The Ugly Truth About Customer Service Agent Occupancy in the Call Center
Illustration by Meaghan Hendricks

I found this idiom online at The Free Dictionary. The expression was coined by Canadian politician Thomas Chandler Haliburton, and its definition is pretty straightforward: “You should be on time for all your business appointments.”

This definition immediately makes sense and causes me to wonder why the word “punctuality” isn’t used more often. It seems to me that perhaps the contact center prefers discussion about being tardy rather than around punctuality. Maybe this is one of the reasons why there is more tardiness then there is punctuality!

The contact center is one of those places where it is most critical for people to be punctual and perhaps being punctual is actually the soul of the contact center business. Punctuality is certainly one of the values that seasoned professionals hold dear; in my experience, it is chosen not imposed. It is this personal standard that management puts at risk when a “punctuality problem” is not promptly and effectively addressed.

Everyone recognizes that occasionally things happen—whether it’s traffic jams, childcare issues, public transportation breakdowns or bad weather. Sometimes people are late to work for very legitimate reasons. However, it is the “chronically tardy” that send a different message. The message may be one of dissatisfaction with the job. One’s level of unhappiness leads to behaviors that are contrary to contact center objectives. The objectives at risk fall upon both the customer and the other folks employed to work in the center.

The impact to customers manifests as longer delays. If your staffing plan requires 40 agents at 8 a.m. and you have only 36, the customer must wait longer for service. That service will then be delivered by one of the 36 agents who carry a load meant for 40. The 36 people who show up on time and do the right things are subjected to a level of utilization greater than what the organization intended. The consequences are not only to the customer but to those folks who are doing the right things.

Management plays a huge role in managing not only the customer experience but also the agent experience, particularly as it relates to utilization. Management must intervene very early and very often to enhance punctuality. Punctuality must be positioned as a value… one that is held near and dear to the individuals and to the organization. It must be clearly understood that, if everyone doesn’t show up on time, those who do must handle more of the load. Hence, they will be “more utilized.” If being late is a chronic condition, your “utilized” staff”—often your better workers—are going to become resentful. Morale will suffer and soon you will begin to see staff turnover and more people assuming that it is OK to be late.

I am relatively certain that there is no disclaimer on a contact center front-end menu that says, “We open at eight and start taking calls when our people show up.” How ludicrous and ridiculous such a disclaimer would be! However, when management does nothing to intervene with the chronically tardy (aka the punctually challenged), a sort of tacit permission has been granted to that behavior.

I read something years ago that has stuck with me. When we hire people, we are “renting a set of behaviors.” It is the job of the manager to make sure that desired behaviors have been made excruciatingly clear, particularly those associated with punctuality. Managing this dynamic in the contact center often falls to the supervisor.

Far too often, contact center supervisors have little if any management experience, have large numbers of people suddenly reporting to them, and receive minimal or no management training or coaching guidance. They do not receive the support or mentorship needed to help them effectively monitor the behaviors necessary to reach business objectives. Supervisors who receive no training often manage the way they were managed. If that experience was good… fantastic! Far too often though, the experience wasn’t good enough.

There are approaches that can be taken to intervene with the punctually challenged. First and foremost, the issue must be dealt with immediately. If there is a simple explanation and the situation is not chronic… fine, move on. But for those folks who seem to always be behind schedule, it is important to uncover why that is; the manager needs to craft a plan to help the individual change his or her behavior. I have actually seen plans that include having the manager make a wake-up call to the individual. I am not recommending this particular level of intervention, simply remarking on how desperate and crazy we can become to achieve an on-time arrival.

When addressing the issues of the punctually challenged, one of two outcomes typically occurs. The person rises to the occasion and improves his arrival time or he will leave. Both of these are actually good outcomes. (There are some behaviors that are “cured” by their mere mention.)

“Better three hours too soon than a minute too late.”–William Shakespeare

Managers must keep in mind that allowing chronic tardiness to continue weakens them in the eyes of the rest of the staff. If turnover happens, it is rarely the people that you wish would leave. You might be losing the best that you have and those that are the hardest to replace. The heart and soul of the contact center suffers!

According to Diana DeLonzor, author of “Never Be Late Again: 7 Cures for the Punctually Challenged,” tardiness “costs U.S. businesses more than $3 billion each year in lost productivity. The effect on the bottom line of the average business is significant: An employee who is late 10 minutes each day has, by the end of the year, taken the equivalent of a week’s paid vacation.”

If “punctuality is the soul of business,” managers must get to the heart of the matter and take action. They must require team members to assume or learn the types of behaviors that will help them be successful in this regard. Few success stories highlight the tardy! And there are few if any contact centers that can claim success when leadership does not require its people to meet the standard of punctuality.

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FROMContact Center Pipeline July 2015
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Kathleen Peterson
Kathleen M. Peterson is the Founder and Chief Vision Officer of PowerHouse Consulting, Kathleen is an acclaimed Contact Center consultant and recognized industry visionary. She offers a refreshing and sometimes challenging philosophy to positioning the Contact Center as the true lifeline of the enterprise—believing that vision, brand, leadership and execution combine to deliver a powerful customer experience. Kathleen has emerged as one of the most sought-after experts and consulting partner in the field of customer experience working with the world’s top customer-focused companies, and is published widely in the most prestigious industry journals in the U.S. and abroad. As a featured speaker at conferences and Fortune 500 companies, she has shared her humor, knowledge, and experience across four continents, including Contact Center conference keynotes in the United States, London, Paris, Turkey, Dubai, and Hong Kong. Kathleen also served as Conference Chair for the North American Conference on Customer Service Management.