 x .70)] = 13 seconds. It’s important to understand that this ASA number is not the average queue experience for the callers. Either they wait (and do so for an average of 45 seconds), or they don’t wait at all. The ASA isn’t a “real life” number – it’s a statistic to represent the average of the two other numbers.

The fourth column represents service level. Service level represents the percentage of callers that are handled in a specified amount of delay time, measured in seconds. This table shows the percentage that are handled within a specified 20 seconds of wait time. A common call center service goal is to have 80 percent of all calls handled in 20 seconds or less. To meet this goal, we would need 24 staff in place, yielding a service level of 81 percent in 20 seconds.

Staffing to Service Goals: So what should your service goal be? While there are some common goals seen often in call centers, there is no such thing as an industry standard for service level goals. Setting a speed of answer goal depends upon many different factors. Call centers need to consider enterprise goals and marketing strategies, competitor standards, and most importantly, the expectations of customers. We often find that call center management marches toward the same service goal year after year without ever considering whether the goal should be higher or lower based on the business environment or customer demands.

Customer attitudes have certainly changed when it comes to speed-of-answer expectations. More and more callers are basing their perspective and judging your service on their last, best service experience. Taking a look at your call center’s ACD reports and looking at when callers begin to abandon calls will give you some idea about a worst case delay scenario. But setting the best case goal should involve getting feedback from senior management, customers, competitors, and other centers – and then evaluating cost and service tradeoffs to determine the impact of raising or lowering the goal.

Relationship of Staffing and Service: Let’s take one more look at our staffing table and review the impact on service as staff numbers change. Obviously, delay times increase as agents are subtracted, and service improves as staff are added. Although service is not affected to the same degree each way, this is a terribly important phenomenon to understand call center staffing.

Let us say we have decided we need to have 24 staff in place to handle the 20 hours of telephone workload in order to meet an 80 percent in 20 seconds service level goal. If we adjust the staff numbers up or down, there are two very different results. First, if we add a person or two, the ASA improves from 13 seconds to eight seconds with 25 staff, and then to four seconds with 26 staff. The first person added yielded a five-second improvement, with the next person gaining us only a four-second improvement, and a third person would result in an ASA of two seconds, a two-second improvement. Adding staff results in diminishing returns, with less and less impact as the staff numbers get higher.

Now let us look at the effect of subtracting staff from our 24-person requirement. When we subtract one, two, and three agents our ASA increases to 25 seconds, 51 seconds, and 137 seconds respectively. The first person out resulted in an increase of 12 seconds, the second in another 26-second decline, and the third in a jump of another 86 seconds! By taking staff away, service worsens, and it does so dramatically at some points. There are especially big jumps as our staff number gets closer and closer to the hours of workload.

You can view this as both good news and bad news. The good news is that if you’re delivering poor service in your call center, you can improve it dramatically by adding just one more person. On the other hand, when service levels are mediocre to bad, one more person dropping out can send service into such a downhill slide that it’s nearly impossible to recover.

Calculating Shrinkage and Scheduling Requirements: The numbers we’ve discussed so far are purely “bodies in chairs” numbers. These numbers assume that all agents are always available to handle call workload.

But we all know that agents are not available much of the time. So, we must factor this reality into our scheduling requirements so that we end up with enough staff to man the phones.

In calculating staff requirements, a final adjustment needs to be made to factor in all the situations that make staff unproductive. We refer to this unproductive time as “staff shrinkage” and define it as any time for which agents are being paid but are not available to handle calls. We include such activities as breaks, meetings, training sessions, off-phone work, and general unproductivity.

In most centers, staff shrinkage ranges from 20 to 35 percent. We account for this shrinkage factor in our staff requirement by dividing the Erlang C staff requirement by the productive staff percentage (or one minus the shrinkage percentage). In our example, if 24 agents are needed and our shrinkage factor is 30 percent, then 24 divided by seven-tenths (70 percent) yields a requirement of 34 schedules.

