I’m quite fond of the names of a couple members of our Workforce Management Team at FCR — Jeremy Grogan and Jeremy Conway. In fact, I often get copied on emails requesting a detailed schedule analysis or staffing projection, and after a momentary panic attack, realize one of the other Jeremys was the intended recipient. On a more serious note, I had the opportunity to sit down with the two Jeremys and hear a bit about some of the essentials of Workforce Management (WFM) for contact centers.
First, what is WFM? Here’s a working definition to get us started:
Workforce management in the contact center is about predicting the staffing required to handle customer contact volumes within a desired service level. Once this is known and staff is hired, it’s a matter of scheduling them to work at the appropriate times and ensuring that they adhere as closely to those schedules as possible.
WFM is really important, impacting both the customer and agent experience, so it’s essential that we do it right. Let’s dive into the four key areas of WFM the Jeremys and I discussed to get a better understanding of the field and its impact to an organization.
An overview of contact center scheduling
New and existing clients often come to FCR asking how many customer support agents are needed to handle existing and future support volumes. Our response is to do a complete workforce analysis and this requires the following information:
- Hours of operation – We like to call these “HOOPS” (HOurs Of OPerationS) These are simply the days and hours during those days that support is open for business. Jeremy Grogan pointed out that “as companies expand their HOOPS, schedules vary more to ensure enough staff to cover those hours.”
- Contact volumes – We need to know the expected number of calls, emails, chats, etc during a given time period. For some companies, this is fairly static from week to week, allowing us to use historical data. Other companies may be rapidly growing week over week so we use historical trends to predict future growth. And for more seasonal businesses that might see a huge influx in calls over the holidays, we need to understand where those ramps in volume typically occur.
- Arrival pattern – In addition to contact volumes, we need to understand the distribution of those contacts preferably down to the half hour. Many businesses require peak staffing in the middle of the day whereas a company that supports restaurants might require the most staffing during the dinner hour.
- Average handle times – Handle times are critical to this analysis because the time it takes to handle an interaction determines how many contacts agents can handle in a given period of time. With most phone and chat systems, this is a standard metric. With email, it’s more common to take a different angle and divide the total number of cases handled by time worked to understand how many cases per hour agents can handle.
- Service level goal – This is the percentage of customer interactions we want to handle or respond to in X number of minutes or hours. For phones, the goal might be to answer 80% of calls in 20 seconds or less. In some respects, this is a business decision given the fact that faster response times may require more staffing and more budget. Less staff on the other hand can result in slower response times, longer waits, and a slew of other side effects.
Once we have these pieces of information, we can determine how many agents are required to handle the support volume and schedule them accordingly. And to do this well, you’ll want to read up on Erlang C a bit.
Staffing for omnichannel
It’s one thing to staff a team to handle one support channel like phone. Adding multiple support channels to the mix adds another layer of complexity. While we might be able to ask agents to handle emails between calls, or work emails between chats, there’s no way we’ll consistently get them to do chats and calls at the same time without causing problems.
So how do we properly staff in an omnichannel environment? Here are a couple options:
- Blend certain channels together – Whether agents are handling chat or phone, the team can be intentionally overstaffed or schedules can overlap such that there are intentional gaps between calls or chats to provide time work on emails. Jeremy Conway noted that this may work at lower volumes but is difficult to guarantee a specific service level for email if no one is dedicated to it. He went on to say, “By blending channels you gain efficiency in agent utilization but lose in productivity on a given channel.”
- Dedicate agents to each channel – For larger teams, devoting agents to specific channels like email is a much better way to guarantee a desired service level. For example, on a 50 person team, you might have 30 on phones and 20 on email. According to Jeremy Grogan, “It’s more efficient for agents to focus on the same type of task.” He went on to say, “It’s still important to have agents trained to work other channels so they can switch in the event that there’s an unexpected spike in volume.”
While blended is generally better for small teams and dedicated is better as teams grow, it still might be worth it, even on small teams, to experiment with agents focusing on certain channels to see if the increased efficiency offsets the loss of a person on phones.
Tools and technology
If you scan the landscape of WFM technology, there are many platforms to choose from including Teleopti, Monet, and others. Some contact center platforms like InContact, Calabrio, and Genesys have WFM features built-in. WFM software can significantly reduce the amount of time it takes to understand optimal staffing and produce schedules. When evaluating these tools, Jeremy Conway advised, “Before getting into WFM software, everyone needs to know Excel. It’s important to learn to walk before you can fly.” Here are some of our favorite Excel tips for the contact center.
Jeremy Grogan also cautions that these tools don’t necessarily take into account the lives of the people they’re scheduling for. They have no regard for the single parent that needs a little bit of flexibility to get their kids from school or the agent who absolutely cannot work weekends. Grogan commented that, “Internally we try to maintain the same start time and ensure two consecutive days off. This is part of our culture and it’s up to the WFM team to stay within those requirements even when using WFM software.”
What about the people?
This is a great segue into the people and teams that WFM serves within the organization. The one word I heard over and over from the Jeremys was Balance. On one side, WFM has a responsibility to the company and client, but they’re also responsible to the agents.
On the company side, there’s a responsibility to be good stewards of time, money, and resources. An accurate forecast and correct schedule ensures that teams are staffed well enough to respond to customers within desired service levels. Adjusting schedules to accommodate individual requests can run the risk of having too many people working at a given time with not enough work to do. On the other side, being understaffed can negatively impact the customer experience.
Contact center agents also need to understand the role they play in all of this. Grogan said, “We want to promote an awareness of the impact when agents call off or show up late for their shift, putting an extra burden on their colleagues. On the other hand, if they come to work on a day they’re not scheduled that impacts the client and their budget.”
Grogan and Conway clearly understand the importance of a work life balance for agents. It’s one thing to create the optimal schedule but another to get everyone to work it to perfection. Pushing too much on agents can impact employee engagement and lead to increased attrition, so WFM should always aim to strike a balance and be flexible within reason.
WFM is an essential team and function within a contact center for a number of reasons — and it’s not always easy balancing the needs of the business with the needs of individuals. When ask what else they’d want others to know about WFM, the Jeremys were in agreement in saying, “WFM isn’t a bunch of robots trying to make people’s lives worse. We actually care about the colleagues we’re scheduling, the managers we’re partnering with, and the clients we’re serving.” Well said, Jeremy!