Original Publication: Call Center Magazine - May 2005
Workforce management (WFM) sounds more inclusive than it actually is. In the call center environment, WFM encompasses four key processes: forecasting the volume of customer contacts, using the forecasts to create agent schedules that will meet your service level requirements, assigning those schedules to agents, and managing changes on an ongoing basis.
WFM is not an island onto itself, unconnected to your other operations. A term that you’ll be hearing more in the future is workforce optimization (WFO), which takes a unified approach to customer relationship management, performing customer satisfaction surveys, call recording and quality monitoring, training and coaching agents, and providing performance incentives. The end goal is, as research firm Gartner’s Jim Davies put it in a February 2005 report, to let customers “speak to a skilled agent when they want, on the channel they want and have a better experience as a result.”
Davies suggests, for example, that supervisors could use a quality monitoring tool to identify the training requirements of each agent, prompting a WFM package to schedule training for the agent based on shift availability. The unified WFO system would then deploy the appropriate e-learning module to the agent’s desktop on schedule.
Although we are limiting our discussion in this article to WFM, you should be aware that the practices, and the software that implements them, are growing more interrelated across all of these operational silos.
Get The Most From Your WFM Software
The most important thing that most call centers can do to improve their WFM processes is to invest in WFM software.
Gartner estimates that about half of all call center organizations worldwide have deployed dedicated WFM software, though there is a wide discrepancy among firms of different sizes. Its data shows that in North America more than 70% of organizations with more than 75 agents use WFM software, whereas only 30% of organizations with fewer than 75 seats do so. The administrative costs of scheduling, and the benefits from optimizing the process, grow exponentially with the size of your operations. Unless you have a very small call center operation (say, 20 agents or fewer), if you don’t use WFM software, you need to start.
Although the sophistication, feature sets, and costs differ from vendor to vendor, almost all WFM packages do the following:
1. Collect data. This data comes from automatic call directors (ACDs), multimedia skills-based routing (SBR) packages, and other relevant systems.
2. Forecast contact demand. Most packages start with historical call volumes (usually several weeks of recent data, plus several years of data to project seasonal changes). They then let analysts project overall growth trends, incorporate assumptions that address the uncertainty in the number and length of calls a center will receive, and allow adjustments for special events such as holidays and upcoming sales promotions.
Forecasting algorithms vary in sophistication but in virtually all cases, a well-tuned WFM forecasting module will produce more accurate results than will the intuition of a call center manager or scheduler.
Although call volume simulation is not yet common in call center WFM, we’ll probably see more of it in WFM packages as computing power increases.
An interesting entry that uses both formula-based and simulation-based forecasting is AgentTime Scheduler from Portage Communications (North Bend, WA). Portage Communications sells WFM software primarily to small and medium-size call centers.
According to Paul Leamon of WFM software developer IEX (Richardson, TX), one trend in WFM software is generally gaining “capabilities to handle the ‘three multi’s’ — multisite, multiskill, and multimedia.” You’ll need a WFM package that addresses your company’s needs in these three areas.
Note also that most call center WFM packages have limited capabilities for the scheduling of outbound contacts. Concerto Software (Westford, MA) is the market leader for outbound call center WFM.
3. Create work schedules that balance the forecasted workload against agent availability and shift flexibility, costs, and service level requirements. The schedules can include vacations and time for lunch and other breaks, meetings, and coaching or training sessions.
4. Assign agents optimally to schedules. We don’t mean to suggest that assigning schedules should be a purely top-down process. Given the difficulty of retaining good agents, the process has to consider their needs and desires, too.
A recent trend is to give points to agents based on seniority, performance levels and skill sets, then have the WFM system assign agents by bid order preference to the available schedules, subject to constraints that the center’s WFM analyst specifies.
5. Provide information that lets supervisors, managers, and analysts engage in intraday management.
6. Monitor each agent’s adherence to schedules. This takes place in both real time and over relevant intervals, to help supervisors decide when to investigate or intervene.
Rajiv Venkat of Witness Systems (Atlanta, GA) suggests that software that lets supervisors see adherence patterns over time as well as in real time can help avoid “big brother” behavior by supervisors, who can see if the nonadherence is a one time event or a recurring problem. He says this “changes supervision from an authoritarian approach into coaching.”
7. Facilitate communication about scheduling. Another recent trend in WFM software is providing individualized Web-based portals that present selected information to each agent, supervisor, manager, or analyst. If you’re looking at new software, you should examine whether it lets you specify permissions for both groups and individuals (e.g., allowing each supervisor to approve schedule changes only for the agents that he or she supervises).
