Workforce Management

Tips for more effective call center forecasting, scheduling and agent adherence

Call Center Forecasting Hints, Tips & Best Practices

Skill Based Scheduling with Spreadsheets?

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Customers appreciate when their calls are received by the agents most qualified to handle them. 

And this is certainly one of those instances where what is good for the customer is good for the contact center as well. Skill-based scheduling results in higher productivity, higher first call resolution and shorter call times. It plays to agents’ strengths and boosts their confidence. 

Implementation of skill-based scheduling begins by establishing a clear tier system that ranks agents by skills based on call type. Ultimately, the goal is to have only agents that are capable of handling every type of customer call. Thus, performance remains consistent no matter how schedules may fluctuate.

Such scheduling based on specific skill sets is easily manageable with Workforce Management. Inclusion of skills is handled automatically by WFM, so it’s easier to fill each shift with fewer agents – those who have the requisite specialties to handle every customer encounter.

Now, try to achieve the same results with spreadsheets, when each of your agents has 3-5 different skills. How would you even begin to take all of them into account and run various scenarios? Even if it could be done, it would take many, many more hours that could be devoted to other challenges. 

Based on a recent call center industry analysis, approximately 20% of call centers still use spreadsheets for forecasting and scheduling. Those that do are missing out on the convenience, efficiency and flexibility of workforce management, particularly when it comes to this vital function.

Workforce management plays a prominent role in engendering employee and customer satisfaction through skill-based scheduling. Spreadsheets just can’t keep up. To learn more, please read this whitepaper about Spreadsheets vs. Workforce Management Software.


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Contact Center Staffing for the Holiday Season: Are you Ready?

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The holiday season means good food, good friends and good will toward men. But at some contact centers, it also means a significant increase in the need for customer service support. And by the way, your customers are busier during this season as well, and they expect the same response time and personalized service they receive at any other time of year.

If your contact center is about to get deluged with call volume that may be five times higher than usual, the time to start planning is now (especially if you haven’t been anticipating this for the last 1-2 months).

Increased staffing means more job interviews. The pace will be accelerated but the objective here is not just to fill empty seats. These new hires must be as motivated and as qualified as the agents you’ve had for years. Some contact centers maintain a database of potential hires so there is always a supply of qualified candidates that can step in with less training and get the job done.

Forecasting and scheduling are also crucial components to achieve adequate service levels and provide great customer service. Reviewing historical data is the best place to start this process, and then take a moment to think about what has changed since the holiday seasons of last year and the year before. These variables must also be taken into account.

Finally, with so many new faces in the contact center and so many more calls pouring in, quality monitoring and control will be more difficult, but must be maintained. That means assigning more veteran team members to the quality control effort, so you have enough agents monitoring calls, emails and chats.

By taking these steps, you’ll have a much better chance to deliver a positive and memorable holiday shopping experience.
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How effective is your call center forecasting and scheduling process?

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Forecasting and scheduling are vital components in the success of every call center management. Achieving consistent results requires a little art and a little science, but is impossible without concrete data.

For decades, that data was gathered through spreadsheets, and would take hours to compile. Even then, the results were not always accurate, or flexible enough to accommodate last minute changes or other staffing issues.

An automated workforce management (WFM) and optimization (WFO) solution can help you to implement Best Practices. You can easily improve forecast accuracy and in turn, optimize schedule assignment, making sure all the necessary resources are always in place. An integrated WFO solution allows a manager to check KPI’s (Key Performance Indicators) against historical data. In a typical call center a manager will ask such questions as:

“When I see that my agents’ Average Talk Time has exceeded the target, does this result in more abandons and a poor service level?”

“If a longer talk time is causing more abandons, are there agents that are still able meet all of their quality monitoring goals while keeping a low talk time?”

By analyzing data in an integrated WFO tool, a manager can then reference what processes allowed some agents to have a lower talk time while meeting their quality targets, and then train the rest of the workforce using these processes.  At that point, a lower Average Talk Time goal may be set for the entire center, resulting in happier customers getting their calls answered more quickly and less overall abandons.

“Call Center Forecasting and Scheduling: Best Practices” details how WFO improves the likelihood of creating reliable forecasts and accurate schedules. There are also sections on how WFM impacts agent productivity, and which criteria are most important when selecting a WFM solution.

