Call and contact centres up and down the country are affected by the pandemic. In line with isolation procedures, contact centre agents should work from home as much as possible. Businesses that are already running their contact centre in the cloud face fewer hurdles to getting agents ready to work from home.
Some contact centres have to continue their operation with their on-premises contact centre and might be forced to run a reduced workforce. Those kinds of sudden workforce-related changes have a sudden impact on the daily, weekly and monthly workforce management (WFM) in every contact centre.
Let’s take a look at what workforce management actually means and why it’s so important for each call or contact centre.
There’s a constant search for balance between quality and cost-efficiency. It results in a never-ending conflict between offering better customer service and having fewer agents working to reduce the operating cost of the contact centre. Traditional logic says contact centres can’t have both at the same time, but with proper WFM they are getting closer to achieving this ideal situation. Up to two-thirds of the cost in a contact centre is employee labour cost, so hitting the right number of supporting agents at the right time delivers a balanced ratio of customer service vs. labour cost.
Week by week and day by day contact centre managers have to manage their staff schedules. According to research by Contact Babel in 2019, 67.4% of surveyed contact centres were still using spreadsheets to schedule their staff. This represents a high workload for the contact centre manager and without the required experience, this spreadsheet forecasting could be a painful exercise for the manager as well as for the agents. Our current situation only makes it more complex.
Consider what workforce management actually includes:
Elements of WFM
- Estimating the expected workload through forecasting contact volumes
- Scheduling staff around your contact volume forecast
- Managing on a day-to-day basis, in case of unexpected rises in contact volumes or absenteeism of agents
- Creating a Business Continuity Plan (BCP)
The easiest way to know how many agents will be used for a certain time period would be to predict the expected call or contact volume. It sounds easy in theory, but in reality it’s a real pain to get right. Modern contact centres are using automated systems to forecast variables and to calculate the expected workload, but most of today’s call and contact centres are still using spreadsheets for their staffing plans.
Using spreadsheets in combination with historical call centre experience might be one way to approach the problem of forecasting. Still, this very manual “old fashioned” way of forecasting forces managers to take a deep look into historical data. What happened last year during this time period? Can they recognise any up or downward trends? Together with an element of ‘gut feeling’, managers would need to calculate a kind of average figure of the expected workload during the time period they want to forecast for.
Seasonality of the business must also be considered. Did the company run a special promotion during a specific timeframe or did something extraordinary happen that might have caused an increased call volume? All this will have an influence on calculations and assumptions. Looking out for holiday seasons or national holidays has an additional impact on those calculations.
Contact centre managers need to break down forecast calculations and bring them first to a monthly level, then daily level and see how the contact volume spreads through the day. Their saved historical ACD (Automatic Call Distributor) data or the call arriving patterns volume data will give them some very detailed information. It quickly becomes clear that with more high-quality data at hand, their calculations become more precise, but the whole process is also very time consuming.
By using an automated WFM system this workload definitely decreases, but it is important to understand that every automated system is only as good as the basic dataset it feeds from. In a remote working situation, it could happen that some of that data can’t be processed or historical data was not saved due to incompatibility of the system. When agents are not working in the office and are therefore not connected to those automated WFM systems, these issues of incompatibility can sometimes come into play.
Cloud contact centres offer a huge advantage as they break up data silos and allow any analysing routine or process to access as much data as needed that has been generated in and from the contact centre over time. For those cloud systems it doesn’t make a difference whether agents are working in the office, from home, or any other location. In present times, where more and more agents are working from home, it is also more difficult for contact centre managers to gain direct insights of agents’ day to day workload. They can’t simply walk through the floors as they would have done in the past.
When it comes to scheduling the contact centre workforce, contact centre managers need to consider two different aspects.
- How many agents are needed for each planned time segment?
- What will be the shift pattern of the agents?
In order to understand how many agents would be needed for a certain period of time, they must again calculate, estimate and define some frame data points.
