50 Expert Tips to Improve Contact Centre WFM


A picture of chess pawns on arrows

Doug Casterton, a Senior Workforce Management (WFM) Manager, shares 50 tips that he has learned through many years of contact centre WFM experience.

1. Get to the Point Where Shrinkage Is an Assumption

While using shrinkage as a target in the long-term plans is acceptable, as you get closer and closer to real time, the shrinkage should become more realistic to the point where it is no longer a target but an assumption.

Additionally, as you move closer to real time, make sure you adjust shrinkage assumptions accordingly.

Don’t fall into the trap of double counting your shrinkage. For example, for every holiday booked this should reduce your holiday shrinkage by X percent – it doesn’t work like that!

2. Forecast Down to 15 Minute Intervals (If Possible!)

Forecast down to the lowest minute interval level that reasonable accuracy will allow.

Where possible, forecast down to 15 minutes; the smaller the interval, the more likely you are to pick up short-lived spikes in volume, or how overstaffed you might be during sporadic lulls.

This allows you to better match staff to workload, plus avoid situations where overall you meet service level but still generate extremely bad service levels during points in the day. Don’t fall for the average trap!

[Editor’s Note – You can only use a 15-minute interval if your AHT is less than seven and a half minutes. Otherwise, you will find overhang a real issue from one interval to another] 

3. Be Realistic About Adherence

Set realistic adherence targets based on how long a contact is likely to take to complete, the number of possible changes in AUX states and how much known variance is in your forecast.

Also, remember that there is such a thing as positive non-adherence.

Introducing a real-time adherence approach pays dividends, and if applied correctly can easily provide a high return on investment.

Drive adherence through understanding and not through the use of the stick.

However, whatever method you settle on, drive adherence through understanding and not through the use of the stick.

Agents who understand the “power of one” will often self-manage their own and other team members’ attendance to be there when the customer needs them.

4. Avoid Making Assumptions From WFM Solution Data

Don’t just assume your WFM solution data is accurate, learn to monitor and quality check at the various sources on a regular basis.

Also, where possible, incorporate data into your calibration process.

5. Remember That the Distribution of Agent Shifts Isn’t Fair

From a scheduling perspective, we must try to treat all agents fairly and consistently, but don’t slip into the trap of believing an even distribution of shifts is fair.

In addition, we shouldn’t just assume that we know what fairness looks like without directly asking agents what their preferences are.

6. Revisit the Attendance Policy

Does your attendance policy focus on the negative aspects of attendance (e.g., progressive, escalating discipline for absenteeism), or does it recognize and reward perfect attendance?

High absence rates can be a common problem in contact centre planning, and, if persistent, they can be very costly.

When this occurs in a contact centre, a good question to ask yourself is: does our attendance policy focus on the negative aspects of attendance (e.g., progressive, escalating discipline for absenteeism), or does it recognize and reward perfect attendance?

7. Have a Dedicated Workforce Planning Team

While it sounds obvious, there are still organizations that don’t have a dedicated team but instead have the deliverers spread across a range of different roles.

Apart from being crucial to any organization’s success/survival, modern workforce planning can be a complex task and, when put into silos, it generates considerable diminished returns and in many cases duplication and confusion.

8. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

Tailor your communication to the audience in question.

The difference between good workforce planning and excellent workforce planning is the ability to translate the mathematical side of planning into easily understandable stories that are relevant to the intended audience.

9. Don’t Be Afraid to Try New Approaches!

Develop a thick skin and keep going despite knock-backs.

Have the guts to try new approaches and be prepared to get straight back up when they don’t work out.

10. Avoid Knee-Jerk Decisions

There will always be underlying variance and events that you just cannot plan for. Where possible, prepare contingency plans and avoid chasing service level.

Cancelling breaks, training, coaching etc. might seem like the right thing to do at the time, but it might actually have adverse effects later on in the day/week/month.

