Contact center professionals are, in today’s New Normal, facing multiple challenges. Chief of which is ensuring they have the right, qualified people in the right quantity at the right time who are productively providing topnotch customer-retaining-and growing service.
These leaders have their hands full. They are overbusy with meeting increased customer service expectations and handling staffing shortages and work-from-home (WFH) and hybrid working. All the while looking over their shoulders at the next possible disaster that threatens to disrupt operations.
To get a handle on these issues with helpful, doable insights, we recently had a virtual conversation with Dr. Debra Bentson. Dr. Bentson is an accomplished industry authority with expertise in workforce management (WFM) who has joined our Advisory Board (To learn more about Dr. Bentson see Box).
Q. What are the principal challenges that contact centers are facing when managing their workforces? And what are their drivers?
Retention is a significant challenge. One driver is a psychological principle called hedonic adaptation: it means that we adapt to positive and negative changes to develop a new normal setpoint.
If a new agent is excited about their new job that excitement will diminish with time. Simply put, employees, like contact center agents, get bored and then disengage.
It is important to break up the routine to retain engagement. Harley Davidson rotates workers through different stations in their plants to provide enrichment, improve bench strength, and promote engagement. The same can be done in contact centers. For example, agents can be on the phones for several weeks, then cycle through other functions in the back office or projects.
“Contact centers have technology to track just about everything an agent may do....But this ability is a double-edged sword.”
—Dr. Debra Bentson
At the same time, with inflation reducing cost becomes even more of a necessity. Providing accessible, intuitive, self-service channels is a great way to reduce cost. But it must be something customers want to use: and not simply be a vehicle to shift work from employees to customers and increasing customer effort.
As the simple work is reduced, the remaining work is the complex part, so employers need to factor in higher compensation and more relief time to avoid or delay burnout.
Q. There appears to be growth and a permanent shift of many agent positions to WFH. Has this impacted WFM and how?
WFM generally falls into several types of work: forecasting/scheduling are done in advance, intraday management (real time), and after-action reporting/analysis. Technology provides a real-time view of everything going on in the contact center.
Like Santa Claus, we know if agents have been “naughty or nice” without having them in our actual line of sight.
Contact centers have technology to track just about everything an agent may do. Frequently calls and screens are recorded, every minute is tracked, and in some cases, every keyboard stroke is logged.
But this ability is a double-edged sword. On one edge, we collect valuable data to make business decisions, on the other edge there is little privacy for the agents.
It is vital, then, that wherever possible, we support the human resources, the people who are the real voice of the brand, both because it is the right thing to do and because happy people make happy customers.
Q. Following up, it has been four years since the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Experts say it is not if, but when, the next one will strike. Meanwhile, other disasters are only an alert away. What are the takeaways from the experience of COVID and other events to help manage and plan contact center workforces to prepare and execute for the next disaster?
The COVID-19 pandemic kicked open the door on the remote work conversation when businesses were forced to send workers home. That conversation is emerging again as businesses consider permanent remote work, hybrid options, and even saving money by releasing unused real estate.
I tend to think of things in simple terms and that includes WFH. I use a couple of questions to get the conversation started. I will use remote work as an example:
- Can the work be done remotely?
- If “yes,” move to question 2.
- If “no,” be prepared to explain the “why” to the employees so they understand the necessity for the limitation.
- Do the employees want to work remotely?
- For some, it is the gift of time and money saved from commuting, etc.
- For others, remote work may fuel feelings of isolation, or they may not have space at home to support a secure office.
“The COVID-19 pandemic kicked open the door on the remote work conversation when businesses were forced to send workers home. That conversation is emerging again...”
Remember, a lot of great work was done in the run up to Y2K in 2000 by building contingency plans before there is an emergency. The review process will uncover other opportunities for safety, business continuity, and other improvements.
Q. There has been a movement towards greater diversity and inclusion, such as on age, disability, and previous incarceration in the workplace: which, it is argued, makes sense given high attrition rates and the tight labor market. What are your thoughts?
Talent is often found in unexpected places. People that come from a variety of backgrounds and life experiences create teams that have great depth and richness.
If we always fish in the same pond, we’ll likely always find the same fish. To get positions filled we may need to fish in other ponds too. People who are retired, in transitional housing, separated from the military, differently abled, and so many other non-traditional candidates can be excellent candidates.
Broader thinking and sourcing present novel opportunities to satisfy both the business talent sourcing issue and the community need to give people who need work a hand up in finding jobs.
