Workforce Optimization: A Synergistic Approach to Customer Service

By Marshall Lee, Carewise Health

This is not a story about a software package. You have been preparing for eight weeks to align staffing for a new type of call that will hit in four days. Service levels for a penalty-based skill will be affected and it is the end of the month. Service levels are good but staffing is lean. In your intraweek forecasts, you see a volume spike and several “optional soft skills trainings” posted. In order to hit service level, you pull all training for the next three days and begin rescheduling the   trainings for the following week.

Right after you reschedule the training and push new schedules you get an e-mail from the training team. What you didn’t know was that the class NOT an “optional soft skills training.” In fact it was the very   training needed for the new volume type you had staffed for. The four sessions that were scheduled were cancelled not knowing the full downstream impact. The initiative will go live in three days. Unfortunately the agents need the training that was just cancelled to address all the concerns callers will have. Quality Assurance (QA) has replaced the forms used for call scoring to include the same new skills set. So agents may be penalized for training that has not yet happened.

Sound familiar? You are not alone. This is more common than you might think. What causes this to happen is a failure in workforce optimization (WFO) strategy.

This is not about technology. Often we think technology is the root of WFO. Yes, unified platforms and WFO systems can help, but this is about a philosophy.

This is about making a concept into a workplace cultural driver. This type of culture will yield results. WFO has been a buzz term in contact center circles for years. WFO is the idea of marrying  quality, training, analytics, and workforce management to maximize the effectiveness and efficiency of the contact center staff. It seems to be a concept that is an easy sell, easy to buy into, and yet somehow it is hard to reach in practice. When you marry things, you make them one. The key in making your contact center operations support services work as one is to ask “Why am I here?”

Why we are all “here” is to bring a positive outcome to the customer. The most important person in our world is the person on the telephone. The second most important person is the next person on the telephone. In order to meet the needs of those most important people, we must empower and best utilize the ones who interact with  them — our agents. No matter the type of contact center you support, the chief aim of that center is to provide the best service and support possible in all contexts. If you are in QA, the mission is to guarantee that agents are providing a level of  service that is commensurate with expectations. The Training team is there to ensure that the agent is prepared to deliver service. WFM is there to predict needs and place the resources where they can best be utilized to provide that service. These are by no means mutually exclusive  goals and in fact are all interrelated parts of the same function: workforce optimization. With a focus on “Why are we here?” it begins to become clearer how support services can complement and not  conflict with one another.

Synergy is when multiple parts acting together have a greater output than the sum of the parts acting alone. Think of a stool with three legs. No one leg on its own can support the full weight that the stool can as a  whole. Each leg is in a specific place for a specific purpose but it does not act alone. In the same way, no part of the WFO equation acts alone. Often in many contact center environments there is a lack of linkage between the legs of quality, workforce management, and training. In the ideal scenario, these three key components work in tandem to provide the complete customer experience and positive outcome. Remember, the most important person in our world is the caller. What we do is deliver a high quality agent at the right time to meet customer needs.

Let’s revisit the scenario from earlier — the cancelled training. How could that have been avoided, other than labeling the training “Mandatory Product  Training?” The simple yet correct answer is to focus on why are we are here. We exist to provide service. The trainer is here to prepare the agent for newcontent of the call, and document information they will need to relay. QA is there to  measure to ensure the correct information is being provided to the caller. WFM is there to ensure that we are staffed appropriately to facilitate volume and ensure that timely service is provided. When the training was cancelled, the training and workforce teams did not have conflicting goals. In fact the goals were the same, but a lack of understanding of methods and timing were in place.

Let’s dig deeper. Time for a disclaimer — before my life in workforce management I was in training, so I am an immigrant to the WFM world. One thing I would not have considered when I was a trainer was that anything can and will happen in the course of a day to disrupt service levels. I’m only partly kidding when I say this is something that you only truly understand  if you have done RTA, traffic monitoring, or intraday.

