Tag Archives: agent management articles

Elements of Staffing the Inbound Call Center

Determining Proper Call Center Staffing Requirements is Key to Success

By Ellis Smith

Operation and management of inbound call centers is a specialized field serving healthcare, as well as retail, wholesale, service, and hundreds of other applications. A major telecommunications tool to help run these centers effectively is ACD (automatic call distribution). In recent years, ACD software has become extremely sophisticated and can include outbound calling, Web chat, skills-based routing, and Interactive Voice Response (IVR) right out of the box. It also provides information to project appropriate staffing requirements needed for optimal operation.

Small call centers of two to four people often “run themselves” because call traffic is low, and the people can visually manage callers in queue or can be sure someone is available to answer calls. In these small centers, an ACD may not be needed.

As volume and call center size increase, it can become a daunting task for those unfamiliar with call center management techniques to manage the people and call volume efficiently. Many organizations have rolled out ACD extensively and for the most part, thoughtfully.  With ACDs, most organizations see immediate improvements in productivity and service quality.

ACD vendors teach how the reports are created and help with the set up of call routes and groups. However, the one thing that the vendor never teaches is how to optimize staff and technology to provide the best benefit to the organization and its customers. The truth is that you cannot maximize the investment in ACD technology unless the call center manager understands the basic theories and principles of running call centers and not just the reporting capability.

The elements for determining the appropriate staffing requirements are relatively simple:

Call Volume

Forecast this data using historical data, known variations, and human intuition. (Data source: ACD or call center software)

Typical Percentages of Calls

An arrival rate (AR) study of one typical week’s hour-by-hour traffic will give a starting point (see “Arrival Rate” chart). Surprisingly, statistics do not vary much in percentage. That is, if 15% of your daily calls were between 9:00 a.m. and 10:00 a.m. and 25% of the weekly calls arrive on Monday, this particular percentage will hold true enough for all your initial arrival rate planning.

Sample Arrival Rate
  Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Week Total
1 Hour Ending Total % Total % Total % Total % Total % Total %
  9.0 100 5% 55 3% 59 4% 42 3% 62 5% 318 4.1%
10.0 240 12% 194 11% 178 12% 168 12% 162 13% 942 12.1%
11.0 270 14% 261 15% 225 15% 213 15% 200 16% 1169 15.0%
12.0 230 12% 223 13% 193 13% 183 13% 175 14% 1004 12.9%
13.0 180 9% 172 10% 133 9% 112 8% 112 9% 709 9.1%
14.0 220 11% 189 11% 148 10% 154 11% 125 10% 836 10.7%
15.0 250 13% 223 13% 178 12% 183 13% 150 12% 984 12.6%
16.0 230 12% 206 12% 178 12% 168 12% 137 11% 919 11.8%
17.0 140 7% 120 7% 119 8% 112 8% 87 7% 578 7.4%
18.0 90 5% 70 4% 74 5% 70 5% 37 3% 341 4.4%
Totals 1950 25% 1713 22% 1485 19% 1405 18% 1247 16% 7800 100%

Average Talk Time

This is the time spent actually on each call. The national average for inbound triage calls is less than ten minutes; for referral and registration calls, it is between four and five minutes. Your average talk time can be established more precisely by using the ACD stats already available. (Data source: ACD)

After Call Work Time 

This can be a big factor in call planning. If agents spend half their time on tasks unrelated to inbound calls, you can only count them as half an agent in planning for call volume. This category offers the greatest opportunity for abuse and for potential improvement in service. Many call centers do have legitimate after-call-work-time. This can be measured and averaged easily so that individual staff results are closely monitored. (Data source: ACD or call center software)

Service Level

The service level is the percentage of inbound calls expected to be answered in a given number of seconds. Ninety-five percent within thirty seconds or ninety percent within twenty seconds are two widely used service levels. Each organization establishes their own expectations for service based on their own needs and capabilities. Some criteria used to establish service levels are:

  • The value of the call to the caller and the receiver
  • Competitive nature of the organization
  • Budget and labor cost
  • Facility costs (trunk lines, equipment, usage charges, and so forth)
  • Caller tolerance (how long will they hold before hanging up; whether they have an alternative service to call)
  • The organization’s desire to provide good service

Number of Staff Required

From the above criteria, hour-by-hour staffing requirements can be established using industry standard blocking theories, such as Erlang. These are the same standards used by virtually all modem call centers (see “Call Center Requirement” chart):

Sample Call Center Requirement
Time % of Calls Agents
Range calls Expected Required
7 to 8 0% 0
8 to 9 4% 80 8
9 to 10 12% 236 17
10 to 11 15% 293 21
11 to 12 13% 252 18
12 to 1 9% 177 14
1 to 2 11% 209 16
2 to 3 13% 246 18
3 to 4 12% 230 17
4 to 5 7% 144 12
5 to 6 4% 86 8
Total 100% 1950


These are established based upon the staffing requirements. Gantt charting is a popular method of creating schedules and making the numbers visual.

Once these steps are taken, scheduling and planning become easier. A completed study includes all expected ranges of calls and need not be repeated until the manager feels that circumstances have rendered the original study no longer representative. It is also useful to calculate staffing requirements for anticipated volume fluctuations, such as seasonal differences in triage, response to advertising, etc. If staff or infrastructure is needed to maintain the desired service level, it can be easily justified.

Having the right person managing call center staff is essential.  The above process is more or less the “math” of management. However, it doesn’t address the “people” side: interviewing, hiring, training, coaching, and creating a culture of service so good performers will stay with the call center.

The supervisor’s job is a tough one. Most have been good performers as agents and move into supervision as the natural course of career advancement. They have many duties, but the most critical is having the right number of people on the phone at the right time, often a minute-by-minute job maximizing the performance of the call center operation.

Ellis Smith is the president of Telecom Management Group.

