7 Best Practice Tips for Contact Center Vacation Planning

7 Best Practice Tips for Contact Center Vacation Planning

‘Tis the season to start thinking about next year’s vacation plan. No, I’m not talking about YOUR vacation plan (although you need to start thinking about that, too). I’m talking about the vacation plan for your contact center agents.

Vacation planning is something very near and dear to my heart. I used to manage the process at my first contact center for around 1000 employees MANUALLY using a ledger book and a day timer and a variety of pens and colored pencils (and that was after walking 2 miles in the snow to get to the contact center in the first place…uphill, of course).

What!?! You don’t do vacation planning at your contact center? Whoa! Then this article is coming just in time. It’s not too late to implement one for next year, but you gotta start now. Here are some best practice tips to help you get the ball rolling:

Best Practice Tip #1: Get a vacation plan

If you don’t have a vacation plan, you need a vacation plan. Why? Well, there are several reasons. For one, it’s a huge agent satisfier to be able to plan time off in advance. For two, it’s the best way to ensure you accommodate this year’s vacation time in…this year. Be proactive, increase agent satisfaction and reduce carry-over by implementing a vacation planning process.

Best Practice Tip #2: Identify vacation groups by skill set

Just like you do when bidding for schedules, you need to group “like” skilled agents together for vacation selection. By establishing vacation groups, you’ll ensure you always have enough coverage to handle your various contact types.

Best Practice Tip #3: Determine how many days need to be accommodated for each person and  vacation group

Instead of using your forecast to determine how many people you can afford to have off, you need to begin by determining how many days you need to accommodate for each person and each vacation group for the year. Your agents’ vacation accrual rates and seniority dates need to be factored into the equation, so work with your HR department to make sure the number you calculate is accurate.

Best Practice Tip #4: Determine daily vacation “slots” per vacation group

Now’s the part of the process where the forecast comes in. If you have higher volumes during certain months or weeks during the year, you’ll want to take that into consideration when determining the number of daily slots you can allow. Another thing to factor is distribution of volume within the week. If you’re like many contact centers, Mondays tend to be a busy day, so it would make sense to limit the number of vacation slots available on Mondays. Don’t forget- the goal is to accommodate everyone’s vacation in the current year, but you’re going to want some wiggle room to give agents enough choice. If you don’t do this, people on the lower end of the bidding rank will be forced into taking vacation on days they don’t want. Create enough room by adding 10% more slots to most days throughout the year and you’ll avoid this issue.

Best Practice Tip #5: Establish and communicate vacation bidding rules

Establishing and communicating your bidding rules is the most important part, and there’s no single right way to do it. I think the best thing for now is just to provide you with some food for thought and address this topic in more detail a future article (or two). 

  • You’ll need to determine bidding order. Usually this is by seniority, performance, or some combo of both. I lean towards using seniority because it’s the easiest to defend and, personally, I think it’s the right thing to do. But, it really depends on your culture. Bottom line- if you use something besides pure seniority, give it some DEEP consideration first.
  • You’ll probably want a waiting list. Considering the turn-over in many contact centers, chances are that if the week an agent wants isn’t available during the initial bid, it might open up before the week arrives. There are a lot of things to consider when administering your waiting list. For now, I’ll just recommend that you have one.
  • In order to introduce another level of “fairness” into the process, you may want to consider dividing your bidding into two rounds. This prevents the people at the top of the bidding rank from taking all the “good” weeks and messing up other holiday weeks with single day selections. The way we handled this at one of the centers I supported was to allow full week selections only in round one (you could pick two weeks if they were consecutive) and individual day selections in round two. 
  • The most important thing…COMMUNICATION, COMMUNICATION, COMMUNICATION. As should be the case with all WFM processes, make sure your agents understand the rules and why they were established. 

Best Practice Tip #6: Let the bidding begin (and automate it if possible)!

Here comes the fun part- actually administering the bid. This can be accomplished a variety of ways depending upon your tools and the size of your contact center. Make sure you allot enough time for bidding (2-3 weeks is recommended). Remember: the process can be GREATLY simplified if you have an automated workforce management system with a vacation module (if you don’t have a WFM system, do yourself a HUGE favor and put getting one on your to-do list). 