I look for three things when searching for talent:
- Demonstrated experience and/or the capability to learn the work.
- A cultural, character, and ethical fit with team and company culture.
- Curiosity and open-mindedness to solve problems, continuously learn, and improve.
“Talent is often found in unexpected places. People that come from a variety of backgrounds and life experiences create teams that have great depth and richness.”
Q. Are there any opportunities, new methods, or tools to enable contact centers to bolster their WFM? Like artificial intelligence (AI), cloud/hosted platforms?
There are several good WFM applications, and it is easy to get swept away with all the glitz and glamour in a sales presentation.
“It’s amazing how many potential problems and solutions come out of conversation when all the right groups are represented.”
There needs to be a focus set before the sales meeting on getting what is needed to get the work done, avoiding non-value add complexity, and including the stakeholders in the process. Stakeholders include the IT people who need to support it, WFM team that will use it, and other end users.
Getting these people in the process early will save a lot of time and trouble later. It’s amazing how many potential problems and solutions come out of conversation when all the right groups are represented. Inclusion in the selection process also produces change champions when it is time to implement the new software. Note that great software cannot fix poor policy and communication strategies.
Q. Lastly, what are your recommendations to contact center professionals in managing their workforces in today’s environment?
My recommendations for leaders would be the following.
- Put faces to the numbers to prioritize and integrate humanity with process, technology, and strategic planning. Put a finger on the scale in favor of the people because it will yield calculable business outcomes, foster engagement, and drive cultural improvements.
The job of answering calls in a contact center is much more difficult than just “talking on the phone.” At Zappos, for example, regardless of what job someone is hired to do, they are ALL trained to work in the contact center and spend time handling calls: it’s great!
- Commit to continuous learning for yourself and others. There are so many ways to learn and some of them are free!
- Start with educating people on their job expectations by sharing “why” it matters and “how” it will be measured.
- Connect and network with regional organizations and social media groups.
- Leverage inexpensive online training outlets such as Coursera and Udemy (there are many options).
- Participate in webinars and conferences. There are many options including ones that may be free, local, and virtual.
- Ask colleagues what they are reading and find a book to satisfy your curiosity. Doing a book of the month/quarter for teams is another option. Review sections together with pre-planned discussion questions to help share ideas, promote using new ideas, and help retain training.
“Put a finger on the scale in favor of the people because it will yield calculable business outcomes, foster engagement, and drive cultural improvements.”
- Review the rules for the people you lead.
- Craft people policies with appropriately soft guard rails to allow a human level of wiggle room.
- Punish the guilty, leave the rest alone. Resist the temptation to overly burden staff with a book of draconian rules for all your good employees because of one bad actor. This includes abolishing policies that exhaust resources, people, and time, such as:
- Fussy dress code. General Motors CEO Mary Barra introduced the best dress code ever, i.e., “dress appropriately.”
- Attendance. It can reflect in the schedule adherence metric without a separate plan.
- “Whack-a-mole” type intraday management. Instead, just set the expectations for performance, measure it, review it in monthly 1:1s. If something needs to be addressed in an emergent situation, do it immediately and with urgency.
Introducing Dr. Debra Bentson
Dr. Debra Bentson (Debra) has over 25 years’ experience in workforce management (WFM). Debra started from ground level as an agent and then worked in a wide range of positions: quality assurance/training, senior business analyst, and workforce manager. She has been employed in a variety of industries including communications, banking, insurance, travel, and healthcare.
Debra has amassed an impressive array of academic achievements and certifications. She has earned degrees in Business, Management, and Human Resources (including a Doctorate in Business Administration), a graduate level certificate in Organizational and Industrial Psychology, and certifications in workforce management (CWPP), and Senior Human Resources (SHRM).
“I never had a grand plan for learning, rather I keep finding previously undiscovered piles of new information that piques my curiosity,” says Debra.
She has also been recognized for her work, being awarded Best Contact Center Workforce Manager by ICMI in 2023. That same year, she joined our Contact Center Pipeline Advisory Board.
Outside of her jobs, Debra is involved in the greater communities that support aspects of employee engagement, customer experience, and workforce management. More succinctly, she is “the Workforce Management Humanitarian.”
“I consider myself both teacher and student, believing that continuous education feeds curiosity, builds skill, and uncovers more opportunities including puzzles to solve,” says Debra. “Education is like a field of wildflowers, if you look closely, you will discover so many more varieties than you believed possible.”