Workforce Management

Tips for more effective call center forecasting, scheduling and agent adherence

Call Center Staffing Hints, Tips & Best Practices

Hiring Veterans as Call Center Agents

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Comcast Corp. recently announced plans to hire 10,000 military veterans, reservists and spouses over the next three years. Since 2012, the company has hired more than 4,200 veterans. Many of them now work at Comcast’s contact centers. 

This is not only an admirable effort, especially with Memorial Day having recently passed, it is also a proven method for finding better agents that are more likely to provide excellent service, and to stay in their positions longer. 

Compare the attributes managers look for in a contact center agent to the attributes veterans obtain during their military service, and it becomes obvious why this transition is one that works:

Accelerated learning curve: veterans can quickly learn new skills and concepts

Teamwork: the military encourages both individual and group productivity

Grace under pressure: if veterans can handle stressful combat situations, they can certainly cope with the rigors of tight schedules and angry callers

Following orders: Military men and women are used to accurately following procedures

Integrity: Veterans are familiar with the concept of an honest day’s work, and will bring their ‘A’ game to their job every day. 

There are many qualities that are desirable in a contact center agent, and most of them have already been acquired by men and women who have served in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard. Something to keep in mind next time your contact center is hiring. 



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Balancing Technology and Human Resources

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Artificial Intelligence is not yet a reality. And if you saw Avengers: Age of Ultron, you know that may be a good thing. 

Sometimes we get the feeling that the machines are taking over. They have already assumed many jobs that used to require people, and complete them more quickly and efficiently. This is true in the contact center as well, and has been since interactive voice response began routing calls to available agents.  

But will they ever take over entirely? Will a contact center one day be comprised of a roomful of voice-activated machines taking calls, completing tasks and analyzing the data thereafter?

That this could happen is undeniable; the question is, should it happen? And the answer is no. 

Regardless of how sophisticated technology becomes, there should always be a human element in some forms of customer communication. The goal for contact centers will be to find the right workforce optimization balance between sophisticated technology and professionally trained agents. 

Anyone who has ever become trapped in a conversation with a virtual call recipient and their menu of pre-recorded options (press 1 if you are calling to place an order, press 2 if you would like to return a product, etc.) soon realizes that their business could be conducted more efficiently with a human being at the other end of the line. 

And while there are now younger adults who have never known a world without smartphones, ATMs and self check-outs at the grocery store, some tasks simply cannot be handled by an automated response. This is especially true if a customer is angry or disappointed – when that happens you want someone who will listen to the problem, empathize with your situation, apologize for your inconvenience and try to provide a solution. 

No matter how intriguing the idea of artificial intelligence (AI) agents may be, contact center technology that is not supported by living, breathing agents can never provide the same positive customer experience. 



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Workforce Management and Memorial Day

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Everyone looks forward to a 3-day weekend – with the exception of those who have to work one or all of those days, and those that have to make sure resources are allocated at a contact center to meet consumer demand. 

As Memorial Day weekend approaches, here are some of the ways that workforce management can help contact center managers anticipate and optimize for the three-day holiday. 

  • Gathering Data – historical reports from the ACD provide the best indicators of what to expect. Go back at least two years and analyze call volume and other important KPIs. 
  • Remove Variances – a holiday is a variance in itself so that will obviously be taken into account, but watch for other issues that might be responsible for lower or higher numbers.
  • Follow the Pattern – what specifically happened last Memorial Day weekend? Perhaps call volume dropped on Friday, was almost nonexistent Sunday but picked up again on Monday. Will that pattern remain consistent? Or is there some reason it might change? 
  • Check with Marketing – Has the company announced a new Memorial Day sale or promotion? How will that factor into call volume? 

Once you have this information, it will be much easier to calculate staff requirements to meet service goals. 



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Forecasting and Scheduling Home-Based Agents

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Many companies have discovered the advantages of virtual call centers, such as the cost reductions derived from agents working from home, and a more flexible scalability than what can be imposed at a brick and mortar contact center.

It’s an arrangement that is also preferable for many agents. They eliminate the time and fuel costs associated with driving to and from the contact center, and it allows parents of small children to be closer to their families. There is also something to be said for the trust shown in agents that work remotely, which is appreciated and often inspires greater confidence and performance. 

Forecasting, Scheduling and Telecommuting

The evolution of cloud software has accelerated the work-from-home trend, as it provides the same service capabilities to an agent’s home computer as can be accessed at the call center. 