8. Estimate the financial or service level impact of potential operational changes using “what if” scenarios.
One trend which we’re keeping an eye on is the growing integration of WFM software with other WFO products such as quality monitoring applications. Gartner’s Davies predicts that we’ll likely see a number of vendor consolidations this year and beyond. We’ve already seen the first fruits of this trend:
- Witness, known as a quality monitoring powerhouse, purchased WFM software developer Blue Pumpkin;
- Performance management software vendor CenterForce acquired WFM developer RightForce, and was, in turn, acquired by contact center suite developer Concerto Software;
Aspect Communications (San Jose, CA), another contact center suite developer, offers the eWorkforce Management WFM package;
Genesys (Daly City, CA) offers Genesys Workforce Management as part of its contact center management suite; and
- Other vendors are forming partnerships (such as the relationship between WFM vendor IEX and Merced Systems (Redwood City, CA), which develops quality monitoring software).
Smaller call centers will likely look to broad suites with pre-integrated modules. The largest organizations, however, will want to select “best of breed” components, and will expect those packages to share data effectively. We think that Leamon has it right when he says, “sharing an interface isn’t critical. The more compelling thing is providing prepackaged integrations and working with companies that know how to work with each other.” In addition to integration, we’ll no doubt also see increasing feature sets in WFM software over time.
Getting The Most From Your WFM
Here are a few tips from the experts regarding how to get the most from your WFM software.
According to Todd Cotharin of The Workforce Management Group (WFMG; Lake Worth, FL ), a consultancy that specializes in call center WFM, “Many call centers have made large investments in WFM software, but wind up using it essentially as a big word processor. It makes administration easier, but it’s completely missing the opportunity.”
A good first step is to ensure that your WFM database contains the best information available. Cotharin says, “WFM is a mission critical application, but too many companies try to get the data in as quickly as possible, rather than getting in all of the information they need to make their WFM decisions.”
Leamon suggests that the companies that get the highest return on WFM software investments “have a culture of continuous improvement — they want to know what new features are available and how they can use them, they’re keen to measure and manage the benefits, and they don’t go in with the attitude that they can’t change things.” He suggests that call centers budget funds for WFM process improvements and training, encourage that analysts and managers network with other WFM professionals (e.g., by attending vendor conferences), and hold an annual review with their vendor to discuss changing needs and get new ideas. Leamon adds that, if it’s used properly, WFM software is more than an operational instrument, “it’s also a career building tool.”
If you’re an especially lucrative client, you should definitely use your market clout when you evaluate vendors. For example, Bob Webb of WFM vendor Pipkins (St. Louis, MO) says that his firm will help you to modify your data to get it into the hosted version of their WFM package to take a test drive. ac2 Solutions (Hazlet, NJ) has similarly offered free tests to help call centers evaluate their software. Don’t be shy about asking vendors to prove that their product suits your needs.
WFMG’s Daryl Gonos adds, “Installing software is just the beginning of the cycle of WFM best practices. How you do forecasting and manage shrinkage, your philosophy of schedule optimization, the metrics you choose, the intraday tactics you employ, and the way you review the performance of your WFM analyst all provide tools to exploit WFM’s potential.”
Centralization Exploits Economies of Scale
There are real, and realizable, economies of scale in managing call center workforces. Maggie Klenke of The Call Center School (Lebanon, TN) says perhaps the biggest opportunity for cost savings call centers can achieve results from consolidating workloads. Think of it as the law of averages writ large — as the size of your agent pool increases, the occupancy rate (i.e., the percentage of each agent’s time spent handling customer contacts) increases, too. Klenke advises that call center managers should look for ways to combine smaller groups of agents, including cross-training your agents and establishing skills-based routing queues that take advantage of agents’ multi-modal abilities.
The same principle applies to distributed call center operations — if you operate as one virtual call center, you can schedule agents and route calls and other customer contacts more efficiently, reducing shrinkage. (Shrinkage is a rather mechanical term derived from inventory accounting that describes the time that agents spend on breaks, waiting for calls, in training, and in other activities other than handling customer contacts.)
There are limits to the efficiencies of centralization, however. Klenke advises that, at occupancy rates higher than 85% to 90%, the costs from agent burnout and from undesirable call handling procedures exceed the efficiency savings. If your agent pools are large enough, you may need to add some shrinkage to your schedule.
Centralization of scheduling usually requires cultural changes. Especially in larger organizations, supervisors need to understand that although they’re ceding some control to a WFM analyst whom they may outrank, they will also gain the benefits from more efficient operations (e.g., additional agent training time, higher customer satisfaction scores, and reduced agent costs).
Gonos suggests that, “if you don’t manage cultural change, you’ll wind up with a schedule administration process rather than workforce optimization.”
As software makes it easier to manage agent scheduling centrally, headquarters workforce managers and WFM agents need to remember that the agents in the operations they oversee are human beings, not mathematical abstractions. WFM specialists and people on the operations side need to communicate regularly, and they both need to have a voice in higher-level policy decisions that affect scheduling.
