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!

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