Call Center Consolidation Considerations

Call Center Consolidation Considerations

By Penny Reynolds

The last article in this series explored some of the service and productivity tradeoffs associated with staffing changes. We’ll begin here with a quick review of staffing and occupancy considerations and then talk about how the tradeoffs impact upcoming decisions about consolidation – either site or agent group consolidation.

Staff occupancy is a measure of how busy agents are handling calls (either in a conversation or in after-call work) versus sitting idle waiting on a call to arrive. It is calculated by dividing workload hours by staff hours.

Continuing examples from past articles where there is a workload of 20 erlangs (400 calls with an AHT of 3 minutes each), there are 24 staff in place to meet service goals with a resulting occupancy rate of 83%. If staff are added, each person is less busy with more idle time. On the other hand, if a person is subtracted, occupancy increases, leaving staff with less idle time between calls.

Calls/
Hour
Staff Workload Number of Staff Occupancy Level Service Level
400 20 hours 23 87% 75%
400 20 hours 24 83% 85%
400 20 hours 25 80% 91%

It is important to monitor occupancy to ensure it does not creep up too high. High levels of occupancy over long periods of time can have many detrimental effects, including the following:

  1. Average handle time (AHT) generally rises. As there is less idle time between calls, staff find a way to avoid the added workload, either by talking longer on an existing call or more likely going into after-call work and staying there longer than necessary.
  2. Shrinkage increases. With less idle time between calls, staff tend to put themselves in an unavailable state either taking unscheduled breaks or using other activity codes to hide out.
  3. Stress increases. With a sustained back-to-back workload, there is a higher stress level, resulting in tardiness and absenteeism. If high occupancy continues, staff may leave the company altogether.
  4. Call quality worsens. As calls build up in queue and wait longer, callers are likely to be upset or angry and therefore more difficult to handle. In addition, staff may feel the pressure of many calls waiting and hurry through necessary elements of the call, lessening overall quality.

Let’s look now at how occupancy is impacted by the size of group or center.

Calls/
Hour
Staff Workload Number of Staff Occupancy Level Service Level
400 20 hours 23 87% 75%
400 20 hours 24 83% 85%
400 20 hours 25 80% 91%
800 40 hours 44 91% 78%
800 40 hours 45 89% 85%
800 40 hours 45 87% 90%
1600 80 hours 85 94% 79%
1600 80 hours 86 93% 85%
1600 80 hours 87 92% 89%

In the first example with 400 calls per hour or 20 hours of workload, staffing to achieve an 85% service level goal would point to 24 staff, resulting in an occupancy rate of 83%. This means that the other 17% of the time, the staff would be idle.

Now look at doubling the workload. With 40 hours of workload, achieving the same service level of 85% in 30 seconds would not take double the staff. Rather than (24 x 2) or 48 staff, only 45 staff are required for this service level and the resulting occupancy is 89%, with 11% idle time.

Now look at doubling the workload again. With 80 hours of workload – four times the original workload – 86 staff are required and the occupancy level is 93%.

The larger the call volume and workload, the more efficient the staff will be at handling it. There are better efficiencies as group size grows with higher and higher occupancy rates. The reason for this is simple. As call volumes increase, there is a greater likelihood that when an agent is finished with a call, there is another one arriving, meaning the agent can be more efficient or more utilized with less idle time between calls.

Obviously, these larger groups and higher occupancy rates are desirable. But they are only desirable up to a certain point. The increased efficiencies that can be gained in very large groups can result in too much workload and burnout of staff. It is important to keep a watch on this number to make sure it doesn’t go unrealistically high for the staff.

In terms of the relationship between service and occupancy, there is an inverse relationship between the two. As staff members are added to improve service, occupancy declines. Likewise, in order to improve occupancy, staff can be removed so that each person is busier and utilized more fully, but service suffers.

The only way to impact both in a positive way is to affect workload. The most common way to accomplish this is via consolidation of small groups into larger ones. In most centers, there are opportunities to consolidate several small groups into one larger one. This is typically accomplished by moving away from specialized skills to a more universal skill set where all calls can funnel into the same group.

The Consolidation Effect

In the last example, with 400 calls and 20 hours of workload, 24 staff are required to yield an 85% service level. If there are four groups that all have this workload, there would be four groups of 24 agents each or a total of 96 staff. On the other hand, if the total of 1600 calls (4 groups of 400) were routed into one single group, then only 86 staff would be needed. This represents a staff savings of 10 headcount.

The savings is achieved by having a bigger volume. With a much larger volume of calls arriving, each associate can be more productive or occupied, so not as many will be needed. This higher occupancy due to economies of scale is a powerful reason to think about consolidating smaller groups into fewer, larger ones.

In the last example, there are many ways to think about the benefits of consolidation. Combining four groups into one can result in the following:

  1. Reduce headcount by 10 staff.
  2. Keep all 96 staff and improve service levels significantly.
  3. Keep all 96 staff and at the same service level, take on more workload – either more calls or longer handle time.
  4. Realize some pieces of all the above. Perhaps there could be a partial staff reduction, some reduction in service, and the addition of some additional workload.

Consolidation Considerations

There are two main types of consolidation. First, there is the consolidation scenario where multiple contact center sites are consolidating into fewer sites. This can be on an international, national, regional, or local basis. The other scenario that is presented more often is a group consolidation, where multiple agent groups within a site are consolidated into fewer, larger groups.

In a site consolidation, there are many potential benefits. First and foremost, there can be significant headcount savings as illustrated in the previous example. If the number of sites is being reduced, then there may be potential real-estate savings from closed sites. Fewer people mean fewer desktops, including all desktop tools. And each site that goes away will also mean one fewer ACD and other contact center systems. Finally, fewer sites also mean easier reporting and communications between the sites.

However, there are some drawbacks to site consolidation. Closing some sites may mean employee displacement and loss of a local presence. One of the biggest drawbacks of closing some sites is lessened disaster recovery if something should happen that renders some sites inoperable. Closing sites can also reduce the capability of a “follow the sun” routing where some sites can close earlier each day and have calls routed to further western sites still open. Losing some sites may mean a reduction in labor pool and desirable skills.

There are also pros and cons of a simple group consolidation within a single site. When considering a group consolidation, consider the following:

  1. What are the potential headcount savings?
  2. Will consolidation make the occupancy rate go too high or will the combined occupancy be in an acceptable range?
  3. Do employees have the needed skills to handle an additional call type?
  4. Do employees have the desire and willingness to take on an additional skill?
  5. Will call quality be maintained as agents take on new types of calls?
  6. Will customer access be easier or harder?
  7. Will service be the same or lower or higher?
  8. What will be the training time and cost involved in getting staff ready to handle additional call types?

These and other factors should be carefully considered when taking on a consolidation analysis.

Usually the answer to the “should we consolidate?” question is yes and no. There are typically some scenarios in the center where consolidation makes sense. Look for groups that don’t have very high volume and have low occupancy. If groups are already highly occupied, a consolidation won’t make sense, even if it means compatible skill sets and ease of cross-training.

However, beware of consolidating and expecting huge payback when you have not considered all the training requirements, staff desire to take on new types of calls, and potential detrimental impacts to the staff and to customers.

In this article, you learned about tradeoffs, associated staff occupancy, and consolidation. In the next article, we’ll consider some of the financial tradeoffs associated with staffing decisions.

Penny Reynolds was Co-Founder of The Call Center School and is a popular speaker and writer in the area of call center operations. Recently retired, she serves as an Educational Advisor to SWPP, continuing to provide thought leadership and training to the workforce management community. She can be reached at pennyreynolds00@gmail.com or at 615-812-8410.