[From the October/November 2008 issue of AnswerStat magazine]

Building a Retention Organization

By Kelli Massaro

Retaining top performers is essential to call center success. The challenge is to create a positive work culture that sustains, nurtures, and engages employees – both as a team and individually. Retention is a multifaceted issue that is affected by both intrinsic factors (individual needs) and extrinsic factors (organizational/departmental systems that support employees). Retention strategies need to address both.

The intrinsic elements of employee satisfaction were discussed in the article, “Employee Satisfaction: The Manager’s Role.”  Designing a foundation that supports both personal and job satisfaction results in high retention rates and benefits your operation. The rewards include reduced turnover, high-level customer service, excellence in quality, and increased productivity. Simply put, satisfied employees stay, and high retention directly impacts the financial bottom line. To achieve a positive work environment, managers must purposely deploy a range of strategies that address retention’s multiple factors.

Hiring Right: Most call center turnover occurs with the first three months, so hiring well from the start is of utmost importance. Assessing job applicants for job fit and essential skills is crucial to help ensure new employees are positioned to succeed. In addition, providing new hires with realistic job expectations, consistent training, ongoing mentoring, and social integration helps to support them through their development phase.

Addressing Extrinsic Retention Factors: A number of organizational and system factors influence your ability to affect employee satisfaction and retention. Considering how to maximize each element (as listed below) for your call center setting may increase overall satisfaction. Some items may not be within your control; however, many can be implemented without additional cost.

Compensation:  Call center staff should be paid comparably to their counterparts within the different organizational departments. In some organizations call center staff are paid less, contributing to the workforce feeling devalued. Recent national surveys have shown that approximately half of the healthcare call centers pay their triage nurses on par with other hospital nursing staff. Human resources may also perform marketplace surveys to insure that salaries are competitive with similar community organizations. Arm yourself with this data before presenting your case to HR or senior management.

Opportunities for Professional Development: Encouraging staff to take advantage of continuing education can boost motivation. It can also help employees stay challenged at work. Positioning education and training as a privilege or benefit (not a mandatory obligation) will stimulate interest. If allowed to earn their way toward advanced training and awarded a chance to participate, staff will be more likely to attend and share what they’ve learned with their colleagues.

Career Ladders are useful in attracting new staff. The perception of advancement opportunities to positions such as team leader, senior agent, preceptor, educator, or middle manager is important in retention. Rewarding your top performers with a promotion, even if not monetary, may be just as crucial to employee satisfaction as appropriate pay. In smaller call centers, the organization chart may be relatively flat. If advancement opportunities are limited, you may need to be creative in offering a lateral career path. Horizontal advancement that promotes employees to positions of new titles, which offers new responsibilities, certification, or additional training (such as computers, software, customer service, communication, or clinical) can be developed and used as part of an incentive and reward program.

Alternative Work Environments and Job Diversity: Telecommuting, or working from home, is an opportunity many call centers are eager to explore (or already have in place). The benefits are greater staffing flexibility and employee satisfaction, increased productivity, and decreased turnover. Another satisfier, as well as a burnout prevention strategy, is to explore options for staff to work outside the call center. At St. Barnabas Health Care Link in New Jersey, staff re-energize by working at community health fairs. This allows face-to-face interaction, promotes the work they do, and “gets them off the phone” for a day. Offering paid time for completing call center projects can unveil and highlight staff’s individual talents. A call center manager in Michigan stocks a drawer with one-to-two hour projects for staff to work on during lulls in call volume. The project materials and instructions are in a sealed envelope, along with a project ‘thank you’ gift, such as gift certificate, cafeteria pass, or movie tickets.

Schedule FlexibilityCall centers that can help employees balance their personal and business lives with schedule flexibility will positively influence staff satisfaction. Exploring alternative schedules such as split shifts with telecommuting, creative weekend shifts, or working a ‘9 months on, 3 months off’ schedule can offer family-friendly choices to the employee. Customized schedule rotations and self-scheduling with a staff committee are other innovative ways to give employees input and promote positive morale.

Call Center Environments:  The call center environment also affects staff satisfaction. Optimizing the physical environment (based on employee feedback) such as noise level, workstations, ergonomics, lighting, and temperature, can help employees be more productive, efficient, and prevent work-related injuries. In Austin, Texas, the staff opted for “low light days” for stress reduction. The center’s overhead lights are left off one day per week. Team members have individual desk lamps to use if they prefer a well-lit work area. Break rooms should be amenity-rich, convenient, and promote a “homey” feel. Many centers report having quiet rooms (No talking please!) for reading, thinking, or napping.

Promoting a relaxed work atmosphere also promotes positive morale. Do people have fun at work and enjoy being there, or is stress and negativity palpable? Creating a fun atmosphere with perks like Pajama Day, Jeans Day, Ice Cream Sundae Day, potlucks, and celebrating birthdays can contribute toward making the atmosphere a lot less stressful. Sharing humor on a daily basis reminds everyone to smile at work!
Recognition and Appreciation: Based on a CallCenterCareers.com survey done in 2001, recognition for hard work is nearly as important to employees as receiving better pay. This illustrates that recognition can be a powerful motivator, and employees like to work for organizations that appreciate their contributions.

Incentive and award programs may be organization-wide, departmentally created, or a combination of both. Acknowledgment for an individual’s contribution can range from verbal recognition and small gifts (including non-monetary awards and gift certificates), to pay-for-performance incentives or bonuses. Rewards can be tied to meeting individual, team, and/or organizational performance targets.

Belynda Delgado, manager of St. Barnabas Health Care Link, describes their incentive program that was started more than two years ago. The incentives tie into both individual and team performance goals. Monthly, she presents a gift certificate to the individual with highest number of converted physician referrals and rewards the department for meeting team objectives. She sees the reward program as “healthy competition between individuals, a report card for their team/individual performance, and a way to increase teamwork and promote the team environment.” Each year, she also offers an employee bonus that is proportional to meeting both individual and departmental goals.

She believes in showing staff she values them; she says “thank you” to everyone at the end of the day for the work they’ve done. This simple gesture shows that she is grateful to the many small acts that her staff performs every day. Sometimes the most valuable things in life are free!

