Off Center
Agent adherence to schedule -- also known simply as “adherence” or, in less evolved call centers, “get your butt in your seat NOW” -- is a metric that measures how often your agents are logged in to take calls (when they are scheduled to be) as opposed to in the break room crying for their mother. 

Adherence is not only an important productivity metric, it is one that agents typically accept and buy into, since it is within their direct control. Unlike with such common – yet often polarizing – productivity metrics as number of calls handled per hour/shift and average handle time (AHT), agents alone determine whether or not they meet their adherence objective. They know the impact they each have on service level (assuming they have been taught this in training, another best practice), and they know their schedule – what time they need to arrive in the morning, be back from breaks/lunch, and emerge from under their workstation after a panic attack. If an agent is not in his or her seat when he or she is supposed to be, it is that agent and that agent alone who is accountable, with the exception of when a bullying coworker has duck-taped him to the bathroom wall for a laugh, or if the agent gets trapped under an ACD report.

It’s essential to set a feasible and fair adherence objective, one that meets the contact center’s and customer’s needs without forcing agents to pee in a jar at their workstations. As with virtually every other metric, there is no universal industry standard for adherence to schedule per se, though most leading contact centers shoot for the 85%-90% range. Meeting such an objective would require each agent to be available to handle contacts 51-54 minutes for each hour they are scheduled, thus leaving enough time for runs to the restroom, seeking assistance from supervisors, or searching the help wanted ads for a less demanding job.      

It should be noted that scheduled time away from the phones – such as breaks, lunches, training and beatings – is not counted as time assigned to handle contacts, and thus should not be factored into adherence to schedule measurements.

Agents are human beings, at least in most contact centers, and thus need to be treated as such when it comes to measuring and “enforcing” adherence to schedule. Merely telling agents that they need to be in their seats at certain times “or else” will do little to foster agent buy-in and commitment, and a lot to foster agent graffiti and arson. Leading contact centers ensure that agents meet adherence objectives without the use of cattle prods or border collies. Some of the non-invasive and respectful tactics these centers utilize to keep agents in their seats include:

• Educating new-hires (and reminding existing agents) on the meaning and importance of adherence, and the impact that each agent’s adherence to schedule has on the customer experience and each other’s sanity.

• Doing a good job with workforce management to ensure that agents don’t have to frequently endure call deluges, which will cause burnout and spontaneous combustion, thus encouraging agents to take longer breaks, or not show up at all.

• Involving agents more in the scheduling process – e.g., enabling them to access schedules, request vacations and bid for/trade shifts right from their desktop – to ensure more buy-in from staff and trick them into thinking they have the slightest semblance of control over their lives.

• Basically, doing anything that helps make the job more enjoyable and decreases burnout. Examples include: Rewarding/recognizing agents for regularly meeting adherence objectives; providing agents with fun stress-reduction techniques they can do between calls; offering a work-at-home option; and, of, course, removing the steel bars and the seatbelts from their workstation.

First-contact resolution has been a hot call center metric for years now. There are white papers and articles galore on the topic, and entire conferences and online forums dedicated to it. Most telling is that numerous managers have gotten “FCR Forever” and/or “One and Done” tattooed on their necks.

The majority of conversations about FCR center around two things: 1) the huge potential impact of FCR (on operational costs, customer satisfaction and agent satisfaction/retention); and 2) how the hell to measure this mega-metric accurately (no simple task, as you’ll see in my upcoming ebook, Full Contact).

What often gets lost amidst the FCR hype and the confusion surrounding its proper measurement is something even more critical: What processes, practices and tools a contact center can put in place to help improve FCR. Customers don’t care if you know how to measure FCR, they simply want you to achieve it. Following is a list of tactics to help you do just that:

Excellent agent training and tools. If your agents lack skills, knowledge and/or immediate access to key information on calls, your FCR rate is going to be lower than the average winter temperature in Greenland or the average morale level in a billing contact center. Top centers provide comprehensive new-hiring training to rookies and frequent ongoing training to veteran agents, forever keeping staff abreast of new products/services, information and approaches to help them provide the most efficient and effective service. In addition, these centers equip agents with user-friendly, fast and frequently updated desktop tools and knowledge bases that enable staff to find crucial customer data and product/service info a flash, thus reducing the number of times customers must be placed on hold, transferred, called back, or physically restrained.