No installation is required, data sharing remains secure, and managers enjoy even more flexibility in the forecasting and scheduling process. Forecast simulations can be run in the same way as with an office-based workforce, and scheduling will be easier because of greater agent availability. 

Now it’s easier to always meet optimal service levels, as managers can create a pool of back-up telecommuting agents for times of increased call volume, peak calling seasons such as holidays, or for when there are just too many unexpected absences. 

Best of all, with an automated, cloud-based workforce management solution, managers receive the same detailed reports and real-time information on employee performance, agent activities, shift assignments, schedule adherence and other data, regardless of whether the agent is working from home or elsewhere.  

Managers used to a more traditional contact center environment make require some adjustment, but the benefits of cloud-based WFM, and the positive reception of agents who would prefer to work from home (and now may stay with the company longer) should ease the transition. 

Any system that assures service levels are being met while costs are being reduced is certainly worth a try.  


Forecast & Scheduling Best Practices

The Biggest Challenge Contact Centers Face

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What is the biggest challenge faced by every contact center, regardless of size or type? 

The answer is one you may already know: It’s the challenge of delivering great customer service at the lowest possible cost. The question that is more difficult to answer is – what is the best way to do it?

It starts with information – having the data your agents need, when they need it. 

Specifically, this means real-time insights delivered via dashboards and reports on KPIs, as well as alerts that allow managers to adjust forecasts and schedules as needed when the unexpected occurs. It means running scenarios to prepare for various contingencies, and changing breaks to meet the demands of call volume. 

It also means being able to record and score calls so agents receive the coaching and training they need to deliver outstanding customer service. 

With the capabilities provide by this data, the contact center manager has the actionable insights necessary to be proactive in decision-making, and that means every shift of every day will be prepared to deliver the kind of customer service that keeps customers loyal and happy. And when the contact center is running at peak efficiency, that reduces costs as well.

Even greater cost savings can be achieved when contact center technology is provided through the cloud as a subscription service, which eliminates the need to invest in additional hardware and software. In this model, call centers pay only for the time and capacity that they need. For a smaller call center, this means the ability to significantly lower upfront costs, while maintaining the option of scaling up as needed.



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What Skills Get Contact Center Agents Hired?

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For many years the skill set expected from a call center agent was fairly narrow and clearly defined. But as call centers have evolved into contact centers, additional skills are now required to meet customer expectations via their preferred method of communication. 

Bad news for agents? Not at all. Those will the ability to adapt to different communication channels will be more in demand. Also, those with outstanding written skills, but who are not as comfortable with interaction via telephone, now have an opportunity to work successfully in this environment. 

What skills should you be looking for when hiring an agent into a multi-channel contact center environment? Here are 10 of the most prominent:

Courtesy and professionalism in all communication

Attendance and punctuality

Outstanding verbal skills and/or written skills

The ability to multi-task

A responsible team player

The ability to adhere to a strict schedule

The confidence to work independently and problem-solve without assistance

The ability to stay calm in a fast-paced work atmosphere

Familiarity with the technology found in contact centers

The ability to listen to and respond to coaching

Specific contact centers will have additional expectations, such as the ability to work a non-traditional schedule. Agents that communicate with customers through a video chat will also need to maintain a professional appearance, with appropriate body language. 

Monet’s Workforce Management solution can play a key role in helping agents to achieve optimal performance, by giving them the information they need to succeed. 



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Cyber Attacks and Contact Centers: Are you Prepared?

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You may have seen the news earlier this month: AT&T Inc. has agreed to pay a $25 million settlement following the discovery of a data breach at their call centers in Mexico, Colombia and the Philippines. It happened because employees at these call centers accepted illegal payments to share the private information of the company’s customers. About 280,000 people were affected. 

This case raises awareness that contact centers play a central part in dealing with customers in case of a cyberattack. They are the first point of human contact. Everyone can remember the large scale attacks that hit Target stores in 2015 or the Sony PlayStation Network in 2011. Millions users were affected, millions of credit card numbers leaked. This is a stressful situation for the customers and it can affect the company’s reputation dramatically. 

Just like any other businesses, call centers have to be prepared and proactive to deal with the aftermath of a cyberattack targeting the company. 

It becomes essential that shrinkage is taken into account, in order to handle an unexpected spike of calls, agents are trained, available, and scripts with an emergency procedure are ready. 

How should you prepare your contact center?

Most companies devote just 2-4% of their IT budget to security and disaster recovery planning. And yet, the actions taken before a cyber attack are as significant, if not more so, than actions taken after the worst has become reality. 

