Two Necessary Systems for Staffing, Redux

By Ric Kosiba, Vice President, Bay Bridge Decisions Group, Interactive Intelligence

About a year ago, we discussed the two central processes for ensuring that the center network is properly staffed: traditional workforce management and contact center strategic (or  capacity) planning. In last year’s article, I think I made one significant mistake which was pointed out to me by a friend in the industry. I described these as separate processes because they require different algorithms and solve different aspects of the overall problem.

But I’ve changed my mind and want to discuss this more broadly.

Different problems…

At the next SWPP conference (make sure you are there!), if we were to ask every attendee what their definition is of workforce management — in a single sentence — I would bet we would hear something like this: “Workforce management is about making sure we have the right number of agents available at the right time in order to appropriately service customer contacts.”

But would you be surprised to know that traditional workforce management doesn’t focus on this problem? Or does so only narrowly?

Traditional workforce management software has always focused on solving problems specific to day-of contact center management. It focuses on scheduling agents, ensuring that the agents we have are efficiently utilized, while maintaining a decent work life for our agents. It focuses on managing the more-than-occasional-chaos of the daily operation, ensuring that our operation is flexible enough to react to daily changes in demand. It focuses on creating processes and procedures for agent exceptions, training, and time-off, ensuring a work  environment that is both agent friendly, customer satisfying, and still efficient.

This is extremely important.

Note that the part of our definition “…making sure we have the right number of agents…” is only partially addressed by our traditional workforce management software. The traditional
workforce management process does not determine how many agents are required week over week in order to service our customers — or how to achieve this requirement. Traditionally,
workforce management software works to manage the workforce that we already have on staff. There is little consideration given to figuring out how to ensure that the right number of agents walk into the contact center each Monday morning. Determining a plan that manages the week over week variability of volumes, handle times, vacations, sick time, agent attrition, etc. is, in and of itself, a tough problem, but again, it is not addressed by workforce management software.

Most of us have taken it upon ourselves to create a companion process in order to rectify this shortcoming. This process, most often called capacity planning or strategic planning, focuses on longer term decisions that a contact center executive needs to make, like hiring, vacation allocation, the timing and amount of agent training, etc… Strategic planning is the process we use to tame the contact center seasonality and variability.

There are terrific systems available to improve capacity planning. However, for many contact center operations, this companion process is managed through a homegrown spreadsheet model. This process — either managed through an engineered system or via a spreadsheet — attempts to solve a very different problem: How do we best determine hiring, overtime and shrinkage plans, given seasonal volumes, agent attrition, uncontrollable shrinkage, seasonal contact rates, and handle times across centers and staff groups.

This process is used for “…making sure we have the right number of agents…”.

…But part of the same overall process

While I write this, I’m finding myself getting twisted in knots when discussing the process for short term planning, or the process for long term planning, when the whole point of this article is that the two processes are part of the same overarching process. Process, process, process. My friend who pointed out to me the inherent problem with my previous article, had a  very simple point. He posed the following to me: “What happens if you have workforce management without strategic planning or vice versa?”

So let’s discuss this. If you have a workforce management system that works well for your organization, but do not have a capacity planning system, what would happen? The operation would be working in an environment where the decision-making window is extremely short and normal seasonal events are somewhat surprising. Mismatches between staff on hand and  staff required would be common.

In this environment, without a strategic planning process, management’s view would be myopic and the operation would find itself either overstaffed or understaffed more often than necessary. The workforce management process itself would have to work overtime, scrambling for extra bodies or scrambling too often to send agents home. Customer service would be  erratic and customer experience scores could be negatively affected. The operation would feel like chaos too often. In this environment, management, bitten often by understaffing, might opt to habitually overstaff. This operation would be costly and inefficient.

What happens if the contact center had a good capacity planning process but lacked workforce management software? The strategic planning software should determine exactly how many agents to staff each week, given the efficiency of the contact center. Odds are, for normal days, the contact center would hit its service levels consistently. But because the contact center does not have workforce management software, it would be, almost by definition, inefficiently staffed (it is very difficult to schedule agents efficiently by hand or with a spreadsheet). This
operation would need to hire too many agents to hit their service goals, because they are deployed and scheduled wrong. The operation would be much more costly than it otherwise would be.

But what about non-normal days? On days where there was a disruption, like a center outage, a weather event, or an unknown marketing event, the center would not be able to react to intra-day emergencies quickly and would likely take a service hit without good workforce management software.

One last point. What if the operation employs both systems, but one is deficient? All large contact center operations utilize workforce management software, but many use home-grown spreadsheets to provide capacity planning. These spreadsheets are often complex and error prone. If the spreadsheet is sub-par, if its models are not validated or it doesn’t include capacity planning optimization algorithms (most don’t), then the result will be an operation that will see many of the problems we’ve discussed. The operation will use inaccurate
forecasts, will provide capacity plans that are inefficient, and will see mismatches between staff required and staff provided to the operation.

It’s One Process

The point of this discussion really is to highlight something that most of us probably know that it is important to provide great longer term plans so that in the short term, the operation is easier to manage.

But also, contact center strategic/capacity planning and workforce management are truly two sides to the same coin. And one combined process that ensures that we have the right number of agents available at the right time in order to appropriately service our customer contacts.


Ric Kosiba, PhD is a charter member of SWPP and vice president of Interactive Intelligence’s Bay Bridge Decisions Group. He can be reached at or (410) 224-9883.