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Real-Time Flexibility: The Key to Success in Contact Center Operations

In the rapidly evolving world of contact center operations, the concept of 'real-time' plays a pivotal role in ensuring efficient and effective service delivery. Drawing from my journey through the telecommunications and contact center industries, I share insights on the criticality of real-time situational awareness and its transformative impact on operational success. From my days at GTE-Internetworking to the dynamic Resource Optimization Centers at Comcast and beyond, I explore how visual-based command centers, underpinned by rigorous incident management processes, have reshaped how we monitor and respond to operational challenges. The lessons I share from these experiences uncover the indispensable value of real-time flexibility in maintaining and elevating contact center performance standards.

 

Before my two decades in the contact center profession, I appreciated the importance of "real-time" in business settings while working at GTE-Internetworking. Real-time situational awareness is vital in the telecommunications industry, where Network Operations Centers (NOCs) display vast amounts of information representing the network's health. Wrapped around the monitoring function are well-defined incident management processes, ensuring that when an event triggers an incident, the right resources are put in motion to resolve the issue.


After leaving GTE-Internetworking, I took my appreciation for the power that visual-based command centers supported by the rigor of incident management and applied it to the contact centers at Comcast. We initially built a "ROC" - or Resource Optimization Center and leveraged the same approach used in monitoring the health of telecom networks. The difference here was we tracked the health of the contact center operations, not an internet backbone as with GTE-I. Instead, large monitors exposed traffic patterns, queue depths, system performance, and environmental variables - all in real time.


The successful implementation of the ROC model at Comcast revolutionized our approach to contact center operations and set the stage for its wider application. This model, proven effective in a demanding corporate environment, was soon ready to be replicated and adapted, demonstrating its versatility and impact across different organizational landscapes.


The concept of "now" was critical to this model's success; if an incident impacts service level, the quicker you resolve the issue, the easier it is to recover. A second critical component the ROC leveraged was a structured event management system. Through this event management system, the ROC monitored the health of the contact centers, created incident tickets when KPI thresholds were crossed, determined the severity of the incident, and followed documented processes to work the incident, communicate the status, and bring the incident to resolution.

Southern Division ROC, September 2009
Southern Division ROC, September 2009

The methods leveraged by the first ROC were adopted by deploying four more command centers across the US. The same ROC model was leveraged at MetLife until the global COVID-19 pandemic, when, in March 2020, we were all sent to work from home for the next two years. Of course, that didn't stop me from building a small ROC in my basement (360° view) - that's how much I believed in the importance of "eyes on glass" to monitor the environment in real-time and to support the associated incident management process.

Ted Lango's Home-based "ROC" during Pandemic
Ted Lango's Home-based "ROC" during Pandemic

Why the fuss on all these screens, command centers, and running a real-time incident management system? Well - it ties back to two basic building blocks for any operation:

  1. Build a solid plan.

  2. Incorporate as much flexibility as possible to change your plan in real-time.

Molke the Elder said, "No plan of operations extends with certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy's main strength." Winston Churchill said, "Plans are of little importance, but planning is essential." Finally, General Dwight D. Eisenhower said, "Plans are worthless, but planning is everything." While in the context of going into battle, all these quotes apply to business just the same; we should have a plan, and it should be a solid plan. But when you've implemented the plan, you better be ready to change it. In other words, continuous planning is the key to winning. The greater the real-time flexibility you bring with your plan, the more successful you will be in addressing the inevitable variance.


Aside from Molke, Churchill, and Eisenhower, I'm also reminded of a quote from Mike Tyson; "Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth."


Let's put this in practical terms for contact center operations. Contact centers face continuous challenges to meet various business objectives: service level objectives, expense objectives, targets for customer experience, NPS, FCR, and perhaps even revenue objectives. Yet, the contact center industry has a long history of emphasizing building the plan and getting supply and demand "just right" ahead of time. By looking out days, weeks, months, and years, the WFM team runs a continuous cycle of predicting demand and adjusting supply (agents staffed and scheduled) so that when the day arrives, the contact center has an optimized plan.

WFM forecasts the demand and creates optimized schedules, including determining precisely when agents should take breaks and lunches, attend meetings, take training, participate in coaching, and preschedule vacations. We make assumptions about absenteeism and attempt to get it all "just right" ahead of time.