For more on this topic, read our article: Create Room to Breathe Instead of Making Knee-Jerk Reactions

11. People and Process Before Technology

Technology is an enabler for quicker and more accurate plans, but true workforce planning is a business process not a technology solution.

Return on investment (ROI) in WFM technology will only be achieved through robust workforce planning processes and methodologies and sound people skills (both soft and technical).

12. Own as Much of the Forecast as Possible

Most don’t take enough ownership; they take a forecast from sales and marketing (or other sources), refine the forecast and throw it onto other functions for further refinement.

Best-in-class teams know the baseline forecast and are able to work on driving root cause analysis to improve accuracy.

Whereas best in class teams own the entire forecast and, by doing so, they know the baseline forecast and are able to work on driving root cause analysis to improve accuracy.

13. Make Yourself Heard!

Really get to your business and your customers/stakeholders. Don’t just stick your head into an Excel sheet or a WFM system and expect to produce a plan fit for purpose.

While making yourself heard can be difficult, sometimes it’s a necessity!

14. Remember, 100% Forecast Accuracy Is Unrealistic

Trying to achieve a 100% forecast accuracy is unrealistic. It is more important to strive towards consistent acceptable tolerance.

Use forecasting methods such as MAPE to determine the size of your forecast error, and a simple process called “forecast value added” (FVA) to tell you how efficiently you are forecasting. It will also tell you whether your method is making the forecast better or worse.

For more on measuring this metric, read our article: How to Calculate Forecast Accuracy

15. Never Stop Striving to Learn

The workforce planning profession is still in its infancy when compared with traditional professions. There is so much to learn and innovate on, with new horizons being reached on a regular basis.

Also, be aware of knowledge erosion, it can be a real threat to even the strongest workforce planning teams.

Specialists move on, technology develops and new innovations and methodologies push the boundaries, leaving gaps in knowledge and understanding.

16. Bring WFM Processes Into Other Areas of the Contact Centre

Workforce planning/management was born planning for inbound call centres, but now commonly is deployed in multiskill, multichannel contact centre environments.

It does not, however, have to stop there. Start to explore the next frontier and bring workforce planning to other areas, such as the back office and field.

Many of the principles and processes are applicable to other areas outside of the contact centre and, with workforce management helping to stitch the customer journey in a consistent end-to-end process, this can only be a positive thing for the customer.

17. Actively Manage the Shift-Swap Process

Agreeing to every shift change request will quickly soak up resource within the planning team.

Employee satisfaction is vital, but it is important to put strict governance in place to restrict post-schedule publish requests to those moments that are really important to the employee, while encouraging all other change requests to be made via automated shift-swapping and self-service tools.

A picture of a big arrow going against smaller arrows

Regardless of your policy, evaluate all changes against the business objectives, from both a service level and fairness perspective.

Regardless of your policy, evaluate all changes against the business objectives, from both a service level and fairness perspective.

Yet don’t fall into the trap of adopting a “computer says no” policy. Try to think about the human element; we are, after all, planning for real people with real lives.

18. Help Advisors to Appreciate the Complexities of Schedule Creation

Help advisors and supervisors understand the mechanics and work rules used in producing their schedules, so they know what to expect before a schedule is published.

Even better, engage them in the process. You may even be surprised by how effective this technique can be in developing great win–win schedules for both the contact centre team and the business.

19. Include the Real-Time Monitoring in Every WFM Process

Your real-time monitoring teams are your eyes and ears in any workforce planning process.

A good real-time team is constantly monitoring and analysing key performance indicators (KPIs) and trends, so they really have their fingers on the pulse and heartbeat of the operation.

More importantly, they often know the “WHY” that is driving variance in the plan.

Therefore, when you have to re-forecast or reschedule, capture it along with the why and, where relevant, build it into your overall workforce planning cycle.

20. Think of WFM as a Way to Add Value, Not as a Cost-Cutting Exercise

Because workforce planning will often highlight functions that are overstaffed, it has over the years been associated with direct cost cutting.

However, a best-practice workforce planning process really adds value to a business by “right sizing” the workforce to current customer demand.