- Number of calls or contacts expected over a period of time
- Time period length
- Average Handling Time (AHT) per call or contact
- Defined service level (% answered in target answer time)
- Target answer time
- Maximum Occupancy
Creating Shift patterns
Knowing how many agents would be needed during a certain time period is just half of the calculation effort. The available number of agents or supervisors need to be arranged in shift patterns that fit the company’s business model.
However, agents and supervisors are still humans with their own individual requirements. To fit all this under one umbrella or into a simple working shift plan is far from easy. Some agents work part time, some prefer the morning hours, students need their shift patterns to fit around studies.
Having a bigger workforce that is able to work from home eases this puzzle process as those agents tend to show more flexibility in their work availability. For example, they don’t need to consider transportation for a commute and won’t be restricted by external schedules.
Here, again, cloud contact centres with abilities to run integrated WFM tools will be a big help in scheduling those shifts for the contact centre manager. The system records and refers to individual working preferences, available skill sets and predicted availability for work. Together with the collected historical data and any recent workload trends, the software automatically creates a shift plan for the agents.
The system can also allow agents to swap shifts should they have a short-term amendment to make. That represents a huge simplification in the shift scheduling process for the contact centre manager and provides additional flexibility in the agents’ shift plan. This improves employee experience (EX) not only for the agents but also for contact centre managers.
How to handle day to day exceptions
So far all is good with the planning and scheduling of your workforce, but then reality hits and things are not going to plan. Here is a selection of situations that could hit the contact centre with sudden trouble:
- Product trouble or recalls
- Unexpected press exposure (positive or negative)
- Unexpected marketing campaigns
- Technical problems or outages
- National crisis including epidemics, severe weather or political changes
- Company shortcomings resulting in increased customer complaints
It’s never a question of if one of those situations will hit the contact centre manager, but more of a question when it will appear. Being prepared for those situations saves a lot of time and effort in the long run.
On way to stay ahead of the situation is to run daily team meetings at the beginning of each shift and to inform everybody about the latest developments and today’s expectations. The ability to run quick virtual team meetings by voice only or video can be hugely beneficial. It’s an easy way to provide updates and can also boost morale and motivation as agents see that they are not in this alone while working from home.
It’s the contact centre manager’s responsibility to define the required Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), which is a set of guidelines that dictate and prioritise what should be done under certain circumstances. The SOPs need to be clearly communicated, and some elements might be worth shouting out as a reminder in the daily briefing meetings.
Another piece of advice for larger contact centres would be to maintain a central point of contact, so different teams are not running in opposite directions with their short-term work shift adjustments.
Real time analysis of what’s happening in the contact centre is very important for the contact centre manager and agents. Having the ability to see waiting times of different queues, and performing a sentiment analysis of the actual calls, could provide an early warning flag if things are going south. Cloud contact centres easily allow status, message or announcement boards to be created and made visible to those who need it.
Again, using the right collaboration tools like team messaging, or the creation of subject matter expert groups, will be a big benefit to the contact centre staff. Changes can be communicated quickly, and problematic subjects can be tackled quickly by the right team.
Business continuity planning
A business continuity plan is needed if a disaster strikes your contact centre operation. That could be a massive power outage, a live threatening fire or simply a disruption in the nearby public transport system. If there is no backup plan for call or contact centres, this could simply mean a halt in operations. Some contact centres might be able to work from a different office location or have the luxury of a second contact centre that could take over some functions. In some cases, agents might be able to answer calls on their mobile devices and work from home but might miss valuable information through not being able to access the contact centre system remotely.
These kinds of concerns don’t trouble cloud contact centre users, as the it’s quite easy to let agents work from their home (or any) location with full access to all required information for their daily operation.
Workforce management is a crucial part of each contact centre operation. Using the right tools will simplify this operation. A contact centre manager is faced with many unforeseen situations and needs to be prepared to react quickly and meaningfully. Cloud solutions are ideal to provide the required data for effective workforce shift planning, team communication and collaboration, and enabling agents to work from home or anywhere.