Contact Center Forecasting Fundamentals #3: Closing the Staffing Gap

Charles Watson Forecasting Aug 15, 2018 11 min read

Here we are again - with the last blog article of our Contact Center Forecasting Fundamentals series. As a refresher, part #1 focused on 'how to forecast workload' and part #2 dealt with 'how to master workforce forecasting'.

So, now that you’ve forecasted your demand and the supply of agents, you’re ready to start incorporating best practices to closing the staffing gaps. In this final article of the series, we’ll cover techniques for efficiently aligning staff to demand both short and long term. We’ll also look at how to determine the best method to cover staffing needs for a few weeks up to several months. To do this, we'll walk you through a simple scenario case step by step. 

Let's start with taking a look at the staffing strategy in your contact center.

 

Your Staffing Strategy

Before you actually allocate staff against the forecasted demand, it’s important to think about your contact center's overall staffing strategy. In some contact centers, it’s all about the customer and it’s OK to overstaff to be able to handle any spikes in call volume, handle time or shrinkage.

In other contact centers, the key goal of workforce management is to reduce cost, and staffing has to be efficient and tight. A lesser number of call centers focus on the frontline agent first. In these cases, the staffing is generally similar to the customer-focused ones, where you overstaff and accept higher costs.

Find out where your company’s priorities are to ensure that your staffing supports your company’s mission. 

 

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Determine the number of fixed staff 

First, you have to find out which number of agents can be fixed (or permanent).  In other words, you are looking for the minimum number of FTE you need across all months of the year.

Table 1: FTE Required

table_1

 

In the above table, your lowest staffing point is 201. Taking this as a baseline, you know that you’ll need at least 201 agents every month. This is the number of permanent FTE you carry.  

Given the above numbers, some centers without a flexible workforce strategy will usually staff closer to 275 or 300 to ensure they can hit the peaks (in this case: in fall and winter season). However, doing that runs the risk that you are overstaffed and run high idle times in the lean months (in this case: in spring and summer season). This also drives unnecessary costs and an inconsistent level of workload for agents across the year.

Thus, a flexible approach like the one we are aiming for, is better. From the baseline of 201 permanent agents, we will then scale up and down to adapt to seasonal fluctuations.

(Note: You may not be able to establish an agent baseline right away. In fact, it may take a few years to do a reset and determine the number of fixed staff, but it’s great to keep this in mind as your future goal.) 

So once you’ve established your fixed headcount need, it’s time to start thinking about flexibility options to close the staffing requirements that haven't been covered yet.

This is an area where outsourcers come in very handy, because they handle the additional calls for you (and outsourcers aren’t all in low cost regions… you can hire outsourcers in just about any market). Some additional options are seasonal workers, temps, and part-time workers. But there are many more ways to be flexible with staffing. Let's explore some of them below.

 

Flexibility Options in Contact Center Staffing

Some flexibility options are only available for a certain staffing type (e.g. for outsourcers). Other flexibility options are actions that you can perform with the help of your own contact center employees. Two of the most common methods are VTO (unpaid Voluntary Time Off) and Overtime. These levers allow you to flex up or down a certain percentage of agents to cover the varying demand from month to month.  

In the example above, you need 289 and 297 agents in November and December. Overtime is a great way to cover this short-term need without adding staff.  Looking at historical overtime acceptance rates will help you determine how much of the additional staffing need can be covered with overtime.  If there was 5% overtime in November and December in the past 3 years, you can probably assume that your agents will accept 5% overtime again.

Now you can apply the 5% to your staffing calculations for November and December and the number of additional staff needed for those month can be reduced by that amount.  The same process applies to VTO in the slower months.

Keep in mind that these flexibility levers can also be pulled when you're experiencing sudden spikes or decreases in contact volume.

VTO and overtime aren’t the only big levers. Depending on how your call center operates, you might have the option to let agents shift call types, or split their days across multiple call types if necessary. If January is characterized by a peak for one call type, but not for another call type, then agents can be moved over to increase the staffing on the peak queue.

Doing this often requires support from training, and may have an impact on quality or handle time since agents are shifting focus from one queue to another. But you should definitely consider exploring how this option could work for you. It’s a great way to not only bring more flexibility into your staffing approach, but also gives agents an opportunity to take new call types and expand their skills on multiple service lines.

OK, now that we’ve covered some strategic considerations and flexibility options, let’s build a real staffing plan.

 

Creating a Flexible Staffing Plan

The first step is to see the gaps if you compare the available staff with the actual staffing need. We covered how to determine this in the last blog post on how to master workforce forecasting.

Back to our example. In the table below you see our staffing requirement (based on the workload forecast) compared to the actual staff that is available. In this case, we are starting the year at 245 agents, and we expect to lose 2 every month to attrition.

Table 2: Requirement vs. Actual

table_3

Based on the numbers in Table 2, I'd recommend the following set of actions to make sure that we can deliver on our goal of closing the staffing gap in each month.

