Managing Intra-Day Staffing and Service
By Penny Reynolds
Once the planning stages of workforce management – forecasting workload, calculating staff requirements, and creating staff schedules – are complete, the day- to-day work happens. There are a number of steps involved in tracking service, communicating with relevant groups, and making changes within each day in order to match workforce to the actual workload.
This intra-day process begins with tracking actual activity and status versus what was planned. When a discrepancy is identified, the next step is to analyze the impact of the problem and the change options. The next stage is to communicate the deviation and determine who should be notified and what should be included in the message. The final step is the reaction step to keep service intact. This article will discuss in detail what happens during each of these steps.
Daily Performance Tracking
There are three components to track every interval of every day:
- Contact volume
- Average handle time (AHT)
- Staffing levels
Sometimes the actual workload is more than was forecast. This is caused by either more contacts or longer handle times than the forecast projected. The variance could also be reduced workload where there are fewer contacts or shorter handle times, or both. Either of these situations needs to be addressed. The first will cause increased waits for customers, poor service, potentially lost revenue and overworked associates. The reduced workload can result in unnecessary staffing expense and even boredom for the associates. In both cases, it is not uncommon for quality to suffer as well. That is why getting the right staffing in place for the actual workload is so important.
There might be an unexpected increase in calls. Or, like in the example at the bottom of the page, there is a higher handle time than expected. This higher handle time can be due to system problems, new staff on the phones, or an addition of market research call content.
Whatever the cause of the higher AHT, it has caused a situation in this sample interval where workload is higher than expected, resulting in an understaffed situation.
When the workload is compared to the forecast and is found to be fairly close, but the speed of answer goal is not being met, it may be that there are missing people. The daily plan generally takes into account a normal amount of shrinkage from planned absences, but on any given day, these could be more than expected. Perhaps there is a flu epidemic in the area or a major traffic tie up that has prevented the associates from getting to the center on time.
If the management of time-off approvals has been too generous on this day, there could be more than the expected number of staff off. For example, if the organization is planning a community event such as building a playground, more than the planned number of people may be participating. But it can go in the other direction too, such as when a trainer calls in sick and a whole new team is on the phones unexpectedly.
Shrinkage can vary from day to day and some of this may be caused by supervisory decisions. For example, a supervisor may pull an associate off the phone for a coaching session without it being on the plan. Associates may be out of adherence to the planned schedule and this can result in either too many on the phones at one time or too few. This can be the results of decisions the associates individually make or it can be a group impact when a scheduled team meeting runs long or short.
Real-Time Performance Tracking
These three components of contact volume, handle time, and staff availability should be watched on a real-time basis, as well as tracked and analyzed historically. There are some other numbers that are useful to track in real-time:
Agent Status. Note how many are in an idle state and ready to take calls as well as how long the individuals may have been on a call or in the after-call work state. If an associate has been on a call for longer than a normal threshold, it may be time to alert the supervisor to assist. Long periods in the after-call work state may indicate a need for help or may be just a case of the associate forgetting to go back into the available state.
Calls in Queue. While this may be somewhat obvious, keeping an eye on the non-call contacts too can be challenging. Knowing the status of the email queue versus its response goal, or the wait for chat sessions can be difficult but these customers are important too
Age of Oldest Call. Looking at the contact that has been in queue the longest can give a clue to the overall situation.
When looking for more than a momentary snapshot, the speed of answer goal is the metric commonly used. It is a metric that gathers information over a period (such as half-hour or entire day) and reports the cumulative result. This can be somewhat deceptive since the nature of calls is that they arrive on a random basis within the period. That means that some minutes may get a group of calls all at once while several minutes may go by with no new calls. This makes watching the real-time state of calls in queue challenging and over-reaction to a temporary situation can make things worse when the queue could have cleared naturally in a few minutes. Finding the balance between delaying too long and reacting too fast is part of the art of intra-day management.
Some centers focus attention on the abandoned calls, especially in a sales environment where each call represents revenue potential. However, abandons are impossible to predict with any accuracy since they are a result of human behavior, which does not model easily.
Generally, a forecast is done before the actual day of the work. It could have been done months ahead to support a shift bid for example. But then it is revised when the time gets closer to take into account the latest trends, unusual events, marketing cycles, current staffing, etc. As the day begins, there may be a significant change that has occurred that suggests that a new forecast for the rest of the day is needed to assist in planning for adjustments. This is indicated when there is a notable change in the workload or available staff. A new forecast will help to identify the impact of these changes and where overtime or time-off might be needed to more closely align the staff with the work.
