What are the costs of getting it wrong?

All public service organisations share a common goal: to do more with less or, for the purposes of this article, to achieve high levels of customer and colleague satisfaction while keeping costs low. The ability to deal effectively with fluctuations in workload is critical as the cost of getting it wrong can be extremely expensive, as customer service suffers and dissatisfaction and low morale becomes rampant amongst colleagues.
Managing fluctuations
Managing fluctuations remains a major challenge for customer contact operations, whether at the front, back office or in field. Our experience at the Professional Planning Forum has shown that too many organisations jump in at the solutions stage before defining the gap by understanding how volatile their workload is and how much flexibility is required to manage this.

Defining the gap
Defining this gap will help you to manage your demand more effectively and implement the right flexibility strategy for your organisation, colleagues and customers. The other ‘c’ is cost, that is, doing all this at the right cost or at least understanding how much it will cost if you get it wrong.
In response to this, we launched a Volatility & Flexibility challenge for our members which has been taken up by over 60 organisations from across the public and private sectors.
Defining the gap starts with understanding all the different channels which your customers use to contact you and how these impact each other. For example, if you have a backlog in your back office area, will this lead to additional inbound calls?
This is about controlling the controllable and understanding the impact of all known activities. If you know a particular event drives workload and you know when this happens then you should have this built into your plan. Typical events that drive an increase in workload include month end, billing cycles, marketing activity, seasonality, and so on. In these instances you should have flexibility built into your strategy to help manage the situation.  
 Jane Bowen, Operations Manager at Worcestershire Hub Shared Services explains about some of the known and unknown events that impact her: “The largest event that we have to deal with is actually quite predictable, it’s the return to school period at the end of august and beginning of September, mainly caused by parents who are accessing free school transport. It’s caused by a number of factors, late applications, changes in circumstance, passes not yet received to name a few. Some of this will be solved by the new online facility which is being developed. There are smaller peaks during the year – school allocation date at the end of the admissions process can cause a peak, but it depends on the level of children that are allocated their first choice school.
“The last middle school allocation caused very little demand because a very high proportion got their first choice, but if there are lower levels then we get a lot of calls with customers wanting to appeal their allocation. Other than that, the event that is more out of our control and ability to predict is the weather. You are probably aware that Worcestershire is particularly prone to flooding and we usually have at least one event each year. We do get warning through updates from the Met Office so we know its coming and we have Business Continuity Plan’s in place to cope with them.”
As Jane explains, there will also be events that you know affect your workload volumes. However, you don’t know exactly when these will happen. Improving processes, communication and marketing can help control the impact of some of these events, easing the pressure.
Managing workloads
There are many ways to calculate your swing in volatility, for this challenge we have used the following formula: (Maximum requirement – Minimum requirement) / Mean requirement. This demonstrates the full swing from maximum to minimum staffing requirement. However, scale is relative to the chosen staffing position. The following example from Worcestershire is based on an average staffing level by week.
In the example of Worcestershire Hub the FTE requirement the total swing in volatility is 85.2 per cent. Jane Bowens says: “The biggest learning point that I have got from the session to date is realising just how big the swing is in our contact centre which we had never calculated prior to this”.
The swing in flexibility demonstrated in the graph requires a number of different flexibility options to enable the ability to flex up by 52 per cent and then down by 33 per cent at different times of the year. This is quite an extreme scale, which will require multiple flexibility tools to meet this demand. Other organisations are likely to experience anything from +75 per cent to -47 per cent, with the average being +23 per cent to -20 per cent.
Jane Bowen talks about how greater flexibility could benefit her council: “We’re looking at more flexible contracts and targeting our recruitment at audiences that would give us more flexibility – in Worcester we have a growing university and therefore students may like having flexible contracts that allow them to select shifts to fit in with their studies.”

How much flexibility do you need?
Completing this analysis phase gives you the starting point for understanding which flexibility options will support you the most. For instance, Jane used various options such as Student Working or introducing different hours into the organisation. Students can offer the advantage of variations in shifts at different times of the year depending on their study time. On the flip side students may require multiple work patterns throughout the year to match their changing timetable. They may also require time off on the lead up to coursework deadlines, or exams.
The Professional Planning Forum has identified 18 different flexibility options which can be implemented full and part time as well as contractual and non-contractual. These include annualised hours and time banking which can help increase and decrease weekly and annual hours to match any changing demand, though the same amount of contracted hours are worked. Homeworking is another option that can provide amazing benefits for the organisation such as shorter shifts (e.g. 30 minutes) as there is no commuting time, and which work around the lifestyle of the individual. Other options include: term time working, trade off shifts, contractual overtime, and zero hour contracts.
While each of these ideas have their benefits and challenges, they have all been successfully implemented somewhere within our member community, suggesting they could work for you. Remember it is very rare for one solution to be suitable for all. Critically, don’t lock yourself into contracts that can’t be changed – remain future proof by having regular reviews. This is to help provide continual flexibility for both the employee and the employer, as situations and circumstances will change for both every year. It is possible to mitigate against the cost of getting it wrong.

Further information

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