Some companies specialize in disaster preparation. They can help implement a strategy to fit a contact center’s needs, likely threats and budget. Many of these companies may begin with a business impact analysis, to assess the potential loss (whether financial, technical or in human resources) from a cyber attack. 

It’s also a good idea to put together an issue response team ahead of time, so you will have the right people in place if an attack should occur.

What to Do After?

A cyber attack is not the same as other unforeseen activities that could not be anticipated with forecasting and scheduling. This is a situation where customers are directly and negatively affected by what has occurred, and may even incur financial loss as a result. Some will be angry. Some will be frightened. And most of them will be calling you as soon as the news of the attack is made public.

Because data breaches are now, unfortunately, an ongoing threat in 21st century business, most customers will understand that these incidents are not always avoidable. That means it’s no longer an automatic deal-breaker for that business relationship – but a lot will depend on how the company responds. For the contact center, that means focusing on 4 words: Communicate, Respond, Explain, and Apologize.

Communicate

Let customers know as soon as possible that an attack has occurred. Don’t wait for them to call you. This will be the first step in rebuilding any trust that has been lost. The faster they are aware of what has happened, the faster they can contact their bank or credit card company and take steps to protect themselves. The companies that lose the most customers from a cyber attack are those that wait weeks (or even months) before going public.

Respond

Customers will have questions. Have your best agents in place – those that have shown via quality reviews and coaching that they know how to remain calm when speaking with someone who is upset. Make sure these agents have the answers ready to the questions that are always asked following an attack (“What happened?” “How will this affect me?” “Do I need to call my bank?”). 

Explain

Cyber attacks are highly technical in execution, but customers will not be interested in explanations that they cannot understand. Agents should be able to explain in plain English what has happened, why it happened, and what steps the company is taking to control the damage, and make sure the customer is inconvenienced as little as possible. Also, tell them what steps are now being taken to make sure their information will be safer in the future. 

Apologize

This is where agent training should begin when preparing for the aftermath of an attack. The apology should happen near the beginning of the call, and again at the end. It will go a long way toward maintaining a customer’s confidence. 

Bonus Step: Stay in Touch

Customers will expect a company to be reluctant to talk about a cyber attack, so they will appreciate if the company takes the initiative in keeping customers apprised of what is happening. Whether it’s a phone call from the contact center updating them on the situation, or an apology email from the company CEO, or some other means of following up, it demonstrates ongoing concern for the customer’s welfare and interest in keeping their business. 

Conclusion

With cyber attacks in the news almost every week, companies can no longer assume they will be the exception and never have to worry about the fallout from such a damaging incident. However, few companies have devoted sufficient time to advance preparation, and a recent Ponemon study found that companies were also not prepared to communicate with customers following a data breach; in fact, of more than 470 surveyed, just 21% had a trained communications team in place. 

For contact centers, where communication is the first and most important skill considered for agent hires, that percentage will not do. This is the moment when agents should be called upon to use their skills to address customer concerns and restore confidence and loyalty. 

Ponemon study referenced in article: http://www.corpcounsel.com/id=1202598001685?slreturn=20150320141052



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Contact Centers and Tax Paying Season

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Different call centers have different busy seasons. 

For those connected with our annual income tax obligation, this is the month that requires more advance preparation, agent training and full staffing. The New York State Department of Taxation and Finance typically handles about 1 million calls every April. 

If your contact center is one designed to help businesses and consumers answer IRS or state tax-related questions, how did you do? If your agents now look like they have been through a 15-round fight, and your callers had to wait longer than you would prefer to speak to an agent, it’s never too early to start preparing to do better next year. 

That process starts by studying this month’s figures. That will help you better anticipate what traffic will be like in April of 2016, not just in call volume but in how many chose to seek help through other channels (chat, email, etc.). With a sound forecast in place you’ll be better prepared to allocate resources and personnel to the shifts and the areas where they will be needed most. 

Do you have a workforce management solution in place that can route a specific type of call to the agent best qualified to take it? Do you have qualified temp agents on stand-by who will be available on the busiest days? If not, start hiring early and have contact information ready for more agents that you expect to need, as some drop-off should always be anticipated. 

Keep in mind also that just because you are busier, it’s no reason to pay less attention to quality control. This is actually a critical time to be monitoring calls, emails and chats to compare to the call center’s quality benchmarks. Do not wait until after the season is over to address any issues. 



