Getting a Grip on Agent Time Utilization, Part II

This is the second in a two-part article. In the first article, we defined time utilization and how agents should use the time available to them during shifts. Click here for Part I.

Once the team has defined the work states, it should establish a start date and train the agents on work-state definitions. It usually helps to train the agents in small groups and to produce a job aid that can be placed in their workspace for quick reference (don’t worry, agents quickly memorize the activities and their corresponding work states).

Many centers find it helpful to develop an incentive program that motivates desired behavior. One such program we have seen is to reward agents who are “caught” in the correct work state. For three or four days following the start date, appoint certain people to periodically evaluate if agents are in the right work state for the type of work they are doing. One way to do this is to use your phone system’s real-time supervisor screen or the LCD on the agents’ phone (if it tells you the current work state). Look at what the agents are doing and compare this to the work states. If they are in the right work state, give them a token of some kind. If they are in the wrong work states, do nothing.

Keep repeating this process until all the agents have been evaluated during an “incentive window.” An incentive window can be two hours, four hours, or an entire shift (depending on the resources you have available to “catch” the agents and reward them). Let the agents know the length of each incentive window so they can anticipate receiving a token. Be sure to evaluate each agent the same number of times during the incentive windows and during the entire incentive program.

As you repeat this exercise throughout the incentive program, the agents who did not receive a token will get the message without you having to say a word. No correction or discipline is necessary. Remember, management philosophy is to reward desired behavior, not punish undesired behavior. Long-term motivation for desired behavior should be evident in your metrics, standards, and comprehensive reward and recognition program.

At the end of the incentive program, the agents can use the tokens at an auction where you “sell” anything from company products, incentive gifts, time off coupons, etc. Make sure that what you are selling is meaningful and motivational to the agents.

Producing Reports and Monitoring Excellence

Once the work states have been implemented, produce a periodic report showing each agent’s average percent utilization of each work state and his or her overall time utilization (manned time).

When the reports first come out, agent work state usage will vary greatly. Some agents may not be using the work states correctly; others may have insufficient job skill and knowledge.

Once the reports are produced, choose a couple of agents who you consider to be among the best. Compare their work-state usage and manned time. Arrive at a preliminary performance standard for both. And communicate this standard to your agents. As you gather more and more data, as your processes improve and as your agents gain increased skill and knowledge, you can continually fine-tune these preliminary performance standards.

The goal is to use the manned time report for indicating if an agent is struggling with skill and knowledge and then use the work-state report to diagnose exactly why. This is accomplished by comparing each of the agent’s performance to the performance standards you have set. If an agent is “an expert,” then he or she should be performing within or above the manned time performance standard. This means that the indicator metric is not raising any red flags and there is no need to look into the diagnostic work state metric.

But when agents are not meeting the manned time, standard supervisors must diagnose why by looking at work-state utilization. If the agent is out of range for any particular work state, then the supervisor will have to ask which activities assigned to that work state are causing the poor performance. In this way supervisors have the time to coach to the specific needs of the agent. Often coaches spend all of their time climbing through data on a daily basis and ending up with little time to coach one-on-one.

Over time, you will see time usage become more and more consistent. When an agent goes out of bounds in a reporting cycle, the agent and supervisor may be able to attribute it to a special assignment (e.g., the agent may have been assigned to a special call list that required increased after call work). These “special events” or assignments should be documented, as they occur to help with diagnostics later.

The goal is to have agents as productive as possible without producing a “sweat shop” environment. Each contact center will have its own optimum percent utilization of each work state and its own standard for manned time. Management should constantly pursue interventions optimizing productivity (e.g., inefficient data gathering systems may be adding to increased after call work time) while always balancing this efficiency with effectiveness (quality).

Half the battle in measuring time utilization is actually doing it—defining work states, automating reporting activities, and ensuring that reports are timely, accurate, and believable. The other half of the battle is communicating the need to measure time utilization and helping people buy into the process.

Sometimes we forget that time utilization measurement is a common phenomenon. Outside the contact center you find consultants, accountants, attorneys, and many other professionals measuring their time utilization. These occupations must account for their time so the proper client billing can occur.

Agents need to understand that they are not being “picked on” by being asked to account for their time. They also need to know that this measurement is not going to be used like a hammer but as an aid to continual improvement for them and the contact center.

If, however, the only message that the agents hear day after day is, “your talk time is too long,” then it is clear what the primary objective is for the contact center—get your talk time down! This causes conflict if talk time and/or after call work time is discussed separately from the quality of the call and ultimately motivates undesired behaviors (e.g., agents rushing through a call without documenting the customer record correctly). Best-in-class contact centers always balance the need for high quality with efficient time utilization.

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

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