Excel (is) For Dummies

Charles Watson Workforce Management Jun 12, 2017 6 min read

Excel is for Dummies. I heard someone use that phrase a few years back, and it stuck with me. I know a lot of really smart people who use Excel for just about everything. It’s an incredibly versatile tool. It gets used for everything from making a simple grocery list to displaying analyses, to doing complex calculations that forecast using complex algorithms. There are multi-day classes on how to use Excel for beginners, intermediate and advanced users. Excel is for business what flour is for baking. It can be a part of everything.

But it shouldn’t be part of everything.

I’ll take my nicely grilled medium steak with no flour, thank you. And I’ll take my contact center forecasts without Excel as well, while I’m at it. If you’re a cook who has only ever used flour, you’ll naturally use it for everything, even if it doesn’t really fit. But if you think about it in terms of just wanting a steak, you wouldn’t even think of using flour. The same thing is true with contact center forecasting. Because we are all used to using Excel, comfortable with it, and can figure out how to leverage it for forecasting, doesn’t mean it makes sense to use it.

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If you could wave a magic wand and produce contact center forecasts, would you use Excel? Consider this:

Excel is extremely limited. In order to create new staff groups, forecast time periods, call types, forecast variables, or forecast methodologies a “power user” often has to go in and create new tables or worksheets (or entire new files). These files have to be stored and linked together. If you want your whole team to access it, you have to have it on network shared drives that they all need access to. You create a series of links between the spreadsheets, so when you change one variable it pulls through to the others. You manually add in erlang-C, or another algorithm for planning to get from workload to FTE required.

All this just gives you the workload demand. Now you need to create the spreadsheets that show the projected actual to compare this demand to, so you know the planning gaps that need to be solved. This means more spreadsheets with the rosters, projected attrition rates, new hire classes and productivity assumptions. Once you complete all of this, you need to go back and sift through this spaghetti of links and connections when something doesn’t work out right. It can be like looking for a needle in a haystack trying to figure out where you may have a disconnect or an incorrect variable.

Everything above is dependent on a few users who have the knowledge and access to make all of this happen. If you have this set-up, how well documented is it in case they leave and someone needs to step into their place and start working the forecast? Series of complicated Excel spreadsheets are a nightmare for organizations that are looking to ensure continuity and succession planning. If you have amazing talent on your team, it’s reasonable that someone else may want to hire them away from you at some point.

By now it’s pretty clear that Excel isn’t ideal, but there’s more. ☺

Forecasts have one purpose. It’s not “to predict the future”, as many would say. It’s actually to provide a mechanism for leadership to make decisions. A forecast is only a set of interesting numbers until it raises to the level of being understandable and actionable. This is one of the really weak points of Excel. When you review the forecast with senior leaders and someone asks why handle time in June is so high, what do you do? Have them wait while you pull up a random Excel spreadsheet that shows them the math that generated the number? As soon as that happens, you’ve lost your audience. You’ve changed the conversation around how to respond to the high handle time to trying to figure out why the forecast was high in the first place. The “death spiral” begins.

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As an independent contact center expert, I don’t advocate for any one technology. What I do advocate for, though, is to do research on the various options. Look at what vendors have to offer, even if you are 100% sure your business won’t invest. Of all the actions you can take to propose an investment that has a strong ROI, this will be among the top. You don’t have to move the needle too much on % staffing improvement to have a significant value on the bottom line. Technologies not only reduce the administrative time on the staff (which can be reinvested in analytics instead), but it also improves the process of engagement between workforce management and operations leadership. You get to a common understanding of what to expect - and why - much more quickly. This allows leadership to re-focus their time on making the best possible decisions.

Ultimately, with a technology that makes sense for you, you can get:

  • More accurate demand forecasts
  • More accurate projected actual staffing
  • Clear view of all planning assumptions
  • Stronger relationships between the planning and operations groups
  • Capabilities for scenario planning
  • The ability to reinvest time from administrative work to analytics

Business leaders will be open to the conversation about forecasting technology if you put the case together. Talk in terms of FTE or financial savings. This is the language used for cost savings. All the work you do in building the case should translate into FTE. Your FTE number then should be translated into two different numbers: hourly savings and headcount savings

  • Hourly Savings is the cost you save by reducing staff by one hour. So, if an employee makes $15 per hour, then this is your savings.
    • You use this to quantify savings hours when you are keeping the same staff, but reducing the number of hours worked.
  • Headcount savings is the total cost of an employee. Generally, the actual cost of an employee includes benefits. A typical calculation is to take the $15/hour and gross it up by an additional 25%. This covers PTO/Holiday time, health insurance (in some markets), and other benefits
    • You use this to quantify actual reductions in headcount.

As always, challenge the status quo! Put together an ROI, pitch the software, and give yourself an opportunity to move into the modern world of contact center planning.

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