This year is difficult for all of us. The unforeseen COVID catastrophe has changed the way we work, the way we live, and even the way we love. Despite this, we are also fighting hard with a positive mindset to adapt ourselves to this new situation and achieve our goals for this year!
Interestingly, this reminds us of intra-day management in contact centers, which also aims to reduce the impact of unforeseen fluctuations to reach the expected service level (SL). In this last blog of 2020, we would like to talk about the challenges and potential directions for improvement of intra-day management, also known as traffic management or day-to-day operations, in light of this COVID catastrophe.
As the very last guardian of the performance, an intra-day manager is often required to make decisions quickly to deal with unexpected service level fluctuations, balancing the real-time workload and workforce.
Just as it is impossible to diminish the impact of COVID from one moment to the next, intra-day management can function to meet the expected SL only if the gap between the required workload and the existing workforce is within the mitigation range. In fact, except for the large workload deviation caused by unforeseen random events like COVID, the following situations can also easily result in a large gap. Hence, they should be avoided as much as possible before criticizing intra-day management:
- Bad predictions like call volumes, average handling time, or customer patience. To give a recent example, there is a substantial increase in customer patience as a result of more home-working during the COVID period. Big prediction errors can be made if the average patience time is not adjusted in time.
- Poor workforce calculations, for instance, a rough approximation of the multi-skill or multi-channel situation, inaccurate shrinkage ratio;
- Inefficient agent schedules such as an unbalanced schedule with overstaffing and understaffing in multiple intervals.
Sometimes, even when accurate forecasts and balanced schedules are made, the workload and workforce can rise or fall due to unforeseen unplanned shrinkages, such as an unexpected last-minute call of sickness, or unpredictable random events, for instance, a broken system. This is the moment intra-day management decisions should take place. But again, these last-minute impacts should also be within the mitigation range.
Depending on the contact center, multiple decisions can be made to react to different situations. We also call these decisions “traffic instruments”.
- Routing instruments: change the priorities of queues, close some skills for agents, or give more flow to external partners when the performances among queues are imbalanced;
- Capacity instruments: re-schedule agents’ activities, for example, change some outbound activities to inbound, or extend some shifts, get extra working hours from flexible agents when the overstaffing/understaffing situation occurs;
- Volume intervention instruments: change IVR messages to reduce the inbound arrivals, refer to a website or close some skills, when a sudden large rise of arrivals happens due to some event.
- AHT instruments: an intra-day manager could also influence the AHT of some skills by asking agents to refrain from offering extra support or to temporarily stop making sales attempts during the call.
- Adherence control: making sure that agents stick to their schedules as much as possible is also an important task for an intra-day manager.
Unfortunately, although some well-developed dashboards are very helpful to monitor the current performance, intra-day managers are barely supported by any advanced tool to make decisions.
One of the best examples is the fact that SL, adherence, or coverage is usually only reported at the 15-minute level, hence the implication of the invention can only be understood/tracked when a minimum of 15 minutes has passed. Managers can’t oversee all implications of their actions based on the old performance, hence the actions are highly suboptimal and short-sighted. The changes can be made too early, too late, too much, or too little.
Moreover, when several managers work in turn, they have different gut feelings on how to solve certain situations, therefore the consequences of their decisions are even more difficult to track and analyze.
What we can do
Although speedy reactions are important for intra-day management, it is also very important not to make decisions too fast! Making decisions whenever a red sign appears on the dashboard can lead to more unnecessary adjustments afterward. A detailed quantified protocol should be formulated first. In the protocol, what reaction is needed to which situation (e.g., reduce 10% outbound capacity when understaffing is over 1 hour) should be explicitly described; otherwise, no action should be taken.
Ideally, the rules in the protocol should base on solid analysis using, for example, simulations. In this way, short-sighted actions that may cause more performance fluctuations can be reduced. More importantly, such a protocol can be discussed and determined with multiple departments having conflicting targets so that later it can be tracked, evaluated, and improved.
Furthermore, leveraging advanced techniques, adaptive routing policies that consider real-time performance should be developed to upgrade the simple routing policy written in the ACD. Therefore, most of the actions in the protocol can be automated.
From the management perspective, strengthening the cooperation between intra-day managers and schedulers also helps. Since intra-day managers are usually familiar with the agents working in the system, their feedback is valuable to improve the weekly or daily schedule before it is published.
Last but not least, more accurate forecasts and more reliable capacity plans always have a positive impact on intra-day management. Note that an intra-day manager is not a magician, but a reliable guardian within the boundaries of his realm!
To circle back to the COVID impact on contact centers, could proper intra-day management have prevented it? No, of course not. But progress could be made by responding quickly to intra-day pattern changes with forecasting tools, swift communication with the website content managers, and having good relations with the IVR routing experts. Only by moving in unison, we can face the challenges that are presented by big disruptions like COVID.
Siqiao Li PhD is a research engineer and algorithm developer at CCmath.
To find out more about CCmath and its products, see CCmath.com.
To learn more about the background and practice of WFM, see WFMacademy.CCmath.com.
The author thanks Ger Koole, Wout Bakker, Bas Hoogink, Giuseppe Catanese, and Jesper Doorn for their feedback.