The Benefits of Schedule Flexibility
According to Klenke, “flexibility is the name of the game in WFM in terms of scheduling.” Adding even a small number of part-time shifts (including 3-, 4-, 5-, and 6-hour shifts) and switching some 40-hour 5x8 schedules to 4x10 and other patterns, can often shave 10% to 20% off your staffing costs without cutting service levels. Cotharin agrees, noting that “80% of call centers today have rigid, fixed-base shift schedules, and almost all of them could improve if they broadened the mix.”
If your call center operates on fixed schedules, you may encounter some resistance from your employees, so you do need to manage the change. Klenke suggests that rather than imposing new shift patterns all at once, you might start gradually, e.g., by applying the new rules only to volunteers or to new hires.
Venkat shares this view: “We really need to break the mindset of 5x8, and call centers need to engage in professional change management to do that,” he says. Venkat also recommends that “it’s often best to approach employees on a one-to-one basis to discuss scheduling flexibility. Some agents may prefer different shift options, but you may need to allay the fear that if they make their desires for part-time work known, they’ll be fired.”
He adds that awarding extra points for future bidding rounds to agents who are assigned schedules that are low on their preference lists can help overcome resistance. Finally, Venkat suggests that you can use on-call “work at home” agents (who are usually paid a small on-call fee in addition to wages for hours actually worked).
Adding flexibility to agent schedules may be especially difficult if you run a unionized call center, but you should be sure that your labor negotiators consider this when your firm renews its collective bargaining agreements.
One radical notion that might help is to split the benefits by increasing the wages you pay for agents assigned to less desirable shifts.
Niels Bohr, a Nobel laureate in physics and one of the principal founders of quantum mechanics, once said that “forecasting is difficult, especially when it’s about the future.” Bohr didn’t know the half of it. Of course, we all want to reduce our forecasting errors (though, surprisingly, we often don’t measure and reward forecast accuracy), but forecasts, by their nature, are imperfect tools that change over time.
WFM is therefore a dynamic task. The more quickly you can respond to unanticipated events, the more value you’ll be able to unlock from your scheduling practices.
Cotharin thinks that “one of the biggest opportunities for savings in WFM is in the intraday management of risks and opportunities.” He notes that “the rallying cry of many supervisors is ‘I don’t have time to train my agents.’”
He suggests that on days with lower than expected call volumes or sick calls, analysts and supervisors could shift underutilized agents from the phones into training. “It’s hard to see this from real-time agent data but a good WFM package makes it easy.”
Other options that Cotharin mentions for periods with too many or too few agents to handle the contact volume with the desired service level include changing break schedules, releasing some agents early, bringing in additional agents, changing utilization of home agents or outsourcer backups, offering overtime, and shifting agents to or from less immediate tasks such as answering e-mails. Please note, however, that this is not a license to downgrade e-mail service levels. If you let your customer e-mails sit unanswered for several days while waiting for agent overages, consequences far too horrible to contemplate in a family magazine such as Call Center Magazine will ensue — those customers will almost certainly call you anyway, unless they decide to call your competitors instead.
One nifty recent development is Encompass, an optional module available for Aspect’s eWorkforce Management, that lets call centers integrate the operation of their outsourcers more tightly into the WFM process. Aspect’s Larry Skowronek says that the module lets a contact center “communicate staffing levels and needs on a near-real time basis...using either an XML-based Web services interface or Microsoft Word and Excel. You can get tallies of people in each skill by interval and actual call information (including call handling time); you can also send forecasted call numbers and/or staff requirements forecasts.”
You Can Only Manage What You Measure
The smartest analyst in the world using the best optimization software available will still produce bad schedules if the goals you give him or her are not aligned with your business needs. In a world with scarce resources (and every call center manager’s resources are scarce), the toughest decisions usually don’t have “yes or no” answers. It’s harder to answer “how much” or “how many” questions. Before you can address resource allocation questions adequately, you need to put a lot of thought into analyzing tradeoffs.
Consider these questions: How many customers will you lose if hold time increases by 10 seconds, or 30, or 60, or 180? How much does it cost your company to acquire a new customer (or a new customer of a certain class, if you segment them)? How much more likely is a customer who rates your service as “extraordinary” to purchase from you again than is a customer who’s call center experience was merely “satisfactory”? If you don’t have well-considered answers to these, and many similar questions, or if you do know the answers but your performance metrics don’t reflect those answers adequately, then you’re WMF process is optimizing the wrong thing.
Gonos says, “few companies manage the efficiency of a WFM analyst. They need to examine the quality of their forecasts, whether they created an effective plan, and whether they executed the plan well.” It’s a good idea to include feedback from call center agents and supervisors in performance evaluations of WFM professionals, too.
