Twenty Ways to Handle A Capacity Crunch
The unfortunate negative service spiral or capacity crunch
Just when we thought Covid couldn’t throw us any more curve balls, the Omicron wave across the world is meaning that many businesses have many staff away sick or isolating and are stretched for staff. This is compounded by the fact that recruitment is also getting harder as labour shortages result from reduced movements of labour since the pandemic. For example, in Australia, net inward immigration of about 250,000 a year just hasn’t happened in the last two years and the ABS measured a net negative migration of 88,000 in 2020-21 (see the ABS webs site). So that’s a gap of over half a million people in a workforce of 13 million.
Unfortunately, these problems can compound. For example, if “processing teams” are low on staff and get behind on functions like applications, approvals or payments, then inevitably customers make contact to ask “where is my X” or “why haven’t you done Y” (see diagram). So, as backlogs and delays grow, contact demand increases and the problems compound in what we call a capacity crunch. Human behaviour can exacerbate the “crunch” as staff get worn out by continuous contacts and look for breaks between work items and end up making themselves less available when the opposite is needed, or even worse get burnout and sick leave rises. It can lead to a negative service spiral as shown.
We assume that most organizations are already pulling as many resource levers as possible such as increasing overtime, asking for extra shifts and cancelling discretionary activity (like non-essential meetings). We also know that asking existing staff to do more and putting training on hold is not a sustainable answer. There is no single miracle cure, but we thought we’d list a range of tactics that we’ve seen work and that can be effective, particularly where they are used in combination. Some of these may be impractical in your business or be things you would never normally do, but desperate times call for creative action. We’ve grouped the ideas into our standard operating model headings of Process, Resourcing, Indicators and incentives (measures) Structure, Management, and Technology. These aren’t just theories; they are all examples we’ve seen work or implemented ourselves at some time. So, here’s the list:
1.1 From reactive to proactive deflections
Most organizations promote their self-service solutions like apps and web sites to try and deflect contact from call centres and branches.
However, we mean going further and ensuring that all face-to-face channels promote self-service as the primary way to handle contact and go “even harder” to deflect. This can mean a change from an afterthought strategy e.g. at the end of a call or chat, to a proactive strategy at the front of the contact. It can also be a way to grow the workforce by employing temps or those not normally on the front line to act as “deflection protection” (their only goal is to deflect). It can also include use of proactive campaigns reminding all customers of their options such as the Victorian Government currently running ad campaigns to remind citizens of alternatives to 000.
1.2 Cut discretionary processes within processes
Many processes are filled with discretionary elements that perhaps the company has never recognised as such. Examples include, checking contact details on every contact which can add 5-10% effort, or cross and up-sell attempts. Some organizations switch to deflection of these revenue opportunities. Rather than. “can I tell you about your options?”, the process moves to “can I send you a link to your options?”. The tip is to reconsider the elements of the process.
1.3 Change the risk profile of the process
Many organizations have been forced into risk averse processes which ask customers for proof of events or insist on many levels of documentation. Risk averse compliance teams often force organizations into checks and controls that aren’t needed for 80-90% of customers. They are really only needed for the 10-20% but the 100% approach adds time and effort. The shortage of staff may be a great opportunity to look for a more “exception” based way of operating. For example, rather than asking all customers to send proof of a situation, perhaps this can be narrowed to 25% of the high-risk scenarios. These aren’t easy changes to make “on the fly” because the frontline staff have to change how they work and it impacts measurement, quality assurance and the like. The quickest changes tend to be the “stop doing’ type scenarios. For example, saying to front line staff “we no longer need to identity or documentary proof for scenarios A, B and C”.
2.1 All hands to the pump
In times of a “crunch”, we think that other types of work in the business could be seen as non-discretionary other than customer facing work. For example, projects could be put on hold and those staff used in customer facing teams. This might include front line staff seconded to project teams but perhaps other staff like IT and business analysts can also be used to help with front line work. These “temporary staff” can be used other ways we suggest elsewhere in this document. In addition to the resources provided, this can also help educate other parts of the business and bridge the gap between front line work and other departments.