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Contact Centers are Coming Back

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If you see a building going up or being renovated in an office park or commercial area near you, don’t be surprised if it turns out to be a call center. 

Enter “contact center jobs” into a news search engine and you’ll see story after story about companies adding positions – 682 in Hamilton, Ohio; 600 in Clearfield, Utah; 750 in Louisville, Kentucky. 

Part of this can be attributed to a steadily growing economy, but the trend toward insourcing these jobs from overseas, rather than shipping them out to India and The Philippines, is also significant factor. Today, there are approximately five million Americans employed in contact centers, and many of them are working in positions that were outsourced more than a decade ago.  

Why the switch? Labor costs are going up in other parts of the world, so companies aren’t saving as much money; security has also become a concern, considering the uncertainties in data privacy laws outside the United States. 

There has also been a renewed appreciation for the central role the contact center plays in customer service, whether that entails order processing, payment processing, market research or addressing customer concerns. Given how contact center agents are on the front line of customer communication, CEOs now acknowledge, maybe this isn’t the best place to cut corners. 

But the real issue may be the escalating numbers of complaints from callers, who are tired of speaking to agents that are poorly trained and difficult to understand. Not only are outsourced personnel not trained as thoroughly, they are thousands of miles away from management personnel, who are thus unable to monitor and interact directly with these employees. 


Not Just Jobs: Good Jobs

Since businesses originally outsourced to save money, it’s encouraging to see that as these contact center agent jobs come back to the U.S., they are doing so in most cases with a salary that will attract intelligent, capable employees. 

S&P Data LLC, which provides contact center solutions to Fortune 500 companies in the United States and Canada, has announced plans to bring 425 new contact service representative jobs to Rio Rancho, NM, with annual salaries averaging $38,000 plus benefits. 

This is reflective of one way that call centers have changed since the outsourcing boom – with basic company information accessible through social media and order processing available online, the responsibilities of the contact center agent has changed. 

“The types of calls that are coming through to our agents today, regardless of the client, are more complex, and it’s requiring that higher caliber associate,” said 

Richardo Layun, director of operations at the Melbourne eBay Enterprise center. 


One Success Story: Colorado

Colorado has been in the national news often of late, mostly for its legalization of marijuana and that decision’s impact on the state’s culture and economy. But in La Junta, a city in the southeast part of the state, a less controversial means of economic recovery is underway. 

The city converted an old Air Force training facility into a 1,500-acre industrial part that is already home to two call centers: the first employs 180 agents in a 10,200 square foot building. Nearby a 300-seat center is housed inside a 33,750 square foot brick building with ample space for additional departments and meeting facilities. Amenities for both include a restaurant, day care facility and golf course all located within the park itself. 

The influx of new business is the result of a community effort that also includes The Colorado Workforce Center, which provides recruitment and training programs, and the local junior college, which offers preparatory classes in computers, software and technology training. The La Junta City Council has shown its support for new business by approving a relocation incentive that allows contact centers to operate for five years rent-free. 


Things Have Changed Since We’ve Been Away

That may be the reaction of agents and managers when they realize how the contact center industry has evolved in the years when companies were shifting positions overseas. The technology and use of spreadsheets that was sufficient to stay competitive in the industry has been surpassed by more sophisticated solutions. For these new contact centers, it is important to equip agents with the tools they need to prosper. 

That starts with an automated workforce management (WFM) solution, which delivers a means to improve the productivity and cost-efficiency of the contact center by making so many vital tasks easier. These includes running simulations for more accurate forecasting, and scheduling that incorporates all call types and other activities. Exception planning, performance analysis, intra-day management, and other practices are streamlined through the real-time data generated by today’s WFM systems. 

An investment in such technology might have been counterproductive, as companies would be reluctant to add a $100,000 equipment investment on top of other development and personnel costs. Even if you are relocating to rent-free La Junta, that’s a lot of money. But with a cloud WFM system, a unified solution can be implemented quickly without a large upfront cost. Instead, users pay only a low monthly subscription fee. 

In addition to cost savings, a cloud platform also provides maximum flexibility and scalability, and is more easily deployed even across multiple locations. Since all data is stored “in the cloud,” it can be retrieved at any call center workstation. If you are interested in this topic, please also read the article "5 Reasons Why Contact Center Jobs are Coming Home" that was published by Contact Professional.


Conclusion

While customers now have other options when it comes to interacting with a company, such as email and online chats, surveys show that the majority still picks up the phone when they want to ask a question or place an order. 

