Embracing a Planning Culture for the Call Center
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Embracing a Planning Culture for the Call Center

No matter how one categorizes a contact center, most of the interactions that occur take place via the phone. Employing basic call center management techniques can help you to handle workload challenges, improve forecasting accuracy, reduce staff stress and get the funding you need to keep your operation running smoothly. Call center management is defined as the art of having the right number of properly skilled people and supporting resources in place at the right times to handle an accurately forecasted workload, at service level and with quality.

A Planning Culture

So how can you accomplish this and overcome the particular challenges inherent in a call center? By embracing the concept of a planning culture! To do this, you must first understand a call center’s unique operating environment. Three driving forces that are at work within a call center are:

  1. Call Arrival—Random, Peaked or Hybrid? Call traffic can arrive either moment by moment with calls bunching up or all at once (peaks), or it can be a combination of both (hybrid). Virtually all call centers have distinctive calling patterns, which are usually detectable down to the half-hour. Why does this matter? The traffic-arrival type determines the mathematical formulas used to calculate your staffing needs. Erlang C, the most common queuing formula used by call centers, can tell how many people are needed on the phones down to the half-hour.

  2. The Queue—Visible or Invisible? Queues, or wait times, are fairly common in call centers and are primarily “invisible,” which means that callers are unaware of the wait time.

  3. The Six Factors of Caller Tolerance. Six factors that affect caller tolerance include:

a.     Degree of Motivation
b.     Availability of Substitutes
c.     Level of expectations
d.     Time available
e.     Who’s paying for the call
f.      Human behavior

These factors explain why the call center environment is so unique. Understanding them and how they apply to the operation will help with decisions on everything from staffing and scheduling to setting the right performance objectives for the center and its staff.

Given the unique challenges of running a call center, how can you apply basic call center management principles to make your job easier? This brings us back to the planning culture—creating an environment that relies more heavily on workload and production projections rather than real-time assessments and ill-planned reactions. In a planning culture, you define expectations in advance and develop plans that use resources in the most effective manner to meet objectives.

Nine Steps to an Effective Planning Process

To establish a planning culture, a robust planning and management process must be in place. This involves nine critical key steps. The process must be completed—without skipping any steps—to be successful. No contact center—large or small—is exempt, if you want to run your center effectively and efficiently.

  • Step 1: Choosing Your Service Level—Service level is defined as answering X percentage of calls in Y seconds. The service level you select will drive anything else—planning, staffing and execution. Smaller centers can struggle with this process if they’re missing this first fundamental step. If you have not yet determined a service level, now is the time to think about this key metric. Among other things, the service level you choose will directly affect how many agents must be on the phones on a half-hour basis—having the right number of properly skilled people in place at the right times (see the illustration of ICMI's nine-step planning process below).

  • Step 2: Acquiring the Necessary Data—Too often, inaccurate forecasts, poor quality and erratic costs come from the lack of good data. Data comes from both internal and external sources and includes information from your ACD phone systems, customer information systems, telecommunications network, internal departments, regulatory bodies, etc.

  • Step 3: Forecast Call Load—This step provides the foundation for calculating base staffing needs and system requirements and meeting your customers' needs. Essential data for this step comes primarily via your ACD phone systems. This step requires Call Volume, Talk Time, After Call Work (wrap-up time), Average Handling Time and determining your Call Load.

  • Steps 4 and 5: Calculate Base Staff and System Requirements—Base staffing calculations tell you how many agents you need to handle your workload at the service level you set. To determine the base staffing needs, Erlang C, a queuing formula, is used. System calculations will help ensure you have the capacity to carry the workload.

  • Step 6 Calculate Rostered Staff Factor/Shrinkage—This step is one that adds back to the staffing needs due to shrinkage.

  • Step 7: Organize Schedules—Develop schedules to cover incoming call volume with service level.

  • Step 8: Determine Costs of Staffing and Scheduling

  • Step 9: Repeat the process (for a different service level)


Workforce Management

Workforce management (WFM) is a primary part of the overall planning process, which includes forecasting (Steps 2 and 3) and then scheduling (Steps 6 and 7). WFM also involves building a staffing model, usually around the queuing formula Erlang C, as well as planning in advance to react to unexpected events.