Next Steps: In a future article, we’ll help you understand a few more of the numbers associated with call center staffing, including the effect of arrival rate, calculation of staff occupancy, and impact of size on call center efficiencies. We’ll also discuss how workload calculations and staffing models are different when planning resources for handling other channels of communications, such as outbound calls or emails.

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.

[From Connection MagazineMarch 2003]

Strategic Call Distribution

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

I will admit it – I have a propensity towards idealism. I think that life should be fair and that everyone, regardless of position or past, ought to be granted equality of opportunity. This perspective causes me to advocate impartiality when distributing calls in the call center, with each call handled in the order in which it was received, without distinction of origin or pre-determined importance. However, it seems that few teleservices companies concur with this conclusion; in fact, pragmatism and reality dictate a different course of action.

The first deviation is often to give primacy to sales calls, client check-in lines, or the main company number. After all, the speed and efficiency at which these calls are handled will form the callers’ perception of the level of service provided. It is this perception that attracts new business and retain existing clients, thereby influencing the bottom line.

The second departure from call equality is also self-imposed, whereby certain account groups are deemed more important than others. Although the determining factors vary – client profession, caller urgency, dollar value of the call, or type of service provided – the results are a definite segregation of callers into a tiered call-distribution scheme. Though this is a natural development, there is little merit for doing so and it should be abandoned.

A third divergence is more insidious. This results from a natural reaction to the “squeaky wheel” syndrome. It is when the chronic complainers and those who are excessively demanding are given a higher call priority in order to appease their sense of self-worth or to mitigate their criticisms about the service level. This is the most ominous departure from ideal call-distribution – and most self-defeating. Examine the clients in this category. We have already defined them to be overly critical and implied them to be frequent users – and abusers – of customer service resources. Now dig a bit further. How do these clients treat your staff? Are they pleasant and a joy to talk to or do they challenge, threaten, and denigrate your agents with each interaction and at every opportunity? Are these the clients who take the joy out of your employee’s work and have the ability to reduce staff to tears? I suspect that this might be the case. If this is not enough, now look at their profitability level. If they badger both the customer service staff and the agent, they are likely treating accounting the same way, extracting credits, discounts, and other monetary concessions under the pretext of “poor service.” The conclusion is inescapable: these clients are given the highest level of service, treat your staff the worst, and are unprofitable! This is masochistic behavior; stop the madness!

I propose – in partial jest but with thought-provoking seriousness – that a different model be considered. If one must deviate from the idealism of universal call-distribution, do so with thoughtful analysis and self-serving diligence. First, implement call-distribution based on profitability. Perform a profitability analysis, dividing clients into five groups relative to your average revenue per minute. The top group is those clients whose revenue per minute is twice the average. This makes sense; you make a nice profit with every call you answer, so respond quickly and give it your best. Keep this group happy and retain them as clients. The second group will be those clients whose revenue per minute is 1.25 to two times your average. This, too, is an important group, which deserves prompt attention and above average service. The middle group will be those at the average revenue per minute and up to 1.25 times. This is the average group and they deserve – and pay for – average service. Although these three groups should include the majority of your client base, they will likely not comprise the majority of your traffic. Divide the remaining clients into two groups according to profitability. The exact cut-off point will be a result of how diligent you have been in attempting to make every client profitable. For the sake of example, assume that the fourth group will comprise those who are between seventy-five percent of the average and the average. Then the lowest call priority will be given to those with revenues per minute of under seventy-five percent of the average. Why not give these accounts the lowest priority? After all, it could be argued – on a micro level – that you lose money every time you answer their line! (On a macro level, it can conversely be argued that these accounts necessarily contribute to the overhead and the economies-of-scale of your organization.)