January:

We need to try to get 30 FTE in VTO (unpaid Voluntary Time Off) to scale down our staffing actual. If that’s not possible, we'll incorporate more shrinkage activities into January.

For instance, when looking at staffing levels in February, we see that in this month our contact center is slightly understaffed. If there is any training planned for February that can be brought into January, we have an opportunity to both reduce the February understaffing while working to solve for the January overstaffing. Simple, right?

February:

Even though February is understaffed, it’s not understaffed by much on a percentage basis… in fact it’s less than 3%. This is likely smaller than the forecast accuracy expectation, which means that I wouldn’t take any drastic measures to solve this staff gap. You may very well not actually need the 250 agents required.  I would consider 7 FTE of overtime to close the gap on paper, but only pull the trigger on the overtime if you actually see higher volumes coming in.

March:

If you look at March in isolation, it gets you thinking about adding a class of new hires, because your deficit is 24 FTE.  But if you look to the next several months, the requirements go down and this will leave you heavily overstaffed.

The gap of 24 can be translated into 9% of your staffing requirement, which may be way more than you would actually be able to balance with just allocating overtime. The best options here are to try to move as much shrinkage as possible out of the month, identifying opportunities to move agents from another queue into this one for the month (they can actually start in February and help with a little bit of that gap), and plotting in expected overtime to cover the balance.  As you’re looking ahead, moving more PTO (Paid Time Off) from March into May and June isn’t a bad idea.

April:

April is understaffed by 4 FTE (1.6%). I wouldn’t worry about this month - full stop.

May/June/July:

I’m going to cover all three of these months together, because they are all similarly overstaffed and are characterized by the lowest staffing requirements of the year.  

You want to take action here. It’s easy to just look at these months and think ‘OK, we’ll be good for service level’. But because we aim to excel in all we do, that isn’t good enough!  We’re going to make this even better.

Given the overstaffing, you have an opportunity to allow more training or other activities that help make your agents better at what they do.  This is a great opportunity to invest in your employees so they can further develop or improve their skills and thus are sharp for the peak coming up later in the year. You can also move other shrinkage activities from other months as we showed earlier to help ease pressure on those months.

August:

August is within 1.2% of requirement, don’t waste any of your time here, trust me.

September/October:

OK, now things are picking up as we get into the peak season for this business. Both of these months are understaffed and the requirements only go up in November and December. So this is where you really want a class of new hires.  

But keep in mind, every business is different in terms of how many trainees they can handle at a time. A common class size of new hires is 20, which means you’d add one class of 20 FTE to start in September. Then you’d adjust the staffing with overtime and VTO to fine-tune your actuals.

Note:  Always expect higher than average handle time with new hires. So if you have 20 new hires starting in September, they likely won’t be fully productive in that month.  If their handle time is double a tenured agent, then they will only produce the result of 10 FTE.

Look at the historical learning curve for new hires to layer in the effect on handle time. You may actually need these agents to start taking calls in August, so they bring up their efficiency to the levels needed for September.

November/December:

This is it!  Peak season for our pretend contact center here and time for us to shine for our customers. Most businesses have a seasonal peak and it means more than just higher call volume. It actually represents the time your customers need you the most!  It’s also the time that many contact centers are understaffed, so your customers spend a lot of time waiting in queue. We don’t want that. So let’s solve this.

First of all, imagine you already have 20 agents from your last hiring class. You likely need another 20 to get yourself within overtime range. Look at your learning curves and see if you need to bring them in earlier. It potentially makes most sense to bring in 40 FTE in September and VTO your excess staffing in September and October. If you haven’t already, you should zero-out your shrinkage for November and December.

While you may have to have vacation time (it’s not reasonable to expect agents to go 2 months without vacation time - in fact, this would likely lead to increased absenteeism), you want to take everything else out that you can. This means no trainings and very limited coaching time (after all, this is exactly why we coached them Jan to Oct, this is the time to execute).

 

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The Must-Have Guide to Accurate Call Center Forecasting

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What you will learn:

  • Foundations of Call Center Forecasting
  • Getting your data right
  • The importance of measuring variability
  • Critical factors you shouldn't miss
  • And much more!

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Now that you have a plan, what’s next?

A best practice is to meet with your Recruiting and Training department at least every month.  Staffing requirements will continually change as new data comes in and you do reforecasts. There will always be constraints to the number of people you can hire and train each month. Therefore it’s important to talk regularly with the Recruiting and Training department about the number of agents you need.

For Recruiting, the limiting factor may be the number of recruiters they have or the number of qualified candidates available in the market. For Training, it may be the number of trainers or the number of available training rooms. 

There are a couple of other things that you can do to make sure that you successfully execute your plan and deliver on service level goals. One important area here is real-time management. Check out this article to learn more about some of the best tips to get real-time management right in your contact center.

 

Some final words

I hope you’ve been able to take some useful information from this 3-blog series on Forecasting Fundamentals. It really is an area where workforce management can make a big difference in your company. You can either just be a calculator, or you can help develop strategies that align with the objectives of your leadership team.  When you do that, you become an invaluable asset to your business going forward!

 




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