Still Leaving It To Fate? Optimizing
BY WILLIAM DURR, JR. AND OFER MATAN,
BLUE PUMPKIN SOFTWARE
The contact center industry has used the term 'workforce management'
to describe systems that enable people to deal effectively with the
complexities of demand forecasting and staff scheduling. While these
systems can increase efficiency dramatically, they are only one part of a
more comprehensive solution that increases the productivity and
performance of customer-facing employees. Some of the other essential
components include planning, budgeting, performance evaluation, skill-gap
analysis, recruiting, developmental and remedial training, and recognition
and reward systems.
The function of a modern contact center can be described quite simply:
groups of agents serve differing customer populations to meet their needs
while attempting to achieve one or more of the following goals:
- Customer satisfaction,
- Service levels, and
- Quality-of-service (QoS).
These goals, together with the volume of various interaction types,
determine the makeup of the workforce, in particular, its size and its
needed skill sets. Planning for and managing this workforce to meet
corporate goals is not easy because the entire contact center environment
is constantly in flux. Customers are in flux due to changing markets,
competitive pricing pressures and general economic conditions. The nature
of the contacts is changing due to new products and services, shifts in
customer habits and new contact media. Last, the workforce itself changes.
Employees leave. The job market changes, affecting the labor pool. In
addition, the skill requirements for the contact center change due to
increased complexity of the contacts.
Workforce management processes in the contact center today tend to
result in a relatively myopic view of the management task; i.e., they are
limited to demand forecasting, staff scheduling and tracking. This is
evidenced by the disturbing realization that forecasting and scheduling
systems will help ensure the agent team you currently have is deployed as
effectively as possible. You will never achieve best-in-class performance
if all you ever do is optimize a mediocre team.
Looking at the variety of practices and systems in a modern contact
center, we notice that many of them dramatically impact the issue of 'workforce
preparedness' and could also be considered workforce management tools.
The most obvious candidates are quality monitoring, recruiting and
training. While each of these individual practices and systems lends
itself to great savings and improvements in productivity, its full
potential is unrealized unless used in conjunction with other systems and
seen as part of a larger context. When these different practices work
together in a synergistic way, the workforce is transformed into a
mission-critical element of corporate strategy. We refer to this
synergistic set of practices as 'workforce optimization.'
The workforce optimization cycle creates and monitors a match between
customer demand and appropriately skilled employees. A good implementation
of a workforce optimization strategy is dependent on many diverse contact
center systems and practices.
The following is a description of workforce optimization that ensures
consistent long-term matching of resources with the company's market
- Long-term planning permits center management to forecast the volume
and nature of transactions they will have to handle over the course of
- Demand forecasts coupled with corporate goals determine the sizing
and the mixture of the various agent skill sets that will be required
to meet quality-of-service requirements.
- Comparisons can be made between the skill inventory of the existing
agent population and the implied makeup of the required future
population. This difference can be called the 'skill gap.'
- Actions designed to close group and individual skill gaps are the
key to increasing the productivity and success of the workforce in
achieving its goal.
- The ability to assess the current skill inventory and decide on
corrective actions is dependent on performance evaluation of
individuals and organizations.
Information Tracking And Performance Evaluation
Evaluation is the last step in the workforce optimization figure -- since
companies need to generate data before they can analyze it. Evaluation is
the very first thing to consider. The reason is that information fuels
both strategic and tactical workforce optimization. The contact center is
an incredibly data-rich environment, but often information is not easily
interpreted by, or accessible to, the people who need it.
The data needed are well-defined performance metrics that can be
tracked and made accessible to people responsible for delivering service.
Centralized performance information can be automatically collated and
mined from the transactions between employees and customers in CRM
databases, voice logs, customer satisfaction surveys, transaction logs
from ACD, CTI and e-mail routing systems and the extensive HR database
This performance information should be accessible to all levels. A
well-designed system is one that is fully inclusive. Participation should
range from the individual employee through first-line management, middle
management and upwards to executives. An individual at any level can
review his or her objective performance criteria every day, providing
opportunities for behavior adjustment in real-time.
For example, agents have a right to understand how they are performing
with respect to their individual goals and in comparison to their peers.
Since businesses must adjust at a faster pace than ever before, annual or
even semi-annual performance reviews have become inadequate. Given timely
performance feedback, many employees are able to modify their behaviors
based on their own efforts. In effect, constant feedback enables some
agents to coach themselves to better performance.
Performance evaluation is also the key to identifying which agents seem
to be struggling with their responsibilities. Armed with productivity and
quality reports, supervisors and coaches can work with the agent teams to
help improve their skills.
Forecasting Contact Demand And Skill Requirements
While many contact centers forecast demand with great success, they are
often unable to meet that demand with the appropriate head count. We
attribute this to the fact that long-term budgetary and head count
planning is not executed with appropriate depth.