In conclusion, call centers should employ a range of strategies to create positive, fun, and stable workplaces. To foster optimal retention, the organizational culture should recognize employees as its greatest asset. By using tools such as employee satisfaction surveys, exit interviews, and organizational culture assessment surveys, call centers can glean valuable insight into factors impacting employee retention. Implementing creative methodologies that address both system and individual factors involved in retention yield positive results and result in more engaged staff. In turn, your staff will treat callers and patients in ways that positively influence customer service.

Kelli Massaro, RN, works as a triage nurse for The Children’s Hospital of Denver. She is also the communications director with LVM Systems; she may be reached at kelli@lvmsystems.com.

[From the April/May 2008 issue of AnswerStat magazine]

Increase Employee Retention: Give Them a Dose of Nurses’ Medicine

By LeAnn Thieman

With increased workloads, demanding staff ratios, and challenging work conditions, many employees are feeling burned out – not just those in the healthcare industry, but across all industries. Today’s workers are not signing on and staying on just for the money. They are opting for employers who care about them, professionally and personally. How they are treated on the job is a primary factor in their satisfaction, their resistance to burnout, and their willingness to be a long-term loyal employee. Work-life balance is often a top priority.

Recent data from a Harris Interactive survey reveals enlightening information on workforce attitudes. It shows a continued disconnect between employers and employees, relating to the effectiveness of various staff retention tactics. The study claims only thirteen percent of employees say their employers put effort into keeping them on their jobs.

Considering that it costs thousands of dollars to recruit and hire a new employee, organizations are eager to retain the ones they have, in addition to attracting the emerging workforce. Many have learned that in order to recruit and retain, they cannot simply offer more money or bigger benefits. They need to give employees a hefty dose of nurses’ medicine.

All businesses, including medical organizations, can benefit from these ten tips, treating their employees with the same competent, compassionate TLC that nurses give their patients. By doing so, your organization will inspire talented workers to sign on and stay on. These tips include:Giving employees a dose of the same medicine nurses give their patients results in greater retention. Click To Tweet

Smile a lot. Be kind. Visit them often: Keep an open door policy. Don’t just ask to speak with your staff members when they make a mistake.  Visit with them when they’ve done a great job. Commend them in person rather than in an email or memo. No matter how busy you are, don’t act rushed or distracted. Make your employees comfortable around you and allow them to speak their feelings, ideas, and needs.

Ask “How can I help you?” Don’t assume that you, the supervisors, or the HR department knows. Hold a staff meeting on the topic or create a survey and grant anonymity. Ask them what they need during the next employee evaluation. You may be surprised by what you learn when you simply ask the right question.

Do an assessment on a regular basis: Ask for their input on their “condition” or their job position. Note what you observe. Evaluate the situation with each person, then make a plan and implement it. Give your employees access to the support they need – technically or personally – to perform at their best. Not only will they do a better job and be more satisfied, your company will profit, too.

Be prompt in answering their call lights: When a patient has a need, they “call” for assistance; watch for instances where your employee “calls” for help, verbally or otherwise. Address each concern and attempt to meet their needs as soon as possible.

Explain all procedures and changes: Make sure your staff members know why the changes are taking place and reiterate their importance. While it may not be an easy course, make clear the good that will come from it. Reinforce how their cooperation and positive approach will greatly affect the workplace.

Communicate often and clearly: Keep your employees up-to-date with what is happening so they feel more involved and less afraid of change. If they have concerns, be sure to listen first – without talking or interruptions. A gentle touch on the hand or shoulder conveys sincerity and interest.

Ease their pain: Though it is sometimes impossible to take away all the discomfort, honest efforts to do so go along way toward relieving it. If the pain is work related, ask for their suggestions to ease it. If the pain is personal, such as a relative passing away, be considerate. Offer them a day off or an additional paid day of vacation. Send flowers or a sympathy card to the employee’s family to show that you care.

Promote independence and self-sufficiency: Help them be stronger. Encourage continuing education. Compensate them and their schedules so they can gain the additional skills that will make them better employees. Give them as much control as possible, and they are more likely to cooperate with the “treatment plan” and other changes that come along.

Change positions: Being in the same position too long can sometimes be uncomfortable or stifling. Offer flexible shifts, telecommuting, or job sharing.  Encourage your employees to grow in their skill sets and job responsibilities. Perhaps you could even suggest a transfer within the department or organization.

Provide them nourishment: Help nurture their minds, bodies, and spirits. Remind them to take breaks, eat meals, and ask for help. Provide inspirational, encouraging books, periodicals, and speakers. Bring in a massage therapist after a particularly stressful quarter or show your appreciation with a free company lunch during a successful period.

Implementing these ten tips creates a “care plan” that does not coddle employees; instead, it strengthens and empowers them. This transcends to their work, which promotes a positive company culture, increased productivity, promotes creativity, inspires loyalty, and leads to a healthy bottom line.

Giving employees a dose of the same medicine nurses give their patients results in greater retention. With a little TLC on their part and yours, everybody wins.

LeAnn Thieman, LPN, CSP, is a nationally acclaimed speaker and co-author of the new book,  Chicken Soup for the Nurse’s Soul, Second Dose. As an expert in healthcare recruitment and retention, LeAnn provides insights on improving productivity and profits. For more information about her books, seminars, or speaking engagements, call 877-844-3626.

[From the April/May 2008 issue of AnswerStat magazine]

Employee Satisfaction: The Manager’s Role

By Kelli Massaro

Individuals have several basic intrinsic needs that must be met in the workplace to feel satisfied. As a manager, if you can meet these needs for your staff, you can positively influence retention. In many cases, nurturing good relationships with your employees can override negative effects of extrinsic organizational factors. Different things motivate different people, and you may need to use multiple strategies to achieve individual employee satisfaction and improve performance. In general, staff seek a mutually supportive relationship with their supervisor, a sense of belonging and security, a feeling of contribution, control over or input into decisions regarding their work, and appreciation.

