World Class Call Handling for the Small Center

By Maggie Klenke

The concepts of delivering world-class customer service and staying within today’s tightened budgets may seem at odds with one another. But, while technology can certainly play an important role, management techniques can help improve performance even when there is little money in the technology budget. This is especially true for smaller operations where a variance of even a single person can have a significant impact on budgets and service.

For most call centers that use toll-free calling services for their customers, the typical annual budget includes 15 to 20% for network services, 10 to 15% for overhead and facility costs, 5 to 10% for equipment amortization, and 60 to 70% in personnel costs. So any real efficiency gains must focus on personnel.

You can improve your use of personnel by focusing on two important initiatives: finding what you need and then fulfilling it.   First, determine how many people you need with what types of skills and then match the staffing to the workload to avoid both idle staff and long phone queues. Then, you must recruit, hire, train, and retain these people to minimize turnover and maximize the results.

Calculating staff levels: Determining the number of people you need requires a reasonable estimate of how many contacts you have and how long it takes to handle each one. If your center handles different kind of contacts with separate staff groups, this will need to be done for each separately. For instance, if you receive 50,000 contacts annually and your busiest month is November with about 13% of the annual total, then you can expect 6,500 contacts in November.

For most centers, the day-of-week or day-of-month pattern is pretty stable. You may have billing cycles, catalog drops, or simply busy Mondays. Plot several weeks of data to find your pattern. Assuming that there are 31 working days in the month, that means four full weeks, so if Monday is your busiest day, divide the 6,500 monthly contacts by four and multiply the result by the percent that happens on Monday.

For example, 6500 divided by four equals 1,625 contacts per week. With 26% assumed on Monday, that means 423 contacts on Monday. In large centers this should be done more precisely since some months have more Mondays and others more Wednesdays, but for smaller centers, this is probably close enough for estimating purposes.

Next, establish the pattern of contacts throughout the day to find the busiest hour. That will help determine total staffing and the number of seats needed in the center. To illustrate this, let’s assume a business-hours center (8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday) with the busy hour getting 16% of the day’s work: Monday, with 423 contacts, will receive 67 of those calls during the busiest hour of the day. Now we turn this into workload by multiplying the contact volume by the average time it takes to handle it, including talk time and after-call work time. Let’s assume 300 seconds per contact for 67 contacts and we get 20,100 seconds divided by 3,600 seconds for 5.6 hours of workload to be done in that one busy hour.

Using the Erlang C model for phone calls, we consider the goal for speed of answer and determine that we need eight people logged in during this hour to achieve an average speed of answer (ASA) of 30 seconds. But if just one person does not show up or is unavailable during this hour, the ASA will soar to 90 seconds. Ensuring that there are enough people scheduled is key to achieving the goals. Most centers in North America experience between 25 and 35% shrinkage, defined as time paid when no contacts are handled. This accounts for vacations, illness, breaks, training, meetings, and general unproductive time.

To ensure that you have eight people logged in and able to work during Monday’s busy hour, you really need to have 11 or 12 on the payroll. And if the hours of operation include evenings or weekends, scheduling personnel for all of these periods must be considered as well. While it may be hard for your management to understand, a call center typically needs about double the number of personnel on the payroll compared to the workload hours calculated in the busiest hour. This accounts for the random arrival of contacts and the speed of answer goal, along with the fact that it is not possible to achieve 100% utilization of those people throughout the year.

Scheduling personnel: Part-time personnel who work only during the busiest hours and days can increase efficiency dramatically. Even scheduling breaks, lunches, and absences so workers don’t disappear at the wrong times can improve service substantially without incurring any added payroll costs. Also, staggering start times to allow a shift to begin on any quarter-hour can reduce over-staffing in valleys and improve service in the peaks.

Draw a graph of the workload by quarter or half-hours across the day and week. Draw a horizontal line that represents what one person can do, then two, three, and so forth. That will guide you in developing a schedule for the day. Of course, a workforce management software package can do this chore, but not every center can afford that luxury. A simple spreadsheet can be a great help in visualizing the pattern; even graph paper and colored pencils will work for some. Once the schedule has been planned and communicated, ensuring that your staff adheres to the planned schedule will pay great dividends in both cost-control and improved customer service.

Getting the right people: Now that you know how many people you need, hiring the right ones is among the biggest challenges. Creating a hiring profile for the “ideal agent” will help so that you can create a screening process to minimize recruiting efforts. Take a hard look at what the staff must do to be successful and include those in the criteria. Some requirements of the typical call center agents are to:

  • Sit for long periods.
  • Have a pleasant voice and manner for phone contacts.
  • Be reliable in showing up for work.
  • Be able to handle the computer requirements of the job.
  • Be detail-oriented in filling out forms, computer records, etc.
  • Be Web-savvy if asked to do email and Web chats.

Add to the list to match your unique situation. Asking candidates to describe how they have handled challenging contacts in the past will get you a better read on them than asking them to tell you theoretically how they would handle a future situation. Let candidates observe the center for a couple of hours to ensure they really understand what they will be expected to do. Turnover is one of the biggest expenses faced by centers, so getting the right people in the first place and holding on to them will pay huge dividends.

Some technology investments are clearly aimed at reducing staffing requirements. For example, Interactive Voice Response and voice mail automates simple call handling and reduces the number of calls to be handled by staff. Shifting some customer contact to the website may be an option to reduce workload in the center, but be prepared for the possibility that it will simply shift the media and drive new kinds of skill requirements. The latest Customer Relationship Management technology has the potential to enhance the interaction in the center, but it is not likely to reduce the workload; in fact, it could extend the average handling time.

So while technology can be a great boon to the contact center, focus on the basics of getting the right number of people, in the right place, at the right time, with the right skills, and customer care attitude will do much to improve efficiency and enhance service. Getting all of this right will put the center in a great position when the technology budgets open up again.

Maggie Klenke is cofounder of The Call Center School program offerings that include courses leading to a certification as a Professional Call Center Manager. You can reach her at, 615-812-8411, or at

[From Connection MagazineMarch 2002]

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