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The "Power of One"--As Important As Ever

"The power of one" is among the most important principles to introduce to new hires and reinforce with experienced agents.

While we know the impact each agent has on individual customers and the subsequent publicity (good or bad) that can come from those experiences, the power of one refers more specifically to queues and wait times. The central theme that shapes contact center operations is that they are dynamic; workloads arrive randomly in any center that handles customer-initiated contacts. In other words, contacts bunch up. This, coupled with the reality of how queues behave, means that agents who are helping manage the workload positively affect service level far more than they may realize.

(The phrase “power of one” has frequently been used across the business world, in charitable fund raising, and in the contact center profession, including as the title of a booklet by author Penny Reynolds. However, it was first popularized by Australian author Bryce Courtenay, who used it as the title of his 1989 book about a young boy growing up in South Africa.)

Good forecasts can accurately predict contacts down to the season, day, and time of day.

What you can’t predict, however, is how they will arrive on a moment-by-moment basis. And if one channel backs up, you will likely see the ripple effect of channel hopping (when customers switch to a different access alternative, e.g., they use social instead of waiting on hold) or simultaneous contacts (when customers contact the organization through multiple channels for the same issue).

To illustrate this principle, we ran a couple of tables based on the widely used Erlang C formula (using a program called QueueView from ICMI—but any Erlang C calculator will do). For example, we plugged in 250 calls that have 180 seconds or 3 minutes talk time and 30 seconds of after call work. Take a look at the impact of different staffing levels!  

 ICMI Power of One-- Figure 1

As you can see, 30 agents will provide a service level of just over 23 percent in 20 seconds. With 31 agents, things improve dramatically, with service level jumping to 45 percent. Adding one more person yields another vast improvement. In fact, adding only four or five people takes service level from really bad to levels that are a lot more acceptable to customers.  

 ICMI The Power of One-- Figure 2 

Now, look at Figure 2, which shows what happens to customers at different staffing levels. If we have 34 agents handling calls, 65 callers are waiting five seconds or longer.  Then we answer seven of them in the next five seconds, so 58 are still waiting ten seconds or longer. Then we answer another six, so 52 are waiting 15 seconds or longer, and so forth. There’s still one person waiting 180 seconds, and nobody waits more than four minutes. It’s a very different story, however, if there are only 30 agents handling calls. Dozens of callers are waiting four minutes or longer. The results look far better with even one additional agent.

The relationship between staff and service level is not linear – it’s exponential. That’s a glimpse at the power of one: Every person has a significant positive impact on wait times—a ripple effect far beyond the contacts they directly handle.

Here are some of the steps successful contact centers are taking to reinforce this principle and the importance of being in the right places at the right times:

  • Educate each person on how much impact he or she has on the queue—incorporate these or similar scenarios into agent training.
  • Establish concrete service level and response time objectives that are understood by all. And develop reasonable expectations for adherence to schedule and a culture that understands and supports it.
  • Educate everyone in the center on the core steps involved in forecasting and resource planning so that they know how schedules are produced, and where they come from.
  • Develop appropriate priorities for the full range of tasks that your agents handle and guidelines for how to respond to evolving conditions.

The power of one principle is as important as ever, given proliferating contact channels and heightened customer expectations for quick and easy service. My encouragement is to keep it front and center with your team.