If you’re a contact centre professional, you’re probably feeling the pain of agent staffing shortages. Due to the pandemic, we’re experiencing an unusual dynamic in the labour market right now.
The U.S. unemployment rate was 5.4% in July 2021, higher than pre-pandemic levels, yet the news is full of stories about businesses of all sizes across industries having difficulty finding employees. Similarly, the UK and Canada have not yet returned to pre-pandemic unemployment rates.
This difficulty includes finding contact centre agents. It’s always been a challenge to recruit and retain talented agents. Today’s labour environment is making it even tougher. According to an article published on TechTarget, 35% of businesses report having difficulty finding contact centre agent candidates with the necessary skills.
Anecdotally, even the promise of substantially higher contact centre agent salaries isn’t resulting in the number of qualified hires call centres need to fully staff up. With the holiday rush looming, an agent shortage could be detrimental to business.
Don’t despair. There are creative measures every call centre can take to address agent staffing shortages. Solutions include reducing agent-assisted volume, maximizing the capacity you already have, and automating processes in order to relieve agent burdens.
What Happens When You Don’t Have Enough Contact Centre Agents?
When you have an agent shortage, it causes significant CX, operational, morale, and cost issues.
- Higher queue times. Agent scheduling is all about matching capacity with forecasted demand. Being short-staffed causes gaps in the schedule and results in a situation where there are simply not enough agents to handle volume. One of the first places this shows up is lower average speed to answer (ASA).
- Increased abandon rates. Customers will only wait so long in the queue before they give up. But if they genuinely need help, they’ll contact you again. Over and over. So, staffing shortages don’t just increase abandons, they also increase volume, which can back up queues even more.
- Higher overtime costs. Higher overtime costs are a natural outcome of contact centre agent shortages. Managers who want to meet customer demands will typically ask their agents to work more hours. Expensive overtime wages are a good way to further stress already tight budgets.
- Increased agent burnout. Working extra overtime hours and handling back-to-back interactions all day long can quickly lead to agent burnout, especially if customers are frustrated about long wait times and take it out on agents. Worsening the cycle, burnout leads to attrition at a time when contact centres can’t afford to lose agents.
- Degraded customer experience. If you don’t have enough agents, your customers will be negatively impacted. Customers who need help won’t be happy about waiting in long queues. Hubspot found that 90% of consumers rate an immediate response as “important” or “very important” for customer service issues. Not meeting this expectation could lead to customer churn.
Addressing Agent Staffing Shortages
When your traditional recruiting methods aren’t producing results, it’s time to get creative. Many of the following solutions aren’t just stop-gap measures to get your contact centre through a temporary staffing crisis; they should become part of your contact centre’s permanent approach for handling customer demand.
1. Leverage Staff From Other Departments
This solution is a stop-gap measure because you probably couldn’t borrow accounting or marketing team members for very long. But when customer relationships are on the line, desperate times call for creative measures.
Train employees from other business groups to handle simpler interactions, and adjust your routing platform to direct these easier transactions to them. Not only will this help manage your queues, but this experience will also give other departments an appreciation for the excellent work your contact centre team does every day.
If you’re sceptical this can be done, we know of at least one business process outsourcer (BPO) that trained the CEO, COO, other executives, and support staff to answer calls for their biggest client on Black Friday and Cyber Monday. When customer satisfaction is at stake, contact centres go the extra mile.
2. Make the Most of Agent Capacity by Optimizing Schedules
When you’re short-staffed, it’s important to ensure your agents are optimally aligned to forecasted volume.
Tweaking agents’ start and end times can help squeeze a little more capacity out of your existing resources. And you might be surprised by how simple adjustments to lunch and break times can have a meaningful impact.
Optimizing schedules requires good workforce management software that empowers you to quickly adjust to changing conditions on-the-fly.
Using spreadsheets to forecast volume and produce schedules doesn’t give your contact centre the accuracy and flexibility needed to manage an agent staffing shortage.
3. Implement Self-Service to Reduce Demand for Agent Assistance
When queues are backed up, have you ever fantasized about turning off your switch and making all that volume go away? Implementing effective customer self-service tools is a great way to make some of that volume take care of itself, limiting the need for your agents’ involvement.
Many of your customers actually prefer to solve their own problems, but this requires you to help them help themselves.
Effective self-service solutions can be as simple as adding an FAQ page to your website or as complex as implementing AI-powered chatbots. And if you use a modern interactive voice response (IVR) system, it likely has self-service capabilities that you can leverage.
Simple, predictable tasks are the best candidates for self-service. Businesses use self-service tools to empower their customers to complete transactions such as paying bills, checking account balances, and scheduling appointments.
To find tasks that might make sense to provide through self-service, start by analysing your most common contact types. Then pilot your solutions and add more capabilities over time.
4. Reduce Handle Times Through Automation and Integrations
If you can reduce average handle times by a meaningful amount, you won’t need as many agents. It’s another method of getting the most from your existing staff.
Integrating systems is one way to improve handle times. For example, integrating your contact centre technology with your CRM solution eliminates the need for agents to sign in and out of multiple systems and toggle through them as they’re helping customers.
These integrations can also provide the ability to automate some agent administrative tasks. For instance, with the right integrated solution, interaction documentation can be automated, saving agents valuable time.
For your management, quality, and scheduling teams, make sure that your contact centre technology and your CRM have been integrated with your workforce engagement management solution so that you are extending capabilities directly to end users.
An integrated solution allows agents to seamlessly access schedules, supervisors to monitor adherence, and quality analysts to provide quality monitoring results directly to agents and supervisors.
5. Increase Engagement to Reduce Agent Turnover
Contact centres are plagued by high agent turnover and typically have events and activities to improve morale, with the hope of also improving retention. Facing an agent staffing shortage makes it even more important to keep the agents you have.
To step up your retention efforts, focus on agent engagement. Engaged employees are committed to their employer’s business goals and will go the extra mile to help achieve them.
Try these actions to help your agents be more engaged:
- Regularly ask for and act on feedback
- Make sure agents clearly understand roles and how individual performance expectations support the company’s mission
- Train your agents and give them the tools they need to be successful
- Ensure agents have competent and supportive supervisors
- Frequently recognize good agent performance
Additionally, consider using contact centre performance management software that engages agents to improve their performance by rewarding the attainment of milestones and encouraging team collaboration.
6. Tap Into New Labour Markets
If yours is like most contact centres, at least part of your agent team works remotely. The pandemic caused organizations to move to a remote agent model so they could continue serving their customers, and it looks like at-home contact centre agents are here to stay.
Cloud contact centre platforms have provided organizations with the valuable flexibility needed to enable a remote agent workforce. Agents just need a browser and a good Internet connection to be up and running. Being in the cloud opens up more labour markets. Your agents could live anywhere in the world.
But just because you can target any market doesn’t mean you should. Research factors such as local unemployment rates and employment laws to narrow down the list of regions or countries you want to focus on.
7. Outsource Part of Your Volume
Outsourcing part of your volume can be an effective way to supplement your agent workforce. There are several ways you can structure your relationship with a BPO, such as only sending them overflow volume or sending a specific percentage of volume every day.
However, using a BPO to address your agent staffing shortage isn’t a sure thing. They might be struggling to find agents, too. Be sure to probe into staffing levels and challenges during your selection process.
Ask each BPO if their CEO would be willing to log in and handle your customers’ calls on Cyber Monday. That’s the sort of commitment you want to be able to rely on.
A contact centre agent staffing shortage shouldn’t leave your customers high and dry. These proven ways of managing contact centre agent staffing shortages can help you preserve satisfying CX, your budget, and your agents’ morale.