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To The Moon

The decision to trying something completely different is not an easy one.  To paraphrase one of President Kennedy’s greatest speeches, “All great and honorable actions are accompanied with great difficulty…we choose to go to the moon not because it is easy, but because it is hard.”

Its an inspiring speech and I hope it inspires you to genuinely explore something that may seem as impossible to you today, as a voyage to the moon likely seemed in 1962.

Your call center can rocket to levels of productivity, service levels, customer satisfaction, revenue, growth and profitability. You can achieve the real efficiencies that have eluded call centers for the past 30 years.

All of these things are possible just by scheduling to a new, truthful forecast.

Is that hard to believe?  Yes.  But only if one believe that the past 30 years of WFM forecasts have been truthful.  Most do believe that. There-in lies their challenge.

As a visitor to the SCO web site, you have had the opportunity to study the learning videos. You now understand the modern facts about the WFM industry. For three decades it has limited your success with its reliance on data that has never been true.

Now you are ready to start your discovery of the new technology that will change your call center forever.  That technology is the first truthful forecast.  Welcome to SCO.

Switching to an SCO forecast is easy.  You keep using the same WFM solution as you have always used. Just schedule to the SCO forecast.

For so many years you have been taught to plan according to rules that limit your success. The next three articles are designed to help you see those old rules, in a new light — from perspectives that are external to the call center industry.

At first glance you might think the articles are about vacations, card games and water sports.  They are not.  These articles will free your heart and soul to move beyond the rules that need to be broken.

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No Tricks

SCO should be really easy to understand.  Better, more detailed information naturally produces much better results than incomplete and misleading information.  Yet, the most experienced people in the call center industry have great difficulty believing anything could produce a better plan than the established methods.

Interestingly, people from outside the call center industry seem to comprehend SCO with great ease.  So I invite you to take a quick vacation from what you do and look at SCO from a different perspective.  At first, you might think this story is about a card game. It’s not.

While vacationing this year, my wife and I met a couple from California named Christine & Whitney.  Late one evening the couple was playing cards on the main balcony.  They invited me to play but I had to admit that I only knew one game called “Cheat”.

As I explained the rules Whitney realized the same game had a different name in the US.  What Canadians might know as “Cheat”, Americans are more likely to know as “Bull****”.

The core strategy of the game is to be untruthful without being caught.  Each player pulls cards from their hand and places them face down.  The player states what the cards are and attempts to empty their hand without getting called on cheating. If you get caught, you pick up all the cards that the other players have discarded.  If you call cheat on a truthful play, you pick-up the cards.

With the discard tray more than half full, I played one Jack, face down and called it a Jack.  Christine called cheat and picked up roughly 25 cards.  I thought she was bound to lose but for the rest of the game she called cheat with pinpoint accuracy.  She had filled her hand with accurate information that gave her control of the game.  Her opponents soon realized that they had little choice but to play truthfully or pick-up. Christine won.

So with the game complete the conversation turned to our professions.  Christine is a mergers and acquisitions manager in the Automotive industry.  Whitney is a process engineer in the mass transit sector.  I explained that my company was involved in forecasting and scheduling for call centers.

Whitney said “oh, so you forecast call volume”.  I said “Not really, everyone else in the industry forecasts call volume, we forecast how many agents you need to satisfy the demand properly”.  Whitney asked if there was a difference.

So I explained that for the past 3 decades, the WFM industry had been playing a game that was a lot like “Cheat” except that very few customers had ever thought to look at the cards. The industry forecasts how much call volume to expect.  When the actual call counts come in, the industry makes-up numbers that match the forecast and tells customers that the forecasts were accurate. Customers never think to call cheat so they never see what’s under the cards that have been placed face down.

The couple was surprised, skeptical but interested. They asked how it would be possible for an entire industry to do this without being caught…after all call volume is call volume! Surely it’s not possible to make up your own numbers.

I replied, “Actually, it is easy, all they had to do was to convince customers to count calls the way that they wanted the calls counted.  You see all the experts in the industry and all the companies that sell this type of software tell customers that you must forecast with answered plus abandoned calls.”  Then I explained the basics of Offered Calls, Answered Calls and Abandoned Calls.

Whitney’s eyes were racing back and forth.  I could tell he was a problem solver and that his brain was working hard to process the contradictions.  He paused and then said “But how does that make it possible to change the numbers so a forecast looks accurate.”