World-class workforce management processes. Even the best-trained and equipped agents on the planet will die without oxygen, thus it’s critical to schedule enough staff to enable each agent to take at least two breaths between calls. Agents can’t resolve calls if they are having a stroke, or if the customer – who has been caged in the queue for 15 minutes – is screaming at them for taking so long to answer the phone. Thus, accurate forecasting and sound scheduling based on those forecasts is critical, as is mastering skills-based routing so that callers get sent to the right agent with the skill-set to handle the customer’s specific issue, and not to Bob – the quiet guy in the corner cubicle who makes paperclip sculptures of his mother. 

No conflicting performance objectives. Many contact centers tell agents to focus on FCR, but then pressure them to achieve strict productivity objectives that interfere with agents’ ability to truly focus on the customer. Conflicting performance objectives are the number-one cause of agent-on-manager violence in America. Making FCR a KPI in your center but then punishing agents for not handling a certain number of calls per hour/shift or for going a little over the desired AHT average will not only hinder your center’s chances of achieving FCR success and customer satisfaction, it may result in you being killed or worse by furious frontline staff.    

Incentives around FCR goal achievement. It’s always a wise practice to align agent incentives with the contact center’s and the enterprise’s performance goals. And since FCR success should be a top priority for nearly all customer care organizations, nearly all customer care organizations should reward and recognize agents when they consistently meet or exceed individual, team and center-wide FCR goals. Top contact centers do more than just order pizzas or pat staff on the back to celebrate current and propagate future FCR success; rather agents in these centers receive cash prizes, meaningful gifts/gift certificates, as well as public recognition at interdepartmental meetings and via internal newsletters/the corporate intranet. In addition to incentivizing and rewarding agents for FCR success, some centers de-incentivize and punish agents for FCR failure. This typically includes taking cash and gifts away from agents, publically humiliating them at meetings and via newsletters/the intranet, and forcing them to spend an hour alone in a room with somebody from IT.       

Agents empowered to improve FCR-related processes.  Your agents know customers and customer care better than anyone, assuming your center’s hiring and training programs don’t blow. Smart contact center managers actively solicit suggestions and insight from agents regarding how they may be able to enhance FCR performance. Given the opportunity, agents will tell you what tools, training and workflows are lacking, and what processes and metrics are interfering with their ability to effectively resolve customer issues. They will also tell you what color they would like the contact center to be painted and why they need a new headset that doesn't shock their ears, so be sure to cut them off before they stray too far from the topic of FCR.

I’d love to hear some of your ideas on FCR improvement, and/or about any tattoos you have gotten to show your dedication to this key metric.

I’m not usually one to be critical, unless I am awake and somebody is nearby to listen. But I simply cannot sit idly by and watch as people make very avoidable, costly mistakes – mistakes that often result in the loss of respect, money, career and lunch.

During the nearly two decades I have spent writing about and researching contact centers, I have uncovered several common critical mistakes that keep centers from ascending and customers from applauding. Here are the top three:  

1) They obsess over “industry standards”. Industry standards are like crack to many contact center professionals. These managers would kill their own mother for some, and when they (or think they) get a hold of it, things fall apart. At least crack is real; contact center industry standards don’t even exist. They are like Santa Claus or functional CRM solutions.

Rather than take the time to determine what would be the best service level objective or response time goal or first-contact resolution target for their particular center, many managers simply want a quick fix – a magic number or formula upon which they can base their critical contact center decisions and strategies. They embrace metrics and objectives that don’t fit their specific budget or business or customer base just because some other center has succeeded using the same goals and measures. A suicide hotline operation should not copy a software support centers’ caller access strategy; if they do, they are certain to “lose” customers.        

2) They don’t measure customer satisfaction, or do so ineffectively. It never ceases to amaze me how many contact centers don’t bother to formally measure C-sat. They just assume that if they haven’t received any ticking packages in the mail and have decent internal quality scores, then customers must be content. Just because a center’s quality assurance specialist deems a call well-handled doesn’t mean that the caller didn’t hang up and reach for his voodoo doll or a weapon, or, worse, blog about their experience. The only way to know just how satisfied or homicidal customers are is to ask them directly following their interaction with the contact center.

