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Agent Preferences vs. Shift Bidding – Which to Choose?

Engage Customer Service Staff, Motivation and Gamification, Savings and Efficiency, Understanding Workforce Planning

How can resource planners achieve the best balance between agents’ wishes for their schedules and the forecasted needs of the contact center? Rebecca Philp, Product Knowledge Manager at Teleopti, weighs up two options on offer.

agent preferencesAs the contact-center world moves further and further into an omni-channel environment, the option to automate agent shift preferences is growing, replacing the older bidding systems based on manual scheduling. The question one must ask is: Why is this change occurring? To answer such a query, I will first look at the limitations in sticking to shift bids, and then explore the possibilities on offer with introducing a system that automatically optimizes schedules to agent preferences.

Shift bidding: The potential problems

With Shift bidding, contact centers can release the schedule of shifts on offer and agents can then bid for the shifts that they want, entering how much they would like to be paid for working those hours. At the end of the process, shifts are awarded, typically to those with the lowest bids (and the highest KPIs). Though the process is good for initiating agents’ involvement in building their schedules there are a few issues that will crop up time and time again:

Time consuming (with often little end improvement)

Using shift bids takes weeks upon weeks to execute, and in most cases, the schedules created are very similar to the ones that were in place before the bid. A lot of work for little gain.

Fixed and ill-fitting

Shift bids fail to account for the constantly changing landscape of contact-volume forecasts and, once a shift bid ends, it can cause the contact center to be locked into a set of schedules that allow for almost no flexibility, a problem for both the agent and the center. If a shift bid is designed around the first week in September, how does that solve scheduling issues in the third week of November? Equally, a locked-in schedule won’t work for many agents as they often work in contact centers as a second job, wanting the flexibility to fit shifts around other things in their life.

Stress for agents

Agents care first and foremost about their schedules and getting the right number of hours at the times that work best for them. If management is making them worry about their livelihood, then this will cause them to lose focus on the job that they are employed to do.

Overtime expenses

Just as the “best” shifts will end up with the lowest pay per hour, the “overtime”/unpopular shift times will have to be filled by paying agents at a much higher cost, causing payroll costs to rise. Furthermore, those agents who have to work the less favorable hours, might be being paid more but a “bad schedule” could leave them feeling tired and demotivated. In the long run, if agents are performing poorly, the company won’t reach their service level targets.

Agent Preferences: The strengths

Agent Preferences is an automated system that lets agents enter their preferences for shifts and days off for each day of the week of the upcoming scheduled period by choosing the desired shift category (e.g. early, daytime, late) or day off. There is no monetary bidding involved but agent-rank tiers can be brought in to determine what percentage of preferences agents receive in their schedule e.g. 80% for third tier agents and 100% for top tier agents. Using this option, there are multiple benefits on offer:

Flexibility

Firstly, while traditional shift bidding requires contact centers to undergo a bidding process only several times a year – taking weeks to complete each time – an ongoing agent preference system gives agents the freedom to continually request desired scheduling. Imagine being able to enact “mini-bids” every week, without any extra effort. Each mini-bid is specifically targeted to that week’s forecast.

Secondly, an automated Agent Preferences tool is responsive to the growth and evolution of the customer-service industry, rather than restraining it. While the cumbersome process of shift bidding makes it easier to only work with single-skilled agent groups, Agent Preference offers an easier, ongoing process that can work for multi-skilled, multi-channel contact centers.

Control

The system also allows users to define metrics and weighted measures for ranking agents, typically by using performance metrics from built-in gamification features or from quality scores, or a combination of both. This process will guarantee that the highest performing agents will get most of their preferences awarded.

In addition, resource planners can set business (/service level) requirements so that the company’s customer-service needs are never overlooked.

Motivation and empowerment for agents
  • Motivation – The frequency of “mini-bids” with this Agent Preferences system means that agents no longer need to feel locked-down or demotivated by shifts that are set for months on end. Instead, having this strategy of frequent preference iterations ultimately motivates agents to think: “If I’m a top performer, I need to maintain that level if I want to keep my shift-preference rank. But, if my performance is poorer, I don’t need to be too upset since I’m not trapped in this schedule for the next few months. I can work towards a better shift in just a few weeks.”
  • Empowerment – In keeping with Teleopti’s own focus on agent engagement and empowerment, Agent Preferences (through a self-service portal) allows agent input on how and when they’d prefer to work. When scheduling time rolls around, the intelligent optimization engine kicks in and balances business needs with agent preferences.
Fairness

As I said in my previous point, this fairness is found in regular ‘mini-bids’ and realistically balancing agent wishes with forecasts. Equally, unlike shift bidding, it doesn’t favor those that can afford to work at a lower cost per hour.

The closing balance

At the end of the day, Agent Preferences is an automated system that Teleopti offers and believes in, yet for a single-skilled contact center looking to set schedules for months at a time, sticking to shift bidding is perhaps the optimal option. However, for a multi-channel contact center working with multi-skilled agents, constantly adapting to consumer needs whilst satisfying employees, Agent Preferences seems, at least to me, to be the best way forward.

2 comments

  1. I have always liked the idea of preferences but when I recommend Preferences to Operation managers they always come back with the same issue.

    “It forces agents to preference even if they do not require a specific start time/shift category”.

    the reason they have to preference is that if they do not preference they will end up with the most undesired shifts/ start times.

    Have you any recommendations how I can influence the Operation Managers to see Preferences differently other than the above which I have advised and presented to them in the past.

    Cheers,

    Viv.

    1. Hi Vivian,

      Thank you for your comment! To me, using preference-based scheduling is all about engaging and motivating your agents to be a part of the WFM process. If the overall aim is to do this, this also needs to be well communicated throughout the organisation.
      Based on my own experience, the more versatile an agent’s preferences are, it’s more likely that the preference fulfillment will be higher. Here, it’s also crucial to build trust and to guide your agents to enter their preferences in line with the forecasted need. Thus, transparency is key and if agents are well informed about how the process works but also about when they are actually needed to be working, agents will (hopefully) be more inclined to preference in a more desired way to fit the scheduling process.

      Regarding your comment on agents ending up with the most undesired shifts or start times if they don’t preference, I would like to bring up fairness. Undesired shifts, according to whom? I believe that that is quite subjective to each individual and who are we to decide what an undesirable shift is for someone else? And this is why I want to bring fairness into the equation; because what is fairness? Is it that all agents should have an equal amount of morning shifts, late shifts and so on? Or is it that agents have the possibility to influence their working hours to improve work-life balance? This, of course, depends on your overall aim with why you want to implement preferencing in your contact centre, which is highly dependent on communication.

      I strongly believe in empowering agents, so why not reward those agents who do enter their preferences to fit the resource need on critical days?

      Good luck with implementing preferences!

      All the best,

      Rebecca

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