Customer EngagementKathleen's Corner

Flying By The Seat Of Your Pants

Kathleen Peterson
Kathleen Peterson

The Flying Irishman” was a movie made in 1939 about a pilot who came to be known as “Wrong Way” Corrigan. Douglas Corrigan was an ambitious, and some might say, crazy Irishman with a plane that lacked “luxuries” such as instruments and a radio. (It did have a compass.) In 1938, when Corrigan submitted a flight plan to fly from Brooklyn to Ireland, his plan was rejected. Being a stubborn Irishman, he submitted a new flight plan with California as the destination. This plan was accepted. But when Corrigan took off, he flew east, claiming that his only real instrument—the compass—had failed. He landed 29 hours later in Dublin. It was the mechanics on the ground who coined the phrase about Corrigan. They suggested that he had been “flying by the seat of his trousers”—a phrase that has been modernized to “flying by the seat of your pants.”

This idiom refers to going about a set of activities by relying on instinct and judgment while at the same time figuring out how to react to changing conditions. Hence, you are “flying by the seat of your pants.”

We find this situation in contact center management quite often. Some industry experts actually use the term to describe those relying on gut instinct to guide their approach to planning for the needs of their center. Unfortunately, most don’t actually know it until someone mentions it and it resonates. So how do you know when you are, in fact, “flying by the seat of your pants” when it comes to managing the contact center? Consider these indicators.

First, the condition is most likely to emerge as a problem when growth is involved. Growth causes strain in contact center management practices because growth generally translates to more services offered or expected of the contact center. This might mean additional staff being added to handle the growing demand, new channels being considered (email, chat, social media, etc.), and extended hours being mandated. This causes managers who may have had the “gut instinct” to manage a single voice channel with a small team to have to “fly by the seat of their pants” when managing a contact center that is growing in size and complexity.

How does this situation manifest? Generally speaking, chaos is the indicator. Often we see a very good-natured chaos at the senior levels since those in charge have been party to the growth and success of the company. They are happy and investors are happy… but soon it will begin to break down. Customer complaints are often an early indicator that something is wrong. Soon there is a blaming, shaming dance taking place—with leadership and investors looking to the contact center with a quizzical stance as in, “What are you people doing wrong?” Well, they are not doing anything wrong. It is simply that the model used to manage the operation in the beginning won’t work to handle the growth in size and complexity. In most cases, the operational model is simply not scalable, and the “gut instinct” that had worked well in the past has become “gut wrenching.”

Wrong WayAnd often those who have responsibility for managing the contact center have earned the position by default rather than by design. They most likely know more about the company’s brand, products, services, etc., than they do about running a contact center and their skill set has just hit a wall.

There is more good news here than bad: Learning the nuts and bolts of running a contact center is a relatively straightforward task. You just have to know you need it. If we go back to the idiom’s meaning, we must get more and better “instruments” to fly this contact center to a higher level.

The most fundamental task is workforce management, the method used to get the right number of people in the right place at the right time doing the right things. Customers get grumpy and complain when their needs are not met, and meeting needs in the contact center manifests first in response time. When calls are delayed too long, emails go unanswered, or the chat option on the website goes dark more often than it is live, customers become dissatisfied. Frontline agents also get grumpy when proper workforce management is not in place because there is no break in the action. Agents working in a frenzy of channels, trying to resolve customer issues, and apologizing for delays become tired and lose patience with the operation. This leads to staff dissatisfaction, and generally turnover begins to occur.

What to do? First and foremost, an honest assessment must be made around workforce management. Most folks managing contact centers have a solid instinct for the busy times of the day, week and month; the challenge comes in how to effectively take that instinct and shape it into a solid plan for staffing the center.

There are many approaches taken to workforce management… from spreadsheets to WFM systems to contracting for WFM as a service. Regardless of the tool, the data requirements remain the same. What is the response time by channel? How many contacts will arrive? What time will they arrive and how long will they last? Then comes the task of determining the skill necessary to respond, how many of each skill on each shift, and the optimum level of utilization.

When you look around your operation do you ever feel a sense of exhaustion? It may be that you have been “flying by the seat of your pants.” You have done it so well that the contact center has grown and business is going well. But the instincts that got you here are now telling you that this is it—we need a new approach. There is much written on the topic of workforce management. Educate yourself in order to prepare a case for investment in this activity… whether it is a system, a partner or a consultant. While it all worked out for “Wrong Way” Corrigan, you may not be that lucky!

Take action! This is a contact center level undertaking and will yield the most robust return on your management investment… and your personal peace.

Kathleen M. Peterson is the Chief Vision Officer of PowerHouse Consulting, a call center and telecommunications consulting firm.

– Reprinted with permission from Contact Center Pipeline,

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