2.2 Narrow the skills to create larger skill pools
Many organizations use staffing models that break work down into specialised skill pools. This is often done to shrink time to competence or create the perceived benefits of specialisation.
However, this can mean that each separate “skill pool” lacks scale and is more vulnerable to absences. Therefore, anything that can be done to bring skills together and scale them can be beneficial during a crunch. Unfortunately, in a crunch, there is no time to take staff from their work to train and “multi skill” them but there may be many skills where the work overlaps so that skills can be “thrown together” and staff may be surprisingly successful working across multiple skills. It may be possible to bring many skills together in a “front end” or “all skills team” that hands off things they can’t cope with to a few skilled specialists using some form of case management or hand off approach. This allows the complex work to be managed differently (see structure). These changes do need some thinking through, but if done correctly, can make it easier to schedule, manage and deal with staff shortages.
2.3 Narrow hours of operations
Extended hours of operation, (e.g. 24*7) can exaggerate the challenges of staff absence. It is common that the extended shifts and weekend work are less utilised. This means it can be beneficial to narrow hours of operation to scale the workforce in core hours. This isn’t possible in industries like health and aged care where the demand is truly 24*7 but in industries where demand is mostly during business hours, it may be beneficial to move back to a business hours operating model and simplify life for everybody.
2.4 Find other pools of staff
The skills shortage and heightened competition may mean the normal advertising and recruitment cycle is too slow or ineffective. During covid some companies approached those they knew had staff “on the sidelines” like airlines and formed them into a temporary workforce. Others are working with labour hire or business process outsourcers to access different labour pools. We are seeing education departments use a version of this idea in asking retired teachers to come out of retirement and be a back-up resource pool.
2.5 Recruit differently
Some companies have recognised that their normal recruitment cycle is not working. They have upped the rewards for staff to bring in friends and family and shorten the recruitment cycle. Some are teaming with universities to offer work experience and internships to help breach the crunch and give them access to large talent pools.
Indicators and incentives (measures)
3.1 Move or remove the goalposts
Resources crunches are no fun and create stress for all. So a ”moving the goal post”
strategy recognises that these aren’t normal times and that normal service targets can’t be met. Rather than stress everyone out by reporting how far you are from hitting normal targets, it can be helpful to change the targets and reset the goals. Removing the goal posts altogether takes this one step further recognises that taking away some targets for staff can have other benefits. One UK company got better performance by dropping all front-line targets. Another savvy GM asked their team just to focus on making themselves available and executing the processes well. This simplified the problem and made staff less concerned about not meeting revenue and other goals that had been part of their scorecards.
3.2 Celebrate what you are achieving
In the middle of a crunch, sometimes the scale of what is being achieved gets lost in the crisis. For example, a team may have handled thousands of requests on a given day and beaten all previous records. It could be that the numbers of X’s per operator hit an all time high. That’s worth celebrating! Staff may consider it a “fail” if service levels weren’t hit but the scale of the achievement shouldn’t be missed and helps keep everyone motivated.
3.3 Show Gratitude
At a busy time, those who are working are on the front line of the battlefield. They need to feel appreciated at this time, particularly if they are handling complaints and irate customers. Any kind of rewards and thanks are appreciated. Management and the exec team should be visible and rewards could vary from free coffees to vouchers to help staff enjoy their more limited leisure time.
4.1 Move part of the process
Companies can be daunted that in a crunch there is no time to recruit and train staff to the required level. One answer is to get extra or temporary staff to execute either part of the process or a limited process set. For example, we often use a temporary human switchboard to triage incoming work, identify the customer, route it correctly and educate customers on self-service options.
This works for calls, emails and chat. This can take away 10-20% of the workload from the core team and leverage borrowed or temp staff and get them productive quickly.
4.2 Channel funnel
When lock downs forced organizations to close some channels and move workers home, they also learnt to re-deploy staff across channels. Bank branch staff, for example, became chat, call and email handlers. Closing channels can free up staff to focus on others. It may seem like poor service to shut down a channel but if it enables better service in others then it may deliver better experiences for customers.