Best Practice Tip #7: Manage change throughout the year

When you establish a vacation planning process, you also have to establish a process for managing change, both throughout the year and on an intraday basis. As with tip #5, there are a lot of ways to approach this that may need to be covered in more detail in a future post. For now, here are a couple of considerations:

  • Figure out how you’re going handle cancellations. If someone held a week for a long time and cancelled at the last minute, that’s not really fair for the people who were on the waiting list. Also, if you allow people to cancel without scheduling their time elsewhere, you may end up with the same carry over issue you were trying to avoid. 
  • Close all remaining slots by the week prior (at a minimum). In a flexible scheduling environment, schedules have the ability to move around vacations (basically, they optimize themselves). If you allow people to continue selecting vacation once the week’s been generated, you’ll create holes in coverage. Eliminate this issue by identifying a day when remaining slots are closed and manage additional requests via the intraday process.
Greg Levin: My Brother-From-Another-Mother

Greg Levin: My Brother-From-Another-Mother

Do you guys know about Greg Levin? If not, you should. I think he’s the only other person on the planet who (like me) writes songs about contact centers.

Not only does Greg have a knack for writing irreverent-yet-relevant information on all kinds of contact center topics, his song parodies are absolutely HILARIOUS!!!

Some of Greg’s greatest hits include:

Sympathy for the Agent.
A fun rollicking song about a veteran agent who is about to snap after years of handling calls from difficult and demanding customers.

Supervisor’s Lament.
Any call center professional can relate to this song about a  struggling supervisor confessing he doesn’t really understand all the metrics nor how to engage agents.

On the Phone at Home.
Home agent enthusiasts will bust a gut laughing at this satirical song about an agent who is jealous of a coworker’s opportunity to work from home.

If you need a laugh (and if you work in this business, my guess is you could use one from time to time) you gotta check out Greg’s site where you can listen to and download his Contact Center Tunes. 

Schedule Adherence that Sticks

Schedule Adherence that Sticks

We don’t often have the luxury of dictating when our customers calls us. So it stands to reason that, ultimately, Workforce Management only “works” if our agents are doing WHAT we need them to do WHEN we need them to do it.

Sure, we can spend countless hours perfecting our forecast. We can create a schedule where the coverage line matches the requirements line so closely, they’re virtually indistinguishable. However, when the day arrives, if we can’t count on our agents to be where they’re supposed to be (on the phone) when they’re supposed to be there (when their schedule says) much of our forecasting and scheduling efforts end up being a big fat waste of time.

The sad thing is that many agents, their supervisors and even members of Operations Management don’t “get” the real importance of schedule adherence. They don’t get the fact that when people don’t follow their scheduled activities, you end up with excess resources during certain portions of the day (resulting in paying for time on the phone you don’t need) and a shortage of resources during other parts of the day (resulting in missed service levels and customer dissatisfaction).

So what usually happens? A goal gets set and scores get tracked. Instead of following the schedule (which IS the goal), meeting the goal becomes the goal (do you follow me?). Instead of the schedule acting as a map to ensure we provide the right number of people at the right time, the schedule simply reflects a string of ad-hoc, unplanned events where every single tiny deviation from the schedule results in an after-the-fact adjustment to the schedule. Stuck on a long call and late for break? No problem- adjust the schedule. Pulled your team off the phone for an impromptu meeting? No problem- adjust the schedule. Had a long-overdue coaching session with Susie? No problem- adjust the schedule. Our over-under staffing line may be in the toilet, but check us out! Our adherence is 97%! Woo-hoo! Look at us!

Do you want to create a schedule adherence policy that sticks (as opposed to stinks) in your center? One that actually supports your operational efficiency objectives and customer service goals?

If so, you’ve got to go beyond simply communicating a goal and measuring attainment. You’ve got to EDUCATE people about the IMPORTANCE of adhering to schedules and the IMPACT of not doing so. I’ve found that when people understand the MEANING behind the MEASUREMENT, they’re much more likely to buy into the process and, ultimately, provide the desired behavior.

