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Unconventional Yet Impactful Call Center Staffing Strategies

To best manage an always-dynamic workload and an increasingly-demanding customer base, leading call centers think outside the box – and even the cubicle – when it comes to agent staffing.

Gone are the days of rigid workforce management where full-time schedules, traditional shifts and conventional agents dominated the call center scene. Today, many centers experiment – and succeed – with such things as split shifts, odd hours, virtual workers, and agents on loan.

Such artful and strategic staffing tactics these days are more a product of necessity than they are of whimsy. As call centers face big budget cuts, expanding channels, burnt-out agents and customers who don’t accept the lagging economy as an excuse for poor or even mediocre service, they have been forced to get creative and crafty with staffing and scheduling.

This article showcases some of the more interesting and effective practices we at ICMI have seen in action. While some may not work in your particular call center, all are certainly worth careful consideration.   

The Rundown: Unconventional Yet Impactful Call Center Staffing Strategies

Executives: With a struggling an economy and inevitable budget cuts, call centers need to get creative with agent staffing to meet service levels and satisfy customers; senior management needs to give contact center managers the flexibility and support to do so.

Directors/Managers: Contact center management needs to explore and implement alternative staffing and scheduling strategies that have proven successful in maintaining high levels of service while controlling costs. Fortunately, there are several such non-traditional staffing options to choose from.      

Supervisors: Supervisors and team leaders should work closely with management – as well as solicit suggestions/feedback from their agent teams – to help identify and implement/manage out-of-the-box yet viable staffing and scheduling options for the contact center. 

Progressive Staffing

Home agents.  Though on the rise, the use of home agents is hardly a commonplace practice among call centers. But it should it be.  According to the 2008 ICMI Contact Center Operations Report, only one in five centers indicated using home agents to some extent; however, the vast majority (75%) of those centers reported that home agents have had either a “very positive” or a “positive” impact on call center performance – especially in terms of productivity, staffing flexibility, and agent retention.

Numerous other research studies, well as focused case studies of actual call centers, have revealed that home agent initiatives are a very good idea for customer care organizations. Take one look at what this staffing approach has done for organizations like Hilton Hotels (and there are many of them), and you’ll likely become not a home agent proponent but an evangelist.

"Retention [among our home agents] so far has been 30 percent better than inhouse,” says Tim Cook, vice president of North American Operations for Hilton Reservations & Customer Care.  “Quality is better. They test better. Attendance is better. And productivity is as good as or better than inhouse." In addition, the initiative has vastly improved recruiting and hiring, helping to attract "a more professional, educated and mature employee," says Cook. “Further, we wanted to increase staffing efficiencies with a more flexible part-time workforce. The work-at-home employee is ideal for this.”      

It has taken a while for executives and directors in most organizations to get comfortable with the idea of such a non-traditional work arrangement, but advances in “virtual” technology and the development of proven best practices in home agent implementation and management have helped to quell key concerns.

Among these best practices are:

Develop a comprehensive home agent assessment/selection process. When evaluating home agent candidates, leading call centers not only look at overall performance, experience and attendance; they also assess each candidate’s ability to work  independently, with minimal supervision. In addition, many centers ask behavioral-based interview questions to gauge how likely a candidate is to thrive in an isolated environment away from their peers. According to Drew Daly, senior director of sales for World Travel Holdings (WHT), which has 180 home agents in place, such questions are critical because agents who may seem ideally suited for home-based work sometimes struggle with the isolation issue. “Most agents have mental models of work and rituals that they do each day in the call center. And when they start working from home, they lose a lot of the things they were used to doing and getting every day, and it changes their relationship with work.”    

Have agents carefully read and sign a formal telecommuter agreement. “A clear and concise telecommuting agreement is a really important part of any successful work-at-home program, to ensure that each home agent fully understands what is expected and required of them,” says Pete Herstedt, vice president of automotive services at AAA Oregon/Idaho’s contact center, where 17 of 77 agents work from home.  Herstedt says the agreement should cover “all the terms and conditions regarding the use of business equipment, workspace requirements, overtime, among other things,” and should be signed by each agent before they take a single call from home. 

