The World of WFM Is Changing

By Maggie Klenke

When workforce management only needs to plan for telephone calls, the processes are straightforward.  Sure, there are challenges in ensuring that the data on call volumes and handle times are reasonably accurate.  But agents are assumed to be essentially interchangeable, and averages can be used with some degree of comfort. Call transfers/overflows from one agent group to another requires a decision about how to track the data for a single transaction in two places.  Differing philosophies on how to count abandoned calls can also be part of the calculations.  But in the end, even a spreadsheet can do the math required to get to a reasonably accurate forecast, albeit a whole lot easier with WFM software.

Skill-based routing came on the scene and added a level of complexity.  Now callers need to be sorted into separate call types and agent skills matched to their needs.  Agents aren’t interchangeable anymore as some have different skills and the level of performance in each skill might vary.  Management might set priorities so that some callers go ahead of other callers, or agents might get some call types ahead of other call types.  Now the straightforward Erlang formula won’t work quite so well.  Computer simulations and complex processes were added to the WFM tools to adjust to these requirements.  Centers were required to track agent performance by skill type and shift personnel around, change priorities, and adjust training plans as customer behaviors evolved.

In many centers, there is work that needs to be done in addition to answering incoming calls.  Some handle faxes and white mail, others process orders or do other data entry tasks, update knowledge base data, etc.  Scheduling this work is generally done as the incoming call workload permits and it is accounted for as shrinkage in the workforce time available to handle calls.  It can also be done as scheduled blocks of time or even in dedicated teams.

Welcome to the Digital Age

Now we are moving into the next set of challenges with the addition of customer demand work that is not based on phone calls.  Customers are comfortable with email, chat, instant messaging, and a variety of social media tools and expect us to be able to interact with them in which ever medium they choose.  The added complexities of handling all these work types and ensuring agent skills are matched to workload have been raised by an order of magnitude.  Some of the new challenges include:

  • Multiple simultaneous transactions – Agents may be asked to handle more than one chat session at the same time.  This allows them to be more efficient in answering one customer’s query while another customer is typing their response or question.  It is even possible that an agent might be handling a response to an email interspersed with chat interactions.
  • Non-continuous transactions – While a phone call and/or chat session is generally worked from answer to conclusion, other types of work make be done in several small sections separated by other activities.  For example, an agent might start work on an email and realize that some research may be needed before the answer can be provided.  A backlog of chats takes priority, and the agents shifts to chat work for a few minutes and then back to the research.  An answer to the customer may actually be sent many minutes or even hours after the agent first read the request.  It may even be the next day.   The time spent interacting with the customer’s request including research time is quite different from the total time from first reading to finally sending the reply and it cannot be planned as if it happened in the same half-hour.  Identifying exactly what each agent is doing and which transaction it is associated with is exceedingly difficult.
  • Multiple work types for a single transaction – A customer may start with a call but research is required to answer the query and the agent agreed to email the customer with the answer so copies of documents can be included in the response.  Linking all of these parts of the transaction together is important, but recognizing that they don’t have to all happen continuously is as well.
  • Interruptions – When some work types take priority over others, deferrable work may be interrupted to allow the priority interaction to take place.  For example, an agent may be working on a response to a social media post and be interrupted by a priority telephone call.  Contractual obligations to handle work within certain goals may also require prioritization.

Determining how to count the transactions, assign an appropriate handle time, and identify the agent skills needed to handle each will be required.  In some cases, a follow-on part of a transaction may require the same agent who handled the first part and ensuring that agent is available is another consideration.

Agents Are No Longer Interchangeable

We also need to account for the differences in agent capabilities.  In addition to the pure identification of whether an agent has the skill to handle one type of work or not, there is the issue of priorities and levels of skill.

  • One agent may be able to handle 2 chats at one time while another might handle four easily.  Of course, that assumes that the demand is sufficient to deliver the maximum number each agent can handle.
  • The handle time for one agent to complete an email request may be double what another agent can deliver.  Writing skills and typing speed combine with experience and the ability to utilize a library of “canned” responses can be significant factors.
  • Some agents may be better at selling than others and both the agent and company benefit from giving these agents as many sales opportunities as possible while shifting service calls to those agents who are better at these transactions. 
  • A newly trained agent may be overwhelmed if sent call-after-call of the newly learned type.  Finding a way to deliver a few of these new work types interspersed with some the agent is more comfortable may help the agent performance and stress level.


The complexities that have been added to the WFM processes with the addition of multiple media work types is considerable.  Understanding the customer media choices and priorities, agent skills and preferences, and management priorities are all required for success in this environment.  Working with the WFM software providers to develop a clear understanding of what the systems can do and how they work in detail is essential to making the processes work the way that will best serve your company’s mission.