Click here to download Call Center Forecasting and Scheduling: Best Practices.


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Forecasting and Scheduling When Call Volume is Inconsistent

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At some call centers, periods of call volume stability are followed by days or weeks where the numbers will fluctuate more noticeably. And that’s the best-case scenario.

With other contact centers attached to companies where new special offers, seasonal promotions and other aggressive marketing tactics are employed, fluctuations are more commonplace and even more difficult to predict. How can a manager create an accurate forecast and schedule in these circumstances? Here are 5 tips that might help.

1. Analyze call history
Very few events in a call center are completely unique. Whatever is happening this week or next week has happened before, and by using 1-2 years of call history, it is easier to anticipate the impact of an approaching event, based on what happened when a similar event occurred previously.

2. Run scenarios
Forecasting simulations based on 2-3 potential outcomes can help managers analyze routing policies and incoming call volume. That leads to more accurate forecasts and schedules.

3. Include all activities
Call-related activities are the primary data source, and it’s important to get a handle on incoming call load, average handle time, etc. But non-call related activities such as breaks, training sessions and meetings must also be considered – something that is much easier to do with an automated system (as opposed to spreadsheets).

4. Track internal and external events.
You know about the big sale coming up, and what that is likely to do to call volume. You can see the holiday approaching on the calendar and can foresee its impact by what happened last year. But there are other factors that will be unique to the day for which you are forecasting and scheduling. For instance, if the weather is supposed to be bad more customers might shop from home, which would require more call center resources.

5. Stay flexible
The more rigid the schedule, the more likely it will fall short of expectations. Built-in flexibility allows managers to be prepared for unforeseen fluctuations.


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The Limitations of Call Forecasting in Excel Spreadsheets

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How accurate are your call center forecasts? If they’re consistently missing the mark, then chances are the business is constantly dealing with overstaffing or understaffing, customer service issues and budgeting problems.
Thus, forecasting becomes one of the most significant daily challenges on a manager’s schedule. But it’s a challenge that becomes manageable with a workforce management (WFM) solution that handles much of the processing and calculations automatically.

Unfortunately, many call centers are still working with Excel spreadsheets to create forecasts. And these spreadsheets simply do not have the same functionality as WFM solutions. Below is a list of key points, but if you would like to get the full story, please download the whitepaper: The Real Cost of Spreadsheet Based Forecasting and Scheduling.

What aren’t you getting with spreadsheets?

  • Call volume history – this can play a significant role in determining forecasts and schedules, and WFM delivers it automatically.
  • Simulations – by running automated simulations, managers can discover flaws in a forecast and correct them before it’s too late. Excel does not provide that capability.
  • Coverage of other customer contact points – today’s call centers are really contact centers, accessible not just by phone but email and online chat as well. Forecasting staff needs for all of these channels is difficult with spreadsheets, but manageable with WFM.
  • Forecasting by call type – predicting the types of calls coming in makes it easier to staff a shift with the agents best qualified to handle them, and to make sure you don’t have too many or too few at the same time. Not possible with Excel, but simple with WFM.
For some contact centers with very limited call volume fluctuation, a spreadsheet may suffice. But how many of these businesses experience the same call flows all the time? Better to be prepared for whatever tomorrow has in store, with an automated workforce management solution.

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Forecasting and Scheduling During the Holiday Season

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So many companies rely on increased orders during the holiday season to make or break their annual sales goals. Thus, the call center plays a critical role in making certain each customer call is efficiently handled during these final weeks of the year.

If that means adding agents or changing shift personnel, the time to start planning for these events is not in December, but right now.

Proper planning and forecasting is the key to handling seasonal changes in call volume. This is much easier to do with Workforce Management software. Now, you can take advantage of "special day" forecasting/scheduling, leveraging call history data to forecast the future. Plus, you can run simulations based on this data and review the results, so they can be fine-tuned as necessary.

Once generated, schedules should be easily accessible to all concerned parties so there’s never any confusion.

Unfortunately, once schedules are set they are not immune to revision. Last minute changes are often unavoidable, but WFM should resolve any issues before they can impact performance.


