Off Center
It’s often said that call center workforce management is both a science and an art form. There are complex formulas and calculations involved in forecasting and staffing, but actually getting the right number of agents in place at the right times within budget often requires some real creativity. That’s why you’ll often see workforce management specialists wearing berets and sipping absinthe.

With regard to the artsy side of workforce management, some call centers do more abstract, experimental work than others. Many centers, for instance, have created internal reserve teams – people from other departments within the enterprise who are forced to skip lunch and stop playing on their Facebook page long enough to help out on the phones during the center’s peak calling periods. Other centers have explored outsourcing a portion of their calls to trained prison inmates, who typically work for cheap and have stellar attendance rates.

While such outside-the-box approaches can be helpful, they are not always practical. For example, it can be hard to find a headset big enough for a reserve team member from Marketing to wear. And often the best prison agents get early parole for good behavior, forcing you to replace them with inmates who breathe too loudly and like to memorize customers' home addresses.    

There is, however, one wildly inventive and affordable call center staffing solution that I have seen work: External staff-sharing.  

Sharing Is Caring (for customers, agents and costs)

Staff-sharing is not exactly a hot trend among call centers, but it should be. Here’s how it generally works: Two companies that have complimentary peak seasons (e.g., Company A’s from November-February; Company B’s from June-August) form an alliance where each company lends the other some of its call center agents to help out during the busiest months. No travel or change of center is required for participating agents; they can stay put in their original call center (or home) and simply have the other company’s calls routed to them. This enables call centers that are located in completely different geographical locations to form an effective alliance, and keeps participating agents from having to find new places to hide in a strange building.

Not only does staff-sharing help each call center involved maintain a solid level of service during the most trying times, both centers stand to save a wad of cash in terms of recruiting/hiring costs and some training costs since there is no need to constantly go out and find/train new temporary staff each peak season. Further, staff-sharing provides a healthy element of job diversity for participating agents, who get to spend part of each year handling completely different call types from customers who bring completely different complaints, insults and threats to the table.

Naturally, getting an effective staff-sharing alliance off the ground comes with its share of challenges and stress, but that’s why Xanax, alcohol and yoga exist. (Though don’t make the same mistake I made by trying all three at once.) After you find a potential call center to partner with, each organization needs to work together closely to create a mutually beneficial arrangement and to ensure congruency with regard to things like agent compensation, training, quality monitoring, incentives, and the use of cattle prods.

Paint Outside the Lines

Yes, staff-sharing is unconventional, but certainly not impossible. In a 2010 ICMI study on workforce management practices, roughly 10% of respondents indicated sharing staff with another call center – and 70% of these respondents reported that the approach had a “very positive” or “positive” impact on call center performance (with most of the remaining centers reporting “neutral” results).     

When you weigh the big potential benefits of staff-sharing against the effort involved and the strange looks you’ll likely get from colleagues, I think you’ll agree that it’s worth looking into, and probably even trying – at least on a dare.

Mike Trotter
2/18/2011 09:01:58 am


I actually tried a little different approach. I had a small center in a rural community and had some sharing of the local Bank's customer service staff on the times of day and days of week when they were less busy. Th local manager and i worked out the deal and had it all set when the regional bank hr group stepped in a said "no way".

So, it went south from there. This will work for companies that will pull their heads out of their south end and think.

Great idea.

2/18/2011 09:08:47 am

Kudos to you, Mike, for at least attempting something so creatively resourceful.

And thanks for confirming that I'm not totally insane with this idea.

I've actually seen it work for a few companies - I'm just not allowed to share their names!

Best of luck to you and your team.


2/20/2011 07:33:24 pm

Greg, Great suggestion. I've seen utility companies consider doing this since the electric utility has weather based volume spikes in the summer and the gas utility has their spikes in the winter.

They were going to share a pool of employees, have them on a third party's payroll (for benefits, workers comp claims etc.) and share the cost.

Good, common sense approach.

2/20/2011 09:35:33 pm

I appreciate your input, Jim. The Utilities example sounds like a great fit! An I hadn't heard about the third-party compensation idea before -- very interesting.

People should know, though, that call centers don't need to partner with another company in their same vertical industry. In fact, usually it works out better if you DON'T, as there is more of a chance of two completely different businesses having different (yet complimentary) peak periods. For example the most successful staffing alliance I know of was formed between an online retailer and a large hotel brand, and it lasted for years!

Let me know if you have any contacts actually doing what you say the Utility centers have considered -- would love to feature such a partnership in my "Contact Centerfold of the Month" column!




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