Traditional WFM teams also manage a series of processes but with a lesser emphasis on real-time adjustments to the plan or making changes in real-time in reaction to variance. Regardless of how good the pre-planning was, there always is variance. Or as Mike Tyson calls it - the punch to the mouth. This variance requires a response, canceling coaching or training when call volume is heavier than forecasted or agent supply is less than planned (absences). Real-time processes include pursuing agents who aren't staffed as expected (adherence to schedule). Or when supply exceeds demand and agents idle, WFM may try to coordinate off-phone activity to keep agents busy.


The problem with this approach is that a small team of workforce management analysts can't respond in a timely fashion to variance in such a way that staffing can be optimized in response to the inevitable variance. The vast number of employees in contact centers combined with this variance's fluid, fast-paced nature means a real-time plan requires more than just people to manage.


For the ultimate real-time flexibility, the answer lies with automation. In the same fashion that ACDs automate the distribution of traffic in multi-skilled environments, automation can capitalize on the natural intraday variance and handle many facets of how we deliver activities to frontline agents. Rather than attempt to pre-plan training and coaching, automation can monitor the queues and capture pockets of availability to offer those same activities. Rather than worry about whether an agent had taken their break or lunch at "precisely when it was scheduled," - automation can adjust schedules accordingly when work has interfered with the scheduled event.


Automation takes the real-time strength behind the ROC model and elevates it. Automation monitors millions of data points and takes action when pre-defined thresholds are crossed.


Flexibility comes in many flavors. At WFM Labs, we've organized "flexibility" into three categories: technology, people, and processes, and developed a scoring framework to allow you to assess your contact center's "Flexibility Index." We apply this Flexibility Index to your capacity plan, enabling you to understand how healthy a plan is before going into battle. It changes the perspective from "Do I have enough staff to handle the demand?" - to "Do I have adequate real-time flexibility to adjust my plan?"


The importance of real-time flexibility is backed by research as well.


Real-time flexibility in call centers is crucial for meeting various business objectives such as service levels, expense management, and customer experience. The ability to execute flexibility in real-time significantly impacts achieving higher-level business goals. Several studies have addressed the importance of flexibility in call center operations. For instance, Wallace & Whitt (2005) discussed the staffing algorithm for call centers with skill-based routing, emphasizing the challenge of efficiently handling different types of calls (Wallace & Whitt, 2005). Barbosa et al. (2017) also highlighted the potential for call centers to achieve high productivity and service quality through proper planning and scheduling of agents, minimizing idle time and busy signals for customers (Barbosa et al., 2017). Furthermore, Legros et al. (2015) proposed a flexible architecture for call centers with skill-based routing, emphasizing the significance of flexibility in the call center's operational structure (Legros et al., 2015).


Moreover, Jouini et al. (2009) focused on queueing models for full-flexible multi-class call centers with real-time anticipated delays, addressing the impact of waiting times on customer behavior in call centers (Jouini et al., 2009). Mehrotra et al. (2010) discussed intelligent procedures for intra-day updating of call center agent schedules, highlighting the dynamic nature of call center operations and the need for real-time adjustments in agent schedules based on forecasted workload and resource availability (Mehrotra et al., 2010). These studies underscore the critical role of real-time flexibility in addressing the dynamic and diverse challenges call centers face.


Real-time flexibility in call centers is essential for effectively managing various business challenges and ensuring we meet our performance objectives. Implementing sufficient real-time flexibility across people, processes, and technology can solve any challenge, whether meeting service levels, expense objectives, or customer experience goals. The studies emphasize the need for flexible staffing algorithms, scheduling, and intelligent procedures to address the dynamic nature of call center operations and customer demands.


Want to learn more? Join the WFM Labs Community site! If you want to chat about the flexibility index and the importance of automation, feel free to schedule time with me!


References:

  • Barbosa, L., Gomes, C., & Chaves, M. (2017). Scheduling of agents in inbound multilingual call centers. Brazilian Journal of Operations & Production Management, 14(2), 228-238. Link

  • Jouini, O., Dallery, Y., & Aksin, O. (2009). Queueing models for full-flexible multi-class call centers with real-time anticipated delays. International Journal of Production Economics, 120(2), 389-399. Link

  • Legros, B., Jouini, O., & Dallery, Y. (2015). A flexible architecture for call centers with skill-based routing. International Journal of Production Economics, 159, 192-207. Link

  • Mehrotra, V., Özlük, Ö., & Saltzman, R. (2010). Intelligent procedures for intra‐day updating of call center agent schedules. Production and Operations Management, 19(3), 353-367. Link

  • Wallace, R. and Whitt, W. (2005). A staffing algorithm for call centers with skill-based routing. Manufacturing & Service Operations Management, 7(4), 276-294. Link


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