ICMI is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them. Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.


Industry Watch with Brad Cleveland: 5 Things That Trip Up Skills Based Routing (And What To Do About Them)

Skills based routing is getting renewed attention as contact centers expand services, add channels (social, mobile, et al.), and, in general, require a more diverse range of subject matter experts. But you have to manage it well.

"Uh oh."

I was visiting a technical support operation one afternoon, and those were the words uttered by their director as we witnessed a perplexing puzzle unfold. The readerboard showed a single customer in queue who had been waiting 20 minutes and counting; and yet, agents were sitting idle. They were at a loss for what to do. "How did he get there?" "How do we get him out?!" (After many more agonizing minutes, the customer abandoned; the IT team later discovered a programming error in the routing logic.)

Skills-based routing is intelligent, flexible, real-time—it’s the perfect answer to that proverbial contact center challenge of getting the right customer to the right agent at the right time. Except when it doesn’t work that way.

First available in routing systems a couple of decades ago, SBR is a powerful capability designed to match each call with the person who has the skill set best suited to handle the interaction, on a real-time basis. It is getting renewed attention as contact centers add channels (social, mobile, et al.), expand services, and, in general, require a more diverse range of subject matter experts. And overall, it has been a boon to the efficiency and quality of services provided by contact centers that, by nature, have overlapping groups or complex routing contingencies—and who have managed it well.

But in many cases, skills-based routing has also created difficult new problems that have tempered or obviated the potential benefits: difficult forecasting challenges, complex staffing puzzles and volatile service levels. As with most technologies, the benefits of skills-based routing are commensurate with the clarity of the purpose for which it is to serve, and the soundness of the underlying processes by which it is managed.

Here are five of the most common problems, and what to do about them:

  1. Poor assumptions and rationale. Skills-based routing works best in environments that require many skills and have many possible combinations of skill sets. It can also help to quickly integrate new agents by initially routing only simple calls or calls of a predefined nature to them. What it can't do is compensate for poor planning, inadequate training or poorly designed information systems. Keep it as simple as possible, and remember that skills-based routing depends on — rather than compensates for — accurate planning and good processes.
  2. Inaccurate forecasts. The inability to forecast accurately for specific types of skill requirements is the Achilles' heel of the powerful simulation tools available — and of skills-based routing in general. To anticipate staffing needs, you first need to know how many Spanish-speaking callers you're going to get between 10:00 and 10:30, how the call mix will change throughout the day for the expert group handling call types A, B and C, and when your Mandarin Chinese-speaking agents will go on break. Accurate forecasting at this level of specificity takes time and effort, but it's well worth it. If you're struggling with it, consider combining skills to form more manageable groups.
  3. Inaccurate base staff calculations. Whatever staffing method you use (Erlang C, a variation of it, or simulation), a certain amount of trial and error and a healthy dose of intuition and experience are necessary to accurately model the environment. You will need to run through quite a few (sometimes dozens of) "what-if" scenarios to get it right.
  4. Staff shrinkage. Breaks, lunch, meetings, projects, research, training, absenteeism ... you know the story. These things are particularly vexing in a skills-based routing environment where you are trying to get calls to just the right agents. There's no substitute for realistically planning and budgeting for the things that keep agents from the phones.
  5. No routing manager/coordinator. If all of this sounds time-consuming, that's because it is. Even relatively small contact centers have learned through tough, practical experience that it often takes the equivalent of a full-time person to keep skills-based routing running smoothly. Projecting requirements, assessing current capabilities, updating system programming and adjusting staffing plans and schedules to accommodate evolving circumstances are ongoing activities.

If there's one lesson that towers about all others, it's this: skills-based routing is no substitute for good planning. To the contrary, good results are dependent on accurate forecasts, solid staffing calculations, realistic assumptions about staff availability and logical system programming. Skills-based routing is a powerful capability, but it must be managed appropriately to fulfill its promise.

Please drop me a note with your stories, comments, feedback… I’d love to hear from you.