Creating a Workforce Plan

By Maggie Klenke

Building a plan for the workforce in a contact center requires consideration of several important criteria. First and foremost is the need to meet the needs of the customers who will contact the center including when the center is open, what kinds of contacts will be handled, and how customers will be connected to the resources that can resolve their issues. Of course, the plan must balance the customer needs with those of the employees and the need for the company to be fiscally responsible.

Hours of Operation

The first major component of the operational plan is to decide when the center will be open to handle customer contacts, and therefore when the staff needs to be there. For some companies, having the contact center open only Monday through Friday during normal business hours of 8AM to 5PM may be sufficient. Hours of 7AM to 7PM can cover multiple time zones for some organizations. Other centers are open 24 hours per day 365 days per year and there are many options in between. Whether the center will be open during standard holidays is another decision to be made.

In making these decisions about when to be open, there are several considerations. First and foremost is the customer need or expectation. For example, if your company is the gas utility and your center takes calls from customers who want to report a gas leak, having someone available at all times to answer those emergency calls may not be optional. On the other hand, if that same utility receives calls from customers questioning their bills, normal business hours may be sufficient. Therefore, different types of calls even within the same business may require different hours of operation. Of course, where regulators or contracts dictate the hours, those obligations will need to be met.

Another consideration is determining what other options are available to the customers to address their needs. If there is a web site option, an automated voice response system, or business partner that can handle that interaction, then it may not be critical to staff the company center for all hours. For example, the gas utility might have a presence in other places where a customer can pay the bill. The web site or IVR option could offer the customer a way to check on the balance in the account or place an order after hours. In many cases, the decision may be driven by the urgency of the customer’s need or the likelihood that the customer will take their business elsewhere if the center is not open.

A thorough analysis of the demand versus the cost to handle the work should also be a consideration. At least annually, an analysis of the volume of calls during the hour before opening and the hour after closing should be done (or for the overnight hours in a 24-hour operations). If there are few calls and the cost of staffing the center is higher than the value of the calls, perhaps the hours should be shortened. However, if demand is being turned away that might result in sufficient revenue to be profitable or increases in customer loyalty, longer hours may be beneficial. Customer behaviors change over time, so reviewing this option regularly is appropriate.

Number and Placement of Sites

Determining the number and type of sites where work will be handled is the next major option. Some organizations prefer to have all of the contact handling in a single site, generally co-located with the company headquarters. Others have a need for multiple locations, perhaps due to wide geographic coverage or because the organization has grown through acquisition. Multiple sites can each handle specific calls separately or there may be a virtual network so that calls are routed to any frontline staff member available. It is also a growing option to have individual staff work from home. This can be an option for a few of the frontline staff or it may be the only staffing used in some operations where there is no physical center at all.

The size of the workforce will often be a major deciding factor in whether there is one site or more. The efficiency of an operation is maximized when there are about 100 people handling calls at the same time, so where only 20 or 30 staff are needed, spreading them over multiple sites may be inefficient if the sites operate independently. However if the sites can be linked together virtually by the telephone system (ACD), then smaller sites act like one larger site for call distribution. The administrative and management overhead may still be higher, but the speed of answer and utilization of staff more closely resemble a single site operation.

For some companies, multiple sites are needed for other activities. For example, a bank may have multiple branch locations in several cities or even around the globe. Distributing some contact center operations to these sites may gain benefits of time zone coverage and staff availability, and perhaps even multiple language support. These multiple sites can also back each other up in the event of some disaster that strikes such as a hurricane or flood in one area.

Contact Types Handled

There are many types of contacts that can be handled in a contact center. In general, the largest volume of work comes from the inbound calls. In some cases, outbound calls are made to follow up on an inbound call, but the outbound call can also be generated for such things as sales activities or collection efforts.

Customer email traffic is growing and while the time available to the center to respond is generally longer than for an incoming call, there is a deadline based on the customer’s expectation. Web chats are also a written form of communication but these require a more immediate answer than emails, faxes, or white mail (paper-based correspondence). The customer is waiting online for the web chat interaction and more than a minute or two between responses is unacceptable for many customers.
Social media is a more recent form of customer interaction and may or may not be handled in the contact center. Some companies prefer to manage these responses in the public relations team. However, when done in the center, staff must monitor the various channels and identify posts that require an individual response or the need for a general information post. These types of interactions are one to many versus the calls that are one to one. Great care must be exercised in social media as the posts will be seen by hundreds if not millions of people and are hard to retract.

For some companies, interaction with customers who walk into the facility is still part of the workload. This can be integrated with the work in the contact center so that staff members rotate between these functions. This is generally done in very small operations where the workload for either type is not sufficient to keep staff busy all the time. It has trade-offs as staff can be caught up in one type of work while customers wait for the other as the workload for both tend to follow the same patterns of peaks and valleys. It is important to remember in these mixed environments that people in the physical queue can see the line ahead while those in the virtual queues do not have any idea how many are ahead of them in most cases.

Workload Distribution

The next consideration in the workforce plan is to determine how the work will be distributed among the frontline staff.
Some personnel may have only the skill to handle one type of work or one type of question. For example, a new trainee may be taught how to handle a new order from a customer but not have been trained on billing questions yet. Another person can handle any type of inbound call but does not handle any type of written work such as email, web chat or correspondence. Written skills include the web chats, emails, and paper correspondence and may be combined for a single team with good grammar and writing skills and they may not handle calls at all or only in peak load situations.

Social media and personal interaction (face-to-face) skills are somewhat unique from both call and written interactions. Selection of individuals for these activities will need to meet different criteria.

For many companies, there are a quantity of tasks that are done in the “back office.” Generally, the back office staff does not handle direct interactions with the customers, but does the support work such as accounting, dispatching, claims, order entry, etc. In small operations where the call volume results in idle periods, doing some of this work between calls can be a reasonable choice. However, as the volume of calls increases, the idle time disappears and this work may need to be turned over to dedicated back office personnel outside of the contact center. It can also be assigned to contact center staff on a block of time basis to give a break from call handling, even in large centers. Where the centers are quite large there may be little time between calls to even do the follow up and research required to resolve customer issues, and this work may be handed off to a team that does not take incoming calls directly.

There are certainly efficiencies to be gained when every person can do every type of work including every type of call and/or written contacts. Peak load times for one type may be offset with low volume periods in another. There are tools for blending these types of work into a single queue so that the associate receives whatever is next in line. However, this can result in slower handling while the associate switches thinking from one work type to another (not to mention applications on the desktop tools). Many centers have found that having people switch work types in blocks of time improves concentration, handle time, and error rates. Some staff find the constant change of contacts overwhelming and others find it exhilarating, so this is a decision that is often different by individual.

Other Workforce Decisions

We have discussed here important operational decisions about hours of operations, number of sites, and types of contacts to be handled. One of the important accompanying decisions is how the center will be staffed. In the next issue of On Target, we’ll discuss various staffing options and the pros and cons of each. Stay tuned…

Maggie Klenke was a Co-Founder of The Call Center School. She has written numerous call center management books, including Business School Essentials for Call Center Leaders. She may be contacted at or 615-651-3324.