Of course, many centers that take the time to do just that do so poorly. They survey customers too late and/or the survey itself is designed badly (too many questions, too few questions, not the right questions). Many centers still use traditional mail surveys, which the customer doesn’t even receive until days after their interaction with an agent (thus making it hard for the customer to fully remember the subpar service they received), and which doesn’t come back from the customer until after the agent who handled the contact has been promoted to the Marketing department or has left their job to check into an inpatient mental health facility.

The best C-sat measurement initiatives center around a timely post-contact survey via phone, IVR or email, and that features between 5-8 questions – one of which asks the customer if their issue was fully resolved, and one of which asks the customer how likely they are to send a ticking package to the contact center via mail.   

3) They don’t let agents work from home. If I were a contact center manager and heard that there was a staffing strategy that study after study has shown to improve agent engagement and retention, recruiting, quality, productivity and staffing flexibility, the first thing I would do is ignore it.


But that is just what most contact center managers have done with telecommuting. True, frontline telecommuting is on the rise of late, but still only about one in five centers industry-wide use home agents to some extent. The old arguments like “How can I tell if they are working if I can’t see them” simply don’t hold water anymore. If you pick the right agents to work from home, you shouldn’t have to worry about whether or not they are adhering to schedule and doing what they are supposed to be doing. And even if you don’t trust your home-based staff, there are numerous technologies that enable managers and supervisors to spy on home agents and capture their every word, keystroke and nap.

There is a reason why some centers that decide to test out telecommuting end up kicking most or even all of their agents out of the building. It works – very well. Not only do home agent programs enable you to hold on to your best reps – who will likely perform even better from home due to being happier and more motivated – such programs also enable you to rid the contact center facility of those agents who smell funny but who are simply too good at customer service to fire.

Social media, schmocial media.

Don’t believe the hype: Your company and contact center won’t disintegrate just because you haven't incorporated social media into your customer care strategy yet – despite what vendors and others who stand to earn a chunk of change from the social media hysteria have to say.

Is social media for real? Yes. Is it really a game-changing trend in customer contact? No, and won’t be for some time.

I recommend that managers work on mastering the essentials of contact center management before getting too tangled up in Twitter or fretting over how Facebook is going to revolutionize customer care. Most centers still don’t know how to effectively forecast and schedule, still don’t correctly measure the right performance metrics, still can’t find time to conduct quality monitoring and coaching, and still haven’t figured out how to hold on to agents for more than six months following training. Trust me, your customers would want you to get those parts of the basic customer care equation right before you try to move on to differential calculus.

And don’t panic if you haven’t mastered the fundamentals yet – neither have your competitors, thus they aren’t ready to dazzle customers via social networking, either.

This is not to suggest that you ignore social media and its potential impact on your contact center and organization entirely. However, walk – don’t run. Yes, it’s a good idea (and easy) to monitor what customers and others might be saying about your organization online, but just look for recurring negative sentiments that need to be addressed. Don’t hire a bunch of agents to scan the web for any mention of your company when you could be using those extra agents to raise your service level from 30/80 to 80/30, lower your call abandon rate from 9.2% to 2.9%, and help block the contact center door so that staff can’t escape.

So why is the so-called impact of social media on customer care getting so much attention in contact center media and at industry conferences? Because it sounds a lot sexier than workforce management, first-contact resolution, hiring/training, adherence to schedule, etc. Industry journalists and event organizers are bored of the same old topics – forgetting just how important those topics are, and how few centers have demonstrated best practices in each of these key areas. Of course, having social media solutions providers dangle wads of advertising dollars in front of publishers and conference convoys certainly doesn’t help extinguish the social media fire.

Yes, I know, it can be hard to ignore the hype. We all want to be a part of a game-changing movement, of an industry-altering trend. But it hasn’t arrived yet. So, with regard to your contact center, don’t try so hard to be social and sexy. First shoot for sufficient and solid – then you can go play on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube all you’d like.

Don't let me have the last word on this. What's your take on social media as it pertains to customer care? How has it impacted your contact center specifically? I look forward to seeing your responses -- and maybe even starting some fights -- here:,146.0.html