It is also important to publicize the objective of “right-sizing” as this will promote operational buy-in at all levels.

While in some cases, this might be about cutting staff, it is also important to publicize the objective of “right-sizing” as this will promote operational buy-in at all levels.

By the way, “right-sizing” will lead to better customer and employee experiences, which both lead to reduced failure demand and then reduced cost in the long run.

21. Have Flexibility Assurances Before Recruiting for Fixed Shifts

Never recruit solely on the basis of a fixed shift pattern without ensuring you have sufficient flexibility elsewhere within your schedule.

You may match the shift pattern perfectly to the employees’ needs (at the time), but any reduction in contact centre demand could prevent recruitment backfill, which will leave gaps in coverage.

22. Remember That Statistics Don’t Always Lead to Factual Conclusions

Workforce management is by nature an analytical function and we are dealing with numbers all day long. Looking at statistics is a great way to get instant information.

Numbers are facts and facts are important. So, when we read a statistic, we expect it to lead to some factual conclusion.

Unfortunately, especially in the modern age of big data, the results can provide a misleading conclusion to the receiver, who then believes something is wrong if the full data picture is fuzzy.

So, make sure you check your workforce planning conclusions with multiple data points and angles – especially when needing to draw an important conclusion or decision.

23. Know When WFM Software Is Required

Once a smaller size contact centre has started down the road of either multiskilled or omnichannel, it is time to think about deploying WFM software if you have not already done so.

I think that once you are facing into multiskill or multichannel, Excel just won’t cut it.

When using Excel you are likely to be relying on Erlang and this was only ever designed for single skill environments. There are ways around it but, in my experience, they are sub-standard.

For example, when using Excel you are likely to be relying on Erlang and this was only ever designed for single skill environments. There are ways around it but, in my experience, they are sub-standard.

Given you are only a small contact centre you will probably find the big mainstream WFM solution providers or anything on premise will not be cost effective.

Instead, look into a WFM solution designed for cloud and for the SME contact centre (there are quite a few options out there) – building a business case with a decent ROI is not difficult.

Planning for a small contact centre for any WFM team (with or without a WFM system to support) is arguably more intensive and difficult than larger-scale contact centre planning – the power of one is hugely more influential.

Find out more about WFM software in our article: Beginner’s Guide to Workforce Management Software

24. Remind People of the WFM Purpose

Often, WFM teams become a bit of a dumping ground for a myriad of tasks that the business cannot comfortably fit within other departments. This undoubtedly puts pressure on the WFM focus of any team.

Reminding people of the WFM purpose and the implications of pushing that manual task which no one else wants into the WFM process is a really important task for any WFM leader!

25. Educate the Team Before Offering WFM Self-Service

Enable and roll out self-service options to agents and team leaders in the operation, while also educating them in fundamental WFM planning principles and theory to enable them to use these tools with best practice.

By doing this, you will not only improve engagement through deeper involvement, understanding and empowerment in the planning process, you will also speed up desired action for agents and management. This helps to reduce the workload for the WFM team.

26. Define the Scope of WFM

It’s vitally important to clearly define the scope of WFM and not to treat it as a generalist function.

One element of that is supportive management pushing back against unrealistic expectations or requests.

Not setting expectations, alongside their failure to communicate, is a common pitfall for many WFM teams.

Not setting expectations, alongside their failure to communicate, is a common pitfall for many WFM teams.

We are often so busy dealing with the unexpected crisis that we forget that our stakeholders may not be aware.

Without awareness and because WFM process can often be seen as a “black-box” by ops, frustration builds and relationships become strained.

27. Don’t Flatline Shrinkage Across the Week

Minimizing Monday call-ins is the bane of any WFM plan and one that you should make sure you’re allowing for in your shrinkage forecast.

However, many contact centres fall into the trap of flatlining their shrinkage throughout the week.

Remember, just as with contact volumes, shrinkage will peak and trough throughout the week, but there will be patterns that some basic analysis will allow you to spot.

