10 Secrets to Optimizing Your Workforce

Jul 31, 2007 8:27 PM  By

This is the first in a two-part series on workforce optimization

Everyone is struggling to do more with less – to make the most of the resources they have in place before making new investments in implementing technology or adding additional staff. So where do you begin in optimizing your call center workforce? Here we’ll outline some of the best kept secrets of making the most of your precious resources. These strategies will help position your call center for both today’s lean times and the better ones that will surely follow.

1.) Cutting staff will not necessarily result in cost savings.

Since 65%-70% of a total call center’s operating costs are related to staffing, that is generally the first place we look to reduce costs. It is all too common to think of layoffs and reduction in staff as a way to respond to the call from senior management to tighten belts. But before you write up the pink slips, make sure you understand the implications of staff reductions.

Let’s assume that you’re a fairly small call center with fewer than 50 agent seats. (If you’re a larger center, you can view these numbers as representative of a specialized agent group within the entire call center structure.) Most days you’re meeting your service goal of 70% in 30 seconds. The snapshot below indicates the staffing picture with varying numbers of staff during a half-hour in which you’re getting 175 calls.

As you can see, staffing with 33 bodies in chairs would enable you to meet service level fairly consistently. But the loss of one person would worsen service level from 74% to 62% (or average speed of answer from 30 seconds to 54 seconds). Eliminating another person would drop service level to 46%, and the average delay would double to 107 seconds! And reducing staffing levels by three would horribly deteriorate service level to only 24%, resulting in an average delay of 298 seconds! So those callers accustomed to waiting for only half a minute in queue would now be waiting nearly 5 minutes!

But some call centers are making the decision to let their staffing levels drop under the assumption that they “can’t afford” the incremental staff. But what many don’t realize is that some reductions in staff might be outweighed by the increased telephone costs associated with the longer delay times. In this example, with 33 staff in place the average delay is 30 seconds per call. Multiply that by 350 calls per hour and that’s 10,500 seconds (or 175 minutes) of delay. If we apply a fully loaded telephone cost per minute to that usage of $.06 per minute, that’s $10.50 for the queue time. If we try and staff with 30 staff, remember our average delay increases to 298 seconds of delay. Multiply that by 350 calls and that’s 1738 minutes of delay, priced at $.06 for a total of $104.30 for the queue time that hour. In other words, by eliminating three staff to save money, we’ve just increased our telephone bill by $93.80 for that hour! And this doesn’t even take into account the likelihood of a longer call given the poorer than expected service levels. Telephone charges would likely increase even further

This situation is even more dangerous in a revenue-producing center. If the value of a contact is $50, and agent salaries are $20 per hour, it is easy to see that putting another agent on the phone will pay for itself even if the agent only answers one call per hour that would otherwise have abandoned from the queue. But even if the value of the call is only $5, there is clearly a trade-off in determining the staffing level that will produce the highest net bottom line. The return on appropriate staffing must be argued against budget constraints.

But if not a staff cut, then where should you look for savings opportunities in your center?

2.) One of the biggest opportunities for savings comes from consolidation of workload.

An important concept to understand about call center staffing is the principle of economies of scale. Simply put, the bigger the agent group the better. As the size of the team increases to meet an increased workload, the utilization of every individual within the group improves. So look for ways to combine smaller groups. Cross-train personnel and look for ways to use skill-based routing to tap into everyone in the site who can handle every call type.

And the economies improve as the size of the agent group (and amount of workload) increases. But bigger is better only to a certain point….which leads us to our next secret.

3.) Bigger groups are more efficient only to a certain point…then consolidation backfires.

Some call centers get carried away by the power of pooling. In our last example, to squeeze out another few headcount savings, you might assume that you’d want to take the two 106- agent groups and consolidate the workload into one group that requires only 209 staff rather than 212. Wrong. At this point, we’ve reached the point where efficiencies are too high. And while you might think there is no such thing as “too efficient,” it is a fact that groups of this size have such high occupancies that they really can’t maintain that efficiency level for long without agents burning out or displaying some undesirable behaviors in order to get a breather between calls.

Perhaps some of the biggest opportunities for savings lie in simply changing some of our processes and procedures, which brings us to our next few secrets.

4.) Better calculations of workforce shrinkage can earn you some improvements.

Workforce shrinkage (the amount of time agents are paid to be there but are not available to take calls) includes some things that are not changeable such as vacations and coffee breaks. But there is often a fair amount of time lost in agents just not being in place and available when the schedule is expecting them to be.

And sometimes fixing the problem is as simple as a math error. For example, if you’ve determined that you need 150 “bodies in chairs” between 3-4pm, and you know your shrinkage for breaks, meetings, training, off-phone work, etc is 32%, then how many staff do you actually need to schedule so that 150 are actually in their seats ready to handle calls? A common math mistake is to simply inflate 150 by 33% (150 x 1.33 = 199 staff). Wrong answer. Check it by decreasing 199 by 33% — you only get 133 staff! The correct calculation is 150 divided by (1 minus shrinkage) or 67% for a correct answer of 224 staff.

Focusing on getting the maximum logged in time from each agent can be a significant opportunity since the lost time to unexplained unavailability ranges from 2%-10% in many centers. In our example above, tightening up shrinkage just from 32% to 30% (only a 2% improvement) will reduce scheduled staff needs from 224 staff to 214 staff!

5.) An expanded schedule mix can easily result in overall headcount savings.

Another place to look for efficiencies is in the variety of schedule options you use in matching your call center workforce to the workload. If most of your agents work full-time, 8-hour schedules, then schedule inflexibility is a problem. It’s amazing how much more efficient your schedules will be simply by adding some part-time (3-, 4-, 5-, and 6-hour shifts) and expanding the definition of full-time to include more than just five 8-hour days.

To illustrate the savings achievable, one call center that recently implemented workforce management software expanded its schedule mix from only 4-hour part-time and 8-hour full-time schedules to include 5-hour, 6-hour and 10-hour shifts. By making these simple changes the overall full-time equivalent count went from 189 staff to 152 staff – a 20% reduction in staff requirements and actually a better, more consistent level of service.

Another call center for a major catalog company, shifted from traditional 30-minute start times to having staff begin their shifts every 15-minutes of the day. The rationale of this change was that by staggering start times, breaks and other off-phone activities could naturally be staggered throughout the day as well. And it worked! By staggering these start times, the call center went from 124 staff required to only 114 staff – an 8% savings by this simple adjustment.

One of the distinctions between a “best of class” call center operation and an average one is the focus the organization has on empowering their agents and supervisors with the education and tools needed to be successful.

Penny Reynolds and Maggie Klenke are founding partners of Lebanon, TN-based Call Center School, a call center education and consultancy.