One of the biggest challenges that I faced as a planning manager was that of building and maintaining a strong planning team. You need a team that is not only effective today but is set up to be successful on an ongoing basis. Without good succession planning, you will always struggle to fill gaps as people leave or to scale up the WFM team as the business grows. Hiring new employees is the obvious solution and it does provide the opportunity to inject new skills and experiences into the team. Hiring can however be costly and does carry an element of risk. I found internal recruitment a great way to maintain a strong planning team, tapping into the concept of ‘bench strength’ and offering a planner career to employees in operations.
What is 'bench strength'? In a planning team, it’s about having people who are ready to be promoted into workforce management when you need them. The term comes from sports, where you have active players on the field and you have additional players who sit on the bench. These players are skilled, trained, and ready to go in at a moment’s notice. This is a vital part of WFM succession planning. In the fast-paced world of contact center management, having a strong bench is absolutely critical. There is no pause button in contact centers.
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In my experience, the best bench strength comes from front-line employees taking the inbound contacts. There are a number of reasons for this:
- They know your business
- They understand the customer
- They bring a unique perspective to WFM
- They are a ready source for internships and mentoring with WFM
Before getting into the details of internal recruitment and bench strength, let’s look at the core skills of workforce management. These are forecasting, scheduling, and real-time management. In some call centers, a single planner has all of these skills and takes care of the entire planning function, sometimes collaborating with team leaders on real-time management. Other centers employ a WFM team with one or more specialists in each of the three areas, typically reporting to a planning manager. There is a proven career path between the roles. Typically the planner career begins with real-time management function as the first level, then progresses to scheduling and ultimately to forecasting.
This path is logical because real-time analysts are very close to the business. They understand the contact arrival patterns, the shift patterns, and the interval service levels. They engage directly with the operations staff to manage real-time situations.
All of these traits are valuable assets to a scheduler. Scheduling is an exercise in aligning staffing levels to a forecast staffing requirements. Schedulers are heavy users of the workforce management system, and they tend to be less engaged with what’s actually happening intraday. Because of this, there's a risk that the person in the scheduling role can lose touch with practical realities. For example, in reality, service level rarely coincides exactly with what the scheduling system expected. This can happen for a number of reasons.
Pictured below is a common example. If net staffing, sometimes called 'coverage', is projected to be negative for one interval, there is a good chance that part of that volume will overflow to the next interval. On the other hand, many scheduling tools aim to hit service-level goals by establishing staffing requirements for each interval in isolation. A real-time analyst knows about overflow (and other anomalies) first-hand. Bringing this knowledge into the scheduling function ensures that the schedules tempers theory with reality.
Similarly, schedulers experience the realities of hours of operations, geographic differences in the types of schedules employees can work, labor rules, diverse business requirements, and so on. They engage with the operations team to align staffing numbers with forecast demand. The forecasting role is very data-intensive, and with this added experience, a scheduling-trained forecaster can ensure all of these factors are taken into account when forecasting. This is especially true if the forecaster has been both a scheduler and a real-time analyst in your business. They really understand how things actually work from end to end, not just how they are supposed to work. In the age of machine-learning automated forecasting, the ability to apply business intelligence is more important than ever.
Identifying the roles and career paths within the workforce management team is an important prerequisite to developing bench strength. People who aspire to move into the workforce management team need to know that there is a planner career path. Employee mobility is a key part of having an engaged workforce, and the best employees are more likely to join workforce management if they see that path. Another reason for having clear roles and responsibilities is that it allows you to carve out portions of this work for aspiring workforce management professionals to do so they can gain experience.
In addition to real-time management, scheduling and forecasting, there's a role for an entry-level position in the planning team. There are administrative functions within workforce management that don’t necessarily cleanly lend themselves to forecasting, scheduling, or real-time management. This would include tasks like maintaining an attendance line, entering approved exceptions into the system, maintaining dictionaries and glossaries, etc. These tasks are great entry points for workforce management interns to do. They are simple to train, provide an easy entry into workforce management, and allow you to take these tasks off the plate of the core workforce management team so they can focus on their core discipline.
Think about creating a workforce management internship program in your contact center. Partnering with the operations leadership team, identify high-potential contact center employees to become a part of the program. The role should be part-time and mean having the employee off the phones for a set number of hours per week. During that time, they work as an extension of the workforce management team and engage in those administrative tasks while gaining an understanding of how WFM works.
With this in place, this is what your career path/succession planning could look like:
As you can see, bench strength is a vital ingredient of succession planning for WFM teams. Having a well-defined planner career path helps ensure the continuity and success of your workforce management team. It sends a clear message that the planning team is an attractive option for high-potential employees aspiring to grow their careers within your contact center.
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