Getting a Grip on Agent Time Utilization—Part 1

Time-utilization measurement is a bane of most contact center managers and definitely a pain for contact center agents. But without it, we might as well close up shop and go home.

Is it time for you to take a new look at your contact center’s time-utilization measurement? If you’re not sure what I’m talking about or don’t know its importance to contact center management, read on.

The whats and whys of time utilization
When we speak of time utilization in the contact center, we are typically speaking of how agents use the time available to them during their shift. Time utilization is typically measured by manned time (also known as sign-on time and log-on time) and schedule adherence.

Time-utilization measurement accomplishes multiple objectives. In the contact center it is integral in

  • forecasting and staffing,
  • identifying the skill and knowledge needs of agents,
  • documenting the return on investment for automation projects,
  • determining charge-back or budget monies for projects, and
  • identifying process improvement opportunities.

Time utilization is used for staffing. An accurate accounting of talk time and after-call work time is one of the critical components in ensuring that the right number of agents are available to meet service-level objectives.

The management team also uses the time-utilization statistics to help diagnose the skills and knowledge that agents need. With this understanding, the supervisors can assist agents through needs-focused coaching.

Without time-utilization measurement statistics, the management team would be missing vital information to help it determine the efficiency of the contact center. For example, if agents are spending a long time in after-call work, is it because they have to get up to fax critical information to a customer? Would having a fax server improve efficiency and decrease the overall costs of the contact center? Remember that labor can account for up to 50% of a contact center’s operating costs.

The contact center is typically involved in a plethora of projects. These projects may be internal to the contact center, or they may be assigned to the contact center by other departments. If you want to account for the amount of time you spend assisting others, then you must measure time utilization. This helps you determine the impact of doing these projects on service levels and identify the most effective way to accomplish them. By tracking these projects, you can establish a viable charge-back system to other departments so that they know the worth of the people on your team.

By tracking time utilization, the management team is able to determine when processes are causing inefficiencies. Let’s say that the talk time increases significantly (beyond projections) after a change in customer information verification is implemented. When the team looks at the numbers, it is easy to spot some people whose talk time did not increase. But when their calls are monitored, the quality is high. What the team notices is that these “experts” have figured out a more efficient way of achieving the same goal. The team could then implement their systems across the board.

Indicator metrics vs. diagnostic metrics
There are two categories of metrics in the contact center: indicator metrics and diagnostic metrics. Both categories apply to time utilization.

In the contact center, every piece of equipment spews out data at an alarming rate. How many of you managing a contact center have the time to faithfully review all these reports every day? I certainly didn’t when I was managing a contact center. I would conscientiously stack the reports on my credenza to look at later. I told myself that the data in these reports must be important or why else would we be producing them? When the stack got so high that it became unmanageable, I would take some reports off the bottom and throw them away. Little did I know that much of these data did not need a daily review. A lot of the data were necessary only if there was a defined problem.

That’s how I learned about indicator metrics and diagnostic metrics.

Indicator metrics tell us if something needs attention. In a contact center there are perhaps 10-12 indicator metrics covering topics such as customer access (service levels, etc.), customer satisfaction, employee satisfaction, financial performance, and human performance. The specific metrics include the percentage of calls answered in so many seconds, the cost per call, and the quality of the calls monitored.

Using indicator metrics, you can tell if there is something going on but you may not know specifically what is causing the problem. For example, if you see a dip in the indicator metrics for service level, the cause could be absenteeism, elongated talk time due to a change in scripting, or poor forecasting. That’s where a set of diagnostic metrics is important.

You need to look at diagnostic metrics—talk time, after-call work time, schedule adherence, idle time, etc.—only when there a problem has been determined via the indicator metrics. The diagnostic metrics enable you to home in on the causes of the problem.

Differentiating between the two types of metrics certainly simplifies the life of the contact center management team. No longer do they have to look at all the data all the time. They can be selective and look at the indicator metrics first, and then (if some are out of bounds), they can be selective with their diagnostic metrics.

In the realm of time utilization within the contact center, manned time is the indicator metric, and work states are the diagnostic metrics.

