Schedule Adherence: ‘Big Brother’ or ‘Big Picture?’

Schedule adherence in the contact center isn’t just about making sure your agents are clocking in and out at the proper times. It helps ensure that you have the correct number of agents working the phones in order to handle the predicted amount of volume for any given hour of any given day.

As we learned in the first part of this series, more contact centers are using workforce management software to handle agent scheduling and enforce adherence metrics. These WFM systems, more of which are now being delivered via the Internet on a hosted basis, keep track how every minute of each agent’s shift is used, so they can be useful in analyzing overall labor efficiency and individual performance.

The challenge in using such systems, though, is that they can make agents feel like they’re working under the shadow of Big Brother. To help make schedule adherence more humane, most contact centers have adopted a policy of building in a certain amount of “buffer” into their schedule adherence metrics. This helps accommodate for minor, unplanned disruptions in the agent’s workday – such as a bathroom break, water break, or perhaps a problem getting back from lunch on time.

The question is, 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?

Determining buffer size

The best way to determine the size of the buffer is to translate 1% out-of-adherence into a number of minutes per week. For example, if an agent works 40 hours per week, this equals 2,400 minutes. So for every 1% tolerance, you would designate 24 minutes per week as a buffer.

To set a reasonable buffer, your team should brainstorm all the activities that might take an agent off the phone during a shift. Ask agents for their input. Discuss how often these happen and approximately how much time per week should be allocated to be humane.

Remember: be reasonable. I’ve had many management teams tell me that they think 30 minutes per week is adequate. My response is, “Does that feel fair? How would it feel to you if I said, ‘I want you to account for all but 30 minutes of your time each week?’ Do you think you could do that? Probably not.”

The truth is, there’s no one right number. I’ve heard that most contact centers allow 5% to 7% buffer for schedule adherence — but I can’t verify that number because I don’t know how it was determined. Does the 5% to 7% buffer exist in a contact center where all “out of control” occurrences are adjusted?

The best standards are those that are determined through team consensus and modified periodically by historical data. As with all other areas of the contact center, schedule adherence is not static. Schedule adherence standards must be dynamic.

Keeping it humane

Schedule adherence can be presented as either Big Brother or big picture. To keep it focused on big picture you must continually relate it to customer satisfaction.

Remember that schedule adherence is a critical contributor to service level. It’s so your customers don’t have to wait in the queue for an unreasonable amount of time. And as I’m sure you and your agents already know, there is a strong correlation between hold times and customer satisfaction.

When designing your schedule adherence metrics, keep in mind these recommendations:

–Determine your service level goals. For example, maybe you want to answer 85% of your calls in 15 seconds. And maybe you want to achieve that standard 85% of the time you are open.

–Define the events that are outside the control of each group contributing to service level (force management team, local management team, and agents) – the ones that could severely limit your ability to achieve your service level goal no matter how hard you tried. For example, a hurricane in Florida increases the calls to an insurance company and it will be more difficult to achieve and sustain service level during this crisis. Or, my favorite, the marketing department forgets to tell you about a new ad or mail drop that occurred yesterday.

–Develop individual metrics and standards for each group contributing to service level attainment. This means that your force management group, local management group and agents each need to have their contribution defined. (We have defined the agents’ metric in this article as schedule adherence.

–Tell your groups that if they make the service level goal in a month (85% of the calls in 15 seconds and 85% of the time) then you will not look at the individual contributor metrics – everyone will be rewarded for making service level. But if they don’t make service level goal, then individual performance will become a factor. Those who made their individual standard of performance will be rewarded. Those who didn’t … won’t.

–Help your people understand the big picture of service level and what they can do to assist the team in meeting customers’ needs. Give them practical ideas on how to meet the requirements of their job. Give them group and individual coaching.

Agents should be taught how to make good business decisions when it comes to time utilization. Communicate about the metrics and standards constantly. People should always know what is expected of them, why it is expected, how they are doing in relationship to the expectation, and always have the opportunity to grow into achieving the expectation.

If this is the first time you are using schedule adherence as a metric we recommend you establish a “grace period” where you are measuring schedule adherence, but not counting it toward a person’s performance appraisal. Use this grace period to let people see how their decisions impact their performance.

Our recommendation is to use one full reporting period (usually a month in most contact centers) for this grace period. You can also establish this same type of grace period for new hires just out of training. It seems so much more humane to agents to be able to experience this for a while, so they can adjust their actions before it truly counts for — or against — their performance evaluation.

Team leaders should always watch individual metrics and assist people struggling with meeting their objectives. But don’t get into the trap of micro-managing your people. Don’t look at daily reports.

But you can make the numbers available to your agents on a daily basis, so they can see how they are doing. Look at the metrics of agents who are struggling perhaps on a weekly basis, so you can make course corrections throughout the reporting period.

There should never be the opportunity for one agent to say, “Sure we made the objective. But I worked twice as hard as Bobby did. He slacked off, yet he still gets the reward. That’s not fair.”

It’s okay to put policies in place that say, if a person’s individual performance is under par so many reporting periods in a row, then even if the team makes the service level goal, that individual will not receive any reward.

The system has to be fair and equitable over the long term. People have to believe in and contribute to the team effort. Let a cross-functional team determine the best way to make the system fair.

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

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