Resource Planning is a complex topic. There are numerous stakeholders and multiple, sometimes conflicting, objectives. In the heat of the battle, even seasoned practitioners forget the good practice that they have learned, ignore some key principles and fall into bad habits. In this post we draw on the experience of the InVision team and that of several industry experts to enumerate some of the mistakes that we have seen - and give some tips on how to correct them.
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With contributions from Xerox Customer Care Services, Allclear Insurance and more.
- Failing to use flexible scheduling
- Not properly handling shrinkage
- Employing too few part timers and short shifts
- Not scheduling breaks
- Not measuring schedule efficiency properly
- Obsessing about minimising overtime
- Assuming that nobody wants to work unsocial hours
- Trying to muddle through
1. Failing to use flexible scheduling
The most basic forms of agent scheduling are fixed shifts and simple rotating patterns, for example week one early, week two middle of day, week three late, then repeat. Fixed schedules can easily be managed using spreadsheets and agents welcome predictable working times. In some centres, flexible scheduling is regarded as evil.
In reality, flex is far from evil. From the point of view of schedule efficiency, cost saving and customer service, the more flexibility you have, the better. In many centres, agent contracts allow the start times and finish times to be varied so that each agent’s working hours can be optimised - yet planners and managers sometimes baulk at doing this. Flexible scheduling lets you match ‘demand’ (workload) with ‘supply’ (on-duty agents) as it allows more granular assignment of start times, finish times and breaks. Here’s an example: The period from 09:00 to 09:15 is overstaffed and the period from 09:15 to 09:30 is understaffed. If you simply delay the start time of one agent by 15 minutes you will improve schedule efficiency and get closer to Service Level goals in two intervals. If you don’t take advantage of flexibility, you are leaving a major win on the table.
René Nijman is Global Vice President, Workforce Management at Xerox Customer Care Services, a leading international player in the contact centre outsourcing market. He puts it like this: “I am bemused to see that large parts of the call centre industry are still working with fixed schedules (or rotations, blocks, and so on). Many of these firms have a WFM tool - and one must wonder why they bother to use it. Our clients expect us to deliver maximum efficiency and flexible, optimised scheduling is one of the best weapons in our arsenal for this. What’s more, think about this: agents have their own personal lives too, and it is not always fixed or rotated. Many agents would welcome small adjustments to their schedule instead of having to find a new job when something changes in their personal lives”.
2. Not properly handling shrinkage
Staff shrinkage is the fraction of paid time, typically unscheduled, that employees are not available to handle contacts. This includes unproductive at-work activities such as breaks, meetings, training and 1:1s, plus out-of-office time for holidays, sickness, lateness and general unexplained absences.
Staff shrinkage is an important number to track, since it plays an important role in how many people will need to be scheduled in each interval. If you don’t factor in shrinkage when calculating how many staff to schedule, you will always be understaffed.
You can get data for calculating shrinkage from attendance reports and WFM systems. The formula is pretty straightforward, however there are some pitfalls to watch out for.
- Shrinkage is not a constant, it varies over time. For example, shrinkage will be higher during the summer holiday season. It can also vary by day and week. Make sure that you use the most appropriate shrinkage estimate before scheduling staff.
- Get the calculation right. If the shrinkage percentage is s%, you should inflate the number of scheduled staff by dividing by (1-s%), not multiplying by (1+s%). Example: In an interval where 70 employees must be on duty in order that the Service Level goal is met and shrinkage is 30%, you should schedule 70 / (1-0.3) = 100 people. If you add 30% to 70, the result is 91, which is insufficient.
- Don’t think that shrinkage is beyond your control. As the old saying goes, if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. But if you track shrinkage factors - and if employees know that you are tracking shrinkage factors - you can minimise them.
3. Employing too few part timers and short shifts
Most call centres experience peaks and troughs in workload by time of day, with many experiencing the classic ‘M curve’ that has a peak in the morning and another in the afternoon. But if all of your agents work full time you will always struggle to avoid unders and overs. A four hour peak window can't be addressed by moving hours from elsewhere in the schedule, and bringing in more full-timers causes overstaffing. It helps if you can schedule breaks to take place during troughs in demand but this is unlikely to completely solve the problem. Split shifts can be useful but are not liked by agents. In a normal operation, a workforce that is exclusively full-time will be inefficient.
It’s tempting to hire full-timers. It’s easier to plan when everyone is on the same hours, e.g. 8 hours/day, 5 days/week. And there is a perception that good agents will always want a full-time contract.
Part timers make it easier to cover peak hours and thus enable better workload fit. They don’t need a lunch break. Tools and techniques exist to make the scheduling of part timers a breeze. And part timers stay fresh for their whole shift simply because it is shorter. It’s a mistake to assume that all agents are looking for full-time work. Parents, students and carers actively prefer part time working since it gives them the work/life balance that they need. It’s not necessary to have your entire workforce on part time contracts to get good workload fit. There is usually an ideal mix which varies from centre to centre, with 25 to 30% part-timers being a common rule of thumb.
René Nijman of Xerox adds: “In WFM, part-time is not just about the number of hours per week. Much more relevant is how many ‘part-time’ shifts you can use. For example, 36 hours / 5 days can be scheduled as 4x8h + 1x4h, while 16 hours / 2 days probably are scheduled as 2x8h and therefore contributes less to the part-time shifts ratio. Although you should calculate your needed number of part-time shifts per programme, a golden rule is 20-25% of 4 hour shifts”.
