Should Contact Center Agents Do Back-Office Work During Slow Periods?
The first call centers that emerged about 35 years ago were designed to provide a dedicated staff to handle customer inquiries and complaints. The thinking was that it was practical to have a distinct group handling customer service calls so that people doing more important tasks – like back-office clerks – would not be interrupted constantly. (Back when call centers were first created, customer service calls were typically considered an annoyance.) As the volume of calls grew, it became evident that something had to “give,” and concepts like economies of scale and the learning curve gave rise to the call center. (The earliest call centers were known by different names. The term call center did not enter the market until the early 1980s.)
The business community has now come full circle, and call centers, which are now called contact centers because they handle many different types of inquiries besides calls, are trying to figure out how to best utilize agent downtime, when agents are idle and have nothing to do because the projected volume of interactions has not arrived, or the department is temporarily overstaffed. (While contact centers that use workforce management solutions should not have unanticipated downtime, reality is quite different.)
A lot has changed over the years. Companies now realize that their highly trained contact center agents are very valuable assets who know more about their company than most other resources. (Outstanding agents have to be highly knowledgeable about many products, services, policies, procedures, systems, etc., while back-office staff generally needs to know only one limited area.) In addition, there are now applications that can identify periods of downtime and deliver work to agents in near-real time, when they have nothing else to do. And, since most agents would prefer to be busy than sit and wait for their next call, it makes sense to fill their time, as long as management clearly sets priorities. For example, for this to work effectively, agents need to know that their first priority is handling their contact center interactions (calls, emails, chat, SMS, social media). They must understand that they are to handle their back-office work, also known as non-phone work, only when there are no incoming or outgoing interactions that need their attention.
Do you think it’s a good idea for your contact center to perform back-office tasks during downtime? Will this work in your company today, or are specific changes necessary to make this practical? Please let me know your opinion.