WFM involves forecasting your total workload. Forecasting includes collecting your historical data, identifying seasonal and recurring contact drivers, soliciting input from other areas on what will impact your call load … and then adding a dash of judgment. At this point, you should have the number of calls that is expected to come in, but this does not complete the picture. Next, calculate the total workload by taking into account how long the calls take to handle—average handle time (AHT)—and then add any other non-call or deferrable workload the center may have. But you’re still not done: now you must determine the agents’ availability to take calls and account for the factors that might keep them from handling calls, such as being out sick, on vacation, on FMLA, in training, in coaching and/or in meetings.

Real-time management is also an important component of WFM planning. Developing a plan to “react in advance” is an essential part of this process. Make sure that you’re prepared to handle known staffing deficiencies, and include an escalation plan. This type of preparation will help you to know when and when not to react.

Once you understand these aspects of developing an accurate forecast, you can then determine the number of available agents needed to handle the incoming call volume by each half-hour. This is generally accomplished using a staffing model based on the queuing formula Erlang C. The image below outlines this concept.

 

Once you've entered data, such as service level, incoming calls and workload, into your ErlangC calculator (we're using ICMI's QueueView here), you'll be able to determine the number of agents required. (Note: You can also find free simple ErlangC calculators online.)

Once you understand how your call traffic plays out, you’ll be able to schedule agents to handle the calls. Generating an effective schedule provides many benefits—enhanced service level performance, consistent caller experience, improved vacation planning and time for activities such as training and coaching. Effective scheduling can also help to reduce your agents’ stress levels, assuming that the workload is accurately projected and that funding is available to hire the necessary staff, as identified by the staffing model.

The “Envelope Strategy”

The reality is that smaller call centers generally have fewer schedule alternatives than larger centers; however, they are prime candidates for the “envelope strategy.” In this strategy, an “envelope” is created within which work is prioritized; for instance, when call load is predicted to be heavy, all agents handle calls; when call load is light, some individuals can be reassigned to off-phone work or to attend training and so on. This approach recognizes that flexible activities should happen during the valleys of the call-load pattern. The following image illustrates staffing using the “envelope strategy.”

 

The schedules that you create must be effective for your business. And, while smaller call centers lack the scheduling flexibility that larger centers have, it doesn’t mean that you can’t be creative in your scheduling approach. Following are three ideas to ensure that your workforce is properly aligned with the workload:

  1. Increase schedule flexibility by moving away from static start and stop times.
  2. Create a schedule focus team that includes agents to ensure buy-in for the scheduling process.
  3. Conduct training outside of traditional hours.

Adherence and Quality

There are only two performance measurements for which agents should be held accountable—quality of work and adherence to schedule. These measurements are important for ensuring that your center runs effectively and efficiently.

Regardless of the size of your center, having a formal process in place to monitor and measure the quality of the service your center provides is crucial. A formal quality call-monitoring program:

  • Allows you to provide individual feedback and performance development input to agents.
  • Identifies opportunities for process re-engineering that become evident from a holistic view of monitored calls and errors
  • Clarifies the consistency of the call-handling processes, as well as center-wide understanding of policies and procedures
  • Measures the quality of the caller/agent interaction and the accuracy of information provided
  • Identifies caller needs and expectations

Although the quality monitoring process is about gathering data, coaching focuses on changing the behavior. Coaching is a critical component of a balanced quality program, as well as a significant element in creating a work environment that encourages employee engagement.

One call center measure that is totally within your agents’ control is adherence to schedule. Adherence to schedule is a measurement of how much time during a shift an agent is handling a call or is available to handle a call. It consists of talk time, after-call work time, waiting for calls to arrive (idle time) and placing any necessary outgoing calls. Adherence also incorporates the issue of timing sometimes referred to as schedule compliance; the idea is to make sure that personnel are not only plugged in for the amount of time required, but when required, as well. The level of adherence to schedule should be reasonable and flexible. Why use this as a performance measurement? Because it is a reasonable objective.

Understanding the Dynamics at Work

Managing a call center is demanding, but by understanding the dynamics at work and adopting basic call center management fundamentals, your job can be made easier and less stressful. Planning is the key to driving such changes in your center, and forecasting is a critical component of the planning process. Clear performance metrics must be in place for both the center and the agents. Developing a formal quality program that includes call monitoring and coaching is not optional. Putting all of these processes together holistically will ensure that your center runs efficiently.



Topics: Metrics, People Management, Workforce Management, Technology, Learning & Development, Site Operations

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Rose Polchin — 4:05PM on Oct 3, 2011

Great summary of a critical process and the foundation to effective contact center management!

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