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Did THAT Just Happen? U.S. Airways Real-time Management

In Brad Cleveland’s book, Call Center Management on Fast Forward, he defines real-time management as “making adjustments to staffing and thresholds in the systems and network in response to current queue conditions.”  This concept is one that every contact center leader becomes acutely in tune with, as the variables impacting the call center are vast and often outside our control. Agent absenteeism, marketing events, training, unscheduled activities, product launches, and emergency situations all cause unanticipated volume and staffing challenges.            
Each industry has their own nuances that force the hand of real-time management, and last Friday I personally had the opportunity to watch the airlines in action. It was a great reminder on queue control to directly see how different carriers (and their customers) handled a summer storm that sprung up over the Midwest without much warning. It was real-time management unfolding around me in real-time.

Here’s the scenario - my US Airways flight from Chicago to Charlotte was scheduled for departure at 12.15p. As I casually walked over to the gate area, I simultaneously noticed two things. The first was that a significant number of flights on the ‘big board’ were suddenly reporting themselves to be either delayed or canceled. The second was that my own flight appeared to be almost completely boarded, even though we were easily 40 minutes from expected takeoff. It seems that this particular ground and flight crew were taking a cue from Brad’s book and realizing that, “Even the most accurate planning must be augmented by effective real-time management: monitoring events as they happen and making adjustments as necessary.”

As I approached the podium, the gate agent very rudely questioned my complacency (mind you, I was technically still early) and brusquely directed me on board. While making my way down a very crowded and confused aisle of people, the lead flight attendant made a terse announcement over the PA.  Essentially she told everyone to stow their luggage, take a seat and buckle in...NOW!  Unsurprisingly she was met with grumbling, a lot of questions, and not a lot of urgent movement. Then the pilot addressed the cabin and described things a little bit better. He calmly and quickly explained that they had been monitoring an impending storm and realized that the window for a timely takeoff was going to be rather small. Therefore, if we didn’t get out of the gate early, find our priority position in the runway queue, and get ahead of the weather, we’d be sitting on the tarmac for a long while and finding ourselves on the delayed or cancelled board like a lot of the other airlines. That got people hopping.

“Real-time management should complement planning, explains Brad. “When the planning is done, it’s the moment-by-moment decisions and actions that will enable you to maintain service level and response time.”

Thanks to the quick thinking of the US Airways crew, they exceeded both service level and response time in this particular situation. If I could offer up any advice of their handling of the weather situation though, it would be this little nugget: even in times of adversity or urgency, don’t forget about the complementary relationship between service level and quality. There were more than a few people around me that while pleased with the end result of landing early in Charlotte, were extremely displeased at the process in which we arrived there. I expect that US Airways received some unnecessary calls and emails after-the-fact about the rudeness of their employees. Call Center Management on Fast Forward describes it perfectly, “A backed-up queue does not mean you should change the way you handle work, the process necessary for handling each contact with quality”.

Thanks again US Airways for getting me on the ground and in-time for my connection home last Friday. Next time though, a little smile will make me and the rest of your customers remember the experience, and not just the process.