I said, “Here, let’s play a game.  I’ll predict the number of calls that get offered to your call center between 9:00 and 9:15.  Then I’ll prove to you that my prediction was 98% accurate. You get to choose how many calls actually come in.  The only thing you have to do is guess high, because my prediction will be low.  Are you ready?”

Whitney said “sure, go ahead”.  I said, “I predict 300 calls and I’m going to tell you to put enough staff in the call center to answer only 300 calls.  Now, how many calls actually came in?”  Whitney said “400”.  I said “Perfect.  So you answered about 300 calls because that’s the maximum your staff could answer.  Roughly 2% may have abandoned, that’s 6 calls.  The Answered plus Abandoned totals is 306 so…TADAH!  My prediction of 300 calls was 98% accurate.”

Christine said, “That’s not true, Whitney told you there were 400 calls.  That’s 33% more than you predicted.”

I said “You are correct.  There were 400 offered calls.  I prepared you to answer only 300 of them so I only counted the 300 that you answered plus the very small number that abandoned.”

Christine asked me to explain what happened to the other calls.  I said, “No problem, they get counted in the next interval — at the rate that I have prepared you to answer them, plus the few who abandon.  Every prediction that I make will be accurate to within the abandon rate.”

So Whitney said “WHOW, so it really is like cheat”.  I said, “It really is like cheat”.

Whitney said “but the extra 100 callers are going to wait a really long time to get serviced.  They will form a huge queue and that will increase the wait times for everyone who arrives in the next interval, maybe even for the rest of the day.”

I said “You are right.  But that does not affect the accuracy of my prediction, its still 98% accurate.

Whitney shook his head and said “So the wait times don’t matter”.

I replied, you are correct, the wait times don’t matter.   They don’t matter to the forecast accuracy and they have no bearing on the next forecast. Each forecast is calculated exclusively using call counts and talk times. Wait time is not an input to the forecast.

“Well that sucks” said Whitney.

Yes it does” I said.  “Its much worse if your business is growing.  The more your business tries to grow, the more the wait times will increase. But answered plus abandoned call counts will keep feeding you the same forecast that always looks accurate.

Some customers will wait a really long time but that won’t show up in a service level of 80% in 120 seconds because the longest 20% of wait times don’t count towards the service levels.  And it likely won’t show up in your average wait times either because if you service some customers instantly and other customers wait a really long time, the average will look ok.

Luckily, the customers who wait the longest are very likely to switch to another provider.  That keeps the system in balance.  As long as your customers get fed up with you as fast as you can acquire new customers, those answered plus abandoned call counts can keep giving you the exact same forecast and it will continue to look accurate.

Whitney said “So if customers don’t leave, the abandon rate goes up and forecast accuracy drops.”

“Well..” I said, “That might be true if the industry actually counted all of the abandoned calls but they don’t.  They only count some of the abandons.”

“What, how can they get away with that?” asked Christine.

“So….”  I continued, “The industry has created different categories of abandons and they tell customers not to count some categories. If a caller hangs up too quickly, they call that a short abandon. Short abandons don’t get counted at all.  Typically the short abandon threshold starts off at 5 to 10 seconds.  However, when the total abandon rate increases, customers are advised to increase the threshold to 30 seconds or higher.”

“So the worse it gets, the more data gets discarded in order to boost the forecast accuracy.”  Said Whitney.  “Yes.”  I replied.

Whitney said, “that’s going to ruin a call center’s business.”

I replied, “Well it will certainly keep it from growing. And that’s the problem with forecasting with answered plus abandoned calls.  It makes the forecasts look accurate because it ties all call counting and all future forecasts to you current capacity.

Whitney shook his head in astonishment and laced his fingers behind his neck.  “So how do you do it then?  I guess you forecast with the real call counts?  The 400 calls that were actually offered?”

“Absolutely not” I replied.  “That’s even worse.  Let’s say 50 of those 400 calls arrive very close to 9:15.  If those are 10 minute long calls then that’s 500 minutes of work that need to get done substantially in the next interval.  Instead it gets counted in the interval it arrives.  That would make you grossly overstaff for 9:00 and grossly under-staff for 9:15.