28. Hold Your Nerve

It may be mathematically correct to react, but staff need stability – so intuition can be as important as algorithm in workforce management.

Intuition is a form of fluid intelligence and it is what sets the human brain apart from any current artificial intelligence technology.

Put this together with empathy and you have what I believe will be the most in-demand future WFM analyst skill set.

29. Assess the Human Behaviours Behind Schedule Adherence Figures

Schedule adherence can be a contentious subject. On the one hand, there is no doubt that it is pointless putting a plan together that no one is following. On the other hand, there is such a thing as positive non-adherence.

Try wherever possible to implement a flexible policy that looks beyond the numbers at the human behaviour that is underpinning the data.

The point here is: yes, adherence is important, but try wherever possible to implement a flexible policy that looks beyond the numbers at the human behaviour that is underpinning the data.

Nonetheless, the Society of Workforce Planning Professionals share these three great steps for managing schedule adherence, as highlighted below:

  1. Define performance standards and measure
  2. Determine root cause(s) for the performance gap(s)
  3. Apply a behavioural solution to address the underlying cause.

30. Ensure That the WFM Team Engages With Advisors

Make sure the WFM team is always visible and accessible to agents from the start. Do onboarding sessions with newbies, Q&A sessions for agents, shadowing for agents interested in WFM etc.

This all takes time investment, but building trust that the WFM team does care about their work–life balance has an impact! It may also motivate advisors to actually answer the feedback survey.

31. Be Realistic With the Budget Cycle

All good budget cycles will have an element of ‘meet halfway in the middle’ between today’s bottom-up reality and tomorrow’s top-down aspiration.

However, what is important is that the WFM team stays factual. Make sure everyone involved in the budget cycle is clear on what service levels (SLAs) are achievable against this budget today, and what metrics need to move to meet SLA if they are forecast to be compromised.

Don’t let the myth stand that, by the time that you get to short-term planning your service level will magically align to target.

32. Be Led by Human Behaviour, as Well as Numbers

Key to great WFM planning is to understand that one of its most influential outcomes is its reliance on human behaviour.

The new wave of automation makes sense mathematically and financially, as it can reduce workload for the workforce management team, speed up WFM process agility and create employee connections/communication channels at a scale and speed impossible without.

Understanding that sometimes it is worth allowing agents to leave 30 minutes earlier, on a one-off basis, in order not to miss the last bus, is worth the impact to your plan.

However, understanding that sometimes it is worth allowing agents to leave 30 minutes earlier, on a one-off basis, in order not to miss the last bus, is worth the impact to your plan. This is for both the long-term advocacy and goodwill that it creates.

Be led by numbers and human behaviour in equal measure for great workforce management.

33. Understand Your Value as a Workforce Manager

Know your stakeholders absolutely, but remember that you too are a stakeholder!

As a Workforce Manager, you have so much to offer and are a very valuable asset for the organization you work for. You help connect many processes with business strategy.

So, go out and sell your value to operations and don’t let them forget about the little bits that make your operation ‘sing’.

This includes off-phone activities such as training and support through one-to-ones etc. These are ‘magic’ things that happen – or are expected to happen.

34. Add Value to Less Desirable Shift Patterns

When creating lifestyle scheduling options, there are obvious trade-offs that can be made, such as rest days on the weekend if you work all the evening shifts.

Also, there are more creative ways of promoting your schedule options to fit people’s lives outside of work.

For example, design a shift pattern that has a 3-hour lunch break (the split shift nirvana) and combine it with a free gym membership.

I bet you will be over-subscribed with applicants for this previously undesirable shift pattern!

35. Align WFM and Operations With a Purpose

Engage Ops deeply into the plan at all levels – at budget, capacity planning, and intra-day level.

Make sure there is a shared accountability that stretches across general business strategy and WFM strategy/tactics backed by shared metrics or importantly desired business outcome.

The service level achievement can be metrically linked to shared outcomes of profitability and colleague engagement.

