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The Call Center Staffing

Over two-thirds of call center operating costs are related to personnel, and thus getting just the right number of staff in place each hour to respond to customer contacts is critical in terms of both service and cost. Correctly managing this number is the key behind successfully running a call center operation.

This article helps in understanding Staff and Service Tradeoffs and outlines the step-by-step process to calculate call center resource requirements.

How to calculate the Workload?

Staff workload is simply the number of forecast calls for an hour multiplied by the average handle time of a call. We can forecast calls by taking the historical data and then analyzing trends and seasonal patterns to arrive at monthly estimates. And similarly by using day-of-week and time-of-day patterns, we can break down the numbers into hourly or half-hourly forecasts. The average handle time (AHT) is made up of two components: actual conversation or talk time plus any after call wrap-up time associated with the call. The wrap up time consists of the time required for filling out a form, updating the customer database, etc. This handle time is likely to vary by time of day as well as by day of week. For example, you may find that AHT is higher during the evening shift since you may have newer staff working the undesirable hours, or simply have callers that like to talk a little longer during the wee hours of the morning! Most call centers simply use an average number for handle time, which may be a dangerous assumption if there is a significant variance. Imprecise numbers can contribute to the understaffing or overstaffing, so it’s best to use numbers that actually reflect time-of-day or day-of-week patterns. This workload is then used to determine how many base staff is needed to handle the calls. The part that makes staffing for a call center different than any other kind of staffing situation is that this workload doesn’t represent typical work patterns. Let’s compare an incoming call center to a group of clerical workers processing mail in the same company. Between 8:00 and 9:00am, the clerical staff has 400 pieces of mail to process and each piece takes 3 minutes to handle. That’s 1200 minutes or 20 hours of workload. How many people need to be working to accomplish all the work by 9:00?

The answer is: to process 20 hours of workload, 20 staff would be needed. The reason for the 1:1 ratio is that the mail tasks represent sequential workload. In other words, the staff can process the work as back-to-back tasks and each person can accomplish one hour of work in an hour timeframe.

Determining the Call Center Staff Requirements

Now considering the staff for the call center. These employees are getting 400 calls and each one takes an average of three minutes to handle – 2 minutes of conversation and another minute of after-call work. Again, this comes out to be 1200 minutes or 20 hours of workload. So, how many people are needed?

Unfortunately, we can’t handle the calls with only 20 people. At 8:05, there may be 22 calls arriving, meaning all 20 agents are busy, with another 2 calls in queue. Then at 8:15, there may only be 16 calls in progress, meaning 4 of our staff are idle. Those 4 people won’t be able to accomplish a full hour’s work, simply because of the way the calls have arrived. In an incoming call center, the work doesn’t arrive in a back-to-back fashion. Rather, the work arrives whenever our customers decide to place calls. So we have random workload instead of sequential work. This brings us to the conclusion that you must have more staff hours in place than hours of actual work to do.

So how many extra do we need? For 20 hours of workload, will we need 21 staff? 24? 30? Actually, the number of staff needed depends on the level of service we wish to deliver. Obviously, the more staff we have, the shorter the delay. The fewer the staff, the longer the caller will wait.

Defining the Service Goals

In call centers, there is no such thing as an "industry standard" but instead what is needed is the setting up a speed of answer goal that depends upon many different factors such as enterprise goals and marketing strategies, competitor standards, and most importantly the expectations of customers.

Customer expectations have certainly risen when it comes to speed of answer expectations. More and more callers are basing their expectations and judging your service on their last, best service experience. Taking a look at your call center’s ACD reports and looking at when callers begin to abandon calls will give you some idea about a “worst case” delay scenario. But setting the "best case" goal should involve getting feedback from senior management, customers, competitors, and other centers – and then evaluating cost and service trade-offs to determine the impact on cost and on service of raising or lowering the goal.

Relationship behind Staffing and Service

The question is: what is the impact on service when staff numbers change. Obviously, delay times increase as agents are subtracted, and service improves as staff is added. But service is not affected to the same degree each way, and this is a terribly important phenomenon to understand about call center staffing.

Let's say we have decided to have 24 staff in place to handle the 20 hours of telephone workload in order to meet an 80% in 20 seconds as our service level goal. If we adjust the staff numbers up or down, there are two very different impacts. First, if we add a person or two, the average speed of answer (ASA) improves from 13 seconds to 8 seconds with 25 staff, and then to 4 seconds with 26 staff. The first person added yielded a 5-second improvement, with the next person gaining us only a 4-second improvement, and a third person would result in an ASA of 2 seconds, a 2-second improvement. Adding staff results in diminishing returns, with less and less impact as the staff numbers get higher.

