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How to Coach Schedule Adherence

abstractI wholeheartedly empathize with contact center agents whose time is accounted in minutes and seconds. Strict adherence targets frequently shock new hires – “My supervisor messages me if I go to the bathroom outside my break!” – and are the second most common metric-related concern I hear about in agent focus groups.

Overly punitive approaches, numbers-focused coaching, lack of buy-in, and too-ambitious targets lead to the negative cloud that often hangs over coaching adherence. Here are some guidelines to ensure your approach gets the results you want while also building agent buy-in and positive relationships.

Rely on positive reinforcement

Adherence is a performance metric that agents hear about when they miss, but receive little attention for when they meet or exceed the goal. When we bring up positive reinforcement, managers protest, “It’s what they get paid for,” and “it’s expected.” Since it’s expected, we wait until an agent is out of adherence and then swoop in to correct non-compliance.

In reality, schedule adherence is critical to meeting budget, service level, and customer satisfaction goals. Schedule adherence is what we hope gets us over the finish line when staffing is tight and we’re not quite sure we’re going to make it. It requires a tremendous amount of agent attention and effort to maintain high adherence.

It’s a fatal mistake to over-rely on correction to drive us to this critical goal. I don’t necessarily advocate for financial incentives, which often don’t work in the long term, but positive reinforcement and coaching, creative recognition, and rewards are the factors that will make our adherence dreams a reality. In practice, this looks like frequent team recognition for trends, individual recognition, visual trackers, daily updates and recognition, and encouragement from senior leadership.

Clarify adherence calculations and right actions

Make sure all employees understand schedule adherence calculations and the right actions to meet them. For instance:

  • On high occupancy days, should agents stay in the queue until their break or log out early if it's close?
  • Does staying on a long call five minutes into my break count the same as coming back from break five minutes late?

When communicating how to handle real-life scenarios, weed out long text explanations and use visuals and examples to illustrate the proper action in everyday situations. These recommendations should be coordinated between WFM, the management team, and frontline team members to ensure the advice aligns with all our goals, not just with how to “hit the number.”

The impact of long calls is a frequent point of friction and should be directly addressed. Rather than countering agents’ objections with “It all works out,” show them the data analysis that shows that long calls don’t negatively impact their adherence metric, or that there’s enough buffer to accommodate both normal non-compliance and long calls.

It isn’t fair to hold agents accountable for a metric while brushing aside the elements that are out of their control. Some WFM vendors have introduced the concept of positive non-adherence (long calls that run into a break) versus negative non-adherence (logging in late at the start of a shift) to address this common – and valid – objection.

Sell the adherence story

The truth is adherence is essential. Our ability to maximize our productivity and use our resources wisely is the sign of a well-run contact center. Too often, we coach adherence like schoolteachers handing out demerits for being late rather than telling the story of random call arrival, agent availability, the power of one, and customer experience.

What is your adherence story? It’s:

  • Proof that poor adherence impacts our ability to meet service level using charts and data that illustrate the impact of poor adherence with your customers in your contact center.
  • Customer satisfaction results that compare satisfaction with a long wait compared to a short wait.
  • The story of your desired customer experience, and the role of adherence in delivering on that vision.

Be reasonable

It’s a common perception that managers crack down on adherence when we’re understaffed – due to short staffing or a higher than anticipated volume of calls. In reality, even if agents adhered to their schedules 100%, they would still not be able to meet these challenges. It is not agents’ responsibility to dig the contact center out of a staffing hole, and it’s important to be honest when we’re short-staffed or receiving more volume than we expected.

If the contact center is understaffed and occupancy is too high for an extended period, expect adherence to decrease when employees are stressed, tired, and overworked. When occupancy is high, and agents have no room to breathe between calls, they will make that time.

I caution managers to be careful about doubling down on strict adherence targets when staffing is low. You may get what you want in the short term, but you will drive employees to dust off their resumes and look for jobs that have more reasonable expectations. Keep your ear to the ground and make sure you’re on the same page with your employees about what’s considered reasonable.

While adherence to schedule is a metric that doesn’t carry the same emotional weight and complexity as customer satisfaction and quality, it serves a critical function on our scorecard, reflecting staffing efficiency and agent effort. Use the time you spend coaching agent adherence as an opportunity to share the company’s vision of the desired customer experience, and the positive impact schedule adherence adds to that vision.