Imagine that you sit down to start work and fire up your email app, only to be greeted with a cryptic error message. At the same time, your phone buzzes with a text message from a coworker asking if you’re having email trouble.
Within minutes, it's apparent that the entire company’s email is down, so you find the support number and make a call. As you wait on hold, your phone continues to buzz with alerts—people need to get into their email to handle critical tasks.
You can feel your blood pressure rise in real time. By the time you get a support agent and the problem is resolved, you’ve missed multiple critical emails.
That same afternoon, you start shopping for a new email app to deploy at your company.
Few things kill the customer experience quite like having to wait forever to get help—and you’d like to think your own support team is above frustratingly long wait times. However, without an effective strategy for Schedule Building, that’s exactly where your customers will find themselves.
Does this matter to you? Keep reading if…
- Your agents' work shifts don’t align with when your customers contact you, causing poor customer service.
- You have forecasts for when your customers will contact you but don’t know what to do next.
- Your agents require flexibility and options for when they work, but the business needs to meet customer demand—and you’re struggling to figure out how to balance these conflicting needs.
What exactly is Schedule Building?
Schedule Building is the process of taking a support forecast, translating it into the number of people you need to staff given expected team productivity and your specific response targets, and then identifying and scheduling shifts that define when agents will work.
In the simplest terms, it’s clarifying who will work when—but with an intelligent process and reasoning behind it.
Effective Schedule Building is all about ensuring the right person is in the right place at the right time. You could have a staff of hundreds, but if they aren’t there when needed, you won’t be able to deliver your best support.
Schedule Building is a key part of ensuring you have proper coverage to serve your customers. And this is one of those core elements that only gets more important as your business grows. As you add more support channels and products and your organization becomes more complex, a solid foundation is essential.
With that in mind, Schedule Building becomes the first step in taking control of your organization—determining where your agents will be and what they’ll be doing throughout the week. Without a successful process, you’re bound to waste time, energy, and ultimately, money in the scramble to meet customer needs.
4 benefits of effective Schedule Building
Thoughtful scheduling can be the difference between a chaotic environment ripe for customer complaints and a smooth, stress-free operation.
Here are just some of the benefits you and your support team can experience with the right Schedule Building process in place:
- Stability: Schedule Building provides a plan for the business regarding what agents will be doing and when. It also sets expectations for agents so they can adjust their lives around when they are needed for work.
- Flexibility: Instead of a bunch of rigid Monday - Friday, 9 - 5 shifts, effective schedule building uses many different shift types to give agents options that work for them while more efficiently servicing customers.
- Measurement: Schedule Building equips you with a quantifiable metric to determine how effectively your schedules match your customer needs as well as how well your agents are adhering to your schedules.
- Confidence: A tangible plan increases the confidence of your executive and finance teams, as they trust that you have a plan to create a great customer experience in a cost effective way.
How Schedule Building Theory actually works
Building an effective schedule sounds simple in theory, but anybody who’s ever done it will be quick to tell you that there’s some nuance and complexity involved.
Let’s look at a basic flow and some concrete tips that can help you get started.
Step #1: Create your support forecast
You can’t create a schedule without a forecast. So, the first thing you’ll want to do is create your support forecasts, which tell you how many contacts you estimate that you’ll have in a given period, and thus, how many agents you’ll need for that same time period.
Your support forecast will usually be expressed in 30 or 60 minute intervals for a few weeks into the future, meaning it comes after Short-Term Forecasting.
However, there might be times when you need to build schedules further into the future, which means you’ll need to rely on your Long-Term Forecasts or Capacity Plans. In those cases, you’ll have to do a bit of educated guesswork, combining what you know about current Short-Term Forecasts with what you think will be different down the road.
Don’t panic—just make your best educated guess and take comfort in the fact that you can always adjust later.
Step #2: Build your initial schedule
Once you’ve got your forecast in hand, you can start to piece together an initial schedule based on that information.
It’s important to ensure that this schedule follows the demand of your customers. In other words, while 9–5 might be nice hours for bankers, they probably aren’t going to work very well for your support team. Support needs are rarely that clean-cut.
Instead, build the schedule around the shape of your contact arrival pattern, or curve. Each day likely has a peak time when demand is highest, as well as a low point. Similarly, each week likely has days where more support is needed. These are your curves. You’ll want to match your schedule to this rhythm for best results.
Now, it’s rare that you’ll have exactly the right amount of staff for a given time period. Rather than obsessing over that, focus on maintaining a consistent customer experience throughout the day as you ride the curve. In practice, this means keeping every time block, or interval, over- or under-staffed by the same amount.
For a metric to aim for, you can use the over- or under-staffed percentage from each interval, averaged out through the day or week. Here’s how you can calculate your fit to curve:
1 - absolute (planned - need) / need
So, imagine that at 9:30 am your staffing need is 35 and your net staffing planned is 37. That breaks down like this:
1 - absolute ((37 - 35)/35) or 94.2%.