For example, the service level achievement can be metrically linked to shared outcomes of profitability and colleague engagement.

Therefore, align both WFM and Ops to one purpose. This then makes changes to the locked plan or unplanned shrinkage something that all will want to engage in and ensure there is full understanding of the impact and alignment to shared outcomes.

36. Re-embrace Your Ability to Be Creative

WFM is full-on and the number one issue that I hear regularly that impacts ability to be creative is time.

The constant WFM treadmill can leave little time or energy to think with an open mind about creativity. However, truly pushing boundaries requires dedicated time and space.

In our first three to six months of a new job, we identify a hat-full of ideas and opportunities, then the dreaded business as usual treadmill sets in and our creativity with it dies.

So, this is a call-out to all Workforce Managers, take yourself back to when you first started your current job and go and find a whiteboard.

Start to recall all the things that you said you were going to do in those first few months (did you?) or just start to write down random thoughts and ideas as if you have only just started in the job.

Find time and space to do this regularly and to inspire others to do the same.

37. Ask the Questions That the Computer Can’t

Why would someone want to use a certain channel more today, tomorrow, next week…  and why would it be today and not tomorrow?

A computer can spot trends better than we can, but sometimes we can spot the anomalies – meaning that sometimes it’s better to think outside the box.

38. Use These Three Key Initiatives to Engage Agents With WFM

To assist the WFM process and the organization overall, here are three pieces of advice, shared with us by Richard Lundgren, an experienced Contact Centre Operations Manager.

  1. Bring agents / team leaders into the WFM process on secondment. This helps them to get full understanding of the entire WFM process and why we do things the way we do.
  2. Rotate agents through the real-time analyst roles on 4-hour rotations. This gives agents an understanding of why RTA is so important, meaning that they go back out onto the floor and become advocates of the importance of RTA.
  3. In heavily union-controlled environments bring the union delegates into the team on secondment to give insight into how and why we do things, showing that there is no bias & that the WFM process is fair and equitable.

39. Regularly Test Your What-If Plans

You need to be revisiting your what-if planning and preparing pre-approved contingency plans, ensuring that they can be triggered in real time.

Get together with your disaster recovery team and run through certain scenarios with them, perhaps every couple of months or so, to analyse how well you are prepared to cope in different situations.

For more advice on creating and testing these plans, read our article: Preparing for the Unexpected: How to Create a Business Continuity Plan

40. Improve Your Connections With Sales and Marketing

A great working relationship with both Sales and Marketing is essential.

Campaigns are often clouded in sensitivity to ensure competitive edge, but no marketing or sales campaign will be successful if there is not enough workforce to meet unexpected increased customer demand.

41. Don’t Adopt a Computer Says No Philosophy

Right time, right place and right skill, but I would expand that this is as much about the right employee engagement and the right customer outcome as it is about right cost.

So, remember it’s not all about efficiency; it’s balanced with human behaviours, and we mustn’t forget this human side in our planning.

It’s not all about efficiency; it’s balanced with human behaviours and we mustn’t forget this human side in our planning.

Therefore it’s not always bad advice to follow a “computer says no” policy, by focusing on this human aspect . Remember that helping a staff member today could give you the solution in the future.

42. Take the Time to Prove Your Plan and Understand Your Variance

Spend time proving your plan and understanding variance to plan. Not only is this engaging for Ops, it helps build trust in the plan.

It will also generate learning that will lead to improvement. History’s biggest value is assisting future direction by learning from the past.

43. Don’t Try to Find an Explanation for EVERYTHING

Give your team the freedom to focus on the future. Don’t fall into “paralysis by analysis”.

Your WFM team needs to learn from the data and make go-forward plans, but trying to explain why everything happened is not always the best use of time.

44. Think About the Bus and Train Schedules

Sometimes it is better to be short-skilled by 10 minutes so a number of people can get the last bus home, as that will save you being short-staffed in future.

Why? Because staff won’t go sick or on leave.

