Year: 2020

Don’t Forget the Basics

Don’t Forget the Basics

I have been privileged to be invited by Injixo to present key note presentations at their PlanCon events in London in 2018 and Manchester in 2019. In 2018 I discussed my experiences of over 20 years working in planning in a presentation called ‘Back to the Future’ and in 2019 I developed on the theme with a look forward to Planning over the next 10 years. Whether I am right or wrong with the latter we will have to wait and see. Click on the links if you would like to review a video of either presentation.

I won’t go into all the topics covered, but one key theme I discussed in both sessions is the need for getting the basics right. The principles of planning are quite simple. Calls or other contacts arrive and there are industry standard algorithms available to work out the headcount needed. For inbound calls this is Erlang theory (a great explanation by Call Centre Helper is available here) and my experience is that it is hard to beat the numbers output by this algorithm. Despite being over 100 years old, and designed before contact centres were thought of, the mathematics work today and show that the randomness of human behaviour, both customer and employee, have an impact on the service levels offered by our centres.

I have been privileged enough to visit many centres over the past 15 years in particular and I have seen impressive processes and models, usually in Excel and often so large that the file cannot be shared by email and often takes an eternity to open. They can be extremely complicated and combined with work rules about shift patterns and durations, when leave can or cannot be taken they often make me wonder if all the complexity is needed? WFM systems are also common place and planners are often taught to press buttons and complete tasks in a specific order rather than the basics of planning. This is all well and good when things are going well – but the complexity, or the lack of knowledge often prevent planning teams from explaining what happened when things go off-piste.

Speaking to other consultants in the industry who also have. the luxury of visiting many centres, we are more and more convinced that the basics of planning are overlooked. We need to ensure that we get these basics right and then build on them. e.g.

  • Don’t build inbound planning models on productivity etc… Erlang is needed to account for random behaviour (customers and employees).
  • When there are less calls we can’t pro-rata the staff needed in alignment with the volume expected. Lower volumes need exponentially more staff.
  • Cross-skilling contact types isn’t always a good plan – staff find it hard to stop a non-immediate channel (e.g. email) to deal with an immediate channel (inbound voice) and then switch back again. It can compromise service and quality.
  • Insisting staff are 100% or even 90%+ productive isn’t possible and has negative consequences on absence and attrition over time
  • There are 2 queues in an inbound centre – the customers and the employees. We need to balance them and ensure agents get breathing space as well as customers answered quickly.
  • Every planner needs to understand queuing theory and Erlang principles. They are what our WFM software use.

I’ll build on these (and more) topics in future blogs. But why not make a (belated) New Year’s resolution. Let’s examine the basic principles of planning and ensure we do the groundwork right – then build in complexities later. Those basics will quickly get us more than 80% of the way in building a good planning process.

Don’t forget about the weather

Don’t forget about the weather

One of the best parts of the work I do with Ulster University is the chance to supervise students on the BSc(Hons) Managing the Customer Contact programme when they are completing their dissertations. This is a major part of their studies, and as part-time students is often a huge achievement as they combine work, family and study pressures over the last 3-4 months of their course. The results are often impressive and the topics they research often stick in my mind and help me in the future – and I am only the person reading and discussing their work. As the person doing the research and reading – picking and becoming an expert in a subject they are passionate in must be a great boost to their careers.

A couple of years ago, Tracey Howe, then working for Thames Valley Police, looked at the impact weather spikes had on volume in their contact centre. Amassing several years of data, she was able to prove that when the temperature went above or below certain thresholds there would be a significant change in volume. Using control groups she was able to show that the concept was not unique to the policing sector and, although the thresholds may change, was also valid in many other sectors. I’ve talked about this in many courses over the past few years, but up until now I was basing my talks on her paper and didn’t have the chance to experience and test her theories in person.

For the past few months I have been helping a client in the insurance industry with their Resource Planning processes, including looking at forecasting. I would like to think my short tenure has been successful and amongst other things I have helped them improve their forecast accuracy immensely, often getting the week within 1-2%. As any planner would expect there were days that just didn’t conform to those accuracy levels and it left me looking for reasons. The usual factors came into play – the date within the month (people calling around pay day), the dates direct debits were taken and even things like holidays and school opening. But we recently had a couple of days where we received 20 – 30% more calls than anticipated on one day and 20-30% less than expected the next.

Of course this led to several post-mortems. There was nothing in the historic volumes to give a clue to these widespread deviations – and more worrying was the fact that the week was spot on – but we missed service targets because of the day we were way over forecast. Then it hit me. There was a yellow weather warning on the busy day. The only explanation was that people delayed their Christmas shopping, didn’t go out on the day of the storms, and then changed their plans for the following day. Tracey’s research came back to me. The weather has an impact even in centres where there is no logical or obvious link. Customers change their plans based on what is going on in the world around us, and just like people stop calling when big football matches, Royal weddings or other major events are taking place, they also change their plans based on the weather.

In my first ever job, one of my duties was to fax weather forecasts for the next 5 – 10 days to hospitals and ambulance stations to help them prepare. Back then to be honest forecasts were only reliable at the 2-3 day window – but weather forecasting has improved. 10 day forecasts are now very reliable and often are only inaccurate by a matter of hours. The Met Offices in UK and in Ireland are now criticised for giving notice so far in advance that it creates a media circus – and that has an impact on our volume. For each of us it may have a different impact but it is worth looking back. What do your customers do when the weather changes? Does good or bad weather have a bigger impact? It’s not just criminals who change their behaviours! The 10 day forecasts need to be another tool for planners when optimising schedules – but it can only happen once we look back and see what has happened in the past – then apply that knowledge into. our short term planning.