Good Relationships with Supervisors: Employees desire good, fair supervision. This is the second biggest factor in employee retention after job fit. Supervisors and managers who use a constructive “coaching” style when delivering feedback will nurture growth and learning among their employees. Conversely, supervisors that “police” for infractions and shortfalls will create fear and inhibit employees’ growth potential. Feedback should be timely and include both praise for things done well and suggestions for improvement.

Belonging to a Team is more than working together with a group of people. It’s created when an individual feels a personal investment in the organization’s shared vision and works to better one’s self and the department. In a collaborative culture, team members participate in call center decision-making. Trust your employees enough to delegate projects and explore their ideas. Promote the feeling of “our” call center. Stay open-minded to new ways of looking at things and take advantage of networking with other call centers to explore alternative solutions. This will push your program, as well as your employees, to new heights.

Contribution: Employees enjoy the opportunity to make a meaningful contribution to their workplace. Pooling the unique talents, gifts, and interests of team members creates an opportunity for each employee to excel and have unique ownership for a project or the work itself. You should seek opportunities to specifically engage and recognize your employees in this regard.

Security is an individual perception regarding “safety,” whether it’s financial, physical, emotional, or a combination thereof. When security feels threatened due to lack of managerial support, lack of communication, or a number of other factors, employees begin to experience anxiety, stress, and dissatisfaction. Communicating regularly, and more often during times of change, promotes trust and provides a sense that there is more within each team member’s control.

Control: Employees don’t like change when they feel it is “done to them.” Poor change management skills in an organization’s or a department’s leaders is a frequent job dissatisfier among call center staff. Change is much more palatable for employees if they have some input regarding decisions that impact those on the front line. Implementing change with staff suggestions in mind will achieve better staff support and more positive results.

Recognition and Appreciation: Recognizing a job well done and showing appreciation to employees on a regular basis goes a long way toward keeping employees satisfied. These can be done in small ways, such as a verbal “thank-you” or written note.

Although a powerful motivator, no incentive program can replace good leadership and management practices. The key to retention is attending to the basics: hire right, provide a fun and engaging “team” workplace, provide opportunities for employees to stay challenged and make a contribution, involve staff in decisions, communicate effectively, and coach with timely feedback. No amount of praise or rewards will keep and attract staff if the basic intrinsic needs of employees are not met.

Kelli Massaro, RN, works as a triage nurse for The Children’s Hospital of Denver. She is also the communications director with LVM Systems; she may be reached at kelli@lvmsystems.com.

[From the February/March 2008 issue of AnswerStat magazine]

Call Center Case Study: Performance Evaluation in a Virtual Agent Environment

By Judy McOstrich

Free & Clear is a nationally recognized leader in the field of tobacco cessation. Its program is consistently recognized by the American Association of Health Plans’ Managed Care Achievements in Tobacco Control Awards Program. It is also acclaimed by the CDC and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation as a model tobacco cessation program.

With over 20 years of developing and delivering scientifically based and proven treatment programs, Free & Clear provides services that support health behavior change. With the support of partners such as the National Cancer Institute, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Free & Clear has become a national leader in the development, evaluation, and delivery of evidence-based behavior change programs across the United States.

Free & Clear helps people succeed in overcoming their dependence on tobacco by employing evidence-based and innovative treatment methods. Free & Clear currently runs the tobacco quit lines for 16 states and contracts with more than 100 health plans and employers to provide tobacco cessation services.

The Free & Clear Coaching Center is the center of the organization’s operation as the essence of its mission is working with participants to eliminate their tobacco habits. It is staffed with 195 agents; 112 of whom work from home. Seven supervisors work with the 195 agents.

To evaluate its agents in the past, Free & Clear used voice-activated tape recorders that were spliced into the phone line to record calls for later review. Supervisors had to plan ahead of time when to record a call, then manually start and stop the recording. If a supervisor was out, that supervisor’s team would not be recorded. All evaluations were first handwritten. Then, supervisors would enter only the high-level evaluation data into a separate database. From time to time, changes were made on the paper evaluation form of skills to be monitored, but the database was not updated with the changes. Also, if an agent requested that a particular call be evaluated, chances were the call had not been recorded.

With a new performance evaluation system, Free & Clear can record significantly more calls than was possible with the tape recorder system. This allows agents to receive feedback on a particular call of their choosing because there’s a much greater likelihood that the call was recorded. The solution also records agents’ screens, helping supervisors identify knowledge and skills gaps, improving center efficiency and effectiveness. It is a flexible and scalable solution that meets today’s needs and supports future growth. Free & Clear now has the support it needs to improve agent performance in a distributed environment, improving center efficiency and effectiveness in helping thousands of clients improve their health.

“Working within a hybrid virtual environment where more than 50 percent of our agents work from home is challenging,” stated Andrew Roberts, Call Quality Manager at Free & Clear. “We can quickly and easily identify agent knowledge and skill gaps and consistently coach to improve our performance, helping more of our clients to quit smoking.”


  • Increased number of calls recorded (from 510 calls per month to 51,000)
  • Increased the effectiveness of coaching sessions because agents could review calls beforehand and actively participate in the process
  • Recorded screen shots allow supervisors to identify agent knowledge and skill gaps and provide coaching to improve agent efficiency and effectiveness


  • Tobacco quit lines for 16 states and 100 employer health plans
  • 195 coaching center agents
  • 112 agents work from home
  • 3,000 inbound and outbound calls per day 34% success rate
  • Telephone system: Avaya – VoIP technology
  • Envision Performance Suite

Judy McOstrich is Director of Marketing & Inside Sales for Envision Telephony, developer of the Envision Performance Suite, which integrates call center recording, eLearning, workforce management, and business intelligence functions.