To take better care of these customers, companies that outsource their contact centers are now shifting their focus to centers within the U.S., which can provide a higher quality of care. But that investment can quickly escalate if a large technology investment is required. 

Cloud computing can reduce these costs. In this model, contact centers pay only for the time and capacity that they need. 



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The Art and Science of Service Levels

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There are many challenges to success and improvement at the contact center, and one of the most persistent is stagnation. The best contact center managers are never satisfied; they are always in search of ways to improve every aspect of their business. 

One factor that should always be part of such discussions is the contact center’s service level goal. Anything that can be done to raise service levels should be explored, though too often this requires additional investment that might not be possible. Still, such considerations should not be a barrier to exploring options. 

As always, the process begins by asking the right questions. 


Do you know what your service level costs?

How would higher or lower service levels impact your costs?

How would a change impact customer satisfaction?

How did you decide on your service level goal? 


All good questions, but the last one may be the place to start. Was the contact center’s service level defined before you joined the company, and that is the way it has always been? Was it set because the competition is trying to hit the same level? There are times when assumptions take on the guise of decrees, and that puts them beyond questioning. It’s a trap that no contact center manager should fall into. 


The Myth of the Service Level Standard

What are the variables that will impact the optimum service level? Start with the so-called seven factors of caller tolerance, which include the customer’s expected service level, available time, motivation for the call and whether other options exist for achieving what the customer wishes to do. 

To these, we can add contact center labor costs, equipment costs, and the relative value attached to different calls. It would be impossible for one standard service level to meet all these criteria across different contact centers, meeting all customer needs and expectations while maximizing revenue and minimizing expenses. 

Perhaps that is why so many contact centers settle on the 80/20 objective (80% of calls answered in 20 seconds) as a reasonable balance between staffing and customer expectations. Others will tweak those numbers as they investigate how low they can be adjusted before they start losing business. The problem here is the assumption that if a caller will stay on the line for five minutes, acceptable service has been provided. Abandonment rates, of course, don’t tell the whole story. 

Customer surveys are another popular method for reviewing and adjusting service level. However, when some calls are answered immediately and other takes 90 seconds or more, responses are likely to vary based on individual experience. 

Perhaps the best option is to combine elements from all of these methods – track what others are doing, review customer feedback, and run calculations based on current staffing and scheduling capabilities. Then, set a service level target based on the result. 


Cutting Costs without Cutting Service

Once an appropriate service level has been established, contact center managers can explore options for reducing costs.  That means asking how long customers are willing to wait, and how busy you want agents to be. This is known as the occupancy rate: the busier your agents, the lower the service level.  

Once that rate has been set, an equivalent service level goal can be determined by reviewing historical data. Look for instances where the new occupancy rate goal was achieved, and collect the corresponding service level data – that will serve as your new service level target.

The right occupancy rate also bolsters service by making shifts less stressful for agents, which allows them to deliver better, more consistent customer engagements. 


Most Budget Reducing Tips

Here are some additional ideas for reducing costs while maintaining a practical service level. Some will not be appropriate for every type of contact center, but implementing just one or two could result in significant savings. 


The Audit: Make it call center-wide. Review metrics, productivity, revenue generation and potential process improvements.


Full, Part or Flex? What makes the most economic sense for your contact center – full time agents, part time or a flexible staff with a mix of both? 


Attrition: Cutting attrition and its associated recruiting and training costs is one of the most direct ways to save money.  Review training techniques as well to make sure agents are learning when they should, and not ‘on the job.’ 


Quality Assurance: A QA review can uncover inefficient processes and other shortcomings that impact customer service. 


Adherence: Service levels cannot be maintained if agents are not at their desks when they should be. 


Workforce Management Software: Much of the data on forecasting, staffing, adherence and KPIs can be delivered more quickly and accurately with a workforce management solution. And with WFM in the cloud, a contact center can avoid the large upfront cost traditionally associated with such a technology upgrade. 


Telecommuting: Agents that work from home reduce the contact center’s occupancy costs, and can also boost employee morale. 


Reduce Call Volume: Does the contact center receive a lot of calls on subjects that could be addressed another way? Find out why customers are calling and see if some of those unneeded calls can be cut down. 


Conclusion

Because contact centers are different in size and scope, it can be difficult to provide a general approach to improving service level, especially when attempting to lower cost at the same time. But the challenge of creating a positive change is no excuse for not taking a fresh look at service level status at your contact center, and questioning whether the standard that was determined or the methods used to maintain it should not be open for discussion. 