Sometimes, requests for changes can also prompt a new forecast. If there is a need for an unplanned meeting, training, or time off, the impact of the change may need to be factored in to ensure that staffing and service will not be unduly affected.
Sometimes new forecasts are done just to explore “what if” scenarios. Management may be looking for data to help with budget planning or hiring projections. These are not intraday forecasts, of course, but are often evaluated with new sets of assumptions.
With proper tracking in place (and hopefully most of it automated), the workforce team will have information in hand with which to make decisions about intra-day adjustments. Sometimes these are decisions that are made solely within the WFM team, but in most cases there is a need to communicate with many different groups in the center. Every center should have a communications plan in place that address the following questions:
- When to communicate?
- Who should be involved?
- What to communicate?
- How to communicate?
When to communicate is the first question. Any time there is a significant change from the plan to the actual volume of work, average handle time, or shrinkage, it is important to pass that information along to the operations team. Any adjustments to the staffing at that point are their responsibility, but they need to know not only what has changed but also recommended changes to implement. For example, if the volume is less than expected and a number of associates are idle, implementing a training or team meeting may make more sense than offering time off, especially if the overstaffing is likely to reverse itself later in the day.
Another reason to communicate is that even though the situation may appear to be well within expected boundaries in real-time, there is a change of plan coming that needs to be addressed. For example, if an outsource provider has a major staffing shortage due to a flu epidemic, the evening shift may have a significant increase in workload to handle. Getting that information out so that supervisors can solicit volunteers for overtime in the needed periods needs to be done as soon as possible.
The next question is who needs to know about the staffing and service problem. In many situations, involving just the supervisor or manager is sufficient. If one associate is missing or has been in the after-call work state much longer than normal, the real-time WFM team may just need to let the supervisor know so that the problem can be resolved.
When the situation will involve a group of frontline staff or the whole center, then it is appropriate to ensure that they know what is going on. For example, if overtime will be needed, it may be a requirement to notify the associates so that volunteers can be identified.
There are some times when other departments need to be notified. For example, if a billing error is being reported by a large number of callers, letting the billing department know so that they can address the problems is appropriate. Just taking call after call without letting the departments who can fix it know can just mean continuous problems.
There are some scenarios that warrant including senior management. If there is a major issue that will affect the center’s ability to deliver promised services, it is good idea to let senior management and the executive team know. For example, if a major crisis has occurred that will results in very long queues, it is better for the center to notify senior management than wait for a customer to do it. Reallocation of resources may be possible if those in authority are aware of the problem and some potential ways to solve it.
Notifying customers of a problem can be a good choice in the right setting. For example, when there is a major outage, putting a message in the greeting or IVR can let the callers know that the company is aware of the problem and is working on it. If some information about when the problem might be fixed is also available, it can satisfy many of the callers who will not need to talk to an associate to report the outage.
The communication of the problem needs to include whatever information can help the recipients to make a good decision about what to do next. Understanding the extent of the issue in terms of the size of the problem, how long it is likely to last, and the impact it is having are the key ingredients.
It is a good business practice to always include one or two solution options when reporting a problem. If the center is understaffed between 3pm and 5pm, then how many people are needed for that period and which agents seem like the best candidates could be very helpful to supervisors looking for someone to fill in. If one work type seems to be suffering, knowing where more resources might be available will be very helpful. The WFM team typically has access to information that no one else can see, so sharing the ideas for solutions makes the team more valuable to the enterprise as a whole.
Once a situation develops and the need to communicate is identified, the next question is how. Choosing the mode of communication can have a significant effect on how quickly the receiver will notice it and react. If the situation is relatively simple and happens often, having a preplanned approach to both communication and reaction can be very effective. When the situation is more complex and needs more discussion to negotiate for a solution, more detail may be required and a time set up for the discussion.
How to communicate to the targeted recipients should consider the recipients’ preference. This might be getting a text on their phones, an instant message or email, or a quick phone call. Some might prefer no individual communications, but rather a message that goes out to the center as a whole via electronic display. Some people may want a face-to-face notification, depending on the severity and complexity of the situation.
It is important to have a communications plan in place and to update it often. Ask all call center stakeholders what they would like to know and how they wish to be notified. Figuring out how to communicate in the midst of a crisis will likely result in communications chaos.
Penny Reynolds was Co-Founder of The Call Center School and is a popular speaker and writer in the area of call center operations. Recently retired, she serves as an Educational Advisor to SWPP, continuing to provide thought leadership and training to the workforce management community. She can be reached at 615-812-8410 or email@example.com.