True Offered Call Counts produce ridiculous looking forecasts.  If you tried to schedule to those forecasts it really would ruin your business.  One interval you would have dozens of idle agents waiting for calls that actually need to be processed in the next interval.  But in the next interval you would have staffed assuming the 500 minutes of work did not exist.  You see its not that the industry wants to cheat, they don’t have any choice. Answered plus abandoned call counts ties a customer to their current capacity which is less harmful than asking the customers to schedule to a ridiculous and unstable True Offered Call Forecast.”

“I see” said Whitney. “The call counts have a built in error rate and the error rate is huge.  If you have five minute calls, it’s a 30% error rate.  If its 10 minute calls then the error rate is 60%.  And the error rate is not random.  If the error is positive 60% for 9:00 then the error rate for 9:15 will be pulled towards negative 60%. The errors would toggle like that throughout the day. The staffing levels implied by a true offered call forecast would fluctuate between way too high and way too low.  It makes perfect sense.  So how do you avoid those problems?”

“Well” I said, “We don’t have any of those challenges because our software does not put any faith in any type of call count.  Instead, we have an algorithm that analyses the second-by-second real activities in any call center.  The software intricately understands the details of what is causing the long wait times and how to schedule staff to absorb the exact flow of calls across intervals. No matter how bad the wait times are in any call center, we can usually fix it overnight. Typically the call center does not need any extra agents, they only need a better forecast.

In fact, often they have more than enough agents.  When you service customers promptly, the conversations tend to be more productive. Short calls and fewer repeat conversations means less agents can satisfy more customers.  We’ve seen wait times drop by 64% and that tends to translate into a 20% increase in agent productivity.

Whitney said of course.  “You avoid the two minutes of the customer complaining about how long they waited so agents get more work done.”  I congratulated Whitney for his observation “Yes, you are exactly right. However it’s not just the first two minutes of complaining that is unproductive; the entire conversation tends to be underproductive.  Unhappy callers spend less and are less cooperative towards solving problems.”

Whitney added “So whether the customer is calling to make a purchase or to solve a problem, the success rate ends up being much lower. Agent time is consumed and the end result may be a lost sale or another call to resolve the same issue.”

“Exactly right”, I stated, “But when you remove the stress of those long wait times, productivity quickly returns to its peak.”

At that moment, our conversation was interrupted by karaoke night.  But that’s another story.

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Record Breaking

I’m always surprised about the extent to which call centers and their planners feel obligated to perform their tasks according to rules that place so many limits on performance.  I have a story for you that may inspire you to look beyond those limitations.  Some rules should be followed.  Other rules should be broken.  The way to know the difference is the results.  If breaking the rules produces spectacular results, you know it was OK.

During a recent vacation, my wife and I volunteer to be contestants in an evening entertainment activity called “The Couples Game”.  So did two other couples from Calgary and Mexico City. The game involved six different challenges including a quiz, celebrity impersonations, and several timed tests of how each couple worked as a team.

Something remarkable happened during one of the timed challenges.  It made me think that perhaps people on vacation might experience greater mental agility towards rules.

The game show host was Diego. He demonstrated a challenge that made use of several ping pong balls. The first couple completed the challenge in 47 seconds.  The second couple followed with a time of 58 seconds.  My wife and I had the advantage of going last.

During the second couples performance, I realized the task could be completed much faster if it was conducted in more or less in the opposite manner as had been demonstrated by Diego.  So I whispered my plan to my wife. She replied with some concerns about not following the rules.  Her concerns were valid as my strategy was a clear contradiction of the established convention. I was not sure how others would react.

We completed the challenge.  The audience cheered loudly.  Diego’s was speechless for almost a minute, jaw open, eyes bulging, pacing back and fourth with his microphone to his chest. He kept glancing at his stopwatch and shaking his head. The audience continued to cheer.  Then Diego spoke.

“I am in shock. I have run this game for five years at resorts around the world.  This game has been part of our shows for 20 years.  This has never been done before.  I have never seen this before.  Ladies and gentleman, a new world record for ping pong…  FOURTEEN SECONDS.”

The audience erupted in applause that lasted for several more minutes.

I was profoundly impressed by the mental agility of the audience.  No one thought it was cheating.  No one complained about the rules being broken. Everyone saw the performance results without getting hung up on convention.  The next day guest were calling us over to comment positively on the divergent method that drove the win.

While this story is real in every detail, it’s not really about ping pong.  It’s actually about your call centers.  Rules have been established for how you should manage your call center resources and for how you should measure success.  Its ok to break the rules when  the results are spectacular.

