Call Center Modeling: Holistic Workforce Management

By Bill Durr

In most contact centers today, whether outsourced or not, workforce management (WFM) boils down to the process of ensuring that the right agents with the right skills are available at the right times. It is tactical, with a short-term focus on deploying daily or weekly schedules. Companies typically equate WFM solely with forecasting and scheduling, and they seldom consider scorecards or long-term planning as part of the process.

A strategic, or holistic, approach to the contact center strategy-setting process happens at the management level, allowing the ability to manipulate a high-level model on how their contact center operates and focusing on service delivery, cost, and revenue. Key decision makers can use strategic planning to evaluate widely different staffing options in support of changing business requirements, gain greater visibility into operations, and find a more optimal balance among cost, revenue, employee satisfaction, and customer service.

What Is Holistic Workforce Management? Holistic WFM is a closed-loop management process that begins with strategic long-term planning, continues with the execution components of tactical forecasting and scheduling, and follows with real-time intra-day management. The management loop is truly closed, however, by the inclusion of individual agent scorecards that show on a daily basis how agents are performing against their adherence goals. This closed-loop process is what helps secure positive behavior change and return on investment. Let’s take a closer look at how it all works.

Strategic Long-Term Planning: Strategic planning looks twelve to eighteen months ahead and is an operational model of the center. It uses historical call queues and answer resources data to create weekly or monthly high-level traffic forecasts reflecting seasonality and prevailing trends. Long-term planning isn’t about individual agent schedules. It’s focused on full-time equivalents (FTEs) and paid agent labor hours; it provides a mechanism wherein key operating assumptions are made explicit, including shrinkage, agent skill development curves, attrition patterns, agent career pathing, skill profiles and labor costs, and revenue numbers.

Strategic long-term planning allows contact centers to build a model, get a plan in place, and experiment with variables to understand “what if” scenarios for producing better customer experience at a lower cost. For example, what is the impact of cross-training staff, increasing self-service options, bringing new hires on board, adjusting average handle times (AHT) higher or lower, or making training investments? How will changes in call volume, service levels, or budget affect the center? A holistic approach to WFM can help answer these questions and more.

The Better the Forecast, the Better the Schedule: Once the long-term plan is in place, tactical forecasting looks ahead one to six weeks to ensure that the labor deployment curve, consisting of individual agent schedules, closely matching the forecasted demand curve. The solution to this puzzle begins with an accurate forecast. The forecasting engine typically references a defined historical period as the basis for a forecast. Often, better forecasts can be created by assigning weights to certain weeks in the historical baseline.

While historical forecasting generally drives the most accurate results, contact centers may choose alternative methods. One is a template-based forecast, where managers pick a specific week or weeks from the historical data and use that data set as a template to forecast demand. (The week of Thanksgiving in the United States is a perfect example in which template-based forecasting makes great sense.)  The second is externally driven forecasting, where upcoming marketing or promotional campaigns drive the demand projections.

Once demand forecasts are set, proficiency-based scheduling is used to match the workforce with the workload. Proficiency is a measure of individual agent performance relative to the performance of other agents with that same skill. It’s not unreasonable to find a 3:1 spread between the highest and lowest performing agents within a skill group. Scheduling that factors in agent proficiency is a highly effective tactic, shown to produce less volatility in service levels.

WFM solutions provide a “what if” capability that enables changes in operational measures to be tested for effect on service level and occupancy. This capability can also be used to identify skill and shift deficiencies, leading to a more focused recruitment and hiring process, as well as decreased agent attrition. WFM solutions additionally include an agent portal, where agents can view their schedules, set preferences and availability, swap shifts, bid for shifts, manage time off, and receive daily performance feedback.

Real-time Response through Intra-Day Management: Intra-day management consists of a set of tools that compares the work plan with what is actually occurring in the contact center. It permits managers to view forecasted versus actual demand throughout the day and enables them to track individual agent adherence to their schedules. Based on these views in operations, managers may elect to take a number of appropriate actions depending on the service level projections provided, such as rescheduling remaining breaks and lunches through the day or offering voluntary overtime or unpaid time off.

Dealing with schedule violations is another aspect of intra-day management. Sometimes agents will violate their schedules because they become involved with an interaction just when they’re supposed to transition to another activity. Approval or denial of schedule violations, depending on the circumstances, is part of sound agent management practice.

Securing Behavioral Change: The ultimate goal of WFM is for agents to follow their schedules and, in so doing, for contact centers to meet their service-level objectives. One proven way to secure positive behavioral change, getting agents to adhere to their schedules and deliver quality service, is through performance feedback. Performance feedback shows current performance in a same-skill group context together with the established goal. This successful methodology for driving positive behaviors comes from the world of behavioral science and is part of what is called the ABC model of behavior.

The model holds that an antecedent leads to a behavior that is reinforced (or not) through consequences. Don’t make the mistake of associating “consequence” with something negative – consequences can be equally positive. One consequence of buying a lottery ticket is that someone becomes a millionaire. Placing a key performance indicator (KPI) on an agent scorecard is an antecedent: it causes the agent to focus on the behaviors behind the KPI. Daily feedback as to how the agent is actually performing in that KPI is the consequence of the adherence behavior. Because the feedback occurs every day, it cannot be ignored, and the agent is internally motivated to meet and exceed the goal.

This is why monthly and even weekly feedback often seems to lack impact. Many days of behavior take place with no feedback at all. The use of role-appropriate scorecards can help correct behavioral issues that lead to suboptimal performance.

Holistic WFM and ROI: As is often the case, poor strategic planning – or none at all – can lead to poor tactical execution, which can lead to negative or mediocre caller experiences. Holistic WFM attempts to break this cycle by employing a closed-loop process that uses long-term strategic planning, tactical forecasting and scheduling, powerful intra-day management tools, and the critical performance feedback component to deliver a good customer experience at a budgeted cost. The return on investment can be significant. For contact centers that are currently meeting their service level goals, experience shows that a software-based holistic WFM approach can help them realize a ROI that includes about a 10 percent decrease in paid labor hours. Then, if the management team gets serious about alternative scheduling and virtual operating models and really hones in on intra-day scheduling optimization, that number can increase to between 15 and 20 percent.

Bill Durr serves as principal global solutions consultant for Verint Witness Actionable Solutions. In this role, he engages in private seminars for enterprise and contact center executives, along with best practice consulting with organizations around the world. Bill has published three contact center books, authored numerous articles and white papers, and is a frequent speaker at industry events. Contact Bill at

[From Connection Magazine January 2010]