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Does your Workforce Scheduling Software Deliver these Reports?

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Optimal resource scheduling requires accurate forecasting of work volume and staff requirements. Workforce management (WFM) software makes it easier to specify shift patterns and daily duties, and factor in the skill sets and preferences of individual agents. 

This information should be delivered via reports. But if your system is not delivering the information you need, or is providing that data in a way that is difficult to decipher, it might be time to consider a new WFM solution. This is particularly important since the responsibility of WFM does not end with the production of an accurate schedule. 

If you are ready to consider a new WFM system, be sure to ask about the reporting options that can make a positive difference at your contact center. These include: 


The Hours Worked Report: this report makes it easier to observe the breakdown and summary of assigned activities, balance multiple types of work, and handle other backlog issues

The Agent Status Report: Compare this report with the Hours Worked Report for new insights into workload distribution and productivity 

The Service Performance Report: Compare “How we did” results to “What we expected” numbers. 

The Coverage Report: Reveals gaps in staffing. 


These are just some of the capabilities of Monet WFM. Find out why we call it “Call Center Workforce Management Made Easy.” 


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Can You Reduce Contact Center Staffing Costs by 20%?

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Staffing is the most expensive resource in the call center budget, so any improvement in productivity can have a significant impact.

What if there was a way to cut your staffing costs by as much as 20%, while also reducing the amount of time you now devote to forecasting and scheduling?

It’s possible – just by switching from spreadsheets to a Workforce Management solution.

Spreadsheets were a great idea for call center staffing, forecasting and scheduling – last century. Today, there are faster, easier ways to handle these vital functions that are also more accurate, more agent-friendly, and more economical for call centers of all sizes.

With a WFM solution such as Monet WFM Live, managers have the flexibility to adjust to unexpected events, manage exceptions more efficiently, and reduce shrinkage by as much as 15 minutes per agent per day.

WFM Live offers a number of additional benefits as well, including:

•    Easier skill-based scheduling
•    Real-time adherence monitoring and analysis
•    Less time required for scheduling
•    Improved service levels

Isn’t it Time For a Better Solution?
Monet WFM Live represents a quantum leap forward from spreadsheets, at a cost within reach of any size call center. We invite you to watch a short workforce management video so you can see yourself how the solution might help you reduce costs in your contact center.


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Six Steps to Improved Call Center Staffing

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Of all the factors involved in operating a successful, cost-efficient call center, staffing may be the most significant. Out of every dollar spent in call center costs, about 75 cents is related to labor. That makes these decisions pivotal to the operation of the business.

While different call centers have different priorities and different functions, the challenge of staffing remains relatively consistent regardless of size or specialty. These six steps can help a call center manager successfully traverse the staffing minefield.

1. Gather and Analyze Data


The most accurate and reliable guide to staffing, as anyone who studies workforce management can tell you, is to look back at past performance and call center history. Review the reports generated by the automatic call distributor for data on average handle time, number of incoming calls and other key performance indicators.

To create a staffing schedule for, say, the first week of April, the obvious place to start is with the data for the first week of April of the previous year, and the year before if that information is available. The more historical data used, the better the chance of an accurate forecast. Variations should also be considered – where does Easter fall this year? Will that impact call volume? Will more students be on spring break?

When consulting previous weeks/months/years of information, the two numbers that will most strongly impact forecasts are call volume and average handle time, either calculated per hour or per half-hour.

2. Crunch the Numbers for a Workload Calculation


There are three methods typically employed by call centers to translate historical data into a staffing forecast:

Point Estimate 
With this system the call center relies on a basic apples-to-apples comparison of a future point in time with that same point in the past. For example, forecasting next June 15 based on traffic numbers from June 15 of last year. While this is a good starting point, it will not be precise as it does not account for more recent calling trends or new products or promotions.

Averaging
With this method a manager would average relevant past numbers to predict call volume, preferably while relying more heavily on recent data (by creating a formula that uses these numbers more prominently). However, this may still not take into account some changes or events that would have figured into older data.

Time Series Analysis
With time series analysis, historical data is calculated alongside monthly or seasonal changes, as well as more recent events and other variables. It is a more comprehensive approach that typically results in better forecasts.

3. Staffing Calculations


Steps #1 and #2 are used to create the forecast. Now it’s time to formulate a schedule. The call volume forecast numbers are factored into workload predictions, workload being the number derived from multiplying the amount of forecasted calls and the average call handle time.

