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Industry Watch with Brad Cleveland: 7 Ways to Improve Schedule Adherence

I recall doing a consulting project for a large healthcare organization that was experiencing a vexing challenge common to diverse, multisite operations. Their customers (patients) were contacting different departments across the organization looking for answers to a wide array of questions, ranging from simple scheduling issues to complex health treatment and diagnostic matters. The employees in many areas often did not have the time, training or know-how to handle the request, and would refer the patients to other units (or worse, back to the main switchboard) — a frustrating cycle for all involved.

In response, the organization launched a member resource center (a contact center) staffed by clinical assistants, nurses and some general practitioner MDs. All was set … other than the doctors and nurses, who had their feet straight out. They confided their concern: We’re medical professionals, not call center reps. The thing that bothered them most was the notion of adhering to schedules, which is critical in demand-driven environments. "We’re not entry level employees." Agreed, but we’ve got to be available with the right information when our customers need us; that’s the whole point.

As we talked, one of the nurses reminded all that triage was a part of the DNA of this group: Every day, they were making time-driven decisions in operating rooms and on hospital floors. Her point helped to change the mindset. Schedules turned out to be no problem for this team (they are largely self-managed), and they have become one of the most customer-focused, successful operations I’ve seen.

Adherence to schedule is a measure of ... well, how well agents adhere to the schedule. Many, myself included, don't particularly care for the tenor of the term. And I don't like the "big brother" interpretation I sometimes (not often, but sometimes) see in contact centers. That usually backfires. But the reality is, we're in time-driven environments. So are football players. And astronauts. And stagehands. It doesn't matter if we have the most incredible knowledge and expertise, if we're not there when customers need us.

Adherence is, first and foremost, a measure of how much time during an agent's shift he or she is handling, or available to handle, contacts. If adherence is expected to be 90 percent, each agent should be available to handle contacts .90 x 60 minutes, or 54 minutes on average, per scheduled hour. Adherence consists of time spent in talk time, after-call work, waiting for calls to arrive, and anything else (e.g., internal contacts) associated with the work. Lunch, breaks, training, etc. are not counted and are not factored into the measurement. (Be sure to differentiate the terms "adherence to schedule" and "agent occupancy." They are two different things.)

Adherence can also incorporate the issue of timing — when was a person available to handle contacts? This is often called "schedule compliance." The idea is to ensure that agents are ready to go when needed. (In a time- sensitive environment, staying an extra 15 minutes at the end of a shift doesn't make up for not being there at the beginning of the shift when customers were calling in droves.)

At a tactical level, adherence tools and measures work best as information for agents themselves, and for team leaders who have good perspective on what's happening within their groups. The alternative is strict mandates, which puts supervisors in the role of filling out "exception reports" as things come up. Ensure your approach is supporting the culture you want to establish. Here are some time-tested suggestions for getting the best results:

  1. Educate each person on how much impact he or she has on the queue, and therefore, the importance of adherence to schedule.
  2. Establish concrete service level and response time objectives that everybody knows and understands.
  3. Educate agents on the basic steps involved in resource planning so that they understand how schedules are produced, where they come from.
  4. Develop appropriate priorities for the wide range of tasks that your agents handle, and guidelines for how to respond to real-time conditions.
  5. Provide real-time service level information to agents, but be sure to back it up with training on how to interpret it, and how to respond at the team and individual levels.
  6. Manage schedule adherence as locally as possible, e.g., by the individuals themselves and within their supervisory teams. It should be tracked for trending and planning purposes (next point), but a bottom-up approach works best.
  7. Adherence results and trends for agent groups and the contact center itself are valuable for planning and to assess how well the management approach and supporting processes are working.

Adherence to schedule is an important objective. But apply it carefully, get involvement from the ground up, and, most importantly, back it up with the right education on why timing matters so much.