Eight Steps for Conquering Holiday Scheduling Dilemmas

With the holidays right around the corner, are you prepared for last-minute changes that are sure to occur with agent scheduling? This is a problem that all contact centers face during holidays, 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, will typically 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 to help simplify the process. Try these eight steps to ease the pain of last-minute holiday scheduling.

1) Inform agents of holiday scheduling policies.
Informing agents in advance of what may be expected during holiday scheduling 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) Review schedules beforehand.
By implementing a regular review process, you should be able to detect obvious staff shortages or surpluses ahead of time. Ideally you should review each daily schedule 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 vs. agents provided is all that is needed.

3) Establish trigger levels.
Historical data can reveal what conditions have led to scheduling problems in the past and help you determine when you will hit a threshold that requires adjustments for current scheduling. You must determine the tipping point for key metrics such as percentage over forecast. Defining your target numbers in advance will enable you to operate comfortably knowing when adjustments will be necessary. 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 to change.
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 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. Various scenarios can be run with different sets of parameters to help hit your target numbers.

7) Weigh your options.
When considering whether to change the schedule, often something as simple as canceling a scheduled meeting can free up enough agents to cover a shortfall without making any further adjustments. If the reoptimization process does not yield at least a 2% improvement in service levels, the end may not justify the means.

8) Notify agents of staffing changes.
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 vice president of sales for St. Louis-based Pipkins, a workforce management software solutions provider.