Call center schedules are notoriously fragile. Agents may arrive late, log in to the wrong work queue, take breaks or lunch at slightly different times than planned, or get called away for an unexpected meeting or conference. When too many agents are missing in action, the center’s service levels will begin to tumble like the Dow Jones on a bad day.
If 2% of agents are not at their assigned posts, for example, the percentage of calls answered within 30 seconds or whatever performance objective has been used in creating the schedule typically will drop by 10%. If 10% of agents are out of sync, fully half of the center’s incoming calls will likely not be answered within the target time frame.
The repercussions can be severe. Understaffing caused by agents’ failure to adhere to their schedules can lead to abandoned calls, irate customers, lost sales, and/or an inability to meet service level agreements. This in turn can drive customers to competitors and produce lasting business damage. Overstaffing caused by the same non-conformance issues can translate into wasted labor expense and associated problems.
To avoid these complications, call center supervisors need strategies for nipping adherence violations in the bud. Real-time adherence tools available with many of today’s workforce scheduling applications can help by automatically alerting managers when agents are out of compliance. This makes it possible to flag minor lapses before they turn into major crises.
Reasons for Non-Adherence
Agents’ failure to be in the right place at the right time can stem from many factors besides obvious reasons like tardiness, bathroom visits, or failure to promptly return to their desks after scheduled breaks.
They may be tied up on a customer phone call when breaks or lunches are supposed to begin. They may be summoned to an unexpected consultation with a supervisor, a last-minute meeting, or a training session that schedulers forgot to slot into the calendar. They may be handling incoming calls when they are supposed to be responding to emails.
If only a few agents are out of compliance, overall performance probably will not be compromised. But if too many agents are AWOL for too long, the domino effect will kick in. Monitoring adherence on a real-time basis can identify the problem early enough to permit corrective action to be taken before too many dominoes have fallen.
How Adherence Monitoring Works
While call centers with fewer than 50 seats may be able to track agent activity simply by looking around the room, larger operations can benefit from the use of automated agent adherence systems that come as optional modules with the more advanced workforce scheduling programs. These adherence systems communicate with the call center’s Automatic Call Distributor (ACD) to determine each agent’s current activity and compare that information to his or her assigned schedule.
Supervisors can view adherence status at any time in a special window that is refreshed every 30 seconds or on the timetable of the user’s choice. When an agent’s “state” does not match the schedule, the system typically spotlights the discrepancy by a visual device such as color-coding.
The more comprehensive systems arm supervisors with important additional information by indicating the nature of the violation (e.g. late start, improper activity, logged out early) as well as the agent’s current state (e.g. ACD inbound, logged off, after-call work) and the duration of the problem.
In addition to offering real-time insight into what agents are doing, these systems allow the call center to set adherence targets that define the amount of time an individual agent should be engaged in scheduled activities on a weekly or monthly basis. These targets are then used in reports that track each agent’s performance over time to aid in personnel evaluations and ongoing quality-of-service efforts.
While real-time adherence monitoring can help strengthen a call center’s performance, some managers are reluctant to use it for fear of a backlash by agents who may dislike the idea of having the system constantly look over their shoulders. Call centers can combat this perception, and simultaneously achieve peak results, by following several basic rules.
Rule 1: Set Realistic Adherence Goals
No agent can be on task every minute of every day. Attempting to force 100% compliance will backfire, both by alienating agents and by tacitly encouraging them to end calls prematurely in order to meet their adherence targets. This will take an unacceptable toll on customer service.
For most call centers, adherence goals should be in the 90% to 95% range — that is, individual agents should be engaged in scheduled activities 90 to 95% of the time over the course of a week or a month. This provides some latitude for minor scheduling oversights, unforeseen developments, and necessities like bathroom breaks. Of course, due allowance needs to be made for this when calculating agent numbers.
Rule 2: Build Grace Periods into the System
Like movie rentals or life insurance premiums that allow some cushion in return times or due dates, adherence systems should include grace periods that must be observed before the agent is deemed to be out of compliance. It is impractical as well as oppressive to penalize an agent for returning to his or her desk at 2:02 instead of 2:00, even in the busiest and strictest call center environments. Being too rigid will affect morale and, again, customer service.
Ideally, the system should allow different thresholds to be established for different activities. A late start at the beginning of a shift or a late return from lunch may have a grace period of 2 minutes, for example, while a late lunch start may have a grace period of 5 minutes. These policies are necessary to accommodate the realities of call center work, where an agent scheduled to go on break at 10 am may be delayed by a call received at 9:59.
Rule 3: Determine the Root Cause
Sometimes numbers are misleading. An agent who appears to have fallen below the center’s adherence targets in a given week or month may actually be a victim of someone’s failure to record exceptions in the schedule. Perhaps a supervisor neglected to log an illness-related absence, a switch to a lunch schedule, or a reassignment from phone duty to email duty. Perhaps call volume was twice what was expected, causing planned meetings to be cancelled.
For these reasons, it is important to review apparent adherence slip-ups with the ostensibly offending agent before taking action. Managers can present the data and allow agents to correct it. If it turns out that the data is accurate, one-on-one coaching with a trainer or supervisor might be in order to help agents manage their time better or handle specific tasks more efficiently. All of these steps should be taken before imposing penalties.
The Path to Productivity
At the end of the day, the goal of real-time adherence monitoring is simply to reduce unproductive time by keeping agents in their seats when they’re supposed to be. The more agents a center has, the more can go wrong, and the greater return can be reaped from a real-time adherence system.
The value of a schedule depends entirely on how well agents follow it. Inadvertent and even deliberate violations are inevitable. The best defense is a good offense. For many call centers, agent adherence systems are the answer.
Dennis Cox is the managing director of PIPKINS UK, Ltd., the European headquarters for PIPKINS, Inc. Dennis worked for thirteen years as a workforce efficiency manager at BT (formerly British Telecom) before coming to PIPKINS in 1992. One of his main areas of expertise is the effective integration of workforce management tools and human resources. PIPKINS is a supplier of workforce management systems and services to both United States and international call centers. PIPKINS, Inc. is headquartered in St. Louis, Missouri, with its European Headquarters located in Yorkshire, England.
“PIPKINS, Maxima Advantage™ is the only Workforce Management system today that has the flexibility to provide the complete skill-set scheduling solution. Skill set capabilities were designed into Maxima Advantage from inception to handle all multi-skilled call center environments.”