Now let's look at the effect of subtracting staff from our 24 person requirement. When we subtract one, two, and three persons our ASA increases to 25 seconds, 51 seconds, and 137 seconds respectively. The first person out resulted in an increase of 12 seconds, the second in another 26-second decline, and the third in a jump another 86 seconds! By taking staff away, service worsens and it does so dramatically at some point. There are especially big jumps as our staff number gets closer and closer to the hours of workload.

So you can clearly observe that if you are delivering poor service in your call center, you can improve it dramatically by adding just one more person. On the other hand, when service levels are mediocre to bad, one more person dropping out can create a situation in which it is nearly impossible to recover.

Calculating Shrinkage and Schedule Requirements

The numbers so far, were obtained by assuming that all agents are always available to handle call workload. But we all know that agents aren’t available much of the time. And hence we need to factor in this unavailability into our schedule requirements so we end up with enough staff to man the phones.

Thus, a final adjustment needs to be made for calculating staff requirements to factor in all the activities and situations that make staff "unproductive". This unproductive time is referred to as staff shrinkage and is defined as the time for which staff are being paid but not available to handle calls which includes activities such as breaks, meetings, training sessions, off-phone work, and general unproductive time.

In most centers, staff shrinkage ranges from 20 – 35%. We account for this shrinkage factor in our staff requirement by dividing the staff requirement by the productive staff percentage (or 1 minus the shrinkage percentage). In our example, if 24 staff are needed and our shrinkage factor is 30%, then 24/.7 yields a requirement of 34 schedules.

Managing Daily Staffing and Service

For the successful running of a call center, you should have just the right staff in place every half-hour to match the workforce to the workload. The foremost thing that needs to be taken care of in this case is the call forecasting. In order to arrive at a call forecast, you need to gather and analyze mounds of historical information regarding the call patterns. Then you need to calculate the number of staff needed by half-hour to meet your center’s speed of answer goals. The next step is to work out an efficient and acceptable staffing schedule. Finally, you need to manage the daily schedules to ensure that the service levels are being met half- hour by half-hour. For this what is required is a well planned workforce management process. This includes tracking the half-hourly components of call volume, handle time, and staffing levels that will provide you the information you need to communicate status and make necessary changes to ensure that your service goals are consistently being met. Generally, the workforce management process includes the following steps:

1. Forecast workload
2. Calculate staff requirements
3. Create staff schedules
4. Track call center performance

The key is to have a systematic process in place to track the information so there is sufficient time to react to make a difference for the day.

The Real-Time Tracking Process

There are three steps in the daily performance tracking process:

Step 1: Tracking
Step 2: Communications
Step 3: Reaction

Tracking and Analysis

Tracking performance within the day means tracking the three elements that affect service: call volume, average handle time (AHT), and staffing levels.

Let’s take a look at how a variation in any one of these components might affect net staffing and service. For example, imagine a scenario where the staff is adhered to the schedule. The call volume forecast is also right on the target, but the calls took 30 seconds longer to handle than planned. The reason may be the slow operating speed of computer system or a different format for the billing statement might have caused an extra question per call. Due to this you will observe that staff requirements are significantly affected. In such case, staffing at 8:00 would need to be adjusted from 82 to 90 staff in order to meet an 80% in 20 seconds service goal. And if the staffing is not adjusted, the service level will drop to only 6% of calls answered in 20 seconds.

Opposite to this, consider the situation when workload is less than the forecast, when the marketing campaign doesn’t go as well as expected and call volume is 10% lower than planned. This time at 8:00, only 75 staff will be needed instead of the 82 to be scheduled to work. With everyone on the phones, service level will be as high as 98% in 20 seconds. That’s great from a service perspective, but notice the amount of unnecessary expense this kind of overstaffing will cause.

Communications Strategies

Once the numbers indicate that overstaffing or understaffing is happening, the next step is to communicate the problem. Developing a communications strategy involves deciding what to communicate and who all should be involved in the communications loop.

It is likely that the workforce planning specialist or team will be the first to know there is a problem. This group may communicate directly with staff for the necessary adjustments, or may relay the information by team or by supervisor wherever changes are required.

Reaction Options

You should always know your reactions options whenever adjustments needs to be made as to whether you need to add or subtract the staff requirement.

Selecting a strategy depends upon answers to the following questions:

• How severe is the problem?
• What is the effect on service level to customers?
• Can you fix the cause rather than react?
• How long will the problem last?
• What are the options from easiest to hardest?
• What will each adjustment cost in terms of dollars, resources, and effort?

