Workforce Management for Contact Centers

Workforce management (WFM) is the strategic alignment of people and resources to business objectives in ways that optimize and automate scheduling and performance management based on agent availability, forecast call volume, and revenue targets. Put simply, it ensures that the right number of agents, with the right skill sets, are staffed at the right time, in the right places. 

In the following we will provide a guide to the WFM cycle, highlighting ways to improve a growing number of complex processes therein. When supported by intelligent systems, contact center leaders can generate more value, deliver on service level agreements (SLAs) with greater efficiency, and optimize net staffing for improved employee and customer experiences.

Add image with alt text: A contact center leader reading a guide to the workforce management cycle, and learning ways to improve forecasting, scheduling, agent assignments, and intraday management. 

WFM’s Role in a Contact Center

The contact center environment has never been more complex. Leaders are challenged to balance adaptive staffing levels, hybrid work environments, multi-channel customer engagement, and heightened customer expectations with fewer agents and increased attrition. Contact center leaders need a powerful workforce management solution to tame the complexity in ways that support improved employee relations, superior customer service, human resource management, and a positive financial impact.

To operate a successful contact center, organizations need to be mindful of the numbers. The most important numbers—by far—are those of the productive workforce in place to handle incoming customer engagements. 

And that’s where workforce management solution for contact centers comes in. 

How does workforce management work?

Workforce management uses a set of processes designed to achieve and maintain operational efficiency. The ultimate goal of workforce management is to create the best possible fit between the forecasted required workload and the number of agents scheduled. That means using the fewest number of paid labor hours without jeopardizing revenue opportunities, negatively impacting the employee experience, or fueling poor customer relations.

Organizations that are able to achieve this balance reap considerable rewards, including reduced operational costs, lower churn, and improved customer experience.

Let’s take a closer look at the range of functions a successful WFM solution delivers, and the benefits and value they drive for contact centers. 

The Functions of WFM in a Contact Center

Any contact center workforce management process is comprised of the same basic parts, and chances are you’re most likely performing all these tasks in some form or fashion: 

  • Forecasting customer interaction volume.
  • Utilizing the forecasted data to create optimized agent schedules.
  • Assigning agents to schedules based on their preferences and business rules.
  • Managing intraday activity.

It’s important to note that these functions comprise a cycle where each part is dependent on input from the prior component. This cycle is in constant motion, and subject to constant change.

Moreover, other critical inputs—including agent availability, agent optimization targets, hybrid work environments, multi-channel customer support, and a growing number of environmental, social, and political disruptions—have complicated the WFM cycle. 

Everything from billing processes and marketing promotions to weather and holidays can affect the reliability and accuracy of critical inputs. 

Contact center leaders have an increasingly complex equation to solve. Given this complexity, manual functions are nearly impossible to integrate into the cycle given the scope and scale of change and the accelerating speed of customer experience. Contact center leaders need an intelligent solution to understand and account for each individual component in the cycle, the role it plays, and how it interacts with its counterparts. 

How WFM Improves Contact Center Forecasting

What is WFM forecasting?

WFM forecasting is the process of connecting and projecting the effects of a complex set of scheduling, skills, service objective and customer behavior-based variables to determine the number of agents and other resources needed to optimize net staffing levels and excellent customer experiences.

Forecasting is the backbone of the WFM cycle. It’s the process of calculating the number of inbound calls for the upcoming intervals: days, weeks, months, or even years. It draws on history, science, and insights to predict the future workload and anticipate call drivers. By identifying trends and patterns, forecasting future volume becomes more accurate.

It’s often said that creating an accurate forecast is one part art, one part science: the art consists of the qualitative aspects, such as a forecaster’s expertise, while the science harnesses quantitative methods that leverage historical data and statistical techniques using forecasting software. 

Add image with alt text:A manager enjoying an improved employee experience and contact center retention supported by an intelligent WFM solution. 

Some of the complex variables that impact contact center forecasting include skills usage, required lines with multi-skilled agents, and flexible scheduling. 

The Role of Skills Usage in Forecasting

  • How does skills usage impact WFM forecasting? It defines when and to what extent the particular skill(s) of a particular employee should be used. 
  • What makes accounting for skills usage in WFM forecasting challenging? Agent skill usages are interdependent. In other words, the time Employee A spends using his skills is dependent on the time Employee B spends using hers. 
  • Why is skills usage important in WFM forecasting? It ensures the right people with the right skills—no more, no less—are working when you need them most, ensuring a better, more efficient customer experience. 

