Workforce Management

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

Call Center Staffing Hints, Tips & Best Practices

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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