8 Ways to Conquer Last-Minute Scheduling Dilemmas

Are you prepared for last minute changes that are sure to occur with agent scheduling? This is a universal problem that all centers face. It can be especially challenging for those without an automated solution for agent scheduling—and the ramifications can be significant. If staffing is just 2% below where it should be, the percentage of calls answered within 30 seconds or any other established performance objective typically will drop by 10%. If 10% of the seats are vacant, half of the center’s incoming calls will likely not be answered in the desired time interval.

There are two solutions to this problem. One is to implement an advanced workforce scheduling system with a vacation planning module that will integrate with your workforce optimization program. The other is to implement a few simple strategies which can help simplify the process. Try these eight steps to ease the pain of last-minute scheduling problems.

1. Inform agents of your intra-day policies

Informing agents in advance of what may be expected when call volumes exceed forecasts or the call center is otherwise in crisis can mitigate confusion and tension when last-minute changes occur. If they know to expect adjustments in their schedules, they are more likely to be compliant.

2. Be prepared by reviewing schedules beforehand

Schedules can be affected by many different factors and staffing problems can be prevented by implementing a regular review process that will detect obvious shortages or surpluses ahead of time. Ideally, each daily schedule should be reviewed a week before and then a day before the live date. During peak seasons, you may want to add a third look in the middle of the week. A quick check for deviations in agents required versus agents provided is all that is needed.

3. Establish trigger levels and tipping points

Establishing trigger levels can avoid last-minute panic in intra-day scheduling. Use of historical data can reveal what conditions have led to scheduling problems in the past and help determine when you will hit a threshold that requires adjustments for current scheduling. You must determine the tipping point for key metrics such as percent over forecast. Defining your target numbers in advance will enable you to operate comfortably knowing adjustments will not be necessary unless you hit them. Most contact centers are capable of absorbing at least 5% more calls than anticipated and/or agent shrinkage of up to 10% before service levels start to plummet. Conversely, most can tolerate at least 5% fewer calls before needing to consider cutbacks in same-day staffing levels.

4. Create an intra-day forecast

As soon as you approach your trigger levels, use your workforce management software’s intra-day forecasting tools to assess the potential impact on the remainder of the day. Advanced systems will be able to provide forecasts at 15- and 30-minute intervals based on current call volume. They will also be able to calculate staffing surplus or shortage levels for each interval.

5. Decide what changes should be made

You will need to decide which shifts to designate for schedule adjustments. Should shifts be lengthened or shortened, can you cancel or add discretionary off-phone activities such as meetings and training sessions, and can employees who are scheduled later in the day be asked to arrive earlier? Generally speaking, it is advisable to reoptimize staff members who are already in the building. Start with the simplest options and see if they will produce the desired results.

6. Run a preliminary “what if” scenario

You will need to run a preliminary scenario to see how many changes would be required to align staffing with service objectives and review the results before proceeding further. If your workforce management system has a reoptimization utility, it will be integrated with relevant data such as call volume and real-time staff attendance. The system can then be preconfigured with rules providing new calculations that address overtime issues, meeting or training schedules, and lunch and break adjustments.

The system will then generate a new staffing plan to calculate the impact on service levels and deliver the results as the percentage of calls that will be answered within your target interval. You can run various scenarios with different sets of parameters to help hit your target numbers.

7. Consider your options

It is now time to weigh changing the schedule against the results to be obtained. Many times the answer can be found in something as simple as canceling a scheduled meeting in order to free up enough agents to cover a shortfall without making any further adjustments. If the reoptimization process does not yield at least a 2% or 3% improvement in service levels, the end may not justify the means.

8. Notify agents of staffing changes that need to be made

The final step is to notify staff of schedule changes as quickly as possible. Some workforce management systems will automatically notify agents by e-mail, pop-up or dashboard messages. Otherwise, supervisors must print and distribute new intra-day schedules, or talk to agents individually.

Bob Webb is of vice president of sales for St. Louis-based Pipkins, a workforce management solutions provider.