What I have advocated is likely a reversal of your current call-distribution configuration, thinking logically and tactically instead of being reactionary. Imagine if you will, handling yet another customer service call from a frequent complainer. “You took too long to answer my line,” the client asserts. “You are on our ‘economy’ rate plan,” you respond politely, “so your call is given a lower priority. You are getting exactly what you are paying for…now for an extra twenty-five cents a minute…”

If that sounds like fun, as well as being a good business strategy, take the concept to the next level. In the preceding discourse, I proposed five levels of service. Now expand that to eleven levels by inserting a grade between each of the original ones and by adding one at the very top and one beneath the lowest. The clients are still in the original five levels, but there is now a graduated step in between for fine-tuning. First, survey your staff. Which clients do they like and which cause undo consternation? For the nice clients – those who are kind and pleasant, who drop off a gift at Christmas, who treat your staff with dignity and respect – move them up one level in the call-distribution hierarchy. After all, these clients make your staff happy and a happy staff is an effective staff. Conversely, those clients cited for their undesirable characteristics – the ones your staff are afraid to talk to – move them down a notch. The clients will still be essentially ranked by profitability, but fine-tuned based on staff interactions.

Next, make a return visit to accounting. Look at payment history. Some clients will consistently remit payment soon after getting your invoice. Many will pay by the due date. Some will habitually stretch your terms out to 45 or 60 days and a small minority require an ongoing collection effort. Again, modify your call handling priorities based on payment history. Those who pay immediately are moved up one level; those who pay late, move down a notch. But those who present a constant challenge to collect, move down two steps. After all, it is likely that eventually they will leave you with an uncollectable debt, so why not give others a higher priority?

If this discussion has you excited – wonderful! If your mind is churning with revolutionary ideas to change client call handling priorities – great! However, do not attempt to implement these radical changes all at once, or even too quickly. The shock to your client base would be more than they – or your business – can tolerate. Rather, begin to think strategically about call-distribution, making small, incremental steps to prioritizing calls in the best interest of your organization; the change will be extraordinary.

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine. He’s a passionate wordsmith whose goal is to change the world one word at a time.  Read more of his articles at PeterDeHaanPublishing.com.

[From Connection Magazine – Sept/Oct 2002]

Workforce Management Solutions To Increase Call Center Profitability

By Penny Reynolds

In today’s contact center, where the overwhelming majority of ongoing expense is related to staffing, optimizing the personnel resource is critical. Getting the “just right” number of staff in place to answer incoming calls, place outbound calls, respond to emails, and handle Web contacts is critical to call center success and profitability. Overstaffing results in spending needless dollars on additional staff, while understaffing will affect service and have a detrimental affect on morale and contribute to staff turnover.

Call center managers have a wealth of performance and service statistics available to them from the ACD and other contact center technologies. Call volume, time-of-day call distribution, and contact handle times are now available, along with much information about individual and team productivity. All this information can be used to estimate future call volumes, predict how many staff will be required to handle the contacts, and determine schedules that best match the workforce to the contact workload.

The Need for Automation

The changing mix of contact volume, coupled with the growing complexity of staff scheduling (such as full versus part-time staff) make the problem of workforce management ideally suited for the computer. Workforce management software, combined with the historical and real-time statistics of the ACD, is an essential tool for today’s professionally managed call center. The basic functions associated with a workforce management software system are:

Call volume forecasting: A workforce management system uses historical call information from the ACD and other contact center systems to predict future call volume based on overall calling trends, seasonal factors, and other predictable calling patterns. Forecasts are automatically updated with new information about contact patterns through a direct interface with each system.

Staffing calculations: A telephone traffic engineering technique is used to determine the required number of staff based on the forecast workload for incoming calls. This technique, called Erlang C, takes into account the random arrival of calls into the center, as well as the “hold for the first agent” queuing that typically takes place. Other mathematical models are used to factor in the workload for email traffic, Internet contacts, and outbound calling.

Staff scheduling: “Bodies in chairs” staff requirements along with non-productive time estimates (for breaks, trainings, and meetings) are used to determine a schedule requirement for each quarter-hour period. A set of optimal schedules is then created based on these requirements and the call center’s unique scheduling rules and constraints. These schedules are then assigned to staff based on scheduling procedures, including shift bid rules and employee preferences.

