Contact Center Staffing Gaffes

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By eliminating inefficient staff planning processes and optimizing the timing of new hires, companies typically save more than 5 percent of their agent paid hours. For an average contact center with 500 agents, this can translate into a whopping $1 million in annual savings.

However, instead of optimizing staffing levels to uncover savings opportunities that are just lying in wait, businesses frequently make reckless changes that ultimately prove detrimental in the long run. Having been in the contact center industry for more than 20 years, I've witnessed some pretty disastrous moves within organizations' contact centers and customer support departments. Many of these mistakes have made the news: companies deciding to offshore important customer functions, operations unprepared for regulatory changes that drive up handle times, and companies cutting costs that equates to cutting service.

But there are other, more common strategies that impact many contact centers and result in service meltdowns. By understanding what these common contact center staffing gaffes are, we can learn how to avoid them and ensure stronger customer retention, loyalty and growth. Here are the top four:

1. Overstaffing

Any contact center, whether for an insurance company or a popular department store, experiences times where service is significantly below standard. Since contact center executives are usually evaluated by service attainment at the end of a month or week, they try to catch up to meet service goals by overstaffing their contact center. This might seem like common sense—over-compensate to make up for where it's lacking, but this is a service failure. Overstaffing causes a fair amount of overtime for the company, and the additional agents brought in to make up for lulls in service end up working long hours doing very little because their occupancy is fairly low. Customers who were inconvenienced by poor service at the beginning of the month due to poor staffing still see no change at a later date, and are unlikely to call back to have their needs met.

2. Delaying hiring

Despite variance analyses, which are commonly used to show the difference and root cause between actual and budgeted or targeted levels of performance, many organizations are still slow to recognize a change in their status quo. A variance analysis is a "canary in a coalmine" for contact centers—an early warning sign that there could be a permanent issue affecting the operation when volumes, handle times, attrition, or shrinkage are different than planned. However, despite the problems variance analyses can signal, many executives tend to be slow to address these issues and delay hiring more agents until it's too late—when their contact centers are already overwhelmed and underperforming.

3. Not planning or training for controllable shrinkage

Shrinkage, which is unproductive time in a contact center that reduces the productive time agents are available to serve customers, is one of the more elusive metrics in the contact center, largely because there is no industry standard for how to measure it.

I've often found when businesses calculate their shrinkage, it's averaged across the year, so results look flat week over week. This is almost always a mistake on the part of the contact center planner, as shrinkage is both a seasonal occurrence (for uncontrollable shrink) and a strategic decision (for controllable shrink). A successful contact center planner will look far ahead into the future to manage controllable shrinkage. For example, a successful planner will forecast potential overstaffing weeks in advance and will alert management to offer staff extra training or unpaid vacation to prevent it. Conversely, if management plans to pull agents off the phones to work on side projects, planners should advise weeks in advance to expect to be understaffed during those times and prepare operations for overtime or other contingencies.

4. Wrong handle time forecasts

A large contact center once found its handle times much higher than forecasted, and its service levels well below standard. The planners were under the gun to fix their forecasts, even though all the math was pointing to normal handle times. They couldn't explain the variance, although they tried. It was a stressful time for the planners—with management pinning the planners as the culprits, citing forecast error as the problem. However, unbeknown to the planners, a new policy was in place to encourage agents to focus on customer experience over all other operating metrics, which meant handle times were no longer a priority. The issue was that nobody looked at the cost of this new policy, and without understanding the repercussions or informing the planners, management set their customer support department up for failure.

To ensure organizations avoid making these common contact center staffing mistakes when trying to balance costs and service, the most powerful decision analyses a planner can perform is a risk analysis. Drawing out the risks and costs associated with a particular set of decisions, planners can compare their options to show the value of the hiring decisions each provides. When planners can show the trade-off of service versus costs to their organization's decision makers, they can help them see the operational risk associated with understaffing, as well as the cost associated with overstaffing to accommodate contact center volumes.

Ric Kosiba is vice president and founder of the Interaction Decisions Group at Interactive Intelligence. In 2000, he founded Bay Bridge, which was acquired by Interactive Intelligence in August 2012.