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Five Ways to Get Better Scheduling Results

The perennial call center (contact center) challenge of matching staff to ever-changing workloads is taking on new urgency in many organizations around the world. The very forces that are making scheduling difficult -- more complex products and services, new types of contacts (e.g., from social media), heightened customer expectations, and the need for more diverse agent skills -- are creating an environment in which accurate scheduling is essential. And, of course, all of this is hitting as economic challenges continue to exert budget pressures in many organizations. 

Fortunately, effective scheduling is a process that can be learned and continuously improved -- you get better at it with practice! An important prerequisite is in understanding that effective scheduling goes far beyond the mechanics of putting schedules together. Organizations getting the best results view this aspect of management as a cross-functional responsibility.

Here are five of their secrets:

  1. Clarify Your Organization's Values. This involves a dialog and set of decisions with your organization's top management around key questions; e.g., what is the contact center's mission? How committed are you to providing good service even when the forecasts may be uncertain? What are your priorities -- which activities get done first? What alternatives exist to maintain consistent service levels -- from scheduling options to backup from other departments or outside help? Be ready for thesediscussions; they are opportunities to clarify direction and make a case for the resources and support that your center requires.
  2. Ensure that All Activities Are Included. Too often, call centers have extra work outside of the schedule 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 -- and make it is as comprehensive and specific as possible.
  3. Resolve the "Power Struggles." If power struggle sounds a bit dramatic, you ought to see some of the challenges those in forecasting and scheduling roles have encountered: Requests from other areas preempting schedules, unplanned 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 unaddressed.
  4. Test Different Scenarios. Modeling, or periodically creating test schedules with different sets of variables, can be a big eye-opener for possibilities and solutions. What's the impact of changing call-routing alternatives? Agent group structure? Schedule horizon? Training and meeting schedules? Shifts? 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, in the form of better decisions that come from an understanding of tradeoffs and points of leverage. (Scheduling software can help in this effort, particularly in larger or more complex centers.)
  5. Ensure that the Process Is Simple, Flexible and Inclusive. Scheduling will always involve a certain amount of trial and error. It's important to keep your routing contingencies simple enough to manage, and get people involved in helping to identify scheduling possibilities and solutions. Education on the implications of service level, quality and the impact of each person is essential. At their core, contact centers should be a powerful engine for matching customer needs with the right services on an as-needed basis. Effective scheduling is what makes that possible.


Examples of Scheduling Alternatives

  • Utilize conventional (standard) shifts
  • Stagger shift start times
  • Adjust breaks, lunch, meeting and training schedules
  • Forecast and plan for collateral work
  • Schedule part-timers
  • Establish internal part-timers (help from other areas)
  • Create a fast-response team for unexpected surges
  • Offer concentrated shifts (e.g., four 10-hour days)
  • Offer overtime when workloads are heavy
  • Give agents the option to go home when workloads are light
  • Offer split shifts
  • Arrange for some agents to be on call
  • Set up a home agent program
  • Use hiring to your advantage (candidates available when needed)
  • Send calls to an outsourcer when needed
  • Share agents with similar organizations