4. Not scheduling breaks
Even if your contractual landscape prevents fully optimised flexible schedules with moveable start and finish times, you should still consider scheduling breaks. This one step can make a huge difference to efficiency and Service Level and it is normally less challenging from a contractual point of view. If your agents currently take breaks when they feel like it and typically groups of friends go to lunch at the same time, a culture shift will be needed. You may need to give something in return for the scheduling of breaks. This needn’t be money - it could be giving agents some sort of online self-service portal to book holidays, for example. Such portals are actually great for enabling agents to actively adhere to their schedules.
As Howard Stephens, Resource and Planning Manager from AllClear Insurance puts it “We schedule all our breaks, primarily because this lets us distribute lunches in an effective way so that there is optimal coverage over our busiest period. Lumping breaks together is ineffective and not the answer”.
Good WFM software will automatically schedule breaks at the optimum time so that impact on coverage and Service Level is minimised. The pattern of breaks that the software produces may appear to be random when viewed on the schedule management screen, however don’t be fooled. The breaks are where they are for a reason. To quote Scott Moss, a seasoned planner with over ten years’ experience of WFM in telecoms, outsourcing, electronics and retail: “Don’t be tempted to ‘tidy up’ the breaks that the software inserts into agent shifts. Let the optimiser do its job!”
5. Not measuring schedule efficiency properly
The call centre is a data-rich environment. You can get all sorts of reports and Key Performance Indicators, common ones being Service Level, First-call Resolution, Calls Answered, Calls Abandoned and Agent Occupancy. It is definitely a good idea to make schedule efficiency one of your KPIs, since it affects almost all the other metrics.
Schedule efficiency is a measure of how accurately and consistently the planned number of ‘bums on seats’ matches the required staffing over the evaluation period. Deltas between planned and required should be measured in 15 or 30 minute intervals and summarised on a weekly or monthly basis to produce a score. It should be possible to get a clear picture of schedule efficiency from your WFM tool or if you are using spreadsheets, by using the Standard Deviation or Correlation Coefficient functions. Make sure that you use weighted averages when producing consolidated figures, i.e. 50% coverage is a much bigger problem in an interval with 100 calls than in one with 10. And don’t forget to exclude time outside business hours.
To reach 100% efficiency is impossible in the real world. Keeping track of your schedule efficiency and benchmarking it over time - and ideally with your industry peers - is a must-do.
René Nijman of Xerox comments: “This is also a metric that COPC uses in their Table F. In addition to this metric, there are several very useful WFM metrics in COPC’s Table F”.
6. Obsessing about minimising overtime
If you are doing staff planning right, you will generate accurate forecasts and schedule your agents efficiently, so that overtime will not be required. Sometimes optimal shifts, which minimise over- and under- staffing at all times, can only be achieved by asking some team members to work overtime. But paying overtime is expensive and intrinsically evil, right? Not necessarily.
Fully loaded hourly labour cost is calculated from four components: Base pay, Employer National Insurance, other overheads and the pay ratio, which is the total hours an employer pays an employee over the course of a year divided by the hours the person actually works after deducting holidays, etc.
Although overtime attracts a premium, e.g. 50%, National Insurance and allowance for holidays are already absorbed in normal time and are not paid on overtime. So in reality the fully loaded cost of overtime is little higher than normal time. On the other hand, if you produce schedules which lead to periods of over-staffing, then one or more agents will be paid the normal hourly rate to add no value. Studies, e.g. this one have shown that idle time has a far greater adverse cost than overtime. This may offend common sense but the fact remains that overtime should be part of a well-run call centre. Excessive use of overtime is clearly a sign of poor planning but it should not be avoided on dogmatic grounds.
René Nijman of Xerox comments: “Overtime (OT) should be used with care. It is one of the most misused solutions for increasing scalability. Structural use of OT means you have a shortage of capacity or your capacity has a limited fit with your week and day distribution curves. OT is not fixing the root cause. Also keep a close watch on your metrics like shrinkage and schedule adherence if you find yourself using OT. You don’t want to create a culture where it is possible to be sick in the morning and having premium OT in the evening”.
7. Assuming that nobody wants to work unsocial hours
Many planners believe that it will be a challenge to fill ‘unsocial’ shifts like evenings, weekends and bank holidays. While the stereotypical call centre agent would rather be in the pub on a Friday night and at the football on Saturday, this is not necessarily the case for everyone and we should avoid projecting our own preferences onto other people. Some people actually relish working evenings and weekends. The classic case is students who prefer to work evenings and weekends to earn money to pay for the tuition they receive during the day and there are other groups like this.
In reality, unsocial hours tend to be low workload hours and the scope of the problem is correspondingly smaller.
8. Trying to muddle through
It is never a good idea in life to just hope for the best. Here is a story from a planner at a major US retail call centre, who wishes to remain nameless: “We had suffered an unexpectedly high level of staff attrition and as peak season began, we became consistently understaffed. It takes time to train up new hires - typically four weeks. Plus we had recently changed our recruiting provider, introducing uncertainty. We decided to muddle through without hiring. We figured that this would avoid recruitment costs and the need to lay off the new starters when peak season came to an end. I recommended keeping on underperforming agents, one of whom was on final warning, to make the numbers add up. Big mistake! The agents set a bad example, encouraging their co-workers to turn up late, take long breaks, etc., so exacerbating the understaffing problem rather than fixing it”.
The moral of the story: Hope is not a substitute for good planning and taking hard decisions.
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Originally published on Nov 26, 2015, updated on Mar 11, 2021.
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