[From the August/September 2007 issue of AnswerStat magazine]

Leading the “People Side” of Change

By Jean Marie Johnson

Some years ago, I was involved with an organization that had just acquired a high-tech call reporting system. The new system spewed data like lava from a volcano. The IT folks loved it, while the managers scratched their heads trying to make sense of all of the numbers, trends, and forecasts. All of this data was supposed to help make everyone perform better; it was just a matter of figuring out how to make best use of it.

One manager came up with the “ah-ha” idea that if they posted all of this data, the agents would get the big picture and better yet, they’d get to see how they were doing in comparison with everyone else. What a motivational tool!  Brilliant!  Well, hardly.

As an astute contact center professional, you can imagine the mayhem that ensued. A team of agents with a solid record of accomplishment launched a contact center version of mutiny on the bounty. In time, the agents and managers recovered from this leadership faux pas, but not without learning some key lessons along the way.

Communicate the “what,” the “why,” and the “how does it effect me?” As a manager leading change of any kind, “due diligence” means that you personally understand and can communicate the answers to the what, why, and how questions.

Let’s say the person you report to suddenly announces that, henceforth, you will be evaluated under a different performance management process. You would immediately want to know what the new process is, where it comes from, and how it works. You’d also want to know why – why this, why now, why are we not doing what we’ve always done in the past, and so forth. In addition to all of these questions, there are personal questions. You might wonder about how much training you’ll get on the new process, if it will be harder to administer and document, and whether it will make your life at work harder or easier.

The agents in the opening example did not know what the data meant, why it was being posted, and what implications it had for them. This all leads to the next lesson.

Engage, from the beginning, everyone who will be affected by the change: The two core principles of respect and accountability speak well to this lesson. Many managers feel comfortable with the task side of change; the doing and implementation. The other side, often referred to as “the messy part,” is respecting the people implications of change.

We all know what it feels like to spend restless nights tossing and turning, imagining the worst scenarios in the absence of information. Let people know what is happening from the beginning. Invite their thoughts, ideas, concerns, and questions. The more involved they are, the less resistance they will feel, and the more likely they will be to adapt to the changes. One benefit of engaging the people impacted by a change is that a better plan often emerges from including different perspectives. A second benefit is that being asked and listened to is a powerful demonstration of respect, and that is what pays dividends.

Had the managers talked with the agents about their plans to post the data from the get-go, they may have never posted it. With the agents input, they could have identified a process that the agents not only accepted, but supported.

Emphasize what will remain the same: It’s amazing how often we focus exclusively on what will be new or different, forgetting to address what will be the same. Few changes are so sweeping that nothing remains the same. People derive comfort and a sense of stability from what is familiar.

In our ill-fated example, specific measures such as targets for average talk time and number of calls handled remained the same. The only real change was the manner in which the measures were reported. Imagine how different the response could have been if the agents knew this before the data were posted. They may still have resisted the posting, but they would have understood that the substance of the information remained the same. Remember to balance the message of change with a message of stability. It is more accurate and it alleviates so much unnecessary and unproductive stress.

Keep your finger on the pulse and course-correct: We lead change by staying close to it. The old adage about “managing by walking around” applies. It is not enough to communicate, engage, listen, and act. You need to observe the impact of the changes you implement and be ready to adjust, refine, or retract. You also need to be able to say, “I made a mistake,” and mean it.

When the managers who posted the ill-received data realized the impact of their actions, they acted with courage and integrity. In the words and actions that followed, they modeled both respect for their agents and personal accountability for their actions. They sought to understand the resistance and learn from it.

The outcome was that the computer printouts came down and were replaced by team and one-on-one conversations with agents to review both organizational and individual results. They thanked the agents for responding honestly and shared their willingness to learn from the situation. The data was still there and over time, the agents themselves began to lead team discussions about targets and measures – the dreaded data became the desired data.

Look at the process you undertook to implement a recent change in your organization. Ask yourself which of these four lessons you already practice, and which you should adopt the next time you are about to invoke a change. Learning from these lessons will aid in the transition and help prevent mutiny.

Jean Marie Johnson is a Vice President at Communico Ltd., a customer service training and consulting company that delivers measurable results for customer service organizations and call centers. To learn more about creating a service culture, read Communico’s new book, How to Talk to Customers.

[From the June/July 2007 issue of AnswerStat magazine]

Overcome Task Saturation

By Jim Murphy

When fighter pilots approach a mission, they take steps to ensure flawless execution, such as planning and briefing. This is a part of the routine that keeps them alive. When business leaders take the same steps before each mission, they can improve their execution results as well. However, even preparation and planning cannot eliminate the biggest stumbling block to flawless execution: task saturation.

Task saturation comes from not having enough time, tools, and resources to get your mission accomplished. Essentially, it means you are overworked. Unfortunately, most people and companies wear task saturation like a badge of honor.

You may hear a weary business traveler at the airport say, “I’ve been on the road for five days, made nine presentations, wrote up specifications for a new bid in the hotel room, missed lunch, went into the office Saturday, got caught up on my paperwork, and now I’m heading to New York.”  Or a co-worker may say, “We’ve been in the office for three days straight. Some of us are sleeping on the floor. Another guy is walking around like a zombie with his hand tied to a coffee pot.”

The surprising thing is that most people are proud that they’re overworked. Perhaps it makes them feel wanted or valuable. In truth, task saturation is not good for the call center. It can effect all your operations and create irreparable mistakes.

Everyone responds differently to task saturation, but measured over time, individual coping mechanisms tend to be the same. People either quit, compartmentalize, or channelize. In any of these “states” your performance degrades and trouble brews. So how can you recognize these coping mechanisms? Look at these three types and their symptoms in detail.

1. Shutting Down: When the faced with task saturation, the first coping mechanism is to shut down. You quit. You stop performing. Some people literally go blank. When you shut down, you may look at all the papers on your desk and decide it’s too much, so you spin your chair and start staring out the window.

Have you ever just said, “It’s time to go take a gym break,” or, “It’s time to go outside and talk to my co-workers,” or, “I’ve just had enough. I’m leaving for the day.”  That’s a very obvious way of dealing with task saturation. In moderation, these behaviors are fine. In the extreme, they bring a company to its knees.

