by Paul Leamon,
Director of TotalView Marketing
The introduction of skills-based routing features
for Automated Call Distributors (ACDs) has given call center
managers very powerful capabilities to route incoming calls
to the available agent most skilled to handle each call. However,
today's call center management systems have not entirely caught
up to this new technology. As a result, scheduling and managing
a call center with skills-based routing can be a challenge.
Although skills-based routing can be defined in a number of
ways, the broadest definition is: Skills-Based Routing: A
call center term for routing incoming calls based on the type
of service requested, assuring that calls go to agents with
the skills to provide the highest quality of service to the
calling customer. Using this definition, call routing is first
examined without considering agent skills. Next, the various
possible combinations are explored when skills-based routing
is considered. Finally, the factors needed to manage a call
center using skills-based routing are described.
Traditional ACD Call Queuing
Traditional ACD call queuing maps each call type to a single
queue served by a single agent group, as shown in Figure 1.
Since multiple agent skills are not considered, each agent
handles only a single type of call.
Skills-Based Routing with Multiple Agent Groups
Some ACDs provide skills-based routing by allowing an agent
to belong to more than one agent group simultaneously.
Sales Agents with only sales skills belong
to the sales agent group.
Service Agents with only service skills
belong to the service agent group.
Agents with both Sales and Service skills
belong to the sales and service agent group.
Skills-Based Routing with User Defined
Another way ACDs can provide skills-based routing is through
user defined rules, which allow each call type to be queued
to different groups of agents (or skills). These rules can
be based on conditions such as time in the queue, number of
available agents in an agent group (or with the same skill)
and time of day. Some ACDs also allow calls to be queued to
multiple agent groups (or skills) at one time.
Complex Skills-Based Routing
Providing the ultimate control and flexibility, some ACDs
allow all the previous routing features to be used together.
For simplicity, all diagrams have only shown
two call types requiring only two different agent skills.
Call centers could have 30 or more call types and agent skills.
This magnifies the complexity and creates a real challenge
for call center management.
Are We Done?
There are several questions that must be answered when scheduling
agents in a skills-based routing call center. The first and
foremost question is "Are we done?" This question
is the heart of the problem when developing schedules for
agents with multiple skills. That is, how does a call center
manager know when the right schedules have been created to
meet the service level goal for each call type?
Traditional ACD call queuing in Figure 1 allows straightforward
planning and agent scheduling. An Erlang C formula calculates
the number of agents needed to handle forecasted call volumes
and handling times to provide a certain level of service for
each quarter or half-hour throughout the day. Once this is
done, schedules can be created for the number of agents needed
in each agent group. Creating schedules is straightforward
since each agent has a single skill. For each quarter or half-hour
period that an agent is scheduled to handle calls, the agent
counts toward the total number of agents needed for that call
type. With traditional ACD call queuing, the task is complete
when the agents scheduled matches the number of agents needed.
However, the process is not as easy if calls are being routed
to agents with multiple skills.
Skills-based routing can still use an Erlang C formula to
calculate the number of agents needed for each call type.
However, it is a complex task to determine if the total number
of multi-skilled agents scheduled matches the number of agents
needed for each call type. In order to determine a match,
the amount of time each agent is expected to handle each call
type for every quarter or half-hour interval during the day
must be calculated. This analysis is not easily done, since
a multi-skilled agent may spend anywhere from 0 percent to
100 percent of their time handling each call type. There are
several factors in skills-based routing that can impact the
amount of time an agent spends handling each call type and
must be considered before answering the question, "Are
A key aspect of the question, "Are we done?" is
that the time each agent will spend handling each call type
depends on the schedules and skill sets of all other agents.
The effectiveness of an individual agent's schedule changes
as other agents are added. Look at Figure 2 and assume that
the Sales Agents (single skill) have not been scheduled. Without
the Sales Agent group, the Sales and Service Agents (multi-skill)
would handle sales calls 100 percent of the time. Now, suppose
all the Sales Agents are scheduled. This change directly affects
all Sales and Service Agents, who now would work 50 percent
on sales calls and 50 percent on service calls. Therefore,
the question, "Are we done?" must be evaluated each
time an agent's schedule is added or changed.
Call Routing Rules
If an ACD provides user defined call routing rules, then the
time each agent spends on each call type may be affected.
For example, ACD call routing rules can cause difficulties
if they are based on real-time events, such as time of day
and/or day of week. Another common use of ACD rules is to
protect small, specialized agent groups (skill groups) so
they would be available for specialized calls. Suppose the
Sales and Service Agents in Figure 4 could handle both Japanese
and English calls. The rules for routing calls might send
English calls to Japanese speaking agents only if there are
three or more agents with the Japanese skill in an available
state on the ACD. User defined rules such as these can have
a major impact on the effectiveness of scheduling techniques
in a multi-skill call center.
Multi-Skilled Agent Efficiencies
An interesting forecasting issue occurs with skills-based
routing. The number of agents per call type calculated by
an Erlang C formula does not consider large team efficiencies
resulting from the use of multi-skilled agents. Because of
the random arrival of calls, a combined group of 200 agents
with Sales and Service Skills can handle more calls than one
group of 100 agents with only the Sales Skills and another
group of 100 agents with the Service Skills. Using an Erlang
C formula to determine the number of agents needed in a multi-skill
call center may result in scheduling more agents for each
call type than actually needed.
Many call centers grant agents schedule preferences by seniority.
This practice is affected when developing schedules for multi-skilled
agents. For example, it may be most efficient or necessary
to place senior agents (agents with the most skills) at the
least popular time of the day (assuming junior agents have
fewer skills). If breaks, lunch and/or entire schedules are
traded to give senior agents their preferences, the coverage
for all call types handled by these agents will change. In
order to prevent coverage from changing, the option of trading
breaks, lunches and/or schedules would be limited to agents
who have the exact same set of skills. In addition, priorities
must match exactly for ACDs that allow skills to be prioritized.
Therefore, if unique skill sets are assigned to only a few
agents, it becomes difficult for senior agents to obtain preferred
schedules and still meet service level goals.
Specific Call Type Workstations
Call centers may have a limited number of special agent workstations
that must be used for certain call types due to the associated
software needed. This limitation introduces a new factor into
the scheduling of multi-skilled agents. Even though an agent
has a particular skill, it may not be used unless the agent
is assigned to a special workstation. Agent schedules should
also efficiently utilize special workstations without long
idle periods. Since more agents may have the skill than the
number of workstations, schedules must consider which agents
are assigned to special workstations.
Assuming the "Are you done?" question has been answered
and efficient schedules have been created, managing changing
conditions of a call center during the day is a challenge.
For example, if several multi-skilled agents call in sick,
how can management predict if service level goals for all
call types are being met? What times of the day will be affected?
If unusually high call volumes are being received for a particular
call type, which multi-skilled agents should be offered overtime
to increase the number of available agents? Skills-based routing
makes intraday management of each call type even more complicated
due to the interdependency of agents' schedules.
Meeting the Challenge
Several of the issues and complexities that skills-based routing
can bring to the call center have been addressed. Traditional
techniques using Erlang C formulas can help to schedule multi-skilled
agents, but the number of factors which must be considered
makes this a daunting challenge for most call center managers.
Fortunately, planning, scheduling and management tools can
provide help with these issues. Look in a future issue for
Part II of this topic discussing the various approaches that
can aid in the management of a call center using skills-based