If you manage an IT help desk, you likely never stop thinking about call handling. And for good reason.
Call handling is driven by having enough people at the right times. You want to plan for call coverage and know how many calls your agents should be able to handle. And you want to know about anything that hinders their productivity.
To gain a clearer picture, let’s discuss a help desk agent’s theoretical daily throughput. This is important to understand, because you first must know what your agents could do — and then we can discuss the five factors affecting their ability to reach that theoretical limit.
Using simple math, think about this: If the average call length is 5 minutes and, theoretically, an agent can handle 12 calls per hour x 8 hours per day, then that agent is making 96 calls per day. On the other hand, if the average call length is 10 minutes, then that agent can handle only half the number of calls per day (6 calls per hour x 8 hours per day equals 48 calls per day).
No, these numbers aren’t entirely realistic. But they illustrate the potential gains in efficiency if you start focusing on the following five factors that affect your agents’ ability to reach this theoretical throughput:
1. Longer Average Call Times
As we’ve already pointed out, if the average call is longer, then the number of calls per day that an agent can take is reduced. If they average one-minute calls, they can take 60 calls per hour. If they have a 41-minute call average, they can take only about 1.5 calls an hour.
One way to reduce your average call duration is to standardize your documentation. Decide on the questions that your agents must ask for every ticket type, the steps they must go through before escalating a ticket and so on, and then document those steps. Think templates, checklists, workflows. Look particularly at common calls, common tickets and common resolutions, and then document them in your knowledge base for every agent to learn from and use going forward. Standardized, documented procedures make your agents as efficient and as productive as possible.
2. Call Arrival
It would be a great day at the help desk if just enough calls arrived, at just the right time, lasting just the right length of time, to let each of your agents meet their theoretical limit.
But it’s not that simple. It’s not always one call perfectly aligned and arriving at the help desk right when the agent completes their call. There are peaks and valleys in call arrival volume during the day.
You need to understand your own help desk’s arrival pattern.
If you have a good phone system and ACD, extracting the reports to show your arrival pattern in quarter-hour increments should be easy.
In general, we see a bell curve with a peak in the middle of the morning, dropping off some near lunch, peaking a little right after lunch and then waning as the afternoon goes on. So don’t be surprised if you need more agents in the morning than in the afternoon. But since we all typically hire agents for an 8-hour shift, they’re going to have some busy periods and some periods where they’re idle and not on the phone. This means if they aren’t taking back-to-back calls, they’re not going to meet their theoretical throughput.
Call arrival also depends on the size of your business. If you’re a mom-and-pop business and you’re open between 9 and 5, your calls are going to arrive during that window. If you’re a large international company, your call arrival window is going to be much wider to accommodate the multiple time zones across multiple regions and countries that you operate in. You must identify when your calls are coming in plus how many calls you’re getting at certain times, so you can have the appropriate number of staff available to handle your calls at the right times.
3. Outbound Calls
Agents will need to make outbound calls, whether they’re following up on a ticket or replying to a user’s email submission about a problem. This means one of your agents must make an outbound call to resolve this immediate issue.
It might be nice to wait until the afternoon, during your slow period, to have agents make the necessary outbound calls, but this isn’t always feasible. There will be times when they’ll have to make their outbound calls during peak call volume periods, thereby reducing their theoretical throughput for the day.
If you have extended coverage beyond a simple eight-hour day, then most likely the extended coverage hours won’t deliver enough call volume to even come close to the theoretical throughput for an agent.
To cover extended hours, you’ll have to create at least two shifts to cover those hours. It then becomes more about covering the hours than expecting agents on those extended hours to be able to meet their theoretical throughput. Now, if you extend hours into the third shift overnight and weekends, you have more hours to cover with a reduced call volume. This drastically affects these agents’ ability to meet their theoretical throughput.
One way to extend coverage is to deploy more self-service options, through chatbots, knowledge bases and other online help. You can also increase coverage by offering more live channels, such as live chat and email. These channels are particularly suited to noncritical issues and for smaller organizations, where your agents queue them up and work on them in a timely fashion, thereby freeing them up to make more phone calls.
Some help desks provide breaks other than lunch, but at a minimum, you’ll give your agents a break for lunch. (And even without official breaks, agents are human beings and will occasionally need to grab a quick coffee refill or make a trip to the washroom.)
Breaks are important, but they do affect your team’s ability to reach their theoretical throughput because they’re once again not on the phone. A good practice is to look at historical arrival patterns to find the lowest arrival patterns and set your breaks during those times to minimize impact.
However, there will be days in which these patterns won’t hold, you’ll have people at lunch or on break, and calls will come flooding in because of an outage or some other reason. This will affect your team’s productivity if you don’t have enough staff available and will affect individual agents’ ability to reach their theoretical throughput.
Given these five factors, you might be wondering what you can expect for throughput for your agents on a daily basis. The practical answer is 25 to 70 calls per day, depending on these factors.
Suffice it to say that the more channels you offer people to contact the help desk, the more likely you’ll be pulling agents off the phones to handle one of the other channels. Multiple channels will certainly bring more complexity to your juggling of agents’ time.
Improving your help desk’s ability to handle more calls and planning for coverage are part of the top 10 most common help desk challenges. Read our guide to learn how your help desk can overcome these top challenges.