Our panel of experts reveal the worst mistakes you can make when scheduling your agents.
Mistake 1: Taking a “one size fits all” approach
It is important to know that one size doesn’t fit all, and that you will require a mixture of shift types. By understanding the amount of flexibility your business requires balanced with the flexibility your people need, you can design a range of shift solutions.
We have identified 18 flexibility options which can be mixed and matched to create the right blend of shifts for your people:
- Annualised hours
- Time banking
- Unpaid leave
- Contractual overtime
- Zero-hours contracts
- Short-notice shifts
- Student working
- Term time
- Part time
- Job share
- Second job
- Fixed shifts
- Rotational patterns
- Trade-off shifts
While you won’t need all 18 options, with full and part time, along with contractual and non-contractual options, it is possible to provide a range of shifts which will appeal to your people whilst meeting customer and business demand.
[We have an article The best shift patterns for the contact centre that looks at many of these – Editor]
Mistake 2: Lack of regular reviews
One of the biggest mistakes we see is caused by a lack of regular reviews and no expiry dates on shifts.
If you haven’t had a shift review in 12 months, then you will find resistance from your people when you next announce you are going to do a shift review. Those 2 simple words will create panic, with people fearing the worst and that change means bad!
We always recommend adding an expiry or review date to all shifts to help both the person and the business. This way both parties know that their shift can change. It doesn’t necessarily mean it will, but it will be reviewed.
We’ve seen people working term-time hours despite the fact that their sons and daughters are now working with them! Or instances where shifts have been introduced for a phased return, and three years later, the same shifts are being operated.
Keep your shifts agile and fit for purpose with regular reviews.
Mistake 3: Introducing new shifts which quickly become outdated
Too often we see organisations introducing new shifts for yesterday’s problems which are outdated within a short time, resulting in another shift review.
If your workload is impacted by factors that are only known at short notice then you will require a strategy that gives you this short-term flexibility, e.g. zero hours, short-notice shifts, or time banking.
Alternatively, you may have more predictable peaks and troughs (e.g. annual billing or a month-end spike) which can be managed by annualised hours or even fixed shifts.
Once your customer-demand profile and predictability of change has been determined and understood, you can approach your colleagues to understand their preferences/preferred ways of working.
With thanks to Phil Anderson at The Forum
Mistake 4: Not allowing for “shrinkage”
Long-term scheduling, especially without shrinkage, will leave you short of resource to meet business demands. For example, if you are scheduling 12 months in advance and your forecast shows you need 60 agents, you will need to apply shrinkage to ensure that you will indeed have this number of agents available.
Let us assume your shrinkage is of 25%. You will need to schedule 80 agents – 80 minus 25% will leave you with the 60 agents you need.
So why is shrinkage important? Over the course of the next 12 months, you will lose cover due to absenteeism and other activities being scheduled.
Shrinkage prepares you for these unforeseen circumstances and helps ensure you will have the number of agents needed to meet customer demands.
In the example above, if shrinkage hadn’t been taken into consideration, you could have been left with 45 agents (60 minus 25%) instead of 60.
Click here to download our Call Centre Erlang Staffing Calculator – including Shrinkage
Mistake 5: Reducing morale by failing to ensure “fairness”
“Fairness” is important because having unhappy staff who feel they’re being treated unfairly with hours/shifts will impact your chances of meeting service level targets.
If agent morale is low there will likely be a decrease in productivity, as well as a reduction in uptake of “hours needed” when overtime is required to ensure there are sufficient agents to meet demand.
You can achieve “fairness” easily by setting an equal distribution of shift categories among agents in your WFM solution. For example, if shifts from 8pm–4am, 12am–8am and 1am–9am are all classed as “Nights”, and you are not using the right scheduling tools to fairly distribute the shifts, you may end up with Agent A having 5 x 8pm–4am shifts and Agent B having 3 x 12am–8am & 2 x 1am–9am shifts, an unequal distribution that would be unfair to Agent B.
With thanks to Scott Budding at Business Systems
Mistake 6: Letting all your agents “take breaks when they feel like it”
Even if your contractual landscape prevents fully optimised flexible schedules with moveable start and finish times, you should still consider scheduling breaks. This can make a 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.
“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,” added Howard Stephens, Resource and Planning Manager from AllClear Insurance.
WFM software can 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.
Mistake 7: Religiously sticking to fixed schedules
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.
“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),” said René Nijman at Xerox Customer Care Services. “Many agents would welcome small adjustments to their schedule instead of having to find a new job when something changes in their personal lives.”
Mistake 8: Employing too many full-time employees
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.
Part-time employees, however, make it easier to cover peak hours and enable better workload fit. They don’t need a lunch break – and they 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.
Mistake 9: Not measuring schedule efficiency
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.
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.
Mistake 10: Obsessing about 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, in reality, the fully loaded cost of overtime is little higher than normal time.
Mistake 11: Assuming 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. But 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.
In reality, unsocial hours tend to be low-workload hours and the scope of the problem is correspondingly smaller.
Mistake 12: 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 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.
With thanks to Chris Dealy at injixo
Mistake 13: Overlooking the need for sufficient historical data
One mistake we often see is the failure to look at sufficient historical data. You need to look at peaks and troughs over different areas – it’s not just about particular times of the day or days of the week, it’s essential to look at the wider picture.
The first week of the month might see an uplift and, of course, many businesses will see some seasonal variation for different months of the year. It sounds obvious, but people frequently forget to look at all of this data in context.
The same can apply to the working day and the fact that agents are not on the phone all of the time. We repeatedly see agent schedules that don’t take into account lunch and other breaks, admin time, training sessions and similar.
With thanks to Mike Donohue at Magnetic North
Mistake 14: Manually updating agent skill sets in the routing software
When routing calls, it’s important to ensure that they are not distributed based on agent availability alone but also on agents’ skill sets and relevant training.
A lot of businesses still make the mistake of maintaining separate systems for routing interactions and workforce management.
This means that as an agent’s skill set is updated, this must be manually input into workforce management software when it has already been updated in the routing software.
Mistake 15: Making it difficult for agents to manage their preferences
It’s also important to integrate software that allows agents to manage their time, indicating when they will be on leave, to state preferences for certain shifts and to mark down sick leave.
This avoids the mistake of scheduling taking place without full sight of agents’ future availability.
With thanks to Lucille Needham at Genesys