Quitters don’t say much, don’t do much, and often leave the office. “Happy” quitters are always at the water cooler, in the bathroom checking their tie, or stopping by your office for a rather pointless chat.

Shutting down is the most harmless of the coping mechanisms. When you leave your desk or amble around the office people at least know you’re not executing your mission; you’re not on task. You may get a bad reputation for leaving early or not pulling your weight, but at least you’re not masking your mental collapse.

2. Compartmentalize: Compartmentalizers, on the other hand, are risky people because they act busy, but do little, and kill you while they’re at it. Have you ever let yourself get compartmentalized? Have you ever wanted to put everything in a nice, neat, linear format and arrange things just so – all the while things are really backing up and pressures outside your compartmentalized little world are rising? Compartmentalizers start making lists, organizing their projects, and shuffling things around as if these tasks are akin to doing the work. Then they start going top-to-bottom, ticking off one item, and then the next item. They become obsessively linear, first-things-first, one project at a time.

The Compartmentalizer operates in a mode that is extremely dangerous to the company. For example, think about the swirl of activity in a hospital emergency room. Patients are arriving, others are waiting; some patients are getting restless and irritable, and others are stalking the nurses’ station. The hospital staff members all have an intricate roll that keeps the chaos moving.

But if someone reaches task saturation and compartmentalizes, the environment starts to get dangerous. Why? Because compartmentalizers look busy. Therefore, they are hard to ferret out. You can’t tell they’re not getting anything done and that hurts the system. In this case, no one knows a problem is building. No one knows a weak link has entered the chain.

3. Channelize: Finally, other people cope with task saturation by channelizing. Channelized attention is when you focus intensely on just one thing and ignore the others. Some people call this target fixation.

This starts when you arrive at the office with more to do than anyone can possibly get done in a day and then unplanned events kick in and start to task saturate you. For example, you get a call: “Honey, the kid is sick at school. Can you pick him up?” Then your biggest client calls: “You need to deliver a document to me by one o’clock today.” Have you ever been there before? Of course you have; everyone has.

You’re task saturated. You’re sweating this overload of priorities and you start to channelize. What’s the most important thing to accomplish? Get that report out by one o’clock. What do you do? Turn off your phone, close your door, and dig into the deadline. You dig and dig and dig and put everything into that report, but guess what? No one picked up your sick child. Another client called with an urgent question and you missed it. Then a simple problem flares up into a major problem, and the error chain begins.

Channelizers are easy to spot. They shun eye contact when they take a bathroom break. They wave people off with a flip of the wrist. “Can’t you see I’m busy!” is a common answer when you interrupt a channelizer. And their body language says: “Don’t ask.”  But channelizers are almost as dangerous as compartmentalizers. They can get so absorbed in one thing that everything else falls apart.

How Can You Combat Task Saturation? To avoid task saturation from limiting your success, hold meetings and explain the coping mechanisms. Tell people about task saturation and the common symptoms – shutting down, compartmentalizing, and channelizing. Describe these symptoms fully and use illustrations from your own life to make the picture as vivid as possible. Then have everyone list the three things they do to cope. More often than not, properly trained people will then recognize task saturation when it starts to hit them and they will adjust as they see themselves reverting to an inappropriate coping mechanism.

Next, try to eliminate task saturation in your workplace. In other words, kill the weeds before they choke the grass. This doesn’t mean lightening the work load; rather, build into your company standards three simple processes to keep task saturation at bay: checklists, crosschecks, and mutual support.

What fighter pilots know about task saturation should worry every CEO. As task saturation increases, performance decreases and execution errors increase. Task saturation is a silent killer, and in these days of layoffs and asking people to do more with less, task saturation is a major threat to corporate America. Rather than wear it like a badge of honor, businesses need to deal with it now. The correct action to take is to acknowledge that it exists, acknowledge that it creates problems, identify the symptoms, and then work to eliminate it. When you understand the warning signs of task saturation and the three ways people cope with the stress it creates, you can eliminate it before it becomes a problem and achieve better execution results in your organization.

Jim Murphy is founder and CEO of Afterburner Inc. and author of, Business is Combat. Afterburner Inc. is an international leadership development and management training company that teaches top executives how to use fighter pilot strategies in business.

[From the February/March 2007 issue of AnswerStat magazine]

How to Keep Quality People in Your Call Center

By Marsha Lindquist

Losing talented, quality employees is always difficult for an organization, but especially for a call center. Not only does it mean finding and training replacements, but also losing all the knowledge and understanding that those people take with them. While it is true that in today’s environment no organization can realistically believe they will keep an employee for twenty or thirty years, companies can reasonably expect people to stay for four to six years.

Essentially, you need to keep your people as long as they fit within what your organization is trying to accomplish and as long as they add value. You want to maximize the relationship as long as employment is productive for both sides. You certainly don’t want people leaving because they become disenchanted with the job.

Many employers believe that people get seduced away by the allure of larger companies, greater benefits, more pay, or a desk with a window, but those factors are rarely the real reason people leave. What really causes many people to change jobs is that they don’t understand where they fit and how their role impacts the call center’s or organization’s overall goals. They may feel like their work doesn’t affect the company’s success or they don’t develop mutually respectful and open relationships with their bosses and managers. When employees start feeling this way, then they start shopping around for other jobs. Unfortunately, many times people are seduced away by another organization that promises all these things, but doesn’t actually deliver them. Then the process begins again.

So how can you keep your quality employees for as long as possible? You must make their impact on the organization’s success clear by building a corporate culture around the right mindset. Use the following process to refocus your organization so your employees don’t feel compelled to change jobs so frequently:

Lay the Foundation: The mindset you create in your call center will permeate everything you do. It will affect your strategies, the type of clients you go after, and the kind of people you hire. For example, many leaders focus frantically on fire drill types of tasks, that is, the things that need to get done immediately. In the process, they allow the tasks that need to be planned and prepared for to go unattended and uncompleted. When the leaders operate in this rush, rather than in a cool-headed manner, they spread it through the entire organization.

