The Power of One

It’s easy to think that one person doesn’t make a difference in a call centre with hundreds of agents. But the impact of one agent on service levels can be huge.
Matthew Brown explains a technique called the Power of One.

Every agent matters
In a busy environment like a call centre, it can be hard to resist the temptation to take a few minutes extra during a break, or have a slightly longer lunch than normal. After all, there might be hundreds of other agents on the phones taking calls. An individual agent might think it makes no difference if they skive off for a few minutes.

But they are wrong. Having the right number of agents in the right place at the right time is vitally important, a fact illustrated by the ‘Power of One’ idea.

“If you have a lot of agents working in a contact centre, the accountability and understanding of their behaviour around the customer sometimes gets lost,” said Dave Vernon, Head of Best Practice at the Professional Planning Forum. Dave Vernon’s work with the Professional Planning Forum includes teaching organisations about the benefits of informing staff about the Power of One.

“The mentality is often ‘what difference can I make when there’s 500-600 people and other centres with another 600 people in, so why does it matter if leave five minutes before the end of my shift, or take five minutes extra on my lunch?’”

One agent missing can reduce service levels

The cumulative effects of this mentality are surprising. The way call centres run schedules and assign calls means one person out of place affects overall performance.

Dave Vernon uses the following example in his training sessions. Say a call centre has 100 agents, 700 calls coming in over a 30-minute period, and an average handling time of about 237 seconds. If one agent is taken off, it takes the service level from 83.4 percent down to 78 percent.

Of course, the more people taken off, the more the effects are felt. Take five people off, and the service level goes down to 43 percent.

“That’s the power of one in contact centres, people being where they should be at the right time is absolutely critical,” said Vernon.

To illustrate this another way, it’s worth looking at this table, put together by Penny Reynolds, Founding Partner of the Call Centre School in Nashville, Tennessee. 

Number of Staff   Average Speed of Answer
 54  6secs
 53  8secs
 52  12secs
 51  19secs
 50  30secs
 49  50secs
 48  91secs
 47  236secs
As Penny Reynolds wrote in an article entitled ‘The Power of One in CC Staffing’:
“Depending on where the call centre currently falls in the staffing/service curve, the impact of one person could be minimal (for example, going from 54 to 53 staff worsens ASA by only 2 seconds). On the other end of the spectrum, decreasing staff from 48 to 47 staff handling the same calls would deteriorate service from a 91-second average wait to nearly 4 minutes.”
In larger call centres, the effect isn’t as dramatic as the example above, but it is still considerable.

How to demonstrate the Power of One
Dave Vernon believes that the problem can be addressed through education.

“My problem with the industry is that we spend a lot of money on soft skills, getting our agents to control calls. We give them skills to up-sell, we teach them all about the systems and put them in a lovely environment to protect them, but we don’t give them any kind of guidance or back story about this behaviour,” said Vernon.

“Being on the phone when you should be is about being there for the customer, and being there for your colleagues, so they don’t have to pick up the slack.”

But relatively few companies explain the Power of One to staff. According to Vernon, television shopping channel QVC used to demonstrate it to a class of 12 new starters by putting one of the new staff on a blanket.

The remaining 11 would pick up the blanket. Two of them would then be told to let go of the blanket, and those left would have to work harder to lift the person. This would carry on until they got down to six people, by then struggling to hold the blanket up.

This would act as a metaphor for the effects of agents not adhering to the schedule.

Case study
The NHS Business Services Authority has seen the benefits of the Power of One. The Authority’s contact centres handle calls relating to internal prescription refunds, dental services, the European Health Insurance Card system and NHS employee pensions.

Richard Abdy, Forecasting, Planning & MI Manager for the NHS Business Services Authority, introduced the Power of One when the organisation decided to implement a workforce management (WFM) system a couple of years ago. Abdy and his team were brought in to handle the transition.

“Before we came along, the call centres had public sector-style flexible working, so we had a big cultural change to get across to people,” said Abdy.

“At that time the Power of One was used to educate all staff about the difference they made. It was important that they took pride in being in the right place at the right time in the schedule.”

Abdy gave a presentation to contact centre staff, explaining the Power of One. The presentation was part of a ‘soft launch’ of the importance of schedule adherence, introduced while the WFM system was being prepared.

“When I’ve been involved in WFM systems in the past, with my previous employers, we probably tended to use adherence as a bit of a hammer to hit people over the head with,” said Abdy.

Instead, the presentation brought staff round to the idea without the need for it to be hammered home with targets. When adherence measurement became possible, Abdy found that the contact centre was already running at 97%.

“Companies I’ve worked for in the past struggled to get their adherence to 95% and quite regularly incentivised it in employees’ bonus schemes,” said Abdy.

By educating staff about the importance of the Power of One, NHS Business Services Authority call centres were able to show staff the necessity of being on the phones at the right time.

“Don’t get me wrong, we do track adherence now, and we pull people to one side if it’s running below, but it’s not there all the time,” said Abdy.

Instead, staff learn that they are important, and that if they aren’t there, callers are kept waiting, and colleagues must work harder.


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