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Schedule Adherence: Have Your Cake and Eat it,Too

In most contact centers, talking about adherence is a sticky situation.  If it means giving great customer service, we don’t worry about being “stuck” on a call.  It shouldn’t happen every call, but it happens. And if agents take their break a couple minutes early, it’s better than taking it 10 minutes late. Likewise, one challenging day does not make an adherent violator. It’s about LPI (least possible impact) rather than a hard number.  This takes a bit of finesse to coach, too.

Adherence is a measure of how close we come to executing our plan.  Running at 100% is not realistic, even if you are over staffed. Like kicking field goals, as long as the ball is between the uprights, it doesn’t matter if it cleared the bar by 1 foot or 30 feet, or if it’s closer to the left or right upright.  It matters if your adherence rate is within the acceptable range, which is dependent on the length of your average call, and standard deviation of short and extremely long calls.  In short, there isn’t “one number” that’s the same for every business. But this isn’t about math, that’s for the WFM geeks. This is about what works, and what’s necessary to function well—like food, for example.  In this case, let’s talk about a food most folks like—cake!  

Chocolate Cake

Cake is usually served for dessert (or breakfast if mom isn’t looking). It’s a treat! We serve it to celebrate.  How many leaders, or agents, consider adherence something to celebrate?  Usually it’s a necessary evil, or even something forced on you—like strained beets or asparagus—and enforced by the evil WFM sorcerers.  But in reality, adherence is worthy of a celebration. It leads to comfort, and breathing room.  If you have a well-designed service level, or better yet, look at realistic occupancy, you drive a balanced day for your agents. We all know those days, when it’s actually quiet, and customers aren’t frustrated because of extended wait times. This is having our cake.  It means the agents caught a breath between calls.   Many of us teach the “Power of One”, and share how it “helps ensure service level”, but how many of us focus on occupancy—or what’s in it for the agent? You have to let the agents know that great adherence means time to catch breath between calls.  It means customers focus on solving their issues, and not wait time. It means cake!

We’ve all had a “special day” planned in the call center, only to cancel because something didn’t work as planned, or a snow storm blew through, or marketing neglected to tell us there was a sale event (but that never happens, right?). On a normal day, adherence is something that the agents actually have control over.  They have the ability to take their breaks as close to on time as possible. If this happens, we have the time to eat our cake, even on busy days. This means our customers experience the best service possible.  If we plan our events appropriately, there is no impact that requires us digging out from a queue caused by lack of power of one. Supervisors can spend their days coaching and developing.  Managers can focus on building the future.  Engagement grows, and we see smiles.

One way to ensure the cake is tasty? Facilitate individual events real-time. Plan a “block” of time for one on one events.  Think about the time your contact center loses when an agent is stuck on a call (which is okay sometimes) and runs late to their weekly coaching.  They can’t totally focus on their customers, as they know their boss is waiting. Their coach is “waiting” and losing time, and wondering not just about the upcoming session, but the one that will come after.  Will she cut this agent short, or will the next one have to wait? In any event, we have lost time, and potentially for 3 people.  Do this exercise.  Add up the number of individual events per week. Total the people involved.  Estimate the “lost time” for each party.  Total it up.  Multiply by 52 weeks, then multiply by your average wage.  In a medium sized call center, you can easily lose $100,000 a year, and this doesn’t even count the time spent rescheduling –or rescheduling multiple times.

Back to the cake analogy. There are those who consider cake unhealthy.  Chefs have attempted to alleviate this misconception by creating the abomination called carrot cake, but I prefer the variation that involves beans—in that chocolate is a bean! If it comes from a bean, it must be healthy, therefore, it won’t make you too fat!  In all seriousness, being efficient is paramount in today’s business world.  We all hear “run lean” and many companies have a continual improvement department. All of this rolls up to the “keeper of the bean”—the dreaded bean counter (aka accounting). If we have the right agent, in the right place, at the right time, in the right media for each customer, our business grows.  We hit budget.  FCR and Net Promoter gain strength, because we have the time for coaching and growth.  We aren’t getting fat, instead we are getting strong.  Stress reduces, and we all know that’s healthy.  Do we ever stop to think that something as simple as doing our best to follow breaks can add energy and drive this type of fecundity?

What about icing?  No discussion of cake would be complete without icing!  There are two types that come to mind.  The first is the sickeningly sweet, almost plastic type that comes out of a tube, and is on flat sheet cakes that have pretty pictures on them, but in reality might not taste great.  This happens when we alter adherence by “masking” exceptions through an artificial approval process.  We solve for numbers and say “We ran a 98% adherence last week.” In reality, we ran a 75% and entered after the fact exceptions because it “wasn’t the agent’s fault” and we couldn’t penalize them because a meeting ran long.  The truth is, that number isn’t actually adherence. It doesn’t demonstrate how well we executed to plan.  It doesn’t reflect what actually happened and it can’t drive future plans accurately. Honestly, it isn’t even a true business KPI!  

The best icing is the kind we all help create.  The kind Grandma made by looking in the bowl until she felt it was “just right.” This happens when we stop solving for numbers and look at desired business outcomes and realistic expectations.  We look at behavior patterns over longer periods of time. If it’s not working, we re-evaluate the goal, rather than fudge the number. We work together to educate everyone on what’s important and what’s in it for them.  If this happens, the adherently sticky situation of “why must I follow the schedule?” becomes instead a recipe for a delightful confection that everyone can enjoy, especially our agents and customers.  Aren’t they the reason we can even discuss cake in the first place?