So when formulating your adherence policy…

  • Do incorporate education about schedule adherence as part of new-hire training.
  • Don’t aim for perfection. Set a reasonable, attainable goal considering the average handling time of your calls. Centers that have unusually long handling times, or that handle non-demand work items, may want to opt for measuring schedule conformance instead.
  • Don’t adjust schedules to account for long calls. Long calls are going to happen to every agent at one time or another, so factor it into your goal instead of spending the manpower (and the money) to constantly adjust breaks and lunches for this common occurrence.
  • Do require supervisors to submit schedule exception requests PRIOR to pulling an agent (or their entire team) off the phone. Taking folks off the phone only to report it later defeats the purpose.

In the eyes of the agents, the practice of measuring schedule adherence ranks right up there with the other Big Brother practice of quality monitoring. So I urge you to take the time to explain why this necessary evil is so….necessary. When they “get” it, they’ll be more apt to “get” with the program and “stick” to their schedules.

Schedule Trade Restrictions: What’s the Point?

Schedule Trade Restrictions: What’s the Point?

In the break room of my first call center, we had a bulletin-board that agents used primarily to solicit schedule trades. As I recall, it seemed as though every week some baby’s birthday party was in jeopardy because of a less-than-desirable schedule UNLESS some kind soul was willing to trade. Suffice it to say our agents would get pretty creative  in their “solicitations.”

Although some centers limit the number of trades an agent can submit, ours never did. In fact, we encouraged schedule swaps. Our philosophy was that if an agent was willing to do the work to find another agent willing to take their shift, we were willing to put in the administrative effort to make the swap happen.

I know from personal experience that it can take a lot of man-power to process schedule trade requests if  a) you don’t have a WFM system or b) your system is not capable of automating the approval process. If, however, you do have a Workforce Management system capable of automating shift-swaps and you still restrict trades, my question is why? I don’t have to tell you that an agent’s schedule usually ranks pretty close to the top of their concerns, so if it’s no skin off our nose, why wouldn’t we allow an agent to trade until her heart’s content?

This week’s call to action is to take a look at your schedule trade policy. If there are any limitations beyond those related to ensuring skill parity and avoiding an unnecessary overtime situation, consider relaxing your policy. Some mama’s baby’s birthday party may depend upon it!

George Costanza “Gets” Shrinkage

George Costanza “Gets” Shrinkage

In the contact center world, there’s a lot of talk about SHRINKAGE. No, not that kind of shrinkage. I’m talking about the kind that leaves you with fewer staff than you expected.

Do You “Get” Shrinkage?

Besides causing everyone to giggle every time it’s mentioned, shrinkage is one of those terms that causes a lot of confusion. It’s not surprising since everyone I know, even long-term WFM veterans, defines the term differently.

In today’s post, I’m going to make an attempt to get us all on the same page about shrinkage.

Let’s Just Agree: Shrinkage is Bad.

To use a real-life analogy, let’s say we bought a new shirt and washed it for the first time. If it shrunk, would that be a GOOD thing or a BAD thing? Most of us would probably say that it would be a BAD thing. Even if we prepared for possible shrinkage and compensated by purposely buying a larger shirt, it still would be better if the shirt fit us EXACTLY the way it fit in the store, right?

In the wonderful world of WFM, the shirt represents our staff. The ideal situation would be for the same number of people we scheduled to actually show up when the day arrives. Considering we don’t live in an ideal world where people are NEVER sick and are ALWAYS where they are supposed to be when they are supposed to be there, we prepare and compensate for shrinkage by scheduling more people than we need in the hopes that when the day arrives, our actual staff FITS our actual requirements.

Shrinkage Cannot Be Eliminated, It Can Only Be Managed.

Although I doubt he originated the saying, a very WISE mentor of mine always used to say, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” Zero shrinkage is not possible, so let’s not make this our goal. But don’t go to the other extreme and adopt the “it is what it is” philosophy either. Shrinkage represents two core issues (attendance and adherence) that, when not measured and managed properly, drive higher operational costs and impact customer satisfaction. Bottom line – if your shrinkage is out of control, “I was in the pool” will be no excuse.