Zeroing in on work states
Telephone equipment for inbound contact centers (automatic call distributors, or ACDs) and outbound contact centers (outbound dialers) allows agents to access different work states during the day depending on the activities they are doing. These work states have various names depending on the type of ACD or outbound dialer.

Typical work-state designations include the following agent activities:

  • signing on to the system,
  • being available to take the next call,
  • completing after-call work,
  • talking with a customer,
  • being unavailable to help a customer (training, meetings, projects), and
  • signing off from the system.

It is important to have a consistent work-state usage among all agents, since work states are foundational for many other contact center metrics and activities (productivity, manned time, scheduling). Each agent must access the work states in a uniform manner, or the statistics from the phone equipment will not be valid.

As an example, let’s look at after-call work time. Along with talk time, this work state is used in staffing the contact center. Determining the number of agents necessary to meet a certain volume of calls requires a precise definition of call-handled time. Call-handled time is the combination of talk time and after-call work time.

Let’s say that some agents put themselves in after-call work time to get up to get a drink of water. This clearly is not consistent with the definition of after-call work time (the time an agent is finishing work related to a customer interaction). By going into after-call work for a drink of water (or any other non-call-related function), the agent skews the handled time, making it higher than it should be. This will translate to overstaffing.

The other reason it is important to have consistent usage of work states is the performance management of the agents. If one agent uses after-call work to get a drink of water and another does not, then the time-utilization reports from your phone system are bogus You have no idea what the time-utilization number means because you are not sure what activities are accounted for in the numbers. You may unjustly think that the agent with the higher after-call work time doesn’t have the skill to complete the work as fast as the other. What is really happening is that he is using the work state for inappropriate activities. It may turn out that when it comes to actual after-call work activities, the agent is more efficient than the others.

The best way to move forward in defining consistent use of work states is to

  • assemble a small team of people to accomplish the task,
  • determine what work states are available on your phone system,
  • brainstorm all the activities performed by your agents throughout their shift,
  • assign each activity to a work state (remember to keep after-call work time for those tasks related to work required to finish a customer interaction),
  • receive input from the general population of agents and supervisors,
  • refine the definitions as necessary,
  • train the agents regarding work-state definition and how to use work states correctly,
  • develop an implementation schedule and start date, and
  • implement an incentive system for motivating desired behaviors.

Here’s an example of a contact center’s assignment of activities related to work states. The work states available to this contact center (as defined by its technology) are “signing off the system,” “talk time,” “wrap up” (after-call work), and “not available”:

There is no right or wrong definition of activities. It depends on the processes of your contact center, your calculation for other contact center metrics, and the technology you are using. There are a few basic guidelines, though:

  • Because talk time plus after-call work time equals handled time, you should protect the work state used for after-call work. After all, handled time is what you’ll use to staff correctly.
  • You can use work states to assist in the calculation of individual productivity. At the same time, you should not define any work state in such a way that it harms an agent’s productivity metric. For example, if you assign “special projects” to after-call work, you could be harming system handle time. If you assign it to “not available,” you could be penalizing an agent’s productivity number, depending on your productivity calculation.
  • You should have a system to code and track the activities in the “junk bucket” work state– the one work state that is assigned all the miscellaneous activities. (In the example above, this work state is designated as “sign off.”) This system can be manual or automated (through either the phone system or the computer system). If you don’t know what’s happening in this bucket, you’ll lose opportunities for improvement.

Let’s say you notice that the time engaged in “time off requests” is increasing. You are now well armed to make some decisions. You can determine the dollars this activity is costing you (time off the phone, service level, etc.), and you can make a business case for automating this activity.

Or perhaps the time usage for the activity is high only for one or two individuals. This allows you to investigate their circumstances and assist them where needed.

Next month we’ll look at time utilization in regard to training and monitoring.

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

Other articles by Kathryn Jackson:

Flight Simulators for Contact Centers

The Skinny on “Amputated” Coaching

How to Create the Most Effective Call Monitoring Program–Part 1

How to Create the Most Effective Call Monitoring Program–Part 2

Overturn the High Cost of Employee Turnover

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