ICMI is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them. Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.


Expert's Angle: Forecasting and Staffing for Social Customer Service

Much has been, is, and will be said about social media support in customer service circles. But beyond the noise of the discussion, a fundamental trend is taking shape: As with the emergence of the Web itself, the social ecosystem is becoming part of the fabric of customer service.

Social service does not replace traditional customer service channels. In fact, if you have poor phone service levels and unanswered customer email, viewing social service as a substitute would be sorely misguided. Rather, it will become an increasingly important part of your organization’s overall approach to communicating with and serving customers.

Many organizations start out by treating social channels as a part of marketing, publicity, or corporate communication efforts. But with any kind of volume (and without the help of the contact center) one of two things begins to happen: either customer needs go unanswered, or these areas began to grow a quasi contact center as they find themselves handling interactions that are more in the realm of customer service and support.

The good news is that many organizations are finding their contact centers to be more ready than originally assumed; after all, they are already handling a wide range of contacts, and most employees have become familiar with social tools. The sooner you begin pulling the full range of interactions and channels into your customer service operations, the sooner you will be able to scale resources and respond as opportunities unfold. And that requires robust workload forecasting and staff planning.


Our advice when anticipating staffing requirements for this emerging workload is to think more along the lines of forecasting the weather: Partly cloudy this morning, with a warming trend this afternoon. You don’t have years of patterns as you might for telephone calls or email, and they wouldn’t mean much anyway given the fast changing nature of social service. But begin collecting data on volumes and handling times. Look out as far as possible, think through as many variables as feasible, and observe patterns and how they are developing. In the end, dress for any kind of weather (meaning, build flexibility and scalability into your staffing plans).

The good news is that underlying patterns almost always exist. Yes, social trending topics and posts that quickly multiply can create unique staffing challenges. But being responsive in their early stages can help head off what would be repetitive contacts. In short, the same basic principles apply: Look for patterns, consider the variables, and use what you’re seeing to project future workload.


For staffing purposes, there are different types of social interactions, each requiring a specific approach to resource planning. Here are some common variations:

1. Social Interactions—real time, with single response. In this setting, the organization handles interactions through social channels as they occur, with one response generally being sufficient. Typical examples include responding to customers with numbers they can contact, specific email addresses, or links to online resources that provide necessary information. These are service-level-type interactions, and the staffing approach is like that for inbound phone calls, with the help of the widely-used Erlang C formula (see example below).

2. Social Interactions—real-time, with multiple exchanges. In this case, the organization strives to handle interactions when they are initiated, and the dialog often involves multiple back-and-forth messages. Once engaged, customers may continue to ask questions or seek clarification. These are service-level-type contacts with staffing considerations like those of chat.

3. Social interactions—deferred. This approach involves addressing inquires or issues that do not require an immediate response. Common examples include responding to general inquiries posted on the organization’s Facebook page, or sending responses, FAQ documents, or relevant links that address questions posted in forums. In this scenario, staffing is response-time oriented, like that for email or outbound contacts that are scheduled.

4. Internal interactions. As with other types of internal communication (instant messaging, phone calls, email, etc.), the impact of internal collaboration on staffing requirements must be considered in context. If dialog is necessitated by and happens while handling customer interactions, the time required should be reflected realistically in the average handling time associated with those contacts. On the other hand, internal communication that is not directly associated with handling customer contacts (e.g., it’s for internal projects or, simply, the everyday communication that is part of a normal work environment) should at least be accounted for in overall schedule requirements.

Different systems will deliver social interactions to agents in different ways. For example, some present social interactions in email-like format. That’s fine. Just remember, it’s not email in the usual sense, and staffing requirements should be driven by whether the work needs to happen at the time and whether it involves multiple exchanges.


Contact centers, and the management methodologies that guide them, are bringing order to what would otherwise be an enormous, asymmetrical challenge in serving customers. Social channels are providing a significant opportunity to shape services that differentiate, build the organization’s brand, and, ultimately, have a positive impact on customers, employees and shareholders. Just don’t be intimidated by these new interactions—your organization is probably more ready than you think, and with the right planning approach, you’ll hit a stride just as you have with other kinds of customer contacts.