It’s 8:10 am, and already the day’s schedule needs to be fed to the shredder. Several agents have called in sick, others have been stranded by a snowstorm, a supervisor has convened an emergency meeting, and the phones are flooded because a product you’re selling was mentioned on the Oprah show the day before. If you don’t take action right away, you can kiss your target service levels – and maybe your job – goodbye.
While all of these calamities are unlikely to occur on the same day, any one of them can wreak havoc on a contact center’s staffing plans and send analysts scrambling to adjust the schedule. That’s where the real challenge begins.
Should that emergency meeting be cancelled? Should agents on the current shift be asked to work overtime, or should the next shift be asked to come in early? How should lunches and breaks be handled? If the problem is overstaffing rather than understaffing, should agents be sent home or offered voluntary time off if there is no training or other activity that can be used to fill the downtime?
For all but the smallest contact centers, the only way to answer these kinds of questions effectively is with the help of the center’s workforce management software. A system with intra-day analysis capabilities can quickly refresh the forecast and recalculate the staffing scenario required to meet the center’s service objectives. An intra-day schedule re-optimization utility can finish the job by electronically modifying work assignments, breaks and lunches based on the new forecast.
Performing these functions promptly and correctly can avert runaway queues, high abandon rates, lost sales, customer irritation, an inability to meet service level agreements, and a decline in agent morale. A few simple strategies can facilitate the process.
1 – Inform agents of your intra-day policies
The rule of thumb here is “no surprises”. Letting the staff know that they may be asked to extend a shift or otherwise adjust their schedule can go a long way toward defusing tensions and agent hostility in a crisis. If agents know what to expect when call volumes exceed forecasts or the call center is otherwise ailing, the cure will be much easier for them to swallow.
2 – Establish a benchmark
Not every absent agent or variation in forecasted call volume requires an overhaul of the day’s schedule. The challenge is knowing when you hit a threshold that demands action.
To avoid pushing the panic button unnecessarily, call center schedulers or supervisors should set trigger levels. This can be accomplished by analyzing historical data to determine what conditions have led to excessive handle times and related problems in the past, then determining the tipping point for key metrics such as percent over forecast.
Acceptable thresholds will vary, but most contact centers are capable of absorbing at least 5% more calls than anticipated and/or agent shrinkage of up to 10% before service levels start to plummet. Conversely, most can tolerate at least 5% fewer calls before needing to consider cutbacks in same-day staffing levels. Decide on your target numbers, and don’t worry about intra-day schedule adjustments unless you hit them.
3 – Review each schedule before the live date
Since most contact centers assemble their work schedules two to three weeks in advance, any given schedule can be affected by issues such as attrition, transfers and/or individual agents’ change requests that may arise between the time the plan is created and the work day itself. Staffing problems caused by these kinds of developments can be prevented by implementing a regular review process that will detect obvious shortages or surpluses ahead of time.
Ideally, each daily schedule should be reviewed a week before and then a day before the live date. During peak seasons, it may be advisable to add a third look in the middle of the week. A quick check for deviations in agents required versus agents provided is all that’s required.
Some contact centers have intra-day analysts who are dedicated to this type of work as well as ongoing monitoring to ensure that service levels stay on track throughout the day. If your center does not have an intra-day department, the task can be handled by your regular schedulers. Either way, the extra effort can pay off by eliminating staffing headaches or at least simplifying the intra-day adjustment process.
4 – Produce an intra-day forecast
As soon as call volumes, occupancy rates, service levels or other metrics enter your pre-defined danger zones, use your workforce management software’s intra-day forecasting tools to assess the potential impact on the rest of the day.
Advanced systems will be able to provide forecasts at 15 and 30-minute intervals based on current call volume. They will also be able to calculate staffing surplus or shortage levels for each interval. This is where the difference between a spreadsheet and an automated system with intra-day management capabilities begins to bear fruit.