Take advantage of virtual training and communication tools. Call centers with the most successful home agent programs embrace e-learning, instant messaging and email to ensure that home-based staff receive the ongoing training and coaching they need, and are kept abreast of any important updates or events that impact them on the job. In addition to these training/communication tools, Daly of WTH strongly recommends using web cams for home agent coaching and meetings. “Our coaching and training has evolved from being more physical-based to primarily being a remote-based training solution,” says Daly.  

Foster a sense of teamwork and camaraderie among home agents and onsite staff. The same tools used to train, coach and keep agents in the loop can be used to foster a strong sense of connectedness and belonging among home agents. While a good home agent selection process will weed out staff that struggles with working as a lone wolf, even the most autonomous agents will appreciate feeling like part of a larger team shooting for common goals. Centers with the best telecommuting programs work hard to ensure that home-based staff are fully involved in the activities and incentives/contests that occur onsite. When home agents go “above and beyond”, they are recognized and rewarded publicy –  during meetings (via conference phone or web cam) and/or via the company intranet/newsletter. To further enhance home agent morale and engagement, many centers occasionally have home agents come into the center to take part in meetings and celebrations, as well as have home agents meet up with colleagues at social events outside the call center.   

4 x 10 workweeks. Having a select number of full-time agents work four days a week for 10 hours each day can give your call center a big lift. When carefully implemented and organized, the “4 x 10” strategy enables many call centers to not only cover its peak calling periods more effectively, but also enhance agent retention and quality of life – not to mention performance.

A director of a U.S. financial services call center describes how his organization uses 4 x 10 workweeks, and the significant impact the staffing approach has had. 
 “Our busiest time of the day is between 9:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m.,” explains the call center director. “In the past, we had spread the shifts out over the day, but our latest shift came in at noon and left at 9 p.m. – leaving us pretty vulnerable in the morning. Today, a little over 10 percent of our reps work from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. four days a week. Each of these reps’ extra day-off rotates weekly, so that once a month each gets a Friday off -- for a coveted three-day weekend.” He adds that no reps are ever off on Monday, the call center’s busiest day.

In addition to meeting the center’s peak coverage requirements, the 4 x 10 work schedules have enhanced the number of skilled agents on staff for the night shift. Prior to the 4 x 10s, agents working at night were typically newer, inexperienced staff that got stuck working the least popular shift due to their lack of seniority. As a result, service quality and efficiency in the center often dwindled a bit after dusk.  However, now that working until 9 p.m. means more days off, many of the center’s top agents have signed up for the 10-hour stint – and customer service no longer suffers when the sun goes down. “It’s a popular shift, with some of our most experienced, longest-tenured reps bidding for it,” says an operations analyst at the call center.

Of course, such a staffing strategy is not ideal for all call centers, namely those that have a particularly high-stress, customer complaint-based environment. That’s what Rebecca Spencer, director of call center operations at insurance giant Assurant, found out through experience.

“Our agents were really excited about the 4 x 10 workweek at first, and things started off well; however, due to the intensive problem-solving and complaint-handling nature of our work – handling claims and disputes – agents started to burn out during their long shifts, so we decided to stop using those schedules.”     

Still, she feels the 4 x 10 approach can be a great way for less stressful call centers to add some practical ingenuity to their workforce management process. To avoid the troubles that she and her center experienced, she recommends that managers – prior to implementing 4 x 10 workweeks – clearly communicate to agents not only the perks of such schedules, but also the realities of working a couple more hours each day. She also suggests starting out with just a couple of agents to see how they fare before offering the popular yet potentially difficult shifts to additional staff.   

Call center SWAT teams. “Call for back-up!” is not something that center managers like to cry out, but when they are forced to do so, they like to know that a team of solid resources will respond. A number of cagey call centers have created veritable “SWAT” teams to help the center survive and even excel during unexpected dramatic spikes in call volume. These teams typically comprise former agents and supervisors who have since moved on to other departments or divisions of the company, but who still possess the “strategic weapons” – customer support skills and knowledge – to handle most types of calls the center might receive.