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Advanced Forecasting Methods for Your Call Center

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The most critical and useful step in the workforce management process is forecasting.  The more precise the forecast, the more likely a call center will be to avoid such issues as over-staffing or under-staffing, while providing consistent customer service.

advanced forecasting for call centers
Forecasts are subject to a wide array of variables and challenges, which places great demands on a workforce management system. When choosing a solution for your business, make sure to review the following capabilities that will improve the likelihood of optimized schedules.

Detailed Data Analysis
The system must use work history data to anticipate future call volume, agent requirements, average call handling time and other performance indicators, not just for a particular day but also for different times throughout that day.

Flexibility
The necessary data is gathered through analysis of call types and routing policies, but should provide updates throughout the day when new data suggests changes are necessary.

Speed
A workforce management system should quickly generate automatic forecasts for multiple call center sites based on their unique needs.

Simulation
The system should not just generate accurate forecasts, but analyze alternative scenarios based on changes in staffing or call volume. Managers can then run “what if” simulations that can help prepare the call center for such fluctuations.

For more information, please check out these videos about call forecasting and Intra-day management

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Use Call History Data for Better Forecasting and Scheduling

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Forecasts determine schedules, but what determines forecasts? There is both art and science involved in predicting future call volume and agent staffing needs, and technology can make the forecasting process more accurate. But the starting point should always be a review of call history data.

call forecasting and scheduling
Past activity is always the best predictor of future activity, especially when broken down into ever-smaller increments of time. This makes it easier to identify anomalies and prepare accordingly.

You’ll want to have monthly and weekly stats to review, and then dig deeper into daily and hourly numbers. Finally, examine work periods as short as 15 minutes. You may be surprised at the stats for these intervals, and it may help in determining when agents can take breaks, and whether personnel are beginning or ending their shifts on time.

Obviously you’ll need at least one year of historic data, but it’s better to have at least 2-3 years to spot patterns and trends that can help fine-tune future forecasting.

Pay particular attention to lower or higher numbers, which should be apparent as they tend to stand out amidst otherwise consistent call volumes. Determine the cause for the variation, whether it was a holiday or a new company promotion, and adjust your forecast accordingly for that same time period.

Many changes in traffic volume are not likely to repeat – on a day that a major news story breaks, call volume will go down. On a day when computers are knocked offline due to a technical glitch, call volume accuracy will be thrown off. Until you determine the cause, you will not be able to forecast a point estimate (the theory that a point in the future will be comparable to a similar point in the past).

Once all of this data has been reviewed, you’ll be ready to prepare a forecast, assess staff requirements and create a schedule.
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Special Days: The Challenges of Forecasting and Scheduling

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Accurate forecasts are vital to customer service and budgeting, and avoiding additional issues that occur when the center is overstaffed or understaffed. Forecasting methods must take into account changing business needs, seasonal volumes and external events that are outside the company’s control.

Special days provide another challenge. But it’s a scheduling and forecasting challenge that is manageable with a workforce management solution that handles much of the processing and calculations automatically.

But the process starts with a manager, and an effort to explore how a change in call volume or service level goals on one day, or within one week, will affect the call center. You already have the information necessary to achieve this in past call history data that covers previous similar periods. Always review both the similarities and potential variables.

Next, break down your forecast into monthly, weekly or daily intervals, with special allowances made for the “special day” effect. For some call centers, Valentine’s Day is a special day of increased orders. Forecasting efforts will already have calculations in place for February, and for the day of the week that Valentine’s Day falls upon. But then the impact of the holiday must be assessed, as well as the times of that day where call volume may be increased.

Additional “special day” provisions should also be made for other factors, including any company marketing campaigns or events, and perhaps even weather patterns; if it’s raining outside, will more customers call and place and order instead of going out and buying a gift?

Fore more information about different forecasting models and simulations tools, please watch this call forecasting video. No one every said predicting the future was easy. But workforce management can remove much of the guesswork and improve the accuracy of schedules and forecasts.


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How Accurate is your Call Forecast?

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Call center staffing and scheduling will be largely determined by forecasting of the call volume. Thus, when a forecast is errant, it can cause serious repercussions in customer service.