Without workforce management software, contact center personnel would have to look at previous traffic patterns, calculate the percentage of a day’s calls represented by a given half-hourly increment, divide the number of calls received in the comparable current-day increment by the appropriate percentage, and then extrapolate call volumes as well as staffing needs for each remaining interval even before attempting to fine-tune agents’ schedules. The rescheduling process, of course, is another task that is difficult to execute manually for call centers much larger than 25 or 30 agents.
5 – Decide what to change
Like nearly everything associated with contact center scheduling, intra-day schedule management is a juggling act that changes based on which particular balls you toss into the air. You need to decide which teams or shifts to designate for schedule adjustments, whether shifts can be lengthened or shortened, whether to cancel or add discretionary off-phone activities such as meetings and training sessions, and whether employees who are scheduled later in the day can be asked to arrive earlier.
In some cases, the answers will depend on your payroll policies or hiring agreements. In others, the decision will be based on issues such as time of day. If it’s early, for example, you have the flexibility to adjust later shifts if necessary. In general, it is advisable to re-optimize only staff members who are already in the building, but this can vary depending on the circumstances.
Start with the simplest options and see if they will produce the desired results. The goal is to alter the staffing plan as little as possible to avoid confusion.
You may also need to ask employees for overtime or other changes before moving forward. In that case, it is useful if your workforce management system has a means of soliciting volunteers electronically through pop-up messages or similar tools.
6 – Run a re-optimization scenario
Armed with the latest intra-day forecast and an idea of the kinds of staffing changes you’re willing or able to make, analysts or schedulers can move on to adjusting the daily schedule to compensate for the unexpected events. The first step is to run a preliminary scenario to see how many changes would be required to align staffing with service objectives. The results will determine whether you proceed further.
If the workforce management system has a re-optimization utility, it will be integrated with relevant data such as call volume and real-time staff attendance. Typically the system can be preconfigured with rules such as which teams or shifts to include in the calculations when re-optimizing, whether overtime is an option and if so how much, whether scheduled meetings or training sessions should be removed, and whether to adjust lunches or breaks or both. Users can then instruct the utility to apply these rules or manually override them.
The system will then generate a new staffing plan, complete with skill set scheduling and any other capabilities used to produce the original. It will also calculate the impact on service levels and deliver the results as the percentage of calls that will be answered within your target interval.
7 – Accept or reject the plan
At this point, it’s time to decide whether the pain of changing the schedule is worth the results that will be achieved. Sometimes a simple change such as canceling a team meeting will free up enough agents to cover a shortfall without making any further adjustments. Sometimes nothing you do will solve the problem because you simply don’t have enough bodies to fill the seats. The numbers will tell the story immediately.
If the re-optimization process has not yielded at least a 2 or 3% improvement in service levels, the end may not justify the means. Analysts can run new scenarios with different sets of parameters to attempt to improve the results. Each new scenario must then be evaluated before making a final decision.
If none of the plans hits the mark, you may have no choice but to stick with the schedule you have. If the results are satisfactory, publish the plan and move forward.
8 – Notify agents
The critical final step in the process involves broadcasting the schedule changes to the staff. Some workforce management systems will automatically notify agents by email, pop-up or dashboard message without any interruption to call handling. Otherwise, supervisors must print and distribute new intra-day schedules, and/or talk to agents individually by phone or in person.
Last-minute staffing surprises are inevitable in any contact center environment. Whether prompted by a spike in call volumes, a local flu outbreak, an anomaly such as inexperienced agents who are not yet able to handle full workloads, or a variety of other factors, they are part and parcel of any call center operation. The only question is what to do about them.
Following the steps outlined above will make it easier to cope. Before you reach for the Alka Seltzer, reach for this checklist. With the right tools, intra-day schedule adjustments are just a few clicks away.
Valarie Carbo is a senior consultant to Pipkins, Inc., a worldwide supplier of workforce management software and services to the call center industry, and a former manager of at various levels of contact center outsourcing services.