Managing for Required Lines and Multi-Skilled Agents in Forecasting

  • How do required lines impact WFM forecasting? They represent the number of full-time equivalent agents needed in a productive state to meet service objectives (ASA, Service Level, Maximum Occupancy, etc.). 
  • How do multi-skilled agents complicate required lines in WFM forecasting? Agents don’t share a homogeneous skill set, and work items don’t always queue to a single skill profile, risking overstated required lines. 

Accounting for Flexible Scheduling in Forecasting

  • What is flexible scheduling in WFM? A function that gives agents greater control over their work-life balance by automating a process in which agents can swap shifts, opt into shifts, and set availability parameters. 
  • How does flexible scheduling impact WFM forecasting? Flexible schedules are incredibly challenging to incorporate into contact center forecasting, but its worth it: three out of four agents consider flexible scheduling an employment requirement.
  • How does flexible scheduling complicate forecasting? A high number of constantly shifting variables, including everything from agent-preferred start times, stop times, days off, workday patterns, shift lengths, and lunch breaks, must be incorporated and accounted for. 

Further compounding the complex forecasting process are customer behaviors. Historical data can help, but customer behaviors can be suddenly impacted by the unexpected: a freak snowstorm in Tennessee or an urgent product recall can suddenly spike contact volume. To keep up, scheduling variables must be connected with data collected in real-time from every customer touchpoint across the organization—voice, chat, email, web, SMS, etc. 

The sheer volume of data this represents can quickly overwhelm and compromise the accuracy of a forecast. And when you consider some organizations use manual spreadsheets to compile all this data, the true scope of the task becomes clear, especially when multiple outcome scenarios need to be run.

How WFM Supports Contact Center Scheduling

What is WFM scheduling?

WFM scheduling is the process of assigning agents to time, skills, and demand-based shifts in a contact center, balancing agent availability, optimization goals, service objectives, and financial targets.

Once the forecasting is complete, scheduling becomes possible. Drawing on the requirements determined by the forecast, scheduling involves determining what shifts and hours will need coverage at the interval level. This involves having the right staff available where the interactions will be delivered (i.e. queues and contact types).

Planning staff according to call patterns and skill sets drives: 

  • Boosted service levels.
  • Improved first-call resolution and customer satisfaction.
  • Staff retention and an improved employee experience.

The bottom line? Accurately matching staff to call arrival patterns based on the forecast is essential in achieving the workforce and cost efficiencies.

And, as in forecasting, some organizations are still using spreadsheets to complete this complex and labor-intensive task, manually attempting to match call volume projections with the right staff ratio.

Add image with alt text: A manager using WFM software to improve workforce management processes

This manual approach makes it nearly impossible to deliver the complex array of scheduling features— including multi-skill and flexible scheduling—that are quickly becoming table stakes for contact center leaders seeking to retain their workforce, improve customer experiences, and drive greater value. 

  • What is multi-skill scheduling, and why is it important in WFM? Gone are the days of single-channel, single-engagement service. Agents today are expected to engage with customers across multiple channels—including phone, chat, email, and social media—often simultaneously. Multi-skill scheduling is the process of building shifts based on skill and channel requirements in multi-channel contact centers that serve customers via phone, chat, email, social media, and other channels. Scheduling based on precise forecasts on expected skills needed and available allows for delivery on SLAs with optimized net staffing. 
  • What is flexible scheduling, and why is it important in WFM? Flexible scheduling gives agents more control over when, how long, and where they work by infusing agent preferences into the equation for optimal scheduling. NICE research shows that 47% of agents want flexible scheduling with 24/7 access. With the same research showing that 62% of contact centers are putting effort into retaining agents, leaders should consider flexible scheduling a key piece of the retainment puzzle. Moreover, flexible scheduling methods can lower costs, improve staffing management, reduce attrition, and boost employee satisfaction.

How to Improve WFM Agent Assigning

What is agent assigning in WFM?

The assignment of specific agents to shifts defined by the scheduling process. 

The agent assignment process is a delicate balance between business needs and agent preferences and experience. 

Employee engagement—the emotional commitment an employee has for the organization and its goals—is critical to contact center success. Engaged workers are 38% more likely to have above-average productivity, and the organizations they work for are more profitable by a factor of 21%.

Yet effective employee engagement is challenging, particularly in a demanding, dynamic, and multi-channel contact center environment. Compiling and keeping track of all the critical variables manually—from demand forecasts and intraday scheduling needs to individual agent shift preferences—can be not only taxing, but time-consuming and arduous. 