However, even in the best call centers there will never be 100% accuracy in forecasting. The number of variables from day to day, and week-to-week, as well as unexpected scheduling changes, can all affect how a workday varies from projections. When this happens it is important to drill down to find the reasons for the variations, and factor them in to future forecasts.

Measuring the level of accuracy in your call center forecast requires more than just calculating workload percentages. Take a typical week where the Monday forecast was 12% under actual call volume, Tuesday was 8% under, and the remaining three weekdays were all 8% over. When those numbers are run the result would be an overall weekly forecast variance of 4%.

Sounds pretty good – but it doesn’t recognize how customer service may have suffered on Monday and Tuesday by an insufficiently staffed call center. Or even more, how Monday morning between 9am and 11:30am there was even a bigger The lesson here is to be aware how instances of overstaffing and understaffing can cancel each other out, resulting in a forecasting picture that looks more favorable than it is.

Forecasting can be rendered more accurate through the use of a simple standard deviation approach, and by examining intra-day forecast accuracy as well as just how close the daily or weekly numbers compared to the forecast.

Of course, the ability to forecast schedules is dependent on the ability to forecast call volume. The challenge here is the number of factors that can impact this statistic, from online marketing to economic conditions to social networking. Analyze call forecasting data to uncover trends and over time these forecasts should zero in more accurately numbers. Look at the following:

  • Forecast in 15, 30 or 60 minute increments
  • Look at daily, weekly, monthly or seasonal pattern
  • Look for "special days" (holidays, sales promotion, payday, end of month, etc.)
  • Look for external factors (weather, events, etc.)
  • Plan for "internal" events such as marketing and social media campaigns, newsletters, company news, product launches, etc.
Watch this short video to see how call forecasting tools and simulation can help. However, even with these tools it is important to continuously "learn" from your past forecasting - what assumptions resulted in better forecasts, and what assumptions did not result in a good forecast?   


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The Top 5 Workforce Management Challenges

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Workforce management refers to an integrated set of processes used to optimize employee productivity on both an individual and company-wide level. Any systems with such a wide range of moving parts and variables will inevitably present challenges; however, a sophisticated workforce management solution can help to anticipate these challenges and overcome them.

1. Accurate Forecasting

Forecasting on call volume and agent workload can reduce instances of over-staffing, which wastes valuable resources, as well as under-staffing that can affect services levels and customer service. Workforce management automatically processes all relevant data to deliver more accurate short-term and long-term forecasting projections.

2. Comprehensive Scheduling
Scheduling involves far more than sign-in and sign-out times. There are a multitude of call center activities that pertain to non-call activities that must also be taken into account. Choose a WFM solution that makes non-call activities part of the forecasting and scheduling process. This is especially important since customer engagement today is based on many different channels such as chart, phone, email, social media. More about this in our recent blog post multi-channel agent scheduling.

3. Adherence Tracking and Improvement 
Schedule adherence is still one of the biggest challenges for call centers. With workforce management, a call center can monitor and record the schedule adherence status of all agents in real-time. The system tracks data on every status related to this issue, from lunches to daily breaks to when agents log out. If a problem is discovered it can thus be handled quickly. In addition to a good solution, you also need to put solid processes in place, more about this in our whitepaper Five Strategies to Improve Schedule Adherence.

4. Intr-aday Forecast/Schedule Management
Intra-day management is always a challenge due to particularly complex resource considerations. An integrated WFM solution should be able to monitor intra-day workload information (planning, controls, deployment strategies) that will produce pre-emptive rather than reactive actions for managers.

5. Exception Handling
Workforce management should manage and process exceptions in a way that communicates all necessary information to all parties concerned, accepts or rejects each exception instance based on company criteria, and make certain everyone is on the same page so there is no confusion on the part of the agent or management.

We also invite you to watch any of the short videos about how a workforce management system can help overcome those challenges.


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5 Tips for More Accurate Call Center Forecasting

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Unlike weather forecasting, call center forecasting can be performed with a high degree of accuracy. Workforce management solutions combine the use of historic data and real-time data, to not only improve the efficiency at a call center, but to create projections for future growth, changes and special events, so the call center can be prepared for any eventual scenario.