Only about one in four respondents in ICMI’s aforementioned Contact Center Operations study reported using “reserve” agents, but nearly 80% of these managers said that it has had a “very positive” or “positive” impact on the call center’s performance. 

Some may view SWAT teams as a poor alternative to effective forecasting and scheduling. While it’s true that managers should not overly on a team of agent reservists to get the center out of jams, the fact is that call centers, by their very nature, are highly volatile beasts, and not even the best workforce management crew can nail a call volume forecast 100 percent of the time. Crazy call spikes occur. Flu epidemics – and resultant agent absenteeism – happen. Organizations that are prepared for the unexpected in this age of “customers first” are the ones that remain competitive, the ones that “steal” customers from organizations that don’t employ such crafty staffing tactics. 

“This approach is not common,” says Brad Cleveland, senior advisor to and former president and CEO of ICMI,” but it is gaining acceptance. “Are your calls important enough to warrant at least some additional help from people elsewhere in the organization?”

Of course, the logistics can get a bit tricky when creating a SWAT team. The call center must first sell managers of other departments as well as senior management on the idea, then work closely with the other departments to determine who will participate, how and when. 

“Set up is not trivial,” says Cleveland. “Plan on tacking, training, scheduling, pay and cultural issues.”  

External staff-sharing alliances. This is one of the most innovative staffing solutions we at ICMI have come across in all our years of researching and consulting to call centers. External staff-sharing refers to when two companies that have complimentary peak seasons lend one another some of their call center agents to help each center out during its busiest period. 

Unconventional? Very. Impossible? No. The 2008 ICMI study found that 6% of call centers have formed a staffing alliance with another center in their region, and 70% of them report “very positive” or “positive” results. The remaining 30% indicated that the alliance has had a “neutral” impact on overall call center performance, which is fine considering that having such an alliance in place eliminates the need for centers to have to continually “hire and fire” seasonal agents every year and hope that they can find a solid stock of agents when the next peak season come around. Thus, while staff-sharing may not always bring huge increases in productivity or quality, at the very least it can help the call center maintain a decent level of service during busy seasons and, importantly, save the center significantly in terms of hiring and training costs.  

One of the strongest staff-sharing alliances in the call center industry was forged between an online retailer and a hotel chain in the U.S. back in 2002, and helped each company slay its peak season demons for over five years. (The alliance ended in 2008, but reveals how feasible – and effective – staff-sharing can be.)

"As it turns out, their off-season complemented our seasonal peak, and vice versa," explains the manager of the online retailer. Roughly 50 agents from the hotel call center handled calls for the online retailer around the Christmas season and into Spring. In turn, the online retailer had 50 agents who helped out on hotel reservations year-round, and as many as 180 agents lending the hotel a hand over the summer months.

"We ended up with a pool of over 200 agents trained on both [hotel] and [our] calls who can be utilized as needed on either side," says the manager. “It was a win-win."

He adds that the integration was very straightforward from a technological standpoint, as both centers used an Avaya switch. "We simply dropped T1s and data circuits in each other's sites, and each company routes their own traffic."

In any staff-sharing initiative, clear and open communication between management at each center is critical to ensure that each stays on top of its contact traffic. Agent training is also key, say practitioners. When the alliance between the online retailer and the hotel chain first started, each company would send trainers to the other's sites to conduct in-depth training and to ensure that their enterprise's respective brand identity and mission/goals were effectively communicated and embraced. Later, to cut down on travel time and expenses, each company's trainers became certified to conduct training on both centers' products/services. 

Quality assurance shouldn’t pose any big challenge in staff-sharing initiatives. Monitoring is typically handled virtually; each center monitors off-site agents using its monitoring system from its command post. Recruiting, hiring and compensation are also relatively straightforward, with each center typically hiring and paying their own agents according to its internal policies.

In addition to enabling call centers to reduce operating costs and the knowledge-draining effect of "hire and fire", centers that give staff-sharing a shot typically find that shared agents welcome the job diversity that the unique initiative affords. "Agents loved the variety of work that this offered them," says the manager of the aforementioned online retailer. "The relationship undoubtedly helped retention."
Greg Levin is the Community Services Manager for ICMI. [email protected]