Ask the Workforce Wizard


Our center has handled strictly incoming phone calls and a little bit of white mail correspondence over the years. However, there is a growing need to handle email and web chats and potentially even social media. We are not sure if we should hire people just to do each of those types of tasks or if we can expect agents to be multi-skilled and switch back and forth. Our ACD vendor has told us that the system can line up all these different types of contacts in a universal queue, but is that really the best way to approach this? HELP!


The challenge you are facing is a common one today with more and more customers wanting to contact companies using a variety of media. While incoming calls are likely to be the bulk of the workload for the next few years at least, the other types of interactions are growing and really can’t be ignored.

The first thing to understand about mixing these media together is that some are randomly arriving work that has to be handled quickly and other work will stack up in a queue to be handled somewhat later. You have already experienced that with calls being the immediate need and white mail being the sequential delayed need. While email is more like white mail, web chats are really more like phone calls since they demand immediate attention (even if you can delay a minute or two rather than a few seconds). Web chats further complicate the process in that an agent may be able to handle more than one chat at the time. Social media management takes a public relations focus as well as good writing skills. The forecasting and scheduling processes for each of these types of work is different so the standard Erlang C formula does not apply across the board.

As for the frontline staff handling this work, there are lots of options. The option that will require the most personnel is the one that staffs each type of media separately. However, it has a tradeoff in that the agents will become experts in that media and handle it quickly and accurately. The option that takes the fewest total staff is the one that assumes every agent can handle every type of interaction coming out of that universal queue. This keeps everyone busy with some kind of work all the time. But the tradeoff here is that people who are good on the phone may not be very good at writing and vice versa. And switching from one media type to another every contact takes a pretty nimble mind and great desktop tools. Some centers experience extended handle times and higher error rates when the media are mixed together.

One of the most successful ways to staff a multi-media center is to utilize each agent in the best way for that person. Some can handle a variety of media contacts and do it well, enjoying the variety in the job. Others are really good at one thing and will perform poorly in another media. The stress of doing something that is uncomfortable all day is likely to impact absenteeism and attrition. So many centers end up with a hybrid staffing arrangement. Some agents concentrate only on one media. Others may tackle two or more media. But switching on a contact-by-contact basis from a universal queue can only be done by a rare (and highly valuable) few successfully. Assigning the multi-skilled agents to one media type at a time and then switching to another media for a separate block of time seems to work pretty well. In this case, the agent might handle calls during the busy calling period for a couple of hours and then switch to email when the calls slow down. This utilizes all the skills of the agent and covers all the types of contacts without burning out the staff.