By Rich Hamilton
The heart and soul of most companies is their inbound contact solutions operation (their inbound call center, including voice, email, text, and chat). This vital department within an organization has an opportunity to get key customer insights, and the call center interactions often make or break the customer relationship.
Have you ever sat on hold, trying to get through to a company, and finally gave up, never to interact with that company again? Making sure your inbound contact solutions operation is properly staffed is important. Whether this is a first impression or an angry customer giving the company one last chance, each inbound contact is vital.
Forecasting call volumes and appropriate staffing and scheduling is critical. Keep in mind that there are some sophisticated algorithms used to forecast call volume and the needed workforce to answer those calls. I’ll focus more on the data that needs to be considered. Here are the key data points used for forecasting and scheduling: call volume, average handle time, absenteeism, service levels, and occupancy rates.
Now that we have listed the key data points, let’s break these down and look at a few other considerations for workforce forecasting and planning for any inbound call center operation.
Data is king. The best place to start is with data from the past. The more data you can get your hands on, the better. The key metrics to focus on are call volume and average handle time. Look at these metrics by day, week, month, and time of day. If possible, instead of just looking at the last couple of months, consider the same period over the last several years. This especially will be helpful in industries where there are seasonal call volume changes (think Christmastime for anyone selling consumer products).
Looking at call volume and average handle time will give a good picture of the number of FTEs you’ll need in your inbound contact solution. This will get you about 80 percent there.
Don’t forget to look at absenteeism. You will need to know what percentage of your workforce may call out sick on a given day. This can be hard to forecast, but with enough data at least you can forecast more precisely. For example, let’s say your call center needs to staff twenty FTEs for Monday. Based on your absenteeism, historically one person calls out sick on Mondays. Wouldn’t it be prudent to schedule twenty-one FTEs on Monday, so that when the one person calls out sick, you still have the right number of call agents to handle the expected call volume?
There are still a few more factors we need to consider to get the whole picture, which we will discuss in the following sections.
Not only do you need to look at metrics from the past, but you also need to look at any events happening in the future that are out of the ordinary.
Marketing and Company Initiatives
The marketing department might plan to send out an email announcing a new product or a new promotion that they predict will increase call volume.
This one is tougher, but it could affect you in a couple different ways. One would be if your industry relies on the weather. Maybe there will be extra snow forecasted over the next month, and your call center takes ski resort reservations.
The other way is how it affects your employees. Increased snow may mean your absenteeism will be higher than normal, so schedule more employees to cover all the inbound calls.
These events could be specific to an industry or a specific group of industries and the amount of calls the call center will receive. It might be a new federal law that affects a certain industry and the volume of calls they will receive. For example, when HIPAA was first implemented, healthcare providers received more calls, and the calls were longer than normal.
Each call center has specific metrics from management that need to be adhered to. These metrics might include service levels (the percentage of calls to be answered within X amount of time) and occupancy rates (the percentage of time actively working on calls, including talk time and after-call work time). The higher the service level required, the more call center agents needed to answer phone calls. Higher occupancy levels mean you won’t need as many call center agents, but it also means agents will burn out faster, and sometimes it is difficult to achieve higher occupancy levels and higher service levels if the call volumes aren’t consistent.
But you’re still not done. Here are some more considerations to keep in mind as you identify the inputs for forecasting and scheduling for your contact solutions operation.
Human Resources Policies
HR policies concerning required break times and lunchtimes will impact your workforce management and scheduling plan. Obviously, there is a huge difference in scheduling when a call center agent has a thirty-minute lunch versus a sixty-minute lunch. Other HR policies could include union rules that dictate start and stop times for shifts, and possibly when the breaks would need to occur (after so many hours of work).
If your call center has multiple departments, this adds another level of complexity. Calculating call volume and average handle time, along with the other considerations, will have to be done for each department because the skill required will vary most times from department to department.
When scheduling, it’s good to know which call center agents are cross-trained. I’m not saying that you can count a call center agent for both departments if they are trained for both, but at times when one department is slow, and another is busy, knowing that a few agents can help with the overflow is helpful.
Forecast and Workforce Management Resources
Typically, the larger the organization, the larger the budget for workforce management software and systems. Smaller inbound contact solutions operations typically get by with spreadsheets.
Whether you have access to sophisticated forecasting and workforce management software or you’re working with Excel spreadsheets, you’ll find this aspect of the business is equal parts math and art. In my organization, we often gain a little more flexibility by adding some outbound calls into the queue. This helps justify more staffing while getting a higher occupancy rate.
Rich Hamilton is the director of marketing and product development for Quality Contact Solutions, a leading outsourced telemarketing organization. Rich works to bring new products to the teleservices and call center market. In addition, Rich is a telemarketing compliance guru with a Customer Engagement Compliance Professional (CECP) certification. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-656-5105.