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Tackling the Challenges of Small Contact Centers

Kicker: Small contact centers face big challenges. Here are ways you can meet them successfully.

Small contact centers—those with fewer than 50 agents (and, yes, they can get much smaller, e.g., there are centers with just a few agents)—make up the fastest growing segment of our industry. From entrepreneurial startups, to a wide range of new internal- and external-facing services in established organizations, small centers are on the move. And in many cases, managers new to contact centers are tasked with leading them. If that’s you, you may feel like you caught a tiger by the tail!

Small centers are, in some way, far more difficult to manage than large environments. Workload tends to be proportionally more volatile, making workforce optimization inherently challenging. There are often fewer agents to absorb shifts in customer demand. And each agent in a small center has an outsized impact on service level—if one or two are unexpectedly absent or away from their desks, things spiral quickly.

In today’s multichannel environment agents in small centers have to be “jacks of all trades,” handling a wide variety of contacts and other tasks. And you may have less sophisticated tools and reports with which to tackle these challenges (although that's not always the case, given the cloud-based routing and reporting tools now available for even the smallest centers).

All told, quite a challenge. So what can you do? Plenty! Here’s a snapshot of steps you can take to create great results.

First, harness the Laws of nature . The “powerful pooling principle” is constantly at work. It states: Consolidation of resources will result in improved workload-carrying efficiency. Conversely, disaggregating resources will yield reduced workload-carrying efficiency.

As illustrated in the figure, one group 28 agents can do the work of four groups of nine agents (36 total), all other things equal. In other words, if you take small, specialized agent groups, cross-train them and put them into combined groups, you’ll have a more efficient environment. (If you’re really small, e.g., you have just a handful of agents, go with a combined group from the get-go and do everything possible to make sure they can cover for each other.)


In hiring, find people who can handle the broadest range of contacts—multiple languages, different channels, the full range of complexity. (And yes, do the math; multilingual and multi-skilled agents are often worth the extra recruiting effort and pay.) Also look for other ways to pool existing resources. Can you cross-train? Would developments in information systems enable new hires to handle a broader variety of contacts? Can you boost training and onboarding?

Second, make accurate forecasts and plans a priority . Managers of small centers sometimes assume that forecasting and scheduling efforts won't do much good because there are only so many people to work with. But that’s all the more reason to do some concerted planning!

Here are a few tips: Look for underlying trends in workload; it’s often not as volatile as it may seem, and predictable, patterns almost always emerge by increment (e.g., half hour or hour), day of week and season of year. Graph all three components of call load (average talk time, average after-call work time and volume) down to the increment level, and avoid putting much stock in daily averages. Ensure that everyone is using the after call work state consistently (for true after call work, not a catch-all mode).  Categorize and track the types of contacts you are handling, and watch for and anticipate changes in the mix.

Third, take advantage of scheduling flexibility. Small contact centers are prime candidates for the “envelope strategy.” This is where the center schedules enough agents for upcoming weeks or months to handle both the call load and other types of work, creating an "envelope" within which work is prioritized. When customer workload is heavy, all agents handle contacts; when it is light, some agents are reassigned to less time-sensitive work, as well as training, projects and other. You are probably making these adjustments anyway; the idea is to put some oomph into forecasting and managing activities beyond interactions. And be creative in scheduling—involve your agents, so they can help you identify alternatives, and so they understand why accurate schedules are so important. Building a supporting culture is key.

Finally, cultivate the support and management know-how your environment requires. Senior level managers must understand the support and resources the contact center requires. What focus is most important to them and to your brand? Have an ongoing dialog with the CEO and CFO to gauge the level of service they will commit to, given that you can’t always accurately predict workload demand. Are you going to “overstaff,” just in case? Are there other tactics you can use, such as overflowing to another department or service bureau? Or will you and your customers have to tough it out when demand is greater than supply? There are many appropriate answers to these questions, depending on your organization's mission and culture. The important thing is to think these things through ahead of time and know how you view these issues as a leadership team.


Small contact centers are challenging, and there's an exciting upside to leading them: The decisions, policies and methodologies you put in place now will establish your contact center's direction. Lead well and you will positively impact your employees, your customers and your organization for months and perhaps years to come.