Your actions and mannerisms reveal the mindset you maintain from day one. Even when you interview people, you communicate the corporate culture to them. So set your intrinsic values right away to avoid bringing in people with a work-here-awhile-and-leave mindset. Rather than just covering benefits, rules, and vacation time, the most important part of your orientation process needs to focus on your culture, how you work with one another, how you cooperate with one another, and what kind of clients you pursue. Spend less time on the rules and more on the way of thinking.

The foundation of every call center is the attitude of the people within it. Therefore, the senior managers and leaders of your organization must create the right mindset for the entire staff. They must determine how the organization’s goals are established and communicated, the importance of those goals, and the way your staff works with each other.

Strengthen the Structure: A strong organizational structure stems from strong focus. To strengthen your focus, set goals and objectives and then communicate them clearly throughout the operation. Limit your list to two or three realistic goals, rather than a laundry list of items. This focuses your employees on the most important things, rather than a cadre of different things. Then hire people who are open to changes, can focus on these goals, and can adhere to the culture you maintain. Many times people hire the skill set first and the attitude second, but it needs to be the other way around. You can teach skills, not attitude.

What about the people who have been in your call center for a few years and are already with the program but seem to be veering off course? If you’re trying to change the organization’s culture or make an impact on it because you’re headed in the wrong direction, then you need to communicate and work with everyone to show how things are changing.

Most important, communicate to your call center agents how they contribute to the new goals. What do the employees need to do to continue to grow with the company? What skills do they need? What attitude do they need to adopt? What personal investment do they need to make? How will the organization support that? While most organizations only cover these issues once a year, you should communicate this at least twice every year to maximize effectiveness without it becoming a burden.

Add the Finishing Touch: Once you’ve created a mindset and strengthened the focus of your organization, you must maintain these elements by staying involved with your employees. The employees need to trust that honest conversations can occur. Talk to them about what you see for them in the future and ask how they want to accomplish that, not, “This is what you need to do; now go do it.”

Also, go beyond business and the bottom line. Take an interest in what employees do to be happy and healthy outside of work. Many organizations see that healthy, happy people have the right attitude at work.

Staying involved should filter down through all levels, from the executives, to the senior managers, to the department directors, to management. It shouldn’t be a huge load for one single person. When you do this, you also instill responsibility to the lower supervisory levels, which helps them become better managers. Trusting the lower levels to become involved also builds the mindset.

Keeping Your Employees Through the Years: Even though you may be able to hire an equally skilled replacement for less money, the knowledge your organization loses when an employee leaves is extremely difficult to replace. While no one stays with the same company for their entire career anymore, you can expect to keep employees for a few years, but you need to make them clear on how their job and responsibilities affect the company’s success.

Start by creating a mindset in your call center and then develop goals that everyone can focus on. Let your employees know how they contribute to those goals and the organization’s success. Finally, stay involved with your employees and allow them to have open conversations with you to build relationships. When you follow these steps, you will create a corporate culture that inspires your employees to stay with your organization long into the future.

Marsha Lindquist is a business strategist, author, speaker, and a Principal of The Management Link, Inc.

[From the August/September 2006 issue of AnswerStat magazine]

The Seven Deadly Sins of Management

By Lonnie Pacelli

Pride. Envy. Gluttony. Lust. Anger. Greed. Sloth. You either recognize these as the seven deadly sins or as themes for prime-time television. Nonetheless, you were probably taught as a child that these are bad and you shouldn’t do them. For this article, do as you were taught and think “bad” when you commit these sins’ corresponding counterparts in the workplace. Knowing the mechanics of managing a project or team are secondary to the character attributes that a manager displays in their daily action. Here are the seven deadly sins of management and how to avoid them. Can you relate to any of these?

Sin #1 – Arrogance: Have you ever known a manager that consistently claimed to know more than the rest of the staff? How about one that was unwilling to listen to opposing views? Isn’t this just a sign of confidence? What’s wrong with that?

Confidence as a manager is crucial as people will look to you, particularly when things get tough. When it runs amok and turns to arrogance, the manager disrespects the employees. Show respect and have confidence and you’ll do fine. Subtract out respect and you’re just an arrogant fool.

Sin #2 – Indecisiveness: So you have a meeting on Monday and the management agrees on a course of action. On Tuesday, the manager decides to take a completely different course of action. Thursday the manager goes back to Monday’s course of action. The following Monday you’re back re-hashing through the same problem from last Monday.

Decisiveness means the manager listens to those around him or her and then makes the best decision that the rest of the staff can understand, and sticks to it. While employees may not agree with the decision, they should be able to see the rationale. Decisions without rationale or without listening will ultimately frustrate the staff and put a target on your back.

Sin #3 – Disorganization: We’ve all known the manager that asks for the same information multiple times, keeps plans in their head versus writing things down, or is so frantic that they’re on the verge of spontaneously combusting. Their disorganization creates unneeded stress and frustration for the employees.

The manager needs to have a clear pathway paved for the staff to get from start to completion, and make sure the ball moves forward every day of the project. Disorganization leads to frustration, which leads to either empathy or anarchy.

Sin #4 – Stubbornness: On one of my early management jobs, I was a month behind schedule on a three-month project. I refused to alter the schedule, insisting that I could “make up time” by cutting corners and eliminating tasks. Despite my staff telling me we were in deep yogurt, I stubbornly forged ahead. I ended up never seeing the end of the project because my stubbornness got me removed as the manager. Talk about your 2×4 across the head.

The manager may believe his or her view of reality is the right way to go, but it’s imperative that he or she balances his or her own perspective with that of the rest of the project team. Decisiveness without listening to the team leads to stubbornness.

