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It Starts With A Contact Center Plan

by Ric Kosiba, Ph.D., Vice President, Interactive Intelligence - October 25, 2016

It Starts with a Contact Center Plan
Ric Kosiba, Ph.D.
Vice President, Interactive Intelligence
 
Running a contact center operation can be both a fascinating and frustrating career option.  Problems associated with contact center networks are inherently complicated and hence interesting, they are also inherently complicated, and hence frustrating! There are so many great problems to solve in the contact center industry, all with huge cost implications. Developing a great contact center week over week operational plan is something that will lessen the frustrations of the exec as service delivery is consistent and appropriate and the operation runs more smoothly.
 
Given that hiring large numbers of contact center agents is so expensive, you would think that understanding how many agents are needed to service our customers is pretty straight-forward, but you would be wrong.
 
Managing a contact center is a never simple, there are many moving parts.  These operations involve moving multiple types of contacts (phone, email, chat, and more) through complex networks, and often across different locations. Contact centers are people-intensive, and they have all of the difficulties associated with managing large groups of individuals.  Further, the demand for contact center operations is highly seasonal, customers will contact the operation more during different times of years with different needs.  And agents are seasonal, too, they will call in sick based on the weather and other seasonal events.
 
All of these complicating factors make developing a “simple” hiring plan both difficult and more important.  It is very easy to make a planning mistake and find the operation in a state of severe understaffing, which leads to both customer and contact center agent dissatisfaction.
 
Long Term Planning
 
What we are discussing goes by a few names; some call it strategic planning (our favorite), capacity planning, or long term planning.  But whatever it is called, its goal is to tame the seasonality of the contact center operation and to present to executives the trade-offs between resources provisioned and the customer experience and revenues expected.  This is by no means easy.
 
First, all important contact center metrics are seasonal.  Volumes, handle times, sick time, vacation requests, agent attrition, outbound contact rates, revenues per call, outbound lead lists, and many other important metrics vary significantly week by week.  So the planner must understand and manage this seasonality. Contact center planning analyst’s first step is to understand the seasonality of all of these metrics and to forecast them well.
 
Next, even with the best forecasts, we all know that there is uncertainty and variability associated with our plans.  This uncertainty must be quantified, understood, and presented to decision makers.  The best plans outline the cost and service risks of planning wrong.
 
Contact center operations have always been complex, but today the complexity has skyrocketed as contact center operations have become multi-site, multi-skill, and multi-channel centers.  The math required to evaluate staffing in these operations has become extremely complex. In the old days, simple switchboards could lean on a simple math equation, the old Erlang C workload calculation, to determine how many operators were needed to hit service standards.  Today this simplification is wildly inaccurate.  Accurate staffing is sort of the point of the whole planning exercise.
 
Fourth, resource decisions are also getting harder and harder.  When should we hire?  When should we offer vacation and training?  What is the best way to staff to my seasonal peaks—with overtime or by hiring?  Determining this by hand, using a spreadsheet with an “over/under” line is impossible to do efficiently. Developing multi-site, multi-channel, and multi skill staff plans by hand?  Forget about it.
 
Finally, the old standard technology, the big Excel spreadsheet is simply the wrong technology for building great plans. They are slow, cumbersome, and easy to mess up.
 
But the focus of a contact center strategic plan is to develop hiring, vacation, overtime, and undertime plans that ensure that the staff available is very close to the staff required to hit targeted service goals through the seasonal peaks and valleys of the modern contact center operation.
 
What Happens When You Do Not Plan Well?
 
The purpose of this discussion was to point out the importance and the benefits of planning well.  But let’s start with the converse; what happens when you don’t plan well?
 
The obvious repercussion of poor planning is being overstaffed or understaffed during the day-of operation.  If you don’t hire enough agents, you’ll be understaffed.  Hire too many, and agents will be looking for things to do, and burning your company’s cash.  Hire at the wrong time? Again, you will likely be overstaffed or understaffed (or both at different times of the year).  Either will lead to workforce management chaos as the real-time team works to remedy the poor plan. Agents can burn out if overstaffed or be bored (and useless) when understaffed.  
 
Chronic mis-staffing also leads to service inconsistency, as customers receive very different levels of service.  In an era where customer experience is important, an erratic experience will always be problematic.
 
An inefficient plan by definition means that the call center operation will be paying too much to service its customers.  Hiring too soon, or hiring too late and incurring unplanned overtime all come with significant and wasteful costs.
 
Strategic planning at its core is about making decisions, and the best strategic planning processes embed the ability to accurately perform what-if analyses for the big picture questions of the call center executive.  It follows that these systems must be accurate over the range of service levels that what-ifs might contemplate.  When asked for the effects of a hiring freeze, say, the capacity planning process must be able to accurately and quickly quantify the service, costs, agent effort (occupancy), revenue, and profit repercussions of this decision.  A what-if that is inaccurate will lead to significant decisions that are wrong.
 
ToolsThat Can Help
 
Developing capacity plans is an exercise in mathematical modeling.  There are three sorts of models that every capacity planner needs:
 
  • Predictive models to help planners develop forecasts.
  • Descriptive models to help planners determine the service, cost, and revenue implications of any staffing scenario.  These models simulate the operation.
  • Prescriptive models to optimally develop hiring overtime, undertime, and controllable shrinkage plans.
 
All three models taken together allow a company to quickly (within a few minutes) evaluate any what-if analyses, forecast, or staff plan.  Accurately.
 
What We Have Experienced
 
I have the strange bragging right to have seen more contact center planning systems and spreadsheets than possibly any other human being in the history of the world. Here are my observations:
 
  • Too many companies still use an Erlang-based planning system to perform their capacity planning.  Almost universally, these companies have issues hitting service goals without being chronically overstaffed.
  • Companies that have invested in developing a rigorous planning process, with each of the three model types, universally run a tighter operation.  They provide more consistent service with slightly higher efficiencies than those without the appropriate tools.  Their distributions of service delivery are much tighter.
  • Companies that have invested in models and business processes saw a dramatic shift in costs per call when they migrated to the new process—experienced a significant cost savings (5%-10%).
 
If providing consistent customer experiences and service at a frugal cost is important to your organization (it is), then investing in the capacity planning process is critical.  Good planning always leads to a smoother and less expensive operation.
 
Ric Kosiba, Ph.D., is vice president of Interactive Intelligence’s Decisions Group. He can be reached at Ric.Kosiba@InIn.com  or (410) 224-9883 or Twitter: ric@decisionstech
 
 
 
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