Here are five tips to help you make the most of you call center forecasting solution:

1. Use Historic Data
This is the obvious place to start. Historical call volume data can be used to analyze present performance and future growth trends. It can also serve to correct assumptions about what constitutes an appropriate length of a customer engagement, how many calls an agent should handle in one shift, and other factors that impact hiring and staffing procedures. Several weeks of data is usually sufficient as a starting point, but longer-term projections would require months or years of data, especially for seasonal or annual projections.

2. Run Scenarios Based on Data
With workforce management a call center manager does not have to wait for something to happen to gauge the effectiveness of call center response. Staffing and service levels can be analyzed ahead of time by creating a what-if scenario. Typical scenarios would include the start of a new advertising campaign that will increase call volume, a discount on a key product line, or a turnover in personnel that results in a higher number of less experienced agents on the same shift.

3. Leverage Past Events
How did the opening of a new retail location affect call volume to the call center? How did call patterns change during the holiday season? By reviewing past events, a call center can be better prepared for future occurrences, and adjust accordingly. This data can also impact long-term strategies for planning, budgeting and recruitment.

4. Leverage Real-Time Data
Every call to a call center is a forecasting tool. Real-time analysis of individual calls and calls handled within an hour, a day, etc. can lead to adjustments on the fly and more accurate forecasting in the days and weeks to come. Among the most important measurements here are the speed with which calls are answered, average call-handling times, percentage of calls abandoned, and number of interactions on hold.

5. Multi-Channel Forecasting
Customer communication is not handled only through a telephone anymore. With the introduction of multi-channel environments (email, fax, Internet), customers now have a wide range of options, and an equally wide range of expectations in how a company responds to their needs. While this makes forecasting more complex, it is a necessity for any workforce management solution to incorporate multi-channel capabilities. This makes it easier to discover, for example, how many customer engagements are now handled via email, how that impacts call volume to a call center, and how that center should adjust to meet its service goals.

To learn more, you can also watch one of our forecasting and scheduling videos in our new demo center.


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7 Reasons for Call Center Forecasting and Scheduling in the Cloud

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Almost everyday, you can read analyst reports and magazine articles about the adoption of cloud-based solution in all areas of business, including call center forecasting and scheduling. Here are 7 reasons why companies move to the cloud:

  1. Easier to use: Cloud-based solutions are designed to be easy to use for fast adoption, without a lot of training. Think ROI!
  2. Lower investment: Traditional software requires a substantial upfront investment for software licenses, hardware and additional software. The cloud model eliminates that.
  3. Faster implementation: Have you experienced long and painful software implementation projects? Cloud-based software has changed this. Instant account creation and easy configuration and self-service makes it possible to roll-out and use solutions in weeks.
  4. Less maintenance: The IT team in your company has to make sure that the software is working, servers are running, do back-ups, etc. Again, with cloud, this is all done by the solution provider.
  5. Always newest version: Do you use an older software version simply because it is too expensive or too painful to upgrade? Typically, cloud solutions automatically deploy new features and versions. Customer can easily take advantage of new functionality.
  6. Access from anywhere: Do you have call centers at multiple locations and a pool of flexible home agents? Providing a consistent infrastructure is a challenge. Cloud computing delivers “software” over the Internet - it's easier to deploy, more consistent and easier to use and support.
  7. More flexibility and scalability: As you grow your call center and as your needs change, it is often easier to add functionality, capacity and additional modules using the cloud model.  

Bottom line: Lower cost, lower risk and faster adoption are convincing more and more call centers to "go cloud". To learn more, please watch a demo of cloud-based call center scheduling.


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Call center forecasting and scheduling tips and best practices

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The following is a list of practical tips, tricks and best practices on how to better forecast call volumes and more effectively schedule your call center team:

If you would like to see some of these tips in action, please watch our video demonstrationsabout call center forecasting and scheduling.


