How workforce management improves call handling efficiency

How workforce management improves call handling efficiency

Stearns, Nathan

Regardless of the size or complexity of operations, most call centers have discovered the need for some form of workforce management to help them meet a common goal: Maximize efficiency, while controlling costs and increasing revenues.

This article examines the key elements of workforce management and how it can be used to achieve this goal.

Workload Planning

When discussing call handling efficiency, the question “How well is the operation planning for workload demands?” must be asked. Poor plans lead to poor results. Therefore, the effectiveness of a planning process is measured by the success that follows it.

There are three basic levels of workload planning:

Long-term planning,

Short-term planning,

Intraday or intraweek planning.

A solid planning process that integrates long-term, short-term and intraday or intraweek practices is the prerequisite for efficient call handling.

Leng-Term Planning

Long-term workload forecasting identifies the number of agents that will be required to handle future customer demand. In addition to forecasting basic call demand workload, longterm planning should include an offphone budget factor that adds to basic call demand. These agent headcount requirements are combined with attrition factors to create hiring plans that can keep pace with turnover and changes in demand.

Typically, long-term planning spans six months to a year or more and includes an estimate of the proper mix of both full-time and part-time agents.

Long-term planning helps management stay ahead of the changing demands of a call center. As workload requirements are compared to current and projected staffing levels, recruiters know how many interviewees to process, trainers know how many classes to schedule and supervisors know when new employees will be on the phones.

Capacity planning is another output of the long-term planning process. Call centers need to plan ahead for the right number of workstations, sites, inbound and outbound trunk requirements, IVR ports, ACD voice ports and other facilities that require long installation lead times.

Long-term planning is the foundation for successful workforce management. If a call center fails to develop a long-term plan, all the other activities of short-term planning and intraday or intraweek planning become ineffective.

Good long-term planning helps managers avoid the daily “fire fighting” that results from battles with long queues and struggles with excess staff.

Short-Term Planning

After a call center has been positioned for success using long-term planning, the next phase, short-term planning, has a shorter time horizon. This time horizon varies by call center and it can be six months long or as short as one week. Factors that influence the choice of time horizon include variables such as frequency of product launches, employee turnover rates, competitive activity and seasonal shifts. Short-term planning adjusts the long-term call demand forecast for factors that could not be predicted, such as special causes or shifts in demand.

Short-term forecasts are usually broken down into 15- or 30-minute increments and provide the workload requirements used to generate agent schedules. Often an overhead factor is applied to specific time periods or days to allow for off-phone activities, such as team meetings, coaching sessions, training or vacations. Shortterm planning also allows a call center to make adjustments to staffing to maximize call handling efficiency. Overtime, off-phone activities and “time off without pay” can be optimized using a good short-term planning process.

Call centers that can adjust agent schedule starting times and days have another way to maximize efficiency. In fact, the amount of effort applied to the short-term planning process often depends on the scheduling flexibility of the agents. Call centers using flexible schedules typically have a planning cycle of one to three weeks. Operations with static schedules often use monthly or quarterly cycles.

If a call center culture supports flexible scheduling techniques, then call handling efficiencies can be maximized.

Intraday Or Intr week Planning Intraday or intraweek planning enables a call center to monitor daily or weekly activity and adjust staffing plans appropriately. At first, intraday response management might not seem to be a planning activity. The best call centers do, in fact, approach it as a planning process.

Procedures to monitor daily staffing and demand changes during the day, or during the week, should be established to take advantage of the last possible opportunity to maximize efficiency. Two practices can help support an effective intraday or intraweek planning process:

Schedule Management

Updating agent schedules in real-time to reflect unplanned activities.

Re-forecasting Updating demand requirements based on current call and average handle time measurements.

Intraday or intraweek planning follows these activities. On-phone staff plans are revised based on available staff and call volumes. Typically, it is difficult to ask agents to make abrupt last-minute adjustments, so call centers often review today’s plan changes and use this data to revise the following days’ plans by posting overtime or time-off.

Intraday or intraweek planning changes, based on real-time information, can improve call handling efficiency by using agent resources wisely.

Agent Performance Tracking

Workforce management plays another important role in maximizing call handling efficiency by providing information on agent performance.

Agent productivity on and off-phone is a driving force behind efficient call centers. An effective management system that provides key agent results is crucial for efficient operations.

There is a multitude of objective measurements, but the most common are adherence, compliance, calls per hour and average handle time.

Adherence – This measurement is defined as the agents’ ability to follow the start and stop time of each event on the schedule. Some managers may state that it is not realistic to require an individual to follow a schedule to the exact minute. Others believe that certain events are adhered to more than others (for example, breaks and end-ofshift). Even with this range of opinions, most call centers have discovered a workable solution by allowing a reasonable variation in the number of minutes in adherence. Successful implementation of adherence measurements contributes to improved call handling efficiency by ensuring agents are in position to handle calls as they arrive.

Compliance – A related, although more lenient, measurement is compliance; defined as “paid time utilization.” Compliance is calculated by comparing the total number of onphone hours scheduled for an agent to the number of hours provided by the agent. Some call centers take this a step further by computing the ratio of on-phone hours to paid hours.

Adherence and compliance measurements can provide managers with the information needed to fully understand how call center resources are utilized.

Calls Per Hour – A more traditional productivity measure is calls per hour. There are several variations of this measure that range from a straight ratio of calls per ACD hour to normalization functions that accommodate different call arrival rates and hours worked. Some measurements include all paid hours in the calculation, rather than pure ACD hours. If used appropriately, variations of this measurement can provide management with key statistics to coach agents to meet established standards. With the appropriate management focus, agents find this standard to be a good indication of their personal call handling efficiency.

Average Handle Time (AHT) AHT may be the most widely used standard of agent performance. AHT is the easiest to understand, calculate and use for coaching. However, many call centers are realizing that the new generation of ACDs can provide creative ways for agents to manage their on-phone time and improve AHT statistics. When AHT is used, it is advisable to monitor the amount of outbound activity, transferred calls, idle time, voice mail time, short duration calls and other ACD states.

Planned Call Routing

Knowing when agents are positioned within a single site or across multiple sites creates opportunities to preplan call routing scenarios. This might entail using routing plans in a carrier’s network, call routing scripts within an ACD, skills-based routing or adding an intelligent call routing platform. Using workforce management with Planned Call Routing maximizes the use of shared resources and optimizes the scheduling of agents and off-phone activities across agent groups.

Typically call centers will combine the plans for various agent groups and call streams. By comparing the peaks and valleys of staffing and call arrivals, managers can position multiskilled agents at the appropriate times. The net effect is increased utilization of resources. Both the planning and the monitoring can be accomplished with workforce management processes and reporting.

In multisite call centers, the addition of a customer premise-based call-bycall routing platform allows prerouting of calls to the correct site and best queue. A platform that complements ACD routing functions and one that is integrated with workforce management allows intraday changes to be smoothly managed by creating larger virtual teams while balancing service levels. This capability also allows the integration of other strategies into workforce planning, such as off-site service bureaus and customer segmentation. Additional reporting functions can be provided with call detail records and custom defined statistics.

How Efficient Can Workforce Management Be?

The best workforce management processes balance the needs of the employee, the stockholder and the customer. Although the basic concepts are found in all call centers, there is no single solution. Business needs, call center culture and creativity, combined with the proper tools, create a call center’s total solution while maximizing call handling efficiency.

Nathan Stearns is a senior call center consultant for Richardson, Texasbased IEX Corporation.

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