SCO breaks all the rules that need to be broken.  SCO won’t anchor you to the wrong staffing levels in order to create the illusion of forecast accuracy. SCO forecasts are determined with no reliance on call counts.  The second-by-second details of your demand are intricately translated into staffing requirements.  Scheduling to the SCO plan will slash wait times and catapult the productivity and profitability of your call center.

Whatever WFM you have purchased, SCO will resolve its deepest darkest limitations. I invite you and your call center to break the rules so that you can enjoy spectacular record breaking results.

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Push to Win

All about winning… 

I have a story for you that should help you to understand exactly how to change the game that is played between your call center and the WFM vendors that you work with.  The trick is you need to read the story through to the end.  If you stop part way, you might think this story is about water basketball.  It’s not.

During a recent vacation, I twisted my ankle playing soccer.  I rested for a few days, played again and really twisted it. That put me on crutches for three days.  I spent those days in a lounge chair by the pool, applying ice and watching others enjoy the organized water sports.

Each day, six or seven resort organizers would take on 20 to 30 resort guests (members) in a game of water basketball.  Even though they were out-numbered 3-1, the organizer team would always win.  Their strategy was simple.  When the members tried to shoot, the organizer team would knock the ball out of their hands and fling the ball to “Diego” at the other end of the pool.  Diego would shoot and score. The organizers played to make the members miss.  Every miss translated into a higher score for the organizers.

The really interesting thing is that the showmanship of the organizers was so entertaining that the members enjoyed loosing. The same members would returned the next day to loose again.

On the fourth day I hopped into the pool determined to shift the odds in favor of the guests.  One ankle could not take my weight so my contributions had to be strategic. I spoke to the two most athletic looking members and said “That’s Diego. He is their top scorer.  Don’t let him get the ball or shoot.”  Then I spoke to the 10 or so teens. “All of you teens gather around their net.  Keep shooting until you score.  I will get in the way of the organizers so they can’t knock the ball out of your hands.”

The members won seven to one.  Diego did not score a single basket. The organizers complained about the change in tactics but admitted that this game was the most fun and exciting that they could remember.

Later, when I sat eating lunch, a guest named Ian walked over to me to talk about the victory.  Ian said “That was great, I’ve never seen that before.  I’ve been in these clubs every year for more than 10 years in different countries around the world.  I have never seen the members win at water sports. The organizers always win.  It was really great to see the members win for once.  We did not have any more players than usual; we just played really well together.”

While this story is entirely true, it’s not really about water basket ball.  It’s actually about the call center industry.  For the past few decades the few who organize the WFM game have been winning while the larger membership looses.  The showmanship and illusion of High Forecast Accuracy makes the membership feel like they are winning – even though the scores that count are clear losses. The call center community pays a lot of money for the software but each call center accumulates big losses in the forms of long wait times, high telco costs, lost revenue and low productivity.

Great showmanship can make the loosing team feel like winners.  However, playing to win, really is the best way to have fun.  To do that, you don’t need a bigger team, you just need better coordination of the resources that you already have.

You also need to disrupt the practices that knock the ball out of your hands.  Adhering to a bad forecast and schedule does exactly that. It make you miss your own targets and it converts those misses into high forecast accuracy for the WFM vendors. Today, every time you under service your customers, the other team’s forecast accuracy score goes up.

When you change tactics, the other team will naturally complain that you are disrupting their ability to score. But you are not in this game to improve their score! You are in it to maximize your results. The results you want are huge improvements to wait times, labor productivity, customer satisfaction, retention, revenue, market share and profitability.

SCO will organize your team for it’s biggest victory and your longest winning streak.  But the greatest thing about SCO is that no one looses.  Whatever WFM you have purchased, SCO will enable it to deliver the spectacular improvements that you never thought were possible.

With SCO your meaningful forecast accuracy goes up.  But don’t call it forecast accuracy. Call it preparedness, responsiveness and efficiency. The same total number of agents will be timed so well that wait times will drop and productivity will improve.

The only forecast accuracy that drops is the fake forecast accuracy that has been tabulated with  answered and abandoned call counts. When fake forecast accuracy drops and your real results improve, you’ll see that answered plus abandoned call counts never really meant anything.  You don’t need good showmanship to make your losses feel like victories. You only need the good organization that delivers real victories.

No matter what WFM you use, SCO will re-organize it around the best interests of your team.  Then, everyone has more to cheer about.

