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The Business of Workforce Management

The very forces that are making workforce management more difficult are creating an environment in which accurate resource planning is more important than ever.

Ongoing changes in the contact center environment have had a substantial impact on the processes that determine planning success. The underlying goal of workforce management remains the same—get the right number of properly skilled people and supporting resources in the right places, at the right times, doing the right things. But successful forecasting and scheduling in today’s environment depends on far more than careful analysis of system reports.

Consider the sheer number of factors affecting forecasts and schedules (see table)—and how many of them are outside the purview of system reports. Given these variables, it’s easy to understand why many organizations that were once successful at workload planning are now struggling with it. If the organization does things differently or operates in a changed world tomorrow—and you can count on it in today’s ever-evolving economy—customer workloads will be affected.

Key Factors That Impact Forecasts and Schedules:

  • New contact channels
  • Changes in customer demographics
  • Changes in the economy
  • Revenue growth or decline
  • Marketing activities
  • Social channels and communities
  • Competitor activities
  • Technology changes (internal and external)
  • Web site revisions (content or structure)
  • New laws and regulations
  • Customer expectations and demands
  • New self-service options (e.g., mobile app)
  • Agent turnover
  • New product rollouts
  • Customer management initiatives
  • Changes in organizational structure
  • Quality improvement initiatives
  • Publicity—positive and negative
  • New suppliers and business partners
  • Human resources policies
  • Cost-cutting or growth initiatives
  • Changes in security practices
  • Consumer confidence

The emergence of new contact channels is clearly adding to the complexity of workforce management. Managing multiple channels does more than multiply management challenges: it seems to raise them to the Nth power, where N is the number of channels. Forecasting, scheduling, routing, quality assurance, coaching, training, service standards—all of these need to be managed for each channel and yet be coordinated by a cohesive customer access strategy. We’ve gone from solving jigsaw puzzles to solving Rubik’s Cubes for every half-hour of the day.

So, what’s the answer? How should you respond to growing complexity? The biggest part of the answer is recognizing that those involved in forecasting and scheduling cannot be holed up in a back office—they must have ongoing cross-functional involvement in planning and management activities. The organization must see workforce management as a dynamic, vital business activity that is the enabler to delivering cost-effective service. With that cultural perspective as a prerequisite, we’ve found the following to be additional critical success factors:

Clarify your organization’s values. This involves a dialog with the organization’s senior level management around key questions, e.g., what happens when workload forecasts come in low or high? Who will pay the price if workload exceeds demand—customers and agents, in the form of long queues and high occupancy, or the budget, in the form of higher costs to maintain an available margin of staff? What alternatives exist to maintain consistent service levels, from scheduling options to backup from other departments or help from an outside business partner? There are many possible answers to these questions. The important thing is to think these things through ahead of time, and know where you stand.

Resolve inherent conflicts. Those who have forecasting and scheduling responsibilities encounter many challenges, e.g., requests from other areas preempting schedules, new marketing campaigns, unannounced schedule exceptions among agent teams, and unclear lines of authority between supervisors and workforce planners. There will always be adjustments, but chronic exceptions to planned schedules usually points to systemic conflicts in processes, procedures or objectives. This can only get resolved by bringing your team together and working through different scenarios.

Ensure that all activities are included. Too often, contact centers have extra work beyond the schedules that is unaccounted for but that exacts a heavy price in psychological weight and creates fires when it’s ignored for too long (e.g., unfinished projects or case work that results in additional contacts or repetitive work). The amount of work unrelated to directly handling customer contacts is often understated or ignored. But successful centers incorporate requirements into forecasts and schedules. While tracking and reports can be more of a challenge (investigate the possibilities in the systems you have), these activities often occur in predictable patterns. Take an inventory of activities that is as comprehensive and specific as possible. 

Model scenarios. Centers that get the best results tend to put more effort into modeling, or periodically creating test schedules with different sets of variables (scheduling software can be a big help in this effort, particularly in larger or more complex centers). Given the many components that go into forecasts and schedules, experimenting with alternatives highlights tradeoffs and enables you to make better decisions on issues such as contact routing, policy changes, agent group structure, and budget tradeoffs. While modeling takes time (you’re basically having a person or team produce example schedules under different parameters), you’ll get this investment back in multiples, through better decisions.

Build the skills of the workforce management team. The team (yes, this must be a cross-functional team, even in a small contact center) must have the ability to collaborate effectively, a clear understanding of the organization's vision and its implications, the means to educate others on workforce management activities and requirements, and the skills to analyze data and trends accurately and appropriately. The complexity of contact centers will continue to increase, but the art of workforce management is advancing. Forward-looking leaders make a priority of building well trained and well-equipped workforce management teams.

The very forces that are making workforce management more difficult— new channels, more complex contacts, heightened customer expectations, cross-functional processes, the need for more diverse agent skills—are creating an environment in which getting it right is more important than ever. The good news: forecasting and scheduling can be learned and continuously improved. Making that investment today will reap big rewards – now and in the future.

More Resources

  • Webinar: The WFO Puzzle: Putting the Pieces Together
  • ICMI Contact Center Expo & Conference: Workforce Optimization in The Customer Channel Choice World
  • ICMI Symposium Course: Workforce Management Bootcamp
  • ICMI Training: Do-it-Yourself Workforce Management