Keeping Your Reps on Schedule

Dec 03, 2008 8:55 PM  By

If you’re running a contact center, you know that every minute an agent is off the phone is money lost. That’s why schedule adherence is such an important topic for contact center managers.

Schedule adherence is the measure that tells you if your agents are doing what they have been scheduled to do. It helps you ensure that you have the right number of people on the phone at any given time of the day in order to handle the anticipated call volume and deliver the best possible customer service.

More contact centers are using workforce management software because it helps managers schedule agents with greater ease and, perhaps more important, gives them better visibility into schedule adherence.

The problem is, these systems can sometimes make schedule adherence feel like “big brother” is watching because they track every minute of an agent’s day. To make schedule adherence more humane, you have to make certain policy and procedure decisions. But beware: these schedule adherence policy discussions often result in heated debates between the different members of your management team.

How to make adjustments

All of today’s workforce management systems allow you to make adjustments to agents’ schedules in the event of unforeseen or unplanned disruptions. These might include a delay getting into work; a longer than expected lunch break; or the more common bathroom or water breaks.

The biggest decision you’ll face when implementing schedule adherence is deciding what kind of time adjustments you’re willing to make – and for what reasons. How far should you go to adjust an agent’s schedule, so their final schedule adherence report does not indicate they were out of adherence?

There are two schools of thought about making adjustments. One is to not adjust anything under a certain time frame.

For example, you might decide not to adjust any out of adherence occurrence unless it is over 15 minutes in duration. In essence you are creating a “buffer” in the schedule adherence standard to account for the inevitable occurrences that result in lost time. So, instead of setting a standard of 99% schedule adherence, you might set the standard at 95% to accommodate for these occurrences.

You might then adjust the occurrences over the designated time frame only if the occurrence was outside the control of the agent. This means that if the agent signed off for lunch 30 minutes late because he or she chose to stay on a call with a customer to completely resolve the request, you would adjust the rep’s schedule. For each occurrence greater than the designated time frame, the agent has to tell management why the occurrence was outside their control (i.e., they didn’t just forget to go on break).

The second school of thought is to adjust all “out of adherence” occurrences as long as the occurrence is a result of the agent deciding to serve the customer. In this case, there is also a buffer set in the schedule adherence standard.

This buffer allows for necessary nonphone related activities. (Most contact center managers agree that occurrences that happen due to agent error should not be adjusted.)

The problem with the first school of thought is that it can motivate behavior that is contrary to customer service and often puts the agent in a double bind. This is especially true if you are measuring service adherence on, for example, a monthly basis, and this monthly metric is recorded on the agent’s performance appraisal, thus contributing to bonus or merit pay calculation.

Consider the following scenario: It’s getting toward the end of the month and the agent has almost used his entire schedule adherence time buffer (and believe me, agents will always know where they stand in relationship to this buffer.). It’s getting close to his scheduled lunch break and he is in between calls. He’ll start to think, “If I sign off early or go into unauthorized idle I will definitely go out of adherence.”

So he decides to take a risk, stay “available” and possibly get another call. When the call comes in he thinks, “I can either speed up this call (so I can get to lunch on time) or else I can stretch out this call so it goes longer than the designated adjustment period. Or, I could forget making schedule adherence all together and simply service the customer.”

What decision would you make? We’ve asked that question of many agents and their answer depends on their candor. But their answer is really irrelevant (as is the question). The real question we should be asking is, “Why are we setting up a system that is causing agents to choose between personal reward and customer service?”

As such, the second school of thought is more preferable, because it places the emphasis on customer service, as opposed to making the agent think: “Okay, what can I get away with here?”

How to handle adjustments

One challenge in allowing these types of schedule adherence adjustments is that there can be a lot of adjustments to make during the course of a week. And contact centers very often don’t have the staffing they need in order to adjust all “out of control” schedule deviations.

But adjusting all out-of-control occurrences is not impossible — nor does it need to be costly. There are manual and automated systems you can design to help make the adjustment process more palatable.

Some companies have printouts of the agent’s schedules given to team leaders each day. The team leader simply circles the “out of control” occurrences and at the end of the shift a clerk collects the sheets. Clerks input the changes to the workforce management software.

Other companies have figured out how to automate the reporting using some type of spreadsheet so they can download the changes into the software. Still others have workforce management software terminals strategically located throughout the operation so team leaders can make adjustments directly into the software periodically throughout the day.

The key takeaway here is that by making it easier for agents to service customers by not penalizing them with your schedule adherence metric, you increase customer satisfaction and boost employee retention.

Next time we’ll look at how to properly set schedule adherence adjustments based on service level criteria – plus I’ll also offer some tips on how to make schedule adherence seem less like “big brother and more like “big picture.”

Kathryn E. Jackson, Ph.D, is president of Ocean City, NJ-based contact center consultancy Response Design Corp.