Day-to-day performance tracking: Perhaps the most critical component of a workforce management system is the intra-day comparison of actual performance against the plan. Call center management must actively compare actual workload by quarter-hour to the forecast and actual number of staff on the phones to the schedule plan. The call center manager needs to see these changes as they are happening in order to make necessary adjustments to meet service goals.

Cost Justifying Workforce Management Tools

Not all call centers need an automated system to accomplish workforce management tasks. The relative degree of need is a function of size and operating complexity. Generally, call centers with more than 30 agents can often cost justify automating these functions. An automated workforce management system generally produces measurable improvements in the following areas:

More efficient scheduling: The savings associated with more efficient scheduling can take many forms, including reduced overall staff hours, decreased need for overtime, and identification of overstaffed periods to offer time off without pay. Workforce management system users generally experience a minimum reduction of staff hours of two percent and average potential is in the five to ten percent range.

Automation of management tasks: Depending on how often forecasting and scheduling tasks take place, it is generally expected that at least twenty-five percent of administrative and managerial time currently devoted to the manual performance of these tasks can be saved.

Decrease workforce shrinkage: Many hours of staff time are lost in most call centers due to excessive amounts of non-productive time (time spent not handling calls). An automated workforce management system can provide historical and real-time information on schedule adherence and schedule exceptions for better management and control of staff, reducing workforce shrinkage by two to five percent in most call centers.

Reduce network costs: By creating a set of schedules that minimizes understaffing as well as overstaffing, implementing workforce management results in a more consistent level of service to callers and may reduce queue time and toll-free network costs.

Increase revenues: Workforce management automation can lower queue times and improve service, thereby reducing the number of abandons. For outsourcing call centers this translates into increased calls answered and therefore greater revenue.

Selection Guidelines

Organizations considering a workforce management purchase should heed the following guidelines:

Cast a large net: Invite all qualified vendors to present their products. Insist on a detailed demonstration and ask questions about how their system would meet your center’s needs. Look for a full range of functionality in addition to ease of use.

Talk to other users: At a minimum, talk to four or five other organizations similar to yours (in size and equipment platform) that have implemented a system. Visit at least two of these and talk to managers about the benefits they have received as well as the day-to-day users about ease of use and customer support.

Consider vendor support: Workforce management software systems are not simple, off-the-shelf packages. They typically require specialized training and ongoing consultative support to make the most of their capabilities. Ask about documentation, training, and access to customer support. It is also important to understand what to expect about future upgrades and enhancements.

Do not suffer from sticker shock: Prices for workforce management systems cover a wide range, depending on whether you are considering a single module or a comprehensive integrated system. Some of the more comprehensive packages may seem expensive, but do not lose sight of the fact that each agent employee may have a fully burdened cost of $30,000 annually or higher. Saving just a couple of employees’ labor expenses can quickly cost justify the most expensive package.

Plan for a successful implementation: During the purchase process, it is critical to communicate and motivate everyone in the center to participate in the process. While implementing workforce management results in a more efficient operation and a less stressful environment in the long run, it is important to realize that such an implementation may mean a cultural change for agents, supervisors, and management in the short term. The largest potential benefit is more efficient scheduling, but in order to accomplish this, some agents’ schedules will have to change. It is important to devise a strategy to accentuate the positive effects and to include everyone in the process.

Accomplishing Profitability and Service Objectives

Whether large or small, the objective of every contact center is to accomplish the most work, at the highest level of service, and at the lowest cost. This objective is best achieved through workforce management. The larger the workforce, the more complex the task, and the more suitable for automation.

Not only do automated systems save substantial management and clerical time, but they can also reduce personnel costs dramatically by optimizing the staffing resource. Benefits include a more precise forecast of future call volumes showing peaks and valleys of calls, exact determination of staff needed for each period minimizing overstaffing and understaffing, and the ability to monitor call center performance and make adjustments as needed within the day. The result is the ability to handle more calls at a better level of service to the caller at a reduced cost.

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. For more information, see www.thecallcenterschool.com or call 615-812-8400.

[From Connection MagazineJuly/Aug 2002]

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]