Real Time – know when to hold your nerve

Real Time – know when to hold your nerve

Real Time Analysts are probably the most valuable members of the planning team. Think about it – who has to come up with solutions in seconds? Who is in the line of fire when things go wrong? Who makes a lot of the unpopular decisions in the eyes of the frontline staff? And maybe more importantly, who picks up the mess and fixes it when the forecasts and schedules were sub-optimal?

It’s a role I have often discussed with Tim Moruzzi, Course Director of the BSc(Hons) Customer Contact Management programme at Ulster University. As he keeps pointing out, based on the questions in the first paragraph why is it that this team is seen as the Juniors in the planning cycle? Surely they have some of the greatest responsibility and can be the difference between success and failure on the day?

However, let’s keep that argument for another day. I want to ponder the merits of ‘holding your nerve’ in today’s contact centre.

Never has the pressure to deliver service, and deliver it in an efficient manner been greater. We all know that staffing costs can be upwards of 80% of the cost of running a contact centre operation. Minimum wage goes up year on year, and relatively speaking IT and facility costs are falling. Depending on the size of your business, even a few staff in the wrong place at the wrong time can have a significant effect on profit – especially if your centre is revenue generating.

However, the role can differ depending on your situation. I think of two examples I have had direct experience of in the past year. The first was a back office based environment where the frontline team dealt primarily with webforms and emails. As an outsourcer we were expected t provide a certain number of hours per day and keep the backlog and associated response time within reasonable parameters. The Real Time time monitored adherence, absence, queue length and quietly adjusted lunches, breaks and offered appropriate overtime to keep all under control. Ensure as an outsourcer we delivered the hours we were contracted to and ensure customers got timely responses. There was little or no panic. Sounds like bliss?

Contrast that to a second centre I worked in. Inbound calls, permanently short staffed due to sickness and attrition and customers waiting excruciatingly long times to be answered. Real Time were constantly chasing frontline agents to speed up calls to take another, or to get straight back onto the next one. The result seen calls cut short and customers calling back, or post call actions not completed and customers calling back. That doesn’t cover the issues of stress leading to further sickness and attrition – as well I expect tiredness leading to longer calls and/or mistakes. Such was the carnage at times, that real time were expected to magically find solutions to the mathematically impossible.

Two very different scenarios – indeed two polar opposites. They reinforced to me a belief I always held, but needed to see the evidence in front of me. Sometimes the best course of action is to hold your nerve and do nothing. Calmness in scenario one allowed the real time team to think, and that thinking time led to success and a better chance of meeting targets constantly. In scenario 2, the pressure from Operations to react and find a solution with every blip probably meant that a bad situation was being made worse.

Most centres live somewhere in the middle. Plans are made and yes there are blips across the day where more or less staff than expected are logged in, where contact volume is higher or lower than forecast. But they fall into scenarios that we have seen many times before, and intuitively a good real time team know what to do. But I wonder how often do we pull the trigger too quick? Do we ever think that waiting 5 or 10 minutes could see that blip stabilise back to the plan? We know we work in a random world – one where natural noise means even the best forecast is wrong from the second it is produced. One where an agent could be late due to a bus breaking down, or a customer calls minutes earlier or later than we anticipated, just because every interaction is inherently random. So could it be the case that reading too fast causes an issue that would have negated itself as quickly as it appeared? A queue in the canteen sees a few people all come back together and clear the queue? A TV ad caused some extra calls – but everyone who seen it contacted you within 2-3 minutes and the volume spike is gone again?

I’m not saying we should always wait, but maybe consider putting a small time duration as well as a number of calls waiting or agents available into our processes? Constant change stresses those effected by it – our frontline agents, so lets make sure change is absolutely necessary before we make it. It will be tough to wait – even for 2-3 minutes but could it be as valuable a tactic as jumping in and reacting to every blip? Are we reacting simply to be seen to do something, or are we reacting once we have a plan to get us back to normality? Something to think about!

Should planners embrace Speech Analytics?

Should planners embrace Speech Analytics?

This is a question which has been at the back of my head for nearly a decade now. It has come back to the fore as my ex-colleague Steve Woosey and his new business partner David Davies will be presenting on the topic at Injixo’s excellent PlanCon event in Manchester at the start of October.

About a decade ago I sat in a technology workshop, led I believe by NICE, extolling the virtues of how Speech Analytics could enhance the quality delivered by contact centres. I know several companies have used the software, with sometimes mixed results, over the past year – but I don’t personally think it has become as mainstream as it could have in the intervening period. I sometimes hear comments that it can be expensive – but is it more a case that like many available software solutions we see so many possibilities, have access to so much data, and aren’t quite sure where to focus our energies. In today’s competitive world, any investment needs to make return on investment, and I wonder if resource planning is a natural bedfellow for speech analytics software.

Think about it. Customers call for many reasons, and it is the forecasters job to understand those reasons, identify the patterns around them, and predict for the future. What if we could subdivide our historic calls into categories and look for patterns within the patterns? Could this help identify more root cause for volume, make sense of significant deviations and allow us to plan better for the future?

We all know how much pressure the real-time team can be under to fix it when queues develop. What if some type of real time report on call causes was available and they could spot why the deviation was occurring on the day. Would this allow us to make better decisions on the appropriate reaction. We could be selective in our preventative toolkit of changes – or feel more confident when speaking to operations and get buy-in for a collaborative resolution.

I’m trying and failing to link to scheduling as shifts, breaks and lunches shouldn’t really be discussed on the calls. However if we could add that edge to our forecasts and identify the causes of deviations on the day, it may allow for more stable scheduling over time.

I would love to hear from companies who have taken this approach. Not one I have come across too often – but most planners are natural analysts. Why not take another system which has the potential to provide rich analytics and try to improve our processes and outputs.

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