Status Unavailable; The Black Hole of Contact Center Profits Part II

Part II: Accurately Defining Unavailable (AUX) Codes

As discussed in Part I, contact center agents are hired to be available to work handling contacts for complete shifts (whether 8 hours or otherwise). But during the average 8 hour shift, agents will quite commonly only be available and taking calls for about 5.5 hours. I have consulted with many call centers that have a working rate of less than 4 hours out of an 8 hour shift for various  procedural reasons. Most of the time it is quite possible to cut out a good portion of your agent unavailable time and by default, productivity (and of course profitability) is automatically increased as well.

The first, most basic principle of Six Sigma is that whatever you can define and measure, you can change. In this section we will focus on defining unavailability. The largest majority of the nearly 150 call centers I have worked with start out with far too few unavailable codes (sometimes called Auxiliary codes, or agent unavailable states). There are various reasons for this; the codes themselves used to be hard to create, use of the codes was too hard for the agents to figure out, or enforcing was too hard for supervisors to accomplish. Most up-to-date ACD systems now make it very easy to create new codes and have agents choose the codes easily when needed. The supervisor enforcing system will be covered in part IV.

In order to optimize your agent unavailable time, the proper codes must be created for your organization. As in all successful business processes, unavailable codes need to have the proper balance. If you have too many, agents will be frustrated at the list and will only chose one or two same codes to use regularly and then your numbers will be off and no optimization can occur. If you do not have enough codes to fit the situation, then an agent will think that the whole system has no worth and they will just choose one or two codes, and once again the numbers posted will do no one any good. When consulting with centers that are not using unavailable codes properly, I have been able to trace the reasons for non-usage back to the fact that at one time an imbalanced set of codes was used and poor results were achieved. After such a disaster had occurred (sometimes once or twice), all attempts at repair were usually given up and the procedure would not often be revisited. In addition, I have seen many, many centers that have far too many codes and no one I asked was sure what they all were for or under what circumstances you should really use them.  If management personnel do not know why a reason code has been chosen and cannot explain when it should be used, agents certainly will have no clue of proper usage either.

The appropriate balance of unavailable codes consists of a carefully thought out and defined list of whatever is needed to classify what agents do regularly when they are working off the phone. Are your agents regularly coached? Then there needs to be a “coaching” code set up. Do you ask agents to assist others when there are problems? Then there needs to be an “agent to agent mentor” code. Do you ask them to do research on calls? Then there will need to be a “research” code implemented. Does it take time for agents to bring up tool programs on their computer before they are ready to take a call? Then there needs to be a code that is called "beginning of shift" that agents use once they have first logged into the ACD but are not yet ready to take contacts.

An important step here, is to be sure and tap into the experienced knowledge of supervisors and agents to find out exactly what additional duties and actions are performed by these very same agents and supervisors that on a daily basis prevents them from directly handling contacts while working. In my experience, the majority of personnel who are in charge of choosing the unavailable states and how they will be used, are often quite in the dark about what really needs to be created and implemented. This is okay. It means there is room to grow and understand new and better procedures!

Following is a recommendation of some common codes to use depending on applicable local factors: Research, Agent to Agent mentoring, Coaching, Supervisor to Agent Mentoring, Product Training, Up Training, Procedural Training, Lunch, Break, Personal Misc (for ay activity outside of normally scheduled breaks), Technical Difficulties, Beginning of Shift, End Of Shift (a state agents can go into while on their last call of the day in order to prevent themselves from getting any other queued calls), Additional Disposition Time, Supervisor Unavailable (for when supervisors are logged into the system to but not actually taking calls), Quality Monitoring, Outbound, Team Meeting, Manager Assigned projects.

Over and over I have been a told by obviously untrained management personnel that setting unavailable codes is a huge waste of time. "Agents", -I have been told- "will always find creative ways to get out of handling contacts no matter how many elaborate traps are uselessly set to catch them." This point of view may have some valid credence. Creating correct unavailable codes methodology, however; is not really about catching agents during contact avoidance! Setting proper unavailable procedures is about making the best efforts possible to accurately track wherever possible, all practices and procedures that keep agents from being available to take calls. Once you can accurately track any process, then and only then can you manage it; carefully and correctly. In my experience, call avoidance is only the smallest portion of the many factors that are roadblocks to call handling efficiency in contact center day-to-day activities.

In addition to this previous point, from years of experience working all over the world I have to say; if you have built and maintained a working culture where agents habitually do find endless ways to cheat on handling contacts, then yes this information can possibly be of only limited value. But I have assisted over half of 100 call centers in realizing extremely profitable increases by utilizing these previously outlined steps (and of course, other procedures as well) to build a culture where the agents that are happy to do their jobs to the best of their abilities are the majority of the group, and the cheaters become just a small, managed, minimal minority. If call avoidance is the norm at your facility, go back and take a hard look at the company policies that are driving such an undesirable culture. They are likely in need of considerable adjustment.

Once the correct unavailable codes are defined, the next step is implementation. There is no substitute for a carnival and fanfare launch of any new important policy.

Soon to come: Part III: Implementing your Unavailable Code policy