The best practice requires much of the planning depicted in the
strategic cycle to be done before a budget and head count can be set. The
key to workforce optimization is the consistent drive to meet skill gaps
by adapting the workforce through different strategies, which requires
adequate budgeting. Taking into account individual performance metrics
with compensation, developmental and remedial training costs gives insight
into the true costs of the existing staff. Armed with a better
understanding of existing costs, management can begin to make
determinations regarding costs associated with securing new talent for the
Translating the customer demand forecast into a skill requirement
forecast requires clear quality-of-service (QoS) goals. This means much
more than the knee-jerk 'we want to answer 90 percent in 20 seconds'
target. Beyond service-level metrics, the QoS goals should include
specific quality and value metrics that will translate into particular
skills and skill levels. Such metrics could include percent of first call
resolutions, number of customer defection turn-arounds and cross-sells, or
even a courtesy assessment. All these help determine skill and
productivity requirements that will later drive hiring/training and
compensation strategies. The QoS metrics are also an essential part of the
performance evaluation, which determines if the execution phase is working
according to plan.
One area that is often not taken into consideration in either long-term
or short-term planning is appropriate overhead. Typically, it is necessary
to staff between 20 and 40 percent more work hours than the contact demand
strictly requires. This is due to obvious overhead such as sickness,
vacation and training. Training, in particular, is frequently ignored in
long-term planning and either done ad-hoc or not at all. This approach is
short-term-oriented -- you may have the correct head count and may be
answering the phone within 20 seconds, but the quality of the interaction
is poor or you lose agents due to stress.
Closing Skill Gaps
Skill gaps fluctuate over time and are a natural course of doing business.
They change due to fluctuations in customer demand, corporate needs,
employee stagnation or attrition, and structural productivity issues.
Addressing the skill gaps over time is the key to optimizing the workforce
to deliver the best customer relationship value. Skill gaps may be as
- Strategic (' We will start selling a product aimed at senior
citizens next year. We will need people with additional expertise that
we don't currently have.')
- Tactical ('We are missing Vietnamese speakers for the swing shift
- Personal ('Joe needs training in objection handling.')
- General ('Product knowledge of Widget X is weak.')
Analyzing the skill gaps and coming up with plans to close them is one
of the most interesting and challenging aspects of managing a contact
center. Here are a few gap-closing components:
Training. Having developed better individual performance
evaluation metrics, management is enabled to identify individual skill
gaps. Since training costs are high and training time always scarce,
workforce optimization also encompasses developmental and remedial
training practices. Computer-based education delivered to the desktop (and
scheduled at most appropriate times) through ubiquitous Web browsers is
rapidly supplanting traditional classroom education by virtue of its
reduced expense, individual audit trails and accommodation of differing
learning rates and styles.
Recruiting. Having a clear picture of current agent performance
and a better understanding of future agent pool requirements confers a
special insight to contact center management teams. This kind of insight
permits the recruiting process to be more effective. Instead of informing
human resources that additional agents are needed, center managers can
literally specify what skill set is required for which hours of the day
and week. Clearly, there is much greater efficiency associated with a
specific recruitment request rather than a generalized one. This goes a
long way in avoiding the high cost of recruiting and training new agents
only to lose them in a matter of months owing to unrealized expectations
on both sides.
Scheduling. Pseudo-schedules can be created for future periods
wherein the existing staff is matched with the future transaction demand.
Gaps in skill set as well as shift coverage can be identified with much
better precision than previously possible. This relates to both allocation
of training during down time and the identification of the target skills
to cross-train. Total re-engineering of shifts can also allay some skill
Recognition and reward. Skill gaps can be reduced by increased
productivity (this is not necessarily number of contacts handled but other
QoS metrics that were discussed earlier). There is evidence that
productivity can be increased by well-designed compensation packages that
motivate and reward agents.
Workforce optimization, as we have defined it, is an iterative process
combining well-understood, short-term tasks with a number of
lesser-understood, long-term tasks. The full potential of customer
relationship management initiatives can never be realized without creating
a contact center environment where continuous attention is given to
closing group and individual skill gaps. When all existing disparate
processes are brought together with appropriate software tools and
management best practices, a much higher level of performance can be
This approach to management leads to an optimized workforce to handle
customer demand. This in turn creates improved service levels, interaction
quality, customer satisfaction, loyalty and enterprise profitability.
The authors are with Blue
Pumpkin Software, a provider of enterprise software applications and
services for businesses. Bill Durr is chief evangelist at Blue Pumpkin.
Dr. Ofer Matan is cofounder of Blue Pumpkin. The authors wish to thank
Kris Baz'n, Tiffany Boehmer, Joanne Ehrich and Serdar Uckun for their
assistance in preparing this article.
To The November 2001 Table Of Contents ]