Common staffing reaction strategies for understaffing include:

• Have supervisors or other staff take calls
• Delay meetings or training
• Eliminate optional call content
• Engage other qualified staff or outsource

Following are the technology changes that can help dealing with the understaffing situation:

• Re-routing calls to other sites or groups
• Adjusting delay announcements
• Changing ring delay settings
• Adjusting trunks
• Invoking other technologies such as IVR or callback messaging

Likewise, common staffing reaction strategies for overstaffing include:

• Do impromptu training
• Schedule team meetings
• Catch up on paperwork
• Make proactive outbound calls
• Offer time off without pay

The Power of One in Call Center Staffing

In order to run a call center you need to first plan and develop a workforce schedule. Whether you have developed your workforce schedule manually or through workforce management systems, this thing is trivial to consider unless your staff sticks to it. Infact, getting the agents to adhere to the daily work schedules is one of the hardest things to manage in many call centers as most of them have a kind of thinking as to absence of one person can’t possibly make much of the difference in the operation. Generally, the workforce management process includes the following steps:

In such case, schedule adherence can be improved to a large extent with a little education. You can help your agents in understanding the importance of schedule adherence by simply educating them about the effect one or two bodies can have on the service and can ask them to increase their cooperation with the scheduling process. Helping your staff in this way to understand what impact one individual agent has on service can go a long way in getting them to stick to their planned schedule.

Actually, the impact of a person or two on the service largely depends on two factors: the size of the call center and the level of service delivery.

Size of the call center

Obviously, the smaller the call center, the greater the percentage shares of workload handled by each person and therefore the bigger the impact of his/her participation. Where as in case of larger call centers, because of their economies of scale, there is greater efficiency in the call handling process, and therefore the impact of one person on the service is not much significant.

Level of service delivery

The current level of service being provided by the call center is another factor that determines the impact on service of a single person. The better the existing level of service, the lesser is the impact of one person on the service. Obviously, as staff numbers increase, service improves. As staff numbers decrease, service worsens.

So, you can conclude that the impact of one person on service is that if your center is in a service slump, adding just one more person on the phones can make a tremendous improvement. On the other hand, losing one person in case of a mediocre or poor service situation can really ruin the service to such an extent that it might become very difficult to recover.

Opposite to this, consider the situation when workload is less than the forecast, when the marketing campaign doesn’t go as well as expected and call volume is 10% lower than planned. This time at 8:00, only 75 staff will be needed instead of the 82 to be scheduled to work. With everyone on the phones, service level will be as high as 98% in 20 seconds. That’s great from a service perspective, but notice the amount of unnecessary expense this kind of overstaffing will cause.

Is Your Call Center a Strategic Asset or a Victim?

The call centers came into being to handle fairly simple tasks such as providing basic services to customers and taking orders from prospective customers. But the advent of toll-free services in 1970s created a whole new way for customers to reach the call centers and with this increased the responsibility of call centers to manage the influx of calling. At that time, gaining greater efficiency was the main concern of the call centers. The emphasis was on getting the calls handled as inexpensively as possible while still meeting customer needs.

But now, when time has changed, the emphasis should be on maximizing the value of the call center’s contribution to the company’s future. So as a call center manager, you need to look at the enterprise as a whole and determine how the call center can be best positioned to produce the strategic results needed. Don’t think of Marketing as the enemy because they embark on campaigns that increase call center workload without warning. Instead, embrace Marketing as an important function that the call center must join with to exploit opportunities to grow the business. That will maximize the call center’s ability to handle the calls and the effective utilization of marketing capital. Also, you need to help your Product Development teams to figure out ways to improve the offerings so that customers don’t find that they need to call as often. Work with billing to identify ways to make the invoices more easily understood by tracking the most frequently asked questions and discussing them in regular meeting. In other words, become part of the solution, rather than a victim.

First of all, you need to get consensus on the value every call has and then take a look at the tradeoffs of various staffing levels on that value. You might find that your speed of answer goal is not the one that would provide the greatest profitability. And you would also realize that selling management on more staff to increase profitability is sure a lot easier than based on an arbitrary speed of answer goal.

In call centers, approximately 80% of profits come from less than 20% of the customer base, but many companies don’t know which customers are the profitable ones. The call center can identify those customers who call frequently so that the company can figure out ways to serve them more profitably. Perhaps these customers need to be up-sold to a more profitable product/service, charged differently for services, offered only self-help options, or even encouraged to take their unprofitable business to a competitor.

So, in order to get maximum profits you must try to get a place on the planning committee and show that your call center is the "voice of the customer" and a strategic asset to your company. It will surely improve your life and your agent’s lives. People would then also aspire to work in your call center and view your team with the due respect.

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