Picture the scene… Call Centre Operations Manager Colin runs a 100 seat contact centre in the utilities sector. The centre has grown from a small 50 seat call centre that was set up in the late 1990s, when everyone was on fixed shifts and 100% of the workload was traditional inbound calls. Now, the centre handles inbound voice, some live chat and a growing volume of email; there’s even a small outbound team on a dialer.
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The business is experiencing further growth, with new contracts added with as little as three or four weeks’ notice, which causes some friction between the Resource Planning Analyst and the team leaders. The Board has told Colin that they want to increase scalability, handling growth efficiently, not just hiring more staff. The existing staffing resources must be used more effectively and reallocated if appropriate.
Alana is the Resource Planning Analyst and joined the business a couple of months ago. Before Alana joined, the team leaders created schedules using Excel and shared the shifts with their agents for the following 2 weeks each Friday after lunch. Alana has identified some improvements to shift patterns which will better fit the volumes but she is struggling to introduce the necessary changes.
When understaffed at peak times, team leaders go directly to Colin to express their frustrations about staffing levels, however oddly enough no one complains during the troughs, when the agents are actually under-utilised. Colin wants Alana to create a more sophisticated planning process and implement the changes she proposes - and he will give her his support. He is open to using technology if it makes sense.
In many ways, this story illustrates the classic dilemma for contact centres that are undergoing growth. Many businesses formed their call centre almost ‘by accident’, through consolidation of offices - and continued to work in a traditional office style. Then suddenly, they ‘wake up’ and realise that what worked in the past doesn’t make sense today. The classic 9-5 shifts no longer match customer service expectations and indeed traditional full time shifts don’t tend to match the peaks and troughs in customer demand either. Call centres increasingly exist in a world of flux, cost pressures and a more competitive market. At this point, the degree of ‘slack’ in the schedules, with which everyone had been comfortable, becomes unacceptable - either due to the need to be more efficient in the use of personnel, or indeed through increased customer demand.
The upshot of this scenario is that the Workforce Management & Planning team and the Operations team need to find a methodology and indeed a language that lets them work together more effectively. For the Workforce Management Analyst or planner, the numbers tell a story, but often they may as well be speaking in a foreign language when explaining those numbers to ‘people managers’. Planning is a numerate discipline and the lack of a common language is one of the reasons why communication skills are absolutely essential for the modern day planner. The planning role is more than numbers in spreadsheets, it is about helping the wider business to understand those numbers.
The first step for the planner is to do a review and convince the business that newly hired frontline staff (and indeed existing staff on the legacy patterns) need to be scheduled on a more innovative suite of shift patterns. Over the years, The Forum has seen companies enter and even win Innovation Awards for the effort and results that flow from a comprehensive review of staffing patterns. Case Studies on companies like Student Loans Company, NHS Direct, Fexco, Directline (and others) show that openness and realisation across the business that change is necessary will result in impressive improvements for both employee and customer. Contact centre volumes are rarely constant and for every busy period there is often a quiet period; what the mentioned case studies show is that innovative scheduling options let you balance the load between busy and quiet periods.
You should not assume that ‘nobody would want to change shifts’. If you don’t ask, you will never know. Traditional full time shifts don’t suit everyone, but many people accept them because they don’t believe anything else is available. Similarly, many people may have opted out of the workforce due to a belief that a working pattern that fits their lifestyle is not available. This means that the starting point needs to be a ‘green-field’ position, free from the constraints of the status-quo, followed by a review to see where a compromise can be identified. Similarly, staff need to be asked when they cannot work, not when they can work, to help identify minor shift modifications that better meet customer demand. It’s a subtle change of wording but an important one. We might not like staying beyond 6.00pm, but a 7.00pm finish may be an inconvenience as opposed to a ‘red line’ issue, as long as we get away one evening per week at 6.00pm for a regular social engagement.
Has Colin outgrown Excel?
Let’s come back to the scenario at Colin’s utilities contact centre. Given the original size of the centre, combined with the office hours opening and a single channel of communications, it’s not surprising that Excel was used to start with. It would not have taken a long time to produce schedules and they would have been relatively effective due to the short working day.
Colin’s business is moving from the thinking ‘Excel is good enough’ to the thinking ‘Maybe we need to consider Workforce Management systems’. This has come about not just as a result of increased size but as a consequence of increased complexity, volatility and the imperative to do more with less. Regarding size, it is hard to quantify the exact point when a business crosses the line that makes WFM a must-have rather than a nice-to-have, but I have always felt that around 100 agents is a good first indicator. This number is not to be taken in isolation, however. In a Monday to Friday, business hours centre, a planner could easily schedule many more than 100 agents in Excel; yet in a multi-skill, extended hours centre the complexity could justify WFM with many fewer than 100 staff. When volumes are changing, when we move beyond a 9-to-5 operation and when operating models are changing, the ability of one planner to manage the plan within an Excel based model diminishes. Even tracking annual leave in a multi-skill environment is challenging in Excel, and effective multi-skill scheduling is practically impossible using spreadsheets.
When considering WFM, the key for any company is to decide what they want from the software. There are many solutions out there, each offering a different range of benefits at different price points. It is disheartening to see companies spend a lot of money and essentially use the software as a glorified Annual Leave repository. On the other hand, many companies buy systems and then find out that features that are essential to making their planning more efficient are not available - or if they are available, they require expensive optional extras. In the scenario described here, the ability to better address volatile contact volumes and to model new scenarios are definite requirements. I’d also suggest that the ability to see the impact of real-time decisions on KPIs and the ability to model optimal shift patterns for new staff would be important features.
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Originally published on Apr 04, 2017, updated on Mar 26, 2020