For customers, live chat is easy, effortless, and often their preferred mode of interaction with businesses. But for customer support managers responsible for scheduling their teams, live chat can be anything but easy and effortless.

Coordinating a team for live chat coverage is a lot more difficult than scheduling for email support. Rather than just letting everyone run wild in the email inbox, agents need to be scheduled for coordinated shifts because chat needs to be kept online.

Imagine that covering chat is like juggling balls. Once you’re trained, you can easily keep three balls in the air at any one time. As long as no one asks you to do jumping jacks or read a book or put together a puzzle, you can concentrate on juggling and do a pretty good job. Now say you want to go for lunch, but those balls need to be kept in the air. How do you transfer those balls to another juggler?

Live chat requires the same focus. Agents on chat need to be 100% focused on customer chat conversations — they can’t just walk away in the middle of a conversation and drop the balls. In real life, those balls are customers. In email support, you can pick up and answer emails in between getting other things done because customers have different expectations for response times.

Besides keeping the balls in the air, your team also needs to get all their other work done — like documentation, meetings, and product responsibilities. Assigning agents to chat all day can also increase their risk of burnout.

So how do you balance keeping chat online with keeping agents happy? How flexible can you be with moving agents on and off of chat? And finally — what tool do you use to actually create the flippin’ schedule?! (It’s stressful, I get it).

In this article, we talk through some of the things to consider when you’re scheduling your team for live chat and get real advice from people who’ve made it work.

Limited hours, unlimited work

If you had unlimited money and time, you’d always be available for your customers. But unfortunately, in the real world, we need to make tradeoffs. Every hour an agent spends working on chat is an hour spent not doing something else. It’s not really possible to chat with customers and work on another project. As a manager, you need to balance chat availability with other tasks like email and documentation.

Decide on your team’s priorities and schedule chat availability accordingly. Being specific about scheduling will help manage expectations of both customers and agents, and it will give you the best chance at maintaining availability.

Decide what hours to cover

Forecasting how busy your chat queue will be at any given time is key to setting up a schedule with good coverage of the busy times. There are a few ways you can approach this challenge.

First of all, look into any historical volume data you have available, even if it’s for a different contact channel. When do your customers typically contact you? Are there set business hours for your clients? What regions are they based in?

Another way to decide what hours to open your chat up for is to simply look at the availability of your existing team. You can’t provide support when you don’t have team members available. Valentina Thörner from Automattic says they started their chat schedule by simply having agents sign up for their desired shifts. “That way we can see when we are understaffed because some chats end up in tickets,” she explains. “Once we had some basic data we started forecasting and planning by looking at the max number of simultaneous chats at any given hour.” This helped them determine whether agents needed to pick up more shifts, or if they needed to start hiring.

Automattic also looks at the volatility of incoming chats to maximize productivity. Most agents, once trained, can handle between three to five chats at any one time. It’s not very efficient if three agents are each handling one chat conversation each. They won’t be able to work on other tasks that demand their full attention, but they also aren’t working at full capacity. “At Automattic,” says Thörner, “we assign about two-thirds of the coverage needed, and we expect everyone to be able to cover three chats at the same time.”

One-third of our team is logged in as a ‘reserve’ team. That means they only get assigned chats once everybody else is maxed out.

The reserve team can focus on tickets or other tasks until the queue gets busy — and then they are ready to step in to help.

Regardless of how you choose what hours you want to keep chat open, make it clear to customers when they can expect to connect with you. If you can only commit to eight hours of being online each day, that’s fine — but post that on your Contact Us page so that customers who want to talk know when to come back.

Keep your agents happy

How you set up your agents’ schedules has a big impact on their overall work satisfaction. Long, challenging shifts on chat without flexibility to switch up tasks is a surefire way to wear down your agents.

Giovanna Hopkins from Soomo Learning says that being on chat for eight hours is very demanding. You’re always “on” and multitasking between customer conversations. Reducing the chance for burnout — where an agent becomes physically and mentally exhausted due to a prolonged period of stress — is a key aspect of a great schedule.

