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10 Causes of Inaccurate Forecasts (and How to Avoid Them)

Three Keys to Contact Center Workforce OptimizationThis article has been updated 6/22/2022. 

When it comes to workforce optimization, an old nursery rhyme comes to mind:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.

For want of a shoe the horse was lost. For want of a horse the rider was lost.

For want of a rider the battle was lost.

For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.

And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

You may not lose a kingdom, but don’t underestimate the consequences of inaccurate forecasts. Recruiting, hiring, staffing and scheduling—virtually everything that goes into optimizing resources depends on having a good estimate of the work that will come your way.

How accurate should your forecast be? Let me suggest some parameters. Large agent groups (100 or more agents) generally see relatively stable contact arrival patterns and should strive for plus or minus 5 percent (or better) of workload down to specific intervals (see Table). Small groups (15 or fewer agents) often have more volatile patterns and should shoot for plus or minus 10 percent. Those in-between should strive for something as close to 5 percent as possible.chart

This is not to suggest you can't do better. On the other hand, if you're just getting started with, say, a small group handling new mobile or social interactions, being within 100% might be a good start! Don't give up. Make this aspect of planning a priority.

Over the years, the team at ICMI has investigated across many organizations why some contact centers have accurate forecasts and others don't. Ten common problems tend to consistently emerge, and they are summarized here (in no specific order). In centers with inaccurate forecasts, usually two or three of these issues are most prevalent. The good news is, you can avoid these problems! By identifying the culprits, remedies become evident.

1. NO SYSTEMATIC PROCESS IN PLACE. There are two erroneous beliefs that many use to justify the absence of a systematic forecasting process. One is that the environment is just too unpredictable, that forecasting is not going to help. Others are convinced it’s not worth the time and effort. Either can be cultural killers of forecasts, and will set you up for failure.

2. AN ASSUMPTION THAT "THE FORECASTING SOFTWARE KNOWS BEST." Don’t get me wrong on this, forecasting software can be very helpful in collecting and analyzing data, running scenarios, contrasting methodologies and potential outcomes. But you can’t just plug numbers in and have accurate forecasts pop out. The software doesn't know what your marketing department is about to do, or competitive activity, or the significant initiatives you put in place in recent months that will literally reshape services. It’s a tool, not the end-all answer.

3. NOT FORECASTING AT THE AGENT GROUP LEVEL. Even a perfect forecast of the aggregate workload will be of limited use if you route contacts to specialized groups. If you have a group of Spanish-speaking agents handling services A, B and C, you will need to forecast contacts from Spanish-speaking customers who need help with those services. This, of course, is a prerequisite to effective recruiting and hiring.

4. THE FORECAST IS TAKEN LIGHTLY. If the forecast has been wildly inaccurate in the past or if no one understands the assumptions used in the process, it will not be given the credence it needs in the planning steps to follow.

5. EVENTS THAT SHOULD BE EXCEPTIONS BECOME A PART OF THE FORECAST. Utilities tend to get lots of contacts when storms knock out power, the financial industry gets swamped when markets swoon, and many centers have, on at least one occasion, dealt with contacts from an unannounced marketing campaign. Those preparing the forecast need to be aware of the root causes of contacts in order to make a good judgment on what is likely to continue (and therefore should be built into the forecast) versus the exceptions.

6. ONGOING COMMUNICATION WITH OTHER DEPARTMENTS DOESN'T EXIST. Most of what happens in a contact center is caused by something going on outside the center. The forecast, along with any larger business transformation initiatives, is doomed if strong ties with other departments don't exist.

7. PLANNING IS DONE AROUND GOALS, NOT REALITY. If staffing is based on a handling time of four minutes when actual handling time is more like seven minutes, the resulting staff calculations and schedules will be based on a pipe dream. Maybe lower turnover, improved training, or better systems would move things in that direction. But ignoring reality in the planning process is no way to achieve better results or build confidence in the forecast.

8. NO ONE IS ACCOUNTABLE. As vital as a good forecast is, often there is no one who spearheads the effort. Someone needs to be responsible for bringing the various types of input together, ensuring that it is integrated into the forecast, and investigating which assumptions were off when the forecast is not accurate.

9. AGENTS ARE MIXING FLEXIBLE ACTIVITIES INTO WORK MODES. If agents are not using work modes consistently, especially after-call work, then accurate forecasting will be elusive.

10. NOT MAKING THE CONNECTION WITH STAFFING. Forecasts mean nothing unless they are tied to staff and system resources required. With good forecasts, you are ready (in the words of Chip Bell) to cast for your contact center superstars.

Forecasting takes practice. You will never learn all there is to know about it — but you'll get better at it. One of the most important steps you can take to improve accuracy is to compare your forecasts with actual results and then ask, "Why?"

Topics: Workforce Management, Management And Budgeting, Manager