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Top 5 call center forecasting & scheduling articles for first half of 2012

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We have seen tremendous interest in our Call Center Workforce Management blog over the last 6 months. We just compiled a list of our top blog posts based on page views. We also noticed that there was a lot of interest in "schedule adherence". This still seems to be one of the key challenges for call centers. Here is the top 5 list in case you missed some of the articles:

  1. What is schedule adherence and why is it important for a call center?
  2. Call forecasting and call center scheduling spreadsheets? A few considerations.
  3. Contact Center scheduling and call forecasting overview
  4. Important call center metrics: Service Level
  5. Workforce Management: How to move from "reactive" to "pro-active" call center performance management

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Contact Center Scheduling and Forecasting Functionality

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What are the key functional components of a scheduling and forecasting solution for a contact center? Here is a quick overview:

  • Forecasting: Ability to run simulations to calculate a precise forecast for future call volume, agent requirements and average handle time for any time interval of the day, based on historical data from your ACD system.
  • Scheduling: The scheduling module should incorporate all call types and other call and non-call related activities to generate staffing schedules that optimize a wide range of factors, including agent availability, skills, holidays, breaks, training and service levels.
  • Exception handling: Integrated exception calendar to simplify scheduling of agent exceptions such as time off and one-time or recurring training meetings.
  • Real-time adherence: Ability to compare planned agent activity to actual activities throughout the day, as well as real-time views of forecast and actual call volumes, handle times and other key performance indicators.
  • Intra-day management: Graphical display of agents' schedules with drag-and-drop functionality to quickly manage breaks, lunches and other exceptions. Real-time updates can be made to required and assigned agents instantly, and display surpluses and shortages for each time period of the day.
  • Agent - supervisor collaboration: Enables easy and efficient agent-supervisor interaction and collaboration, such as exceptions, schedule bids or swap requests and critical reports. Agents get empowered to be more directly involved in the scheduling process by entering exceptions or bids and viewing their schedules at any time.
  • Configuration & administration: Ability to set up unlimited number of center splits or agent groups, each with its own set of service objectives and guidelines. Management of multiple sites and time zones. Ability to set hours of operation by day of week, and service level goals down to 15-minute intervals if desired.
  • Metrics and reporting: Ability to report and analyze all agent activities including their schedule adherence and key performance indicators. Managers need to get actionable insights through tools such as call center dashboards, Key Performance Indicators (KPI) and real-time alerts.
If you are interested in seeing a solution in action, please take a look at a contact center forecasting and scheduling demo on our website.
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Call forecasting and call center scheduling spreadsheets? A few considerations.

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Sometimes, spreadsheets for forecasting and scheduling seem to be just fine. However, one of the biggest challenges in call centers - maintaining schedule adherence - is very difficult or almost impossible to manage using spreadsheets. In addition, there are other forecasting and scheduling tasks that can be very challenging with spreadsheets and might result in sup-optimal performance. And those tasks (listed below) are often key drivers to make your call center more productive and deliver better service to your customers.

Schedule adherence: Spreadsheets don't support this well. Studies have shown that tracking and monitoring agent adherence in real-time has a tremendous postive impact on call center performance.
Exception handling: This is a very manual process and complicated with spreadsheets. Automated exception handling of modern WFM solutions keep agents happy and results in higher productivity.
Schedule flexibility
: Spreadsheets are often limited to fixed schedules. You might not be able to take take advantage of schedules with flexible start-time, end-time & breaks to boost service levels.
Call history: Spreadsheets don't support real-time or automated data import of large amounts of data, potentially resulting in reduced forecast accuracy.
Skill-based routing and scheduling: Very complicated to manage with spreadsheets, therefore, call centers often can't realize productivity advantages of skill-based scheduling.

If you are still using spreadsheets, you should review the above list from the perspective of your call center needs and evaluate the potential for improving call center operation. You can also learn more about WFM by looking at automating forecasting, scheduling and adherence tracking.


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Important call center metrics: Service Level

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There is no "right" service level for a call center. The service level should be defined based on customer needs, behavior and expectation, aligned with the business goals and objectives of your company. Also, the service level is just one element that drives customer satisfaction and positive business outcome. If you answer calls very quickly but cannot address the customer issue, it might be worse than having customers wait a bit longer and get their issues resolved in one call. However, this post focuses on the service level component:

How is the service level calculated? It is defined as the percentage of calls that get answered within a specific time period. Example: 80% of calls should get answered within 20 seconds.