Flexibility can really help keep agents fresh, even when the work becomes difficult. Rachel Wallace from MassageBook emphasizes the need for agents to take time to themselves. “The team communicates heavily throughout the day and has the freedom to switch between channels should they have a really difficult phone call or chat.”

Negotiating lunch and bathroom breaks when stuck on an epic chat is a common concern for agents too. Or even tougher, if a customer still needs help but the shift is ending, how does an agent handle it? Set guidelines for how early agents turn off their availability before the end of their shift to prevent them from getting trapped in a never-ending queue of chats. Or alternatively, encourage agents to warmly transfer chats to someone else who is available, either by leaving notes in the chat or pinging details in Slack.

5 tools for scheduling live chat support agents

It doesn’t really seem like anyone has found the perfect tool for scheduling a global team of customer support agents on live chat shifts. But there are a few traditional workforce management tools that can be adapted for the purpose.

The trusty spreadsheet: It’s infinitely flexible, and it’s free. But it breaks down quickly if you need to make changes or distribute a schedule.

Google Calendar: Many of the smaller teams I talked to use Google Calendar for booking in shifts. They like the notifications and how transparent it is. It gets a bit messy as soon as you have more channels or more people because there are no built-in process management tools though, so you might be better off using a more purpose-built tool that also integrates with Google Calendar.

WhenIWork: A free (up to 75 employees), robust scheduling tool with a mobile app and lots of tricks for managing availability. Unfortunately, it doesn’t handle multiple time zones and multiple channels very well as it’s meant for more of a brick-and-mortar business.

Sling: A free scheduling tool that offers a ton of features like shift swapping requests, managing availability, and allowing employees to sign up for their own shifts.

Shiftboard: The only paid software on this list, Shiftboard comes with a lot more goodies including forecasting software, Gantt chart coverage reports, and automatic break scheduling. It might be more than you need now, but it’s a good option for someone looking for a very robust tool.

Best practices for creating a schedule

Regardless of what tool you use, try to keep the schedule as consistent as possible from week to week. Not only will it reduce the amount of time you spend scheduling, but it also limits mental overhead for agents who have to check their schedules and plan around it. Sarah Betts at Olark says that everyone on their team has their own preference around how long they stay on chat each day, and their schedule reflects that. “We all get to pick our preferred balance. Some folks here work shorter chat shifts. But it’s a predictable pattern, so, for example, they may work from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. every Wednesday.”

Once the schedule is ready, distribute it to the team in a manner where everyone can see who is on what channel at what time. Transparency means that everyone will know who should be on chat or working on other things. It can also help teams coordinate lunch or break times where needed.

Another thing to consider is whether you need to schedule a “backup” option if chat gets busy. Rachel Wallace from MassageBook has set up her team so that agents can jump on to chats when they are needed. “We have triggers set up on a team dashboard that signal when our chat response rate is above our goal of 20 seconds. Agents have a queue capacity of two or three chats, and if the queue is backing up, they’ll signal to someone on phone support to hop on chats.” By making it clear who can be pulled in and what their priorities are, Wallace can balance keeping chat online with other tasks.

Always room for improvement

As your customer and team needs fluctuate, there will always be room for improvement when it comes to scheduling.

For agents, collect feedback periodically to check if they’re still happy with the arrangements you’ve made. Are they burning out from too much chat? Do they feel overwhelmed with the volume? Or are they bored with babysitting a quiet queue? Change it up when it’s not working to keep employee satisfaction high so they can do their best work.

For customers, keep an eye on chat wait times and the number of unanswered chats. If you see either number increasing, it might be worth considering how you can expand your customer support availability. A sudden increase in volume might be temporary and not require drastic changes in strategy — just more flexibility. A consistent trend upwards suggests that a plan is needed to increase your capacity.

Balancing chat coverage and agent happiness requires a constant re-evaluation of what’s working and what needs improvement. As you become better acquainted with your company’s incoming chat volume, you’ll become better at meeting the needs of your customers. Keep scheduling, keep improving, and keep seeing customer happiness grow.

Sarah Chambers

Sarah Chambers

Sarah is a customer service consultant and the founder of Supported Content. When she’s not arguing about customer service, she’s usually outdoors rock climbing or snowboarding. Follow her on Twitter to keep up with her adventures.