But, at 10 am your staffing need is 40 and your net staffing planned is 38. Here’s that equation:
1 - absolute ((38-40)/40) or 95%
Averaged out, the fit to curve is 94.6% for those intervals. Is that good or bad? Generally, anything above a 90% score is considered good. In an ideal world, you’d hit 95% and above—but that’s much harder with smaller teams.
Make sure that you use weighted averages here, because you could end up in a situation where your low volume intervals (think overnight, as one example) can be very unbalanced due to being outweighed by high volume intervals. While the math works out, those customers who get stuck waiting in the unbalanced intervals won’t be too pleased.
With that said, don’t forget to account for the over-staffing too—while it’s less impactful for customers, it’s also effectively wasted money for your business.
If you’re using Workforce Management software, you should be able to find your fit to curve percentage there. If you’re using Assembled, we even plot it out on a handy graph for you:
You can use these graphs to quickly get a feel for the curve of your day and plan ahead.
Step #3: Optimize your schedule
With the rough schedule plotted out, it’s time to optimize your shifts. There are two things you want to consider here: shift types and “shrinkage,” which are all of the activities and events that pull staff away from providing support.
When it comes to shift types, the standard across basically every industry is either a 5 x 8 or 4 x 10 spread—in other words, five eight-hour days or four 10-hour days. This is often applied with the same start and end times, so you end up with the classic Monday through Friday, 9–5 schedule.
However, if you compare that schedule to your curve, you’ll probably find that it doesn’t match very well. It also doesn’t offer your agents much flexibility for dealing with the realities of life—they probably have families, commitments, and interests outside of work that they need to tend to.
To accommodate these needs, consider trying these shift types:
- Staggered start times: Instead of having everyone come in at the same time (and thus leave at the same time), consider staggering your shifts. You might have a mid shift that runs 10–6pm, and a late shift that runs 2–10pm, for example. You can get as simple or as complex as you need to match your shifts to your support curve.
- Part time shifts: You could offer smaller shifts specifically targeting your busiest times. Some employees will prefer these, as they allow more flexibility outside of work to handle commitments like childcare. Note that you may need to get HR approval to offer these types of shifts.
- Split shifts: Instead of lumping an agent’s eight hours all together during one shift, you could offer to split them up. For example, four hours in the morning and four in the evening. This gives the employee the flexibility to handle external responsibilities that need to be done during the day, while also giving the business coverage during the times when it’s most needed. As remote work increases (and commutes decrease), this option has become more popular.
The other optimization you can make to your schedule is to fit in your shrinkage activities around the curve. These are meetings, training, breaks—essentially anything that doesn’t involve actively helping a customer.
These activities are necessary, so they need to be accounted for in your schedule. Ideally, you’ll have them slotted in around your busiest times to avoid interruptions, although in practice this won’t always be possible. However, having even a rough plan in place will improve your scheduling and help you get a more realistic picture of how many people you need at any given time. You can then refine this plan further during Intraday Schedule Management and Real-Time Management.
Step #4: Assign agents to your shifts
With the shift schedule mapped out, it’s time to get agents assigned to work. As you do this, it’s important to find ways to be as fair as possible.
One common method is to use performance metrics or tenure to rank your employees. You can then assign the “best” shifts to employees that rank higher, or give them first pick if you’re using a sign-up method. This can also be a nice incentive for people to improve performance.
Note that if you take this path, you probably still want to reserve some of the most desirable shifts to give to less-performing agents and those that have been with the company for shorter periods of time to keep things fair.
Another method would be to send out surveys with shift options and have employees rank them in order of preference. While you won’t be able to give everyone the exact shifts they want, this gives people more of a say in when they work. Plus, some employees may actually prefer the less-popular shifts, so giving them a chance to claim them would make everyone happier.
Finally, keep in mind that it’s natural for your schedules to drift away from your workload curve during the course of the year. Attrition, changes in customer behavior, and a whole host of other factors can cause this. You may need to adjust things periodically to account for this drift.
Even so, remember that drastic upheavals in schedules are extremely disruptive to people’s lives outside of work. These situations should generally be avoided if possible and a good rule of thumb is that there should be no more than two large-scale staffing shuffles per year. Those can be supplemented by smaller, targeted changes when your fit to curve begins to drop. Regardless, make it your goal to give as much notice as you can.
Take control of your team’s schedule before it controls you
Schedule Building is an absolutely vital part of running a successful business—especially one with heavy customer support needs. While it can seem daunting at first, it’s not as difficult as you might think.
With practice, you’ll get a better feel for how to schedule and assign shifts and when to slot in your shrinkage activities. In the meantime, keep these points in mind:
- Without putting the time in to build schedules you are inviting chaos and inefficiency into your business. It’s worth a little extra time up front to ensure smoother operations down the road.
- Stay flexible and don’t be afraid to try new things. It can take time to land on a winning schedule for your business.
- Don’t assume what shifts people can and want to work. Solicit feedback from employees and pivot as needed to keep morale up.
And remember, this is one area where thoughtfully-designed software can really help. Don’t be afraid to invest in your scheduling tools—the difference it makes can be enormous.