4.3 Leverage the experts
It’s amazing how much of the work in some operations is people seeking help, advice or approval. We’ve measured it to be as much as 40% of the workload, particularly when there are ineffective ways to get help and support. If there are queues for your help and support teams then you definitely have an opportunity. Some support models free capacity better than others. Undermanned help functions become a bottleneck for the rest of the business. We find models that get the difficult tasks to the expert staff, rather than asking for help, are more effective. Getting the hard stuff to the right staff cuts down idle time waiting for help and ensures the work is resolved. So, a cold transfer to an expert or an effective work hand off can be a very efficient way to get customers the outcomes they want ,despite the widespread belief that all transfers and hand offs are bad.
5.1 Make it everyone’s problem
A crunch should be a shared problem right across the business. Other areas can help in a myriad of ways. It’s usually these other areas driving demand into front line channels so perhaps they can reduce their activities that contribute to the crunch. For example, marketing campaigns can be delayed and credit rules relaxed. Other areas can also lend staff or agree to make processes easier for the front line. During a crunch, it’s important that the customer facing areas make volumes and service levels visible so that everyone understands what they are dealing with.
5.2. Make life easy for the front line
If you’re asking staff to work longer and harder, then there may be ways you can make that easier for them. This could be anything from meal vouchers to pizza days to streaming service subscriptions for their families. In the early days of COVID, companies did all kinds of things, but the sense is these have fallen by the wayside even though this is the busiest time of all. Buying the whole team their streaming service of choice is a very cheap option compared to the costs of hiring and training new staff members.
5.3 Manage what you have: Huddles and real time
In times of scarcity, it's even more important to use the resources you have really well. We have written numerous papers about the best types of daily huddles (a resource planning meeting) and how to manage capacity in real time. These functions are effective if they have agreed contingencies that can be enacted for the whole day or in real time (see our various papers on Flexibility). An effective huddle should make the plan and options clear for those who will call the shots during the day on who does what work. This meeting should set priorities and give the real time managers discretion to pull various levers like calling for overtime or deferring some work or deploying staff to other channels or work types. Then the real time management function kicks in and makes decisions as the picture changes through the day. These concepts can be used at any scale from a three handed branch to an operation with thousands of staff.
5.4 Coach More Not Less
In a crunch there can be a tendency to think that coaches should stop doing that and be used as a contingency to do the work. There may be occasional emergencies where that is needed (it could be an agreed contingency enacted by the real time function at certain thresholds). However, during a crunch it can be even more important to ensure staff are performing at their best. This means observation and coaching are essential, particularly to spot staff who aren’t coping, or in dynamic environments where processes are changing frequently and need reinforcement. In those environments, observation and coaching become even more critical.
6.1 Pre-emption and transparency
In a crunch, technology can play a key role in “pre-empting” contact. For example, mass SMS and email can be used to keep customers informed and updated and prevent them needing to make contact. It can also be used to keep them informed on product availability, logistics, delivery timing and the like. It can therefore help manage expectations and prevent interactions when they are pointless. So, if a processing team falls behind, technology can play a key role in resetting expectations about when the process will complete. This could have worked really well in Australia when PCR tests results were in backlog, to reset expectations on turnaround times.
6.2 Simple low fidelity self-service
Technology can also be created quickly that may help reduce workload. This can be anything from simple self-guided booking systems, to customers knowing where they are in a processing queue, to better confirmations that requests have been received. Customers will understand that these may be less sophisticated forms of self-service, but if they reduce the load on staffed functions, then they are worth considering.
Want to know more on these ideas?
We hope these ideas are of interest and are happy to share more of the detail about all or any of them. Some concepts like new help and support models or our huddle and real time management thinking, take quite a lot of explaining. Please feel free to contact us on the options below if you need more detail. If they sounded too simplistic, of course we didn’t have time to describe the complexities, but we hope they help.
For more information email us at email@example.com or call 03 9499 3550 or 0438652396.