Sin #5 – Negativism: One of my peer managers, in their zeal to “manage expectations,” would consistently discuss projects in a negative light. The focus was on what work wasn’t done, what the new issue of the week was, or who wasn’t doing their job. Their negative attitude about the work, people, and purpose sapped the energy, enthusiasm, and passion out of the staff’s work. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy; the project failed because the project manager willed it to fail.

This one’s simple; a glass-is-half-empty manager is going to be a horrible motivator and will sap the energy from employees. This doesn’t mean that you have to be a shiny, happy person all the time, but that the manager has to truly believe in what he or she is doing and needs to positively motivate the team to get there.

Sin #6 – Cowardice: Imagine the manager who, when pressed on a budget or schedule over-run, blames employees, stakeholders, or anyone else that could possibly have contributed to their non-performance. It is much easier to play the blame game and implicate others because not everything went perfectly as planned.

It’s perfectly okay to be self-critical and aware of your own weaknesses and mistakes. For a leader to truly continue to grow in their leadership capabilities they need to be the first to admit their mistakes and learn from them as opposed to being the last one to admit their mistakes.

Sin #7 – Distrust: Simply put, managers that don’t display necessary skills, show wisdom in their decisions, or demonstrate integrity aren’t going to be trusted. For staff to truly have trust in their leader, they need to believe that the manager has the skills to manage them, the wisdom to make sound business decisions, and the integrity to put the employee’s interests ahead of their own. Take any one of these attributes away, and it’s just a matter of time before the manager is voted off the island.

Lonnie Pacelli has over 20 years of project management experience at both Accenture and Microsoft and is the author of The Project Management Advisor – 18 Major Project Screw-Ups and How to Cut them off at the Pass.

[From the June/July 2006 issue of AnswerStat magazine]

Performance Centered Knowledge Management

By Ted Gannan

Rolling out new software and processes to employees or bringing a new employee up to speed is much like trying to master a new video game. With many new rules, moves, and tactics, the learning curve is steep. As the game progresses, even more rules, moves, and tactics must be mastered.

This experience can be compared to solving complex customer issues within a dynamic environment in which the rules of the business, products, and the operating environment are constantly changing. However, rolling out new software, products, or processes across a call center can cost a great deal more than the price of a new video game. The consequence of poor performance affects customers and creates a financial impact. Additionally, the cost of knowledge transfer to support change across a business grows exponentially as existing employees move to different roles or leave.

Furthermore, agents who miscommunicate information because they rely on memories of out-of-date information or are unable to accurately interpret new information, can have disastrous effects on customer service. Unfortunately, there is no reset button on customer interactions. Customer relationships suffer as customers call back and receive different information about the same issue – again and again.

Recent data shows the average knowledge worker spends 15% of their time looking for information, and only 50% of that time do they find it. Without role-specific knowledge transfer to support the change, the possibility of errors and rework are extremely high. Even when businesses incorporate training prior to a change event, support costs can increase dramatically after roll out of a change initiative. Agents forget what they learned in class and then rely on peers, supervisors, or internal help desks. This escalation problem impedes productivity and lowers first time resolution rates. Businesses may rely on self-support systems such as corporate search engines to answer employee inquiries. However, these often waste critical time with trails to inapplicable information, incomprehensible documents, or even out-of-date or incorrect information.

Not Enough Learning Time Before the Game: Just as game players load a new game and play practice sessions just before diving into a new video game, new hires spend time in orientation, learning new processes, and software skills. The difference is that in the business world, newly acquired knowledge is often not immediately put into practice. It may take days or weeks before the new information is called into action on the job, by which time it may be lost and competency declines. In most work environments, there is not enough time to go through training right at the moment it is needed. This is the cause of high internal support costs and poor adoption of systems, processes, and the inability to keep up with constantly changing information.

Meeting Knowledge Transfer Challenges with Performance-Centered Knowledge Management: Even experienced game players can get stuck when they encounter a new situation in a game. This is why some games offer context-specific hints to the player at this time. When such inherent hints are unavailable, many players will look up a ‘cheat sheet’ or ‘walkthrough’ online to help them through. In both cases they are not looking for more training, they just want a bit of help to get them moving with the game.

How can an organization establish a better knowledge transfer approach or offer fast access to the right information? Solid results can be achieved using a performance-centered knowledge management system.

Performance-centered knowledge management systems are much like hints which are designed to support employees in the midst of performing the job. Such knowledge systems deliver the most up-to-date information available – at the “moment of need” – while executing the task. For call centers, such a system reduces call handling times, training times, and the number of call escalations.

Call Center Achieves Dramatic Results with Performance-Centered Knowledge Management: An example of competency improvements through performance-centered knowledge management can be illustrated by Austar, a leading subscription television provider in Australia. Austar realized it needed to improve communications with frontline customer service personnel. Despite receiving regular updates, staff found it increasingly difficult to keep up with the growing amount of complex product and system information. Accessing that information in a timely manner while on the phone with customers added further pressure. Previously, Austar relied heavily on email, various Intranet sites, meetings, and briefings to communicate with staff. Because changes occurred rapidly, this approach led to many inconsistencies in the way information was provided to staff and then managed by individuals across the organization.

By focusing on learning on-the-job through a support system, rather than through pre-roll-out instruction, Austar condensed training time from eight to three weeks. Additionally, Austar experienced an improvement in the number of first time resolution of call inquiries as evidenced by a 20% drop in the amount of support escalation calls. Other benefits for Austar’s team were that in-bound callers spent less time on hold.

Call centers can decrease training costs and decrease costly personnel support with a self-service, performance-centered support system that improves workforce competency. Organizations should strive to transfer knowledge to employees in real-time, at the moment they need that knowledge. As employees gain competency and maintain it better, they enable the enterprise to support more products, higher complexity, and intricate processes. An organization with these results would unquestionably be more popular than a best selling game!

Ted Gannan is CEO of Panviva, developers of SupportPoint software, providing support for call centers and back-office operations. For more information, call 888-254-4025.

[From the June/July 2006 issue of AnswerStat magazine]