What causes service level issues? There are many reasons that have an impact on services levels, here are just a few:

  • Calls take longer than planned (product issues, training issues, unexpected events, etc.)
  • Forecast inaccurate (higher call volume or different call pattern)
  • Schedule sub-optimal (doesn't include all activities, lack of flexibility, etc.)
  • Call fluctuations during day that could not be planned for
  • Low schedule adherence (often the biggest problem of missed service levels)
  • Exceptions (unscheduled meetings, staff absenteeism, etc.)
How to improve service level?
  • Goal: First, it is important to define a realistic service level that is in line with your overall business objectives and the specifics and needs of your customers and their inquiries.
  • More accurate forecast: It all starts with an accurate forecast - both the overall volume and the arrival patterns throughout the day. Having call history data available, being able to run different scenarios and breaking it down to 15 or 30 minute increments helps to improve accuracy over time
  • Better aligned schedule: There are many aspects to consider when creating a schedule. A previous blog post about call center scheduling 101 talks about those in more detail.
  • Flexible schedule: Building in some flexibility into your schedule is not easy, but can help dramatically. Flexibility regarding start and end time, breaks, training, etc. helps cover periods of irregular call patterns, while still running a cost efficient operation.
  • Schedule adherence: Again, this is one of the biggest issues, but at the same time, has a big potential to improve service levels. You can read more about improving schedule adherence in this whitepaper.
  • Measure: As you know, you can only manage what you can measure. Add the service level as one of you key metrics to your "dashboard" and also track dependencies to discover the issues that have a negative impact on your service level.
  • Learn: As you measure and monitor you will learn more about what causes problems and over time, you will be able to better plan or even avoid service level issues.
  • Educate: Make service level discussions part of team meetings/training session and have your team share their experience. Compare the measured services level with the perception of customers; have agents share their experience of customer behavior and expectations. For example, a service level that looks great on paper might not be perceived well by customers, or the other way round, a presumed low service level might not be an issue with customers because they feel they get great service.

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Contact center scheduling and forecasting overview

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Scheduling contact center staff is the "art and science" of having the right number of employees, with the right skills at the right times to meet anticipated call volumes (and other communication channels such as email, chat , social media). And all this has to happen with a targeted service level and at minimal costs. Contact center forecasting and scheduling is a critical task and poor planning and execution can have a negative impact on revenues and cost, customer satisfaction and also employees motivation. Key tasks of contact center scheduling include the following activities:

1. Call Forecasting - Calculation of call volumes based on key parameters:

  • Call history data
  • Call patterns (day, week, season, etc.)
  • Special day patterns (holidays, etc.)
  • Other event or business drivers that might impact call volume/pattern (sales campaign)

2. Staffing requirements - Calculation of staffing needs based on:
  • Service level, ASA and average handle time
  • Type of calls (required skills)
  • Anticipated workload

3. Schedule - Creation of a schedule for every day based on your unique needs:
  • 15 or 30 minute increments
  • Consideration of all activities (call and non-call)
  • Flexibility regarding start/end times, breaks, etc.
  • Multi-skill routing

4. Schedule Adherence - Monitoring and managing adherence as team effort:
  • Inform and educate about adherence importance and impact
  • Measure and manage adherence throughout the day (real-time adherence)
  • Provide incentives for adherence

5. Exception handling - "Stuff happens", be prepared to manage exceptions and changes throughout the day:
  • Changes in call volume or arrival pattern (campaigns, external events, etc.)
  • Staffing or scheduling issues (training, sick, absenteeism, etc.)
  • Business related exceptions

6. Measure Success - Define what "success" means for you center and measure & adjust accordingly:
  • Analyze hourly/daily/weekly reports
  • What worked, what didn't? Investigate causes for under-performance
  • Apply "learnings" into future forecasting/scheduling process

Every contact center is different, but one of the most challenging tasks from the above list for every center is most likely schedule adherence. If you would like to learn more, please download our whitepaper "How to improve schedule adherence in your call center" and discover new ways that might work for your contact center.