Here’s how contact centers leaders can strike the perfect balance between day-to-day business needs and an improved agent assignment process:

  • Use shift bidding, a beneficial tool that considers agent performance, call handling ability, tenure, and other factors to optimize net staffing and alleviate over-worked agents.
  • Make it worthwhile—and easy—to accept less desirable or critical shifts. Whether it’s a long-range opportunity, like a holiday, night, or weekend shift, or a critical intraday scheduling need, intelligent WFM solutions strategically promote and incentivize those shifts to eligible agents. 
  • Empower agent autonomy. The right WFM solution can give agents and other employees greater control over their work-life balance, allowing them to self-adjust their schedules in ways that most benefit their lives outside of work. Driven by robust rules and pre-approval capabilities, contact center leaders can automate a process in which agent-requested shift changes or preferences are accommodated in support of optimized net staffing.

How to Improve WFM Intraday Management

What is intraday, or intraweek, management in WFM?

The process of shifting staffing allocations to meet changing conditions throughout the day or week. Depending on customer contact volume or staff absenteeism, for example, contact center leaders add or remove agents to maintain SLAs.

Agents get sick, and customer demand can be seriously impacted based on any number of factors that fall outside of the control of contact center leaders. 

The final component in the WFM contact center cycle accounts for these uncontrollable factors, ensuring the center is properly staffed and service levels are being met no matter what disruptions arise. 

This was a very manual and time-consuming process until workforce management solutions introduced the ability to automate these activities. Now, driven by robust rules and real-time net-staffing analysis, intelligent WFM solutions identify shift change opportunities and offer them to the right agents, avoiding overtime and targeting those most likely to accept. 

While part of the management of the day is consumed with making sure the staffing levels meet the revised forecast, another part is ensuring the agents are doing what they are scheduled to do during each time interval. This is referred to as adherence. All contact centers track adherence; some at the team level and others at the individual level. Either way, it is important to set the appropriate targets for adherence.

Why is adherence important in WFM?

Adherence is a particularly important piece of the WFM cycle: a precise understanding of efficiency and productivity enables smarter intraday management and long-term forecasting, scheduling, and performance management. 

Great customer service hinges on having the right people in place, at the right time, with the right skills to handle customer issues. But if agents aren’t where they need to be—where they were scheduled to be—the best workforce planning processes are all for naught. 

Here’s how to improve adherence in your contact center:

  • Set accurate, dynamic adherence goals. In a multi-skill, multi-channel contact center with varying call lengths, a one-size-fits-all goal won’t work.
  • Measure adherence daily. The contact center environment is too fast-paced for weekly or monthly adherence measurement. Daily measurement allows for more precise benchmarking and more efficient and accurate intraday management. 
  • Extend the accountability for adherence beyond your agents. In addition to measuring agents’ adherence, contact center managers also need to hold themselves accountable for working with the WFM team to maintain schedule accuracy.

Overcoming the Shortcomings of Spreadsheets
in Workforce Management

As mentioned earlier, many contact center leaders rely on manual spreadsheets to execute complex functions in the WFM cycle. As a result, they also frequently utilize what’s called an Erlang formula in a spreadsheet. Erlang C is a mathematical calculation that determines the number of staff needed to meet a given service level for a set number of calls. That seems reasonable enough, but the Erlang algorithm was invented over 100 years ago, and its calculations have major shortcomings for a modern contact center operation, including:

  • Only able to assume a steady call rate. 
  • Only able to assume a zero-abandonment rate.
  • Does not consider blocking.
  • Can only take “single-skilled” agents into account.
  • Cannot consider contact priority.
  • Cannot be applied to multi-channel interactions (email, text, chat, etc.).
  • Frequently results in over-staffing.

These shortcomings are detrimental to a successful workforce management contact center cycle and prove extremely labor-intensive to correct or overcome.

Start Here: A Workforce Management Contact Center Solution

With a sound WFM solution in place, organizations are able to optimize their most valuable and most expensive resource: their people. The NICE Workforce Management solution uses artificial intelligence, machine learning, and automation to remove the frustrations associated with manual calculations, adjustments, and cumbersome steps.

Adding the NICE Workforce Management contact center solution can tremendously improve your contact center operational efficiency and provide additional insight to help drive your business forward while empowering your employees.

Learn more about Workforce Optimization >>

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