Most managers will add additional staff to whatever number of agents is deemed appropriate, both to compensate for unexpected absences and to maintain customer service levels should call volume be higher than anticipated. The unproductive hours designated as “shrinkage” – breaks, training time, tardiness, meetings – must also be considered. At most call centers, shrinkage rates fall somewhere between 20% and 35%, depending on the size of the business. In general, larger call centers can absorb these variables more easily because of a more favorable staff-to-workload ratio.

Another factor is how busy each agent will be during a shift, referred to as agent occupancy. The goal is to achieve an optimum balance between not sitting around for extended periods of time between calls, and not having a long queue of calls waiting that might result in rushing a customer call, to the detriment of that engagement. As a percentage, 85-90% is considered an acceptable occupancy range.

4. Create Assignments


Creating a staff schedule is all about getting the right number of the right people in position to handle the customer service needs of the call center. Once the calculations from the previous step have been completed, the manager should know how many agents would be needed for the shift in question.

As some call centers operate with full-time agents and others use part-time and telecommuting employees, this is when shift lengths and resources must be defined, days off specified and personnel scheduled. Depending on the size of the call center, there may be dozens, if not hundreds, of scheduling possibilities. If skill-based routing is also a priority, this will also affect staffing decisions. Once personnel have been selected, the manager also has the option of staggering start times by 15 or 30 minutes, which can reduce instances of too many agents taking lunch breaks or other diversions at the same time during a shift.

5. Management and Adjustment


There is no way to know if a plan is going to work until it is executed. Even with the preparations and calculations already described, staff schedules will likely still have to be adjusted every day. This ongoing management of staff and schedule is referred to as performance tracking.

The main components of performance tracking are call volume, AHT and staffing levels. Deviations from forecasting predictions may require staffing adjustments, assuming enough flexibility has been built into the schedule to make the necessary changes. If not, call center service goals may be in jeopardy. Tracking the number of a calls in queue may also require some “instant forecasting” to adjust the remainder of the shift accordingly. However, over-reaction should also be avoided, lest a random surge be mistaken for a full-day trend.

6. Review, Analyze, and Adjust


The end of a shift is the beginning of preparation for the next one. The challenge of staffing is ongoing, but each day’s results deliver data to analyze that may result in ways to improve performance, both for each individual agent and the entire team.

Conclusion
Many of the most persistent challenges of staffing can be mitigated when call center managers know what to look for, when they have the information they need, when they need it, and when they can act upon it quickly.

No one every said predicting the future was easy. But an effective, automated workforce management solution can make the necessary calculations, remove much of the guesswork and improve the accuracy of schedules and forecasts. Through real-time measurement of call center metrics, agents and managers gain the data visibility necessary to deliver the service that customers expect, and can react more quickly to issues and resolve them before they impact operations.

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Creating a Call Center Staffing Roster

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Creating a roster is the last of three staffing decisions that impact workforce optimization.

It’s a process that begins with the forecast, an estimate of the number of calls that will be received, and the number of agents necessary to handle these calls in an efficient manner. Staffing follows the forecast, as management decides how many agents are needed for a given day or shift, and which skill sets should be represented in that shift. Scheduling is the process of matching shift profiles with forecasts to achieve service goals.

Once this data has been obtained it is time to focus on the roster, which matches employee availability to existing schedules or forecast data.  Rosters will be determined by input data measuring:

  • workload
  • work handling units (skill teams)
  • arrival patterns
  • allowable shifts (shift profiles), and 
  • employee availability.
Find a workforce management software solution that includes rostering capabilities and templates. This will expedite data entry, analysis, roster creation, roster distribution and last-minute updates. Rosters should not only track available agents, but those who are unavailable due to vacations or other factors. To learn more about this, please watch this short video about call center staffing roster creation and updating.

Another important consideration is managing resources as they relate to non-call activities, such as emails. A non-call roster can help with scheduling available agents with the right skills at non-peak hours to handle these important tasks.

Finally, rosters, like schedules, are not set in stone. Unexpected changes necessitate swapping agents, and increasing or decreasing the size of a shift based on outside circumstances. Workforce management software should allow for unlimited roster changes, so managers always have the flexibility they need to correctly allocate resources.

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Call Center Agent Shift Swapping

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Shift swapping is an inevitable occurrence at every call center, and is one of the more significant agent staffing challenges that management must oversee.

In general, allowing agents to swap shifts solves more problems than it creates. With this arrangement, agents have more control over their working hours, and that flexibility can encourage employee loyalty.

