The Changing Face of Workforce Management

By Brad Cleveland and Jay Minnucci

During the late 1980s and 1990s, when the call center industry was in its formative stages, many articles were published regarding workforce management. At that time, the call center industry was concerned with issues such as scheduling strategies, choosing service levels, forecasting, staffing, and the “pooling principle.”

Many of those issues are just as relevant today, but it seems that the industry’s focus has changed. As the industry has matured, more positions have been added within the call center. Two decades ago, many call centers were in their infancy and many call center managers were new to their assignments. It typically fell on the shoulders of one or two people to do the hiring, motivating, coaching, training, systems troubleshooting, and everything else necessary for day-to-day call center management.

Today, call center managers have been joined by directors, vice-presidents, forecasting managers, training managers, workflow consultants, quality specialists, knowledge managers, report analysts, finance directors, traffic controllers, coaching and monitoring supervisors, real-time coordinators and many other professionals. While the specific mix of job roles tends to vary widely from one organization to the next, it’s clear that developments in the industry have led to increasingly specialized job responsibilities.

Evolving Challenges: Despite all of the changes in the industry over the years, the day-to-day issues remain just as important as they were years ago. In recent years, there has been an acceleration of trends that were already beginning to develop almost two decades ago, including:

  • Ever-increasing customer expectations. Callers have become increasingly sophisticated and demanding, a trend that will continue in coming months and years.
  • Increased management complexity. This is driven by more products and services, multiple contact channels, and numerous skill groups. In addition, there are also more competitors, suppliers, and business partners.
  • Heightened value of call center services. Call centers have become much more than a cost-effective alternative for service delivery. These centers now play key roles in customer retention, revenue generation, and product development.
  • A quest for efficiency. Even during the economic boom of the late 1980s and middle to late 1990s, managers operated under a mandate to improve call center efficiencies. Given current economic uncertainties, these trends have converged to bring about an extremely challenging management environment. In response, organizational charts have evolved, new roles and responsibilities have been created, processes have been restructured, and new technologies have emerged–especially those that improve the desktop enabling self-service capabilities and providing better reports and information.

Through it all, a basic tenet of call center management has become even more important today than it was a decade and a half ago: get the right number of people and supporting resources in the right places, at the right times, doing the right things. That in essence, is the goal of workforce management.

Meeting Today’s Requirements: While the underlying goal of workforce management is the same, the changes in the call center environment have had a substantial impact on the processes that determine planning success. The relatively brief history of call centers makes it is easy to understand what has taken place. When things were thought to be more “stable,” managers could accomplish some degree of forecasting success by squirreling someone away in a back corner with a large stack of ACD (Automatic Call Distribution) reports.

Not anymore. Successful forecasting and scheduling in today’s environment depends on far more than careful analysis of yesterday’s ACD reports.

Given the many variables, it’s easy to understand why many organizations that were previously successful at workload planning are now struggling with it. In most cases, the problem is simply that past history is not as reliable a predictor of future activity as it once was.

The popularity of Dilbert (Scott Adam’s syndicated cartoon) notwithstanding, many organizations have learned to become nimble; in many cases, they can and do change products and services relatively quickly in response to changes in the competitive or economic environment. There’s a challenging reality for today’s workforce planners: when the organization makes changes, call volume and average handle time are affected.

Essential Steps for Accurate Planning: Clearly, we’ve reached a point where forecasting and scheduling analysts cannot be holed up in the back office. After all, these folks are the ones who must ultimately boil the multitude of plans and variables to volume prediction, handling times, staffing requirements, and schedules.

Assuming your analysts are in the “hot seat,” integrated workforce planning activities that must follow in order to succeed in today’s environment include:

1. Establish the right strategic objectives. Workforce management strategy should be driven by and complement organizational strategy. This high-level strategy will help to determine key elements such as customer segmentation, agent group structure (pooled vs. skills-based routing), service level goals, and the approach to service level management. Once these issues are answered, specific workforce management objectives can be defined.

2. Build the right skills and team. In larger organizations, workforce management is a group effort, sometimes led by teams as large as 30 or more people. In smaller call centers, workforce management may be just one of the hats the call center manager wears. More important than the size of the group are the skills required. At a minimum, those in charge of workforce management need to meet the following requirements:

  • The ability to collaborate effectively. At least one person within the team has to have his or her finger on the pulse of the organization. Success in collaboration goes well beyond attending meetings. It extends to building relationships that ensure key information will be shared in a timely manner.
  • A clear understanding of the organization’s vision and its implications. A workforce management analyst often has to provide a “reality check” for the organization. When others are talking about expanding to 24 x 7 x 365 service or breaking up a pooled agent group into dozens of smaller segments, it’s the analyst who must supply the painful injection of truth regarding staffing and cost implications.
  • Savvy to leverage ongoing education. Analysts can’t work in a vacuum, and leaders can’t assume that all they need to know are how to operate the tools they have been given. Training needs to be provided on organizational initiatives, analytical concepts, use of software, and fundamentals of queuing theory and caller behavior.
  • Skills to analyze accurately and appropriately. Effective analysis is not simply getting the calculations right, it is also about doing the right calculations. For example, it’s easy to calculate the number of calls answered per hour per agent, but if your individual agents have different skill sets and schedules, why would you want to?

3. Knowledge to cultivate an effective workforce management process. Too often, we see workforce management analysts just “going through the motions” – click here and the data gets passed from the ACD to the WFM (Workforce Management), click there and you get a forecast; then you check “create forecast” off the to-do list and get on to bigger and better things. The problem is that a lack of attention to detail leads to bad forecasts, and a bad forecast can be worse than no forecast at all. Solid workforce management processes include elements such as scrubbing the input, segmenting the data, analyzing for accuracy, presentation of data, and a host of related activities.

4. Ability to leverage the tools. Analysis can be time-consuming, but the right tools can substantially cut the time while increasing the quality of the results. However, tools can’t run your center. Effective analysis requires advanced thinking, and that is something we humans still do better than machines.

On the Horizon: In the future, the complexity of call centers will continue to increase, but the art of workforce management will also advance. Tomorrow’s workforce management team will play a central role in the success of tomorrow’s call center. Given ongoing changes, success may seem at times to be elusive but in progressive organizations, awareness of shortcomings will bolster efforts to improve skills, abilities, and tools.

Forward-looking leaders will make a priority of building well-trained and well-equipped workforce management teams. Contributing to that investment today will reap big rewards now and in the future.

Brad Cleveland is President of Incoming Calls Management Institute (ICMI) and can be reached at 410-267-0700 (ext. 958) or Jay Minnucci is VP of Consulting at ICMI and can be reached at

Factors Affecting Call Center Forecasts and Schedules

  • Revenue growth or decline
  • Mergers and acquisitions
  • Marketing activities
  • Changes in customer segmentations
  • Competitor activities
  • E-commerce developments
  • Technology changes (external and external)
  • website revisions (content or structure)
  • Laws and regulations
  • Customer experience levels
  • Agent experience levels
  • New product rollouts
  • Customer relationship management initiatives
  • Reengineering or restructuring efforts
  • Quality improvement initiatives
  • Publicity
  • New suppliers and business partners
  • Human resources policies
  • Cost-cutting or growth initiatives
  • Economic developments
  • Media activities

[From Connection Magazine Jul/Aug 2004]