Published: April 17, 2013 | Comments
Five Secrets Behind Better Schedules
The timeless objective of workforce management is to get the right people in the right places at the right times, doing the right things. No more, no fewer. Overstaff your center and profitability will deteriorate as costs increase. Schedule too few agents and customers will abandon, handling times will increase and social channels will light up with poor word of mouth.
Of course, that’s no small challenge in today’s contact center. The very forces that are making workforce management more difficult—more complex contacts, new channels, heightened customer expectations, the need for more diverse agent skills—are creating an environment in which getting it right is more important than ever.
The good news: forecasting and scheduling can be learned and continuously improved. You get better with practice! In our consulting work, we’ve found that organizations getting the best scheduling results commonly take steps beyond the mechanics of calculating required staff and putting schedules together. Here are five of their secrets.
1. Clarify Your Organization’s Values
One of the most important factors in ensuring that schedules work as planned is to have a clear set of values that guide decisions. This involves a dialog with the organization’s senior level management around key questions, e.g., what happens when workload forecasts come in low or high? Who will pay the price if workload exceeds demand—customers and agents, in the form of long queues and high occupancy, or the budget, in the form of higher costs to maintain an available margin of staff? What alternatives exist to maintain consistent service levels, from scheduling options to backup from other departments or help from an outside business partner?
There are many possible answers to these questions. The important thing is to think these things through ahead of time, and know where you stand. Be specific – be prepared to show sample schedules and the tradeoffs that exist. And be sure all on your leadership team understand the implications of queues (e.g., what happens to service level, agent occupancy and other key variables when schedules don’t match well with the workload).
2. Model Different Scenarios
Centers that get the best results tend to put more effort into modeling, or periodically creating test schedules with different sets of variables (scheduling software can be a big help in this effort, particularly in larger or more complex centers). Given the many components that go into schedules, experimenting with alternatives highlights tradeoffs and enables you to make better decisions on issues such as:
- Call routing alternatives—what are the implications of changes in skills based routing or overflow parameters?
- Policy changes—how would different parameters on breaks, adherence and work mode allocations (e.g., when agents a expected to do non-customer work) change results?
- Agent group structure—should groups be more specialized or more pooled?
- Schedule horizon—how far out can you schedule, while maintaining acceptable accuracy?
- Where and how can training and meetings best be scheduled?
- Shift swapping—what's a reasonable policy, to provide flexibility while ensuring that the right skills are available at the right times?
- Budget tradeoffs—where are you overstaffed? Understaffed?
Often, even simple changes that result in a better schedule fit can lead to significant improvements. While modeling takes time (you’re basically having a person or team produce example schedules under different parameters), you’ll get this investment back in multiples, through better decisions.
3. Ensure that All Activities are Included
Too often, contact centers have extra work beyond the schedules that is unaccounted for but that exacts a heavy price in psychological weight and creates fires when it’s ignored for too long (e.g., unfinished projects or case work that results in additional contacts or repetitive work). Take an inventory of activities that is as comprehensive and specific as possible.
The amount of work unrelated to directly handling customer contacts is often understated or ignored. But successful centers incorporate requirements into forecasts and schedules. While tracking and reports can be more of a challenge (investigate the possibilities in the systems you have), these activities often occur in predictable patterns; as a last resort, track them manually or take periodic samples.
4. Resolve Inherent Conflicts
Those who have forecasting and scheduling responsibilities encounter many challenges, e.g., requests from other areas preempting schedules, new marketing campaigns, unannounced schedule exceptions among agent teams, and unclear lines of authority between supervisors and workforce planners. These challenges are not insurmountable, unless they go un-addressed by leadership.
There will always be adjustments, but chronic exceptions to planned schedules usually points to systemic conflicts in processes, procedures or objectives. This can only get resolved by bringing your team together and working through different scenarios.
5. Ensure the Process is Flexible and Inclusive
Scheduling is inherently an iterative, creative process. As you explore alternatives and refine the process, there will be a number of important considerations:
• Agent Group Structure. How specialized are your skill requirements? Keep your routing contingencies simple enough to manage. Then invest the time necessary to forecast, staff and schedule for the specialized mix of contacts the center is handling.
• Schedule Horizon. If you schedule further out, e.g., three to six months, your schedules will be less efficient but more agreeable to your employees, who prefer to know their work schedules well in advance. A shorter horizon will be less popular, but schedules will be more accurate. This issue is a balancing act.
• Schedule Alternatives. Considering that staffing needs fluctuate throughout the day, month and year, it is important to continuously explore scheduling alternatives that will enable you to match staff as closely as possible with customer demands. Alternatives range from the usual (adjusting breaks, start-times, etc.) to approaches such as using home agents or pulling in subject matter experts from other departments.
• Agent Preferences. If you involve agents in identifying scheduling possibilities up front, they will often generate ideas you didn’t consider and will better accept and adhere to the schedules that are produced. Education on the implications of service level, quality and the impact of each person help enormously.
The challenges of meeting customer demands and, more specifically, forecasting and scheduling to handle the contact center’s workload effectively, will continue to increase. But the disciplines of forecasting and scheduling are also advancing. Forward-thinking leaders are making sure these aspects of management are a top priority.