The Giant Push
The water basketball game featured an interesting sub-story.  You see, our game plan was not a secret to the organizers. Diego heard the instructions to the adults and teens.  He also heard me commit to displacing the organizers from the scrimmage below their net.

So even before the game started, Diego drafted the three largest guests to play on the organizer team.  When I say large, I mean LARGE.  The tallest was over 6’10”.  The biggest was a 375 pound sumo-sized giant.

During the game, I relaxed under the backboard until the ball fell into the hands of the teens.  At that moment I would grab hold of two organizers and tie up their arms. Sometimes a third organizer would join in so I’d grab him too. As soon as the teens scored, I’d let go and return to my resting place under the backboard.

My disruption tactics quickly shifted the score in favor of the members.  Diego responded by sending in the 375 pound draft pick.  I found myself standing face-to-face with a very large but very friendly man, telling me things were about to change.  I placed my hands on his waist signaling my intentions to push him out of the basket ball key.  I smiled.  He looked at me and my much smaller frame. He shook his head and chuckled “Nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh no”.

To his astonishment, I lifted him an inch and pushed him 20 feet.  I dropped him off in the deep end and gave him a gentle push and spin.  I returned to the basket ball net to play the game the way our team had decided to play it.  The large gentleman elected to stay on the other end of the pool for the remainder of the game.

So how, with one good ankle, was I able to move the giant out of the way?  Simple!  He floated.

But once again, while the details are all true, it’s not really about water basketball.  It’s about what to expect when you try to organize your team to win a WFM game that has belonged to the organizers for the past three decades.

Don’t be surprised if they bring in their heavy hitters to tell you to keep playing the game according to their rules.  But don’t worry.  Traction is on your side.  Just like the giant who floats, conventional WFM practices are weightless.

They will tell you that it is best practice to forecast using answered and abandoned call counts.  Just say “No, that’s not the rate that calls are offered, it’s just the rate that we could answer callers or frustrate them into abandoning. That won’t optimize our staffing levels, its just going to keep them the same.

They may argue that you resources have always been optimized.  Just respond “We know better than that now. Mediocre labor utilization was never something to be proud of. Too many of the wait times were beyond reasonable.  Those are not optimal outcomes. We need a new type forecast that reallocates resources across intervals for consistently short wait times.”

They may insist that wait times are not an input to the forecast.  Just respond, “Well they are not an input to your forecast and that’s a problem.  We actually care about wait times so we need a forecast that cares about them too”

They may argue that their patience/impatience factor is a wait time input.  Just tell them “Yes, but it’s the wrong type of input.  Patience just describes how many abandoned calls to ignore.  We are done with ignoring unhappy callers. SCO tells us how to staff to answer every call before it waits too long.”

They will likely tell you its best practice to adhere rigidly to their schedule.  Just say “No, the schedule is a plan based on three week old data.  There is no reason to adhere to the past.  We need to respond to the demand that unfolds in the day. SCO prepares us to do just that.”

They may object to agents taking calls into the planned breaks. The answer to this is simple. Tell them “SCO prepares us for the demand that flows across intervals and anticipates that calls should persist across interval boundaries. Agents should not be ending their calls abruptly on the 15 minute mark just to create the illusion that an offered call forecast was true?  The game has changed.  We are not here to manipulate call counts, we are here to service the customers that drive our revenue, growth and profitability.”

When your service levels improve spectacularly overnight, they may try to convince you that the high service levels are excessive and that you need to cut staffing levels.  This advice you definitely need to ignore.  There is nothing wrong with servicing every customer too fast as long as your labor utilization and productivity remain high.  If your staffing requirements drop (and they likely will), SCO will tell you exactly what the new staffing levels should be.  It’s OK to cut staff to match the SCO forecast.  It’s not OK to cut staff because your wait times and service levels are too good.

While you may find it uncomfortable to operate with such low wait times, just remember that as long as every caller waits a few seconds in queue, you are already operating at maximum efficiency.  If the queue is never empty, an agent is never idle and you can’t afford to loose a single agent. If you loose just one agent, your telco costs skyrocket and an agent’s worth of customers don’t get serviced.

They may tell you that you should be taking the advice of the market leaders.  Just tell them “Certainly!  SCO is the market leader in truthful forecasting technology.  They were first to market.  They are the sole provider and they own the intellectual property to maintain that position.”

Just give the giant a little push.  SCO gives you all the traction you need.

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