With this in mind, we must think beyond just the number and seek human behaviour reactions.

For more advice on this topic, read our article: How to Avoid Schedule Dissatisfaction

45. Get to Grips With Failure Demand

What is the real demand? Have you measured this?

It is very likely that a percentage of the customer contact demand is a result of failure demand driven by customers needing to switch communication channels as the complexity of the conversation rises or if they are having difficulties self-serving.

Regularly quantifying the amount of failure demand you are carrying and conducting a what-if capacity plan to show how much cost you are carrying to service this failure demand can be a really powerful catalyst to drive change and optimization. This can result in reduced cost and improved customer experience.

46. Be Skilled in Leadership, as Well as in Planning Acumen

Ensure you divide your development into two very separate spheres of expertise if you want to be successful in WFM leadership.

Planning acumen is not a predicate for leadership; they are two completely different skill sets.

Planning acumen is not a predicate for leadership they are two completely different skill sets.

In my estimation, a WFM organization is more likely to be successful with a strong, capable leader who has a sound understanding of the work she/he is overseeing. Whereas an organization headed by a weak leader, who was promoted based on the strength of his/her planning performance alone, will lack vision and ability to be a motivating force.

Why? Because he/she will likely find themselves mired in the minutiae of planning development rather than orchestrating departmental initiatives to increase scope and influence.

47. Sometimes Simple Solutions Are the Best Solutions

While it is important to leverage the tools and technology at our disposal, at times a simple solution is the best solution.

Our partners in operations and operational services are best served when we employ the most elegant process that provides the same or even more accurate information than would be otherwise derived with more complex and time-intensive exercises.

A “right-sized” WFM team, with an appropriate functional responsibility for their organizational scale, a full understanding of the tools they use and a confidence in making use of them at the appropriate time, has a great platform for success.

48. Consider Agent Skill Degradation

This is something a WFM team should keep an eye out for, as it frequently occurs in environments where agent pools are fully multiskilled and when one of the skill groups has a small and infrequent demand compared to larger more in-demand skill groups.

This type of set-up can result in very few contacts reaching individual agents, so that when they do finally receive that type of customer interaction, they struggle, which can impact customer experience, AHT and first contact resolution.

In regulated environments there is the risk of compliance breaches also.

49. Be Wary of the Multiple Ways in Which Data Can Be Manipulated

Can statistics be manipulated? – Absolutely!!

As alluded to in tip 22, make sure you check your workforce planning conclusions with multiple data points and angles, especially when needing to draw an important conclusion or decision.

There are six ways in which data can be manipulated, as highlighted by datapipeline, who list the following manipulation techniques which you need to be wary of:

    1. Faulty polling
    2. Flawed correlations
    3. Data fishing
    4. Misleading data visualization
    5. Purposeful and selective bias
    6. Using percentage change in combination with a small sample size

50.  Make the Following Holiday Considerations

Handling vacation/holiday is a critical part of any workforce management process. Here are some tips and considerations.

Empathy and Sympathy – Many workforce management processes will have automated holiday requests. Have you allowed for this to ensure it grants leave during a crucial time for the employee?

Planning – Any good WFM process will forecast when holiday can be taken and ensure appropriate resources are in place for cover.

Awareness – Again an automated holiday management process is great in that it reduces the load on the WFM team and speeds up resource for the employee. Make sure this process also ensures the right people get the right communication at the right time.

A tumbnail photo of Doug Casterton

Doug Casterton

Data – Ensuring employees are taking holiday throughout the year can really help with burn-out and avoidance of the end-of-year rush to use up holiday, which put strains on resource levels.

Data can also lead to greater insight on things like did an employee have a holiday request rejected and then go off sick?

Thanks to Doug Casterton for sharing these tips with us. For more helpful advice from Doug, be sure to give him a follow on LinkedIn.

There is more helpful advice on contact centre WFM, in each of our following articles:

Published On: 23rd Oct 2019 - Last modified: 30th Oct 2019
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