However, if this privilege is abused, it can lead to staffing confusion, lower productivity, a shortage of agents for unpopular shifts, and inconsistent customer service.

Agent Staffing Solutions
While shift swapping should be offered as an option, some center without the right processes in place try to  discourage this. They achieve this by built-in incentives for agents to work the shifts to which they are assigned, and by limiting swaps to, say, three a month or five in each quarter.

Call centers should have a reliable process in place that tracks shifts and instances of shift swapping. This will not only make the process easier for agents and management, it provides managers with insight into which agents may be abusing this privilege, and how working different shifts impacts an agent’s job performance.

While some last-minute shift swaps are unavoidable, as emergencies do happen, a center should require that agents request swaps at least three or five days in advance. That way, managers can adjust schedules accordingly so productivity is not impacted. For example, if an agent who is particularly adept at handling customer complaints swaps shifts with an agent who is not as qualified in this situation, the call center may wish to bring in another agent from a different shift with that same specialty.

The ultimate objective is to satisfy the needs of the center and the needs of the employees, and to make any staffing changes as convenient as possible.

The Role of Workforce Management Software
Shift swaps are yet another function that should be handled through a workforce management solution - through a simple self-service tool that includes shift bidding. An effective system will allow agents to search for shifts to swap, and instantly know if there is a conflict with their arrangement. Supervisors will then have the ability to approve or reject the swap request, and find out if there are any issues with weekly minimum or maximum restrictions on work hours should the swap be approved. To learn more about agent shift swapping and supervisor collaboration, please follow this link to our main website.

With effective workforce management, the system that allows shift swaps should be efficient, transparent and controlled by management with the limitations necessary to maintain service standards. 


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How does workforce management software impact call center staffing?

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Granted, you can do basic forecasting and scheduling with a spreadsheet. So, where is the real value of a workforce management solution then? Based on customer feedback, you can achieve improved staffing accuracy; get more visibility into call center operations and schedule adherence throughout the day, faster react to fluctuations in call volumes and better handle exceptions.

  • More accurate forecasting: Starting with an accurate forecast and optimized schedule will more likely achieve the targeted service level (avoid under-staffing) at the lowest possible cost (avoid over-staffing). WFM solutions allows you to easily run different scenarios, forecast special days, and include call history more effectively to achieve high accuracy.
  • Better manage call and non-call activities: One of the top challenges of many call centers is how to forecast and schedule non-call activities. WFM solutions make non-call activities part of the forecasting and scheduling process.
  • Schedule flexibility for higher productivity: With a WFM solution call centers are able to implement a more flexible schedule to address center needs (fluctuating call volumes) and agents needs (flexible start/end time, time off), resulting in higher center productivity.
  • Improved schedule adherence resulting in reduced shrinkage: With real-time adherence and adherence reports you can more effectively work with agents on reducing shrinkage. You can better educate agents about impact of adherence and set measurable goals. You can share adherence reports with agents, discuss causes for out-of-adherence and discover ways for improvement as a team effort. In addition, you are able to provide incentives to motivate adherence behavior.

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Call Center Staffing Software for Small Call Centers?

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Regardless of size, all call centers have the same basic goals of controlling costs, optimizing call center staffing, and meeting services levels. A common myth is that only larger centers need (and can afford) call center staffing software. But small call centers do have some unique challenges when contrasted with larger centers that make the case for staffing software:

  • Unpredictable call volume: Since calling patterns tend to be far more diverse and marked by peaks and valleys in small centers, call center staffing can be a headache for many managers. They have to respond to spikes in volume on-the-fly, often without much historical data to back-up their decisions.
  • Schedule adherence: Whereas larger centers can often manage schedule deviations and absenteeism without as much strain, smaller center performance suffers when 1 or a few agents are not available for calls. For instance, in a call center of fifty agents, occupancy is critical. If five agents take breaks or go to lunch at the same time, occupancy decreases by 10% and service levels go with it.
  • Agent retention: Retention is one of the key factors of any size call center, but it’s especially significant when call center staffing revolves around a limited group. One of the many reasons agents leave is because staffing seems random and does not consider their personal needs. Agent morale increases when everyone understands and accepts schedules in advance, which reduces turnover and lets everyone know what’s expected of them.

While these are only a few of the many issues faced by small call centers, they show that you don’t have to be a large center to need call center staffing software. When you consider the cost to benefit ratio, most call center managers choose call center staffing software, especially now that it’s offered in the cloud (or SaaS). Now, you can be small and operate big.


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