Now when I staff and schedule contact centers I know to look at many variables — how many calls come in or go out and when are the obvious ones. WFM also looks at how many calls an agent can reasonably handle. Then we look at how much loss of agent availability there is. We then staff to a certain amount of that unavailable time — if we go over a certain percentage, we then get bad service levels. So let’s say I need 10 agents and I know I’ll have 30% unavailability, I will then staff 13. Of course we know this as shrinkage. But do your training and quality teams know what happens if we go over that 30% shrinkage? Bad service levels or slow answer rate can be the beginning of bad customer service. The longer someone waits, the more frustrated they become. On the agent side, the more calls that are in queue, the more call fatigue sets in.  When inbound calls are in queue and not getting answered quickly or outbound scheduled calls are running late, both callers and agents are unhappy, and this hurts call quality. On the flip side, if agents aren’t equipped, it really doesn’t  matter if they answer in 30 seconds or 30 minutes because they can’t help the caller. Good WFO teamwork would prevent this from happening. Proper planning and working together allows for both service and needed shrinkage — in this case the training. Do you communicate these types of details to your quality and training teams?

The right question is “How do we keep enough agents on the floor and get the training accomplished?” Staffing is at the core. Remember the most important person is the current caller. Let’s start with the knowledge that workforce management hasplanned for that 30% shrinkage level. If I can’t go over 30% with only four trainings, I now have set myself up for 25% shrinkage at any one of those time slots before anything else happens. I have a simple rule of six; there should always be a minimum of six sessions for any activity that will affect coverage. Six sessions is 16% shrinkage — at any one point this is an amount of  shrinkage most contact centers can absorb. If we then plan for two more training sessions to allow for Murphy’s Law, we know we need to plan on having eight sessions spread out enough for coverage. We may not need the last two, but if we do, the make-ups are already in place, with ample lead time for the needed information to be in the hands of the agents. This is the start of a WFO philosophy in preparing to equip agents while meeting existing needs. This is simple education that will help your quality and education partners to consider how they can then provide what they need to in a way that works best with operations.

Imagine now what can happen if each area begins to work together on a consistent basis. There is more a unified WFO approach can tackle than just scheduling training. Take the example of skill warehousing. A skill warehouse is a repository of all the skills that someone can have in your contact center, every skill from the most basic to the most advanced are all included. Then each agent is listed with the skills they possess marked, and their proficiency in that skill rated. This tool is used and maintained by QA, Training, and WFM. Let’s say that we are experiencing a shortage of staff who can handle a more advanced call type. QA has identified the existing agents with aptitude in the skill matrix. WFM then can identify how many of those agents we need to cross train and when we need coverage. Training plans sessions for cross training with workforce management. After the training, QA ensures these new skills are being used at an acceptable level. This is the core of WFO. See it’s not really just about technology!

Why are we here? To equip and place agents where they are needed to assist the most important people in our world, the callers. When we all adopt this mindset and acknowledge our differing but complementary expert contact center support services, we all shine. If we work in sync to hire and maintain agents, we will find more shared areas to improve the overall customer and employee experience. This is not an article about technology, although there is technology to help with unified WFO. This is about a  philosophy. A WFO culture is something you have to cultivate. Begin by exploring the other support services areas. If you are a trainer, spend some time in WFM, ask to help with exceptions, etc.. This will be eye opening. If you are in QA,  spend some time in training sessions or also help with exceptions. Have your WFM team review a few calls periodically. If you have call calibrations, invite WFM and Training team members to sit in. It helps to be reminded of what you are scheduling people to do.

Spend time building the compatibility and you’ll see that together you will address challenges you didn’t even know were there. If the most important person in your call center is the caller, it is best for everyone to  work together equip and correctly place those who interact with the caller to provide the best experience. This is about the caller.

SWPP Board Member Marshall Lee is Workforce Manager for Carewise Health. He may be reached at