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Best call center forecasting & scheduling articles of 2011

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Happy New year! We just compiled a list of our top blog posts that got the most views by our readers in 2011. It is interesting to see that there was a lot of interest in "schedule adherence". This still seems to be one of the key challenges for call centers. In case you have missed those articles, please take a look:
  1. Important call center metrics: schedule adherence
  2. How to make a call center schedule work for your staff
  3. Workforce management software comparison: cloud versus installed software
  4. 7 tips for improved schedule adherence in your call center
  5. What is real-time schedule adherence and why is it important
  6. The importance of accurate call center forecasting
  7. How to improve call center forecasting with simulation tools

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Call Center Forecasting Methods & Techniques

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Accurate forecasting is critical to successfully managing your call center. In order to meet call demand and avoid under- or over-staffing, you need methods that precisely predicts how many agents are needed to handle the center's call volume, and also methods that help you "re-calculate" if the the call volume fluctuates more than anticipated. Here are 5 considerations and methods that should help you improve forecast accuracy:

  1. The importance of accurate forecasting: First, take a look why an accurate forecast is crucial. 

  2. How to improve forecasting with simulation tools: Anticipating the "future" is not easy, therefore, running simulations with different assumptions helps to better predict call volumes.

  3. How to forecast special days: There are certain days that are difficult to forecast, or are important for the business. Here are some tips on how to deal with those.

  4. How to do "intra-day" call forecasting: One of the biggest forecasting challenge is related to unpredictable call volume fluctuations - here are some "intra-day" tips.

  5. How to forecast for multiple channels: As more communication channels open up (phone, email, chat, social media) you have to add those to your forecasting scenarios.

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3 Ways to Simplify Call Center Scheduling

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1. Focus on a more accurate forecast
Focus on forecast accuracy first to avoid under-staffing, minimize crisis situation, and constant shuffling around of agents! Try to get the best possible forecast baseline for your schedule:

  • Identify historic and future call volume “driver” (special days, events, promotion, etc.)
  • Run various forecast scenarios
  • Include all customer service related activities into forecast (call and non-call)
  • Include all communication channels (call, email, chat, etc.)

2. Involve your agents into the process:
Inform your agents about forecasting/schedule procedures, ask them about their preferences, and explain the need for flexibility. Open communication should help create an open and more fun work environment, while also achieving more effective schedules:

  • Survey about preferences and personal needs
  • Work with them to match with needs of the business
  • Provide incentives for “being flexible” (e.g. bonus or slightly higher pay)

3. Automate repetitive tasks

Automate repetitive forecasting/scheduling tasks to gain more time for monitoring, coaching, and training. Automate reports and make it a routine to compare forecasted with actual call volume, adherence and schedule effectiveness to learn "what worked, and what didn't":

  • Automate inclusion of call history into forecasting procedures
  • Automate forecasting and schedule scenarios with simulation
  • Create a dashboard with your daily performance goal to streamline intra-day monitoring and management

Please see our post about call center forecasting and scheduling best practices to learn more details about this topic.


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How to improve intra-day call center forecasting and scheduling

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Fluctuation in call volumes throughout the day is still one of the key challenges in managing a call center. Common questions are: How to update the forecast, how to create a new schedule, and how to staff for this throughout the day? Is there a way to plan for this? Typically, there are two scenarios:

  • There are events that the call center should have known about, but didn’t for various reasons (e.g. was not informed about a campaign, didn’t plan for the event, etc.). Most of the call volume related impact can be avoided through planning – see #1.
  • There are events, mostly external driven , that cannot be planned for (e.g. sudden product issues, weather, catastrophes). Call volume fluctuations due to these external events cannot be planned for, however, constant monitoring and quick action can lower the impact on service levels and customer satisfaction – see #2.


1. Anticipate and plan: Spend time and effort to achieve a more accurate forecast in order to minimize surprises.

  • Learn from the past, anticipate events that might cause call volume fluctuation and stay in constant communication with other departments of your company to avoid call volume “surprises”.
  • Analyze call history to spot “triggers” and anticipate factors that impact call volume
  • Stay in touch with other departments (sales, support, marketing) to make sure you know in advance about events. Educate them about the implication of “surprises” on service levels and customer satisfaction


2. Monitor and act: Establish a dashboard or set up alerts that notify you about unusual or fluctuating call volumes.

  • When you notice that the actual call volume is different from the forecast, you should analyze deviation and trend lines for both, call volume and average handle time.
  • Apply this trend to the next period or rest of day by recalculating the forecast for each interval
  • Then you need to move things around (breaks, training, etc) to adjust the schedule as well.

Finally, investigate to find the cause for the deviation and learn from it