While somewhere between 8 and 12 agents per supervisor makes sense in many centers, a 5:1 or 20:1 ratio may be equally justifiable.
In contact centers, the agent-to-supervisor ratio is an especially important consideration. Effective ratios are dependent on the tasks, standards and responsibilities of both agents and supervisors. Many centers today have between 8 and 12 staff per supervisor.
However, there are notable differences by industry. For example, financial and insurance companies tend to be on the low end of that spectrum (with more supervisors managing fewer agents), while online retailers and telecommunications providers tend to be on the high end. Further, there can be significant exceptions; e.g., some reservations centers have a relatively large span of control, approaching or exceeding 20 staff per supervisor. And technical support centers and other complex environments can have as few as five staff per supervisor. Even within an industry, there can be a wide variance.
Hours of operation can also be a significant factor. For example, many organizations maintain a minimum number of supervisors, even during off-hour shifts that require proportionally fewer agents.
In short, be careful about drawing quick conclusions based on these figures or industry benchmarks. There are no simple answers along the lines of, "If you are a such-and-such type of contact center, you ought to have X staff per supervisor."
Some of today's trends are working to drive the span of control up, including:
Budget constraints: As organizations go through restructurings and/or budget cutbacks, they often must reduce the relative number of supervisors (increase spans of control). Many managers admit that a downward adjustment of span of control would be ideal but insist that funds simply are not available for more supervisor/manager positions.
Growing workloads: In some sectors, contact center workloads have consistently increased. In those centers that struggle to keep up with growth, the span of control tends to increase.
Growth of teams: A positive development has been the growth of team-based environments, which has challenged the traditional role of supervisors. Contact centers have largely moved away from production-oriented operations toward organizations that are flatter and more team-oriented. In many cases, team leaders are assuming functions that traditionally have been in the domain of managers and supervisors.
Lower turnover: Another positive development is that a growing number of centers are directly and successfully reducing turnover. As the average experience level of agents moves upward, less supervision is generally required.
Other developments in today's environment tend to drive span of control down, including:
The growing complexity of contacts: As better-applied technologies offload routine contacts and as new contact channels proliferate, agents are handling interactions that require more human savvy and know-how. The growing complexity of the work tends to inherently require more coaching and feedback.
More monitoring and coaching, more extensively: Many contact centers are employing more robust monitoring approaches and taking larger samples for coaching and development than in the past. Monitoring, feedback and coaching take a significant amount of time.
More small contact centers: This may be the biggest reason that the average ratio across the industry has moved down — there are simply more small groups in the sample. For example, if a new contact center has only seven or eight agents, it will still likely have a supervisor even though that person will be able to supervise more people as the center grows.
There are potentially other factors that can confuse the issue of ratios. For example, the tasks of supervisors vary widely from one organization to the next. Some lean more toward lead agent responsibilities, in which they lead a team but also help to handle the workload, while others are much more involved in management responsibilities. Further, the time that supervisors spend monitoring and coaching (the most time-consuming activity beyond handling calls, in most centers) can vary by many multiples. And some organizations have set up internal help desks to field inquiries from agents who need help — a responsibility traditionally handled by supervisors.
Recommendations in general business literature range from the train ‘em and get out of the way school of thought to a more structured approach on the other. In their classic book, Executive Leadership, authors Elliot Jacques and Stephen D. Clement contend that “There is more nonsense centering around the topic of span of control than around nearly any other subject in the whole field of organization and management." They go on to criticize managers who search for easy-to-apply rules of thumb.
In contact centers, somewhere between 8 and 12 agents per supervisor makes sense in many centers. But a 5:1 or 20:1 ratio may be equally justifiable – there’s simply no alternative to understanding your own unique environment and making a decision that is right for you.
Please drop me a note with your stories, comments, feedback… I’d love to hear from you.
Brad Cleveland. firstname.lastname@example.org
Brad Cleveland was one of two initial partners in and former longtime President and CEO of ICMI; he currently serves as Senior Advisor. A sought after speaker and consultant, he has worked in over 60 countries, and is author/editor of eight books, including Call Center Management on Fast Forward (updated edition, ICMI Press, 2006-2012). He can be reached at email@example.com.