Cotharin has identified a more disturbing practice. He says that “inconsistency is a rampant issue in call centers. Managers who have underperformed against targets in the morning will often buy back service levels in the afternoon, leading to a culture of inefficiency. Consistency of achievement across intervals is a much better metric than a daily average.” Some higher level managers may not appreciate the natural variation in calling patterns, so you may need to educate your superiors to implement the metrics and incentives that will yield the best business results.
Finally, as much as we love data analysis, we don’t think you should make a complete fetish of numbers. Here’s a concrete example that’s fun to quote to tightfisted CFOs — there are call centers that upon imposing more stringent average handling times (AHTs) for calls, saw marked decreases in up-sell revenues. Statistics are useful, but you need to be careful that they measure contributions to your organization’s goals.
According to Gonos, successful workforce management “is real basic blocking and tackling. The benefits are in the fundamentals, where many WFM analysts today are failing to do the job.” Although we have no bias against more sophisticated analysis, all of our sources agree with Gonos’ conclusion.
If you have picked the right WFM software package, consolidated the management of agent schedules across agent pools, achieved flexibility in scheduling, react quickly to unexpected changes, and aligned your WFM’s incentives with those of your organization, pat yourself on the back; you’re well ahead of the curve. Of course, you should still be on the prowl constantly for improvements; one good way to identify them is to use the scenario testing capabilities of your WFM software (Klenke says that “what if” capabilities can also help you prove your point in budget discussions.) On the other hand, if this list doesn’t describe your operations, that’s where we suggest you start when you’re looking to improve your bottom line.
AC2 Solutions — The Techie’s Alternative To WFM
Call Center Magazine and our related shows keep giving awards to ac2 Solution’s (Hazlet, NJ) Optimal Scheduler because we love its rigorously quantitative approach to forecasting demand and optimizing schedules. Last year, we promised that we’d give you more details about it in a future article. Here is a further update since last year.
ac2’s founder, Turgut Aykin, has several degrees (including a Ph.D.) in management science and operations research, and his company’s WFM product reflects that. ac2 software has, bar none, the most sophisticated set of forecasting algorithms of any WFM product on the market.
The software can automate the process of finding the forecasting techniques that best predict your call center’s needs (you can also choose your forecasting methods manually). The company has also incorporated the latest research in optimization theory into its algorithms. If you had put Albert Einstein to work as a WFM software developer (giving him today’s computing power), he’d probably have developed something similar to Optimal Scheduler.
If you are an inveterate quant (which the author of this piece is), you’re going to like the way Optimal Scheduler works – it’s neat stuff. This doesn’t mean that everyone in your shop needs a Ph.D. in applied math or a membership in the Star Trek fan club to use their software, however.
Aykin says, “Workforce managers complain about the complexity of software — they’re focused on generating results, and that’s what we do.”
Another feature that we like is a bias toward maintaining service levels. Aykin says “for us, agent requirements are hard constraints,” though they do have methods to allocate unavoidable shortages. ac2 has built flexibility into the optimization engine, letting you choose between minimum cost and minimizing agent hours for any desired service level, and the company still has more options under development.
There are two qualifications you should consider if you’re interested in ac2’s Optimal Scheduler:
First, in our opinion, this software is overkill for small call centers. Among other considerations, to get the most out of it, you need at least one analyst who’s got more than the usual mathematical background, so a smaller operation probably doesn’t have the resources to take full advantage of the tools.
Second, Optimal Scheduler is missing some pieces that you’ll find in other vendor’s offerings. ac2’s intraday management and schedule adherence options are limited. The product is also oriented primarily toward customer service by telephone, and therefore has limited multi-modal capabilities.
You may want to look at the software more as a modular offering that complements other WFM packages. The product is offered on a hosted basis, using a .NET Web-services architecture to ease integration. You’ll need to consider whether any increase in performance that you might achieve in your call centers is worth the extra cost and complexity.
For larger call center operations that are interested in a more mathematical approach and that are willing to consider a multiple-vendor system for WFM, there is one additional compelling feature of ac2’s philosophy — the company is willing to prove the value of its product by helping you to compare its scheduling results against those of the software that you currently use. Some of the pricing options are based on the savings that you generate by incorporating ac2’s software into your WFM process.
Aykin explains, “No matter what I say, a smart manager will say ‘show me what impact it will have on my operations.’” When you’re looking at any major investment, we think that’s sound advice.
Get Workforce Management To Work For You
Here's how to get in touch with the companies that can help get you started on optimal scheduling.
The Call Center School
Expert Solutions International
Left Bank Solutions
Professional Resource Management
The Workforce Management Group