Managing the Smaller Contact Center
Originally published in Contact Center Pipeline, May 2011
The next time you are at an industry event, seek out some people that have worked in both large and small contact centers. The discussion will likely be dominated by those things that are different about the two operations, rather than the similarities. If you dig a little deeper into the conversation, you will find the skill requirements for each are unique. In a small center, success depends on breadth of expertise, while in larger centers depth of expertise is often more important. Large centers have their own sets of challenges, but the focus of this article is the unique challenge of managing a small contact center.
The size of the center affects a great many day-to-day tasks, but strategically you can usually lump these into three categories of differences:
Greater variation in workload and staffing (compared to expectations)
Fewer support resources
Less money for technology investments
It would be great if we could eliminate these issues, but in fact there is solid reasoning behind each one. They are not going away, yet we can still learn to deal with them in ways that minimize the adversity they cause.
The rules of math dictate that smaller numbers will experience greater variation than larger ones. Yes, that affects forecasts...but it seems to have an even greater affect on staffing. A 500 seat contact center never has 100 unplanned absences on one day, but a 50 seat center seems destined to have 10 call-ins on a number of days throughout the year. It's a 20% variation either way, but it's the smaller center that has to deal with it.
For the leader of a small center, then, this reality means that no matter how well you plan you cannot rely on the plans as often as you would like. Reacting is necessary, and the small center needs to be great at it. Knowing that, it makes sense for these operations to spend a little less time on the forecast, and a little more time developing real-time reactionary plans that can be instituted quickly. We use the tongue-in-cheek term "react in advance" to describe the mindset that managers of smaller centers need to possess.
What constitutes a strong "react in advance" plan? For starters, you want to do a quick analysis to determine exactly how much flexing you need to have in place. You only need an estimate, so keep it simple. Look at some of your higher forecast variance percents (by interval), and add to that a typical staffing variance percent (non-adherence if you measure that, a percent of call-ins if you do not).
Calculating the numbers is a fairly simple task compared to finding the staff that you can flex onto the phone when needed. Support staff is usually a great option here - trainers, quality assurance staff, etc. Unfortunately, most smaller centers have none (or very few) of these team members. Here are a few of the options that smaller centers need to consider to reach their flexing targets:
Borrowed staff. Build an agreement with another department with similarly skilled staff. They cover phones during peaks, and you offer up contact center staff for them during slow periods.
Part time staff. Part timers can be scheduled during busier times, which can help address the variation problem. They can also be asked to add some hours here or there without having to get any approval for overtime.
At home staff. One of the huge benefits of at-home staff is the greater likelihood that they will take on short shifts with little notice. That makes this option a great fit for smaller centers.
Former staff. Even in smaller centers, many employees enter through the contact center and soon find their home in other departments. Some of the more savvy contact center managers encourage this, and work with those other departments to keep these former phone agents for a few hours a week to help understaffed time slots.
Some organizations throw up roadblocks regarding some of these strategies - departments that won't lend staff, HR rules that won't allow for at-home work, etc. Leaders of smaller centers need to stand their ground. There may be a few issues to work out, but you cannot ignore the math. Staffing flexibility is a requirement for success in the smaller center.
Fewer Support Resources
Trainers, content specialists, process engineers, forecasting analysts and quality assurance staff are examples of those behind the front lines that make things run smoother in a contact center. Unless, of course, the center has less than 100 agents. These smaller centers are just as much in need of training and content management and call monitoring as their larger cousins - they just do not have staff specialized in it.
The common answer is to load up the manager with many of the duties, and spread the remaining ones between the few supervisors on staff. When this staff is overloaded, though, the results are disappointing. The work itself suffers, and key team members get burnt out.
The resource that smaller centers could tap more often are the frontline agents. Assigning promising staff some of these tasks can provide a number of benefits. Top of the list is making the jobs more attractive, and that brings stronger applicants and lower attrition rates. It also improves the workload of the managers and supervisors, allowing them to concentrate more on coaching and driving higher levels of performance. Finally, it spreads out the expertise and reduces the risk associated with having all skills handled by one or two people.
The obstacle most commonly cited regarding the use of frontline agents for support functions is phone workload. Yet, your phone staff can be a rich source of different skills, and many of these tasks can be scheduled for periods of lower call volume. An investment in training is required, but the benefits of utilizing the frontline agents for support functions can greatly outweigh concerns.
Smaller Technology Budgets
Like the workload/staffing variation problem, the math is working against the smaller contact center when completing an ROI analysis on technology. With fewer calls coming in and fewer customers feeling the impact, six and seven figure investments in the latest toys simply cannot be justified. When it comes to these investments, though, there are two reasons why the future is looking brighter.
First, hosted and cloud-based solutions are bringing technology closer to the small contact center. Less equipment on site, lower levels of professional service requirements, and less reliance on client-side IT resources all help to put some of today's best technology in closer reach for those with smaller budgets.
Second, there are many products out there built for smaller centers. They typically provide base functionality that is every bit as good as the premium suppliers. The WFM industry is a great example. Systems are available at a fraction of the cost of higher end units, and accuracy and usability rival that of the bigger players.
The bottom line is that smaller centers may not have the name brands, but they do not have to live without the key functionality. It may take some time to find the right mix of players and you may have to accept a bit more business risk, but the payback could well be worth it.
For those that enjoy a diversity of responsibilities and a fast pace, running a smaller contact center can be a great career choice. Along with the challenge comes a chance to get involved in more of the operation and to have a greater say in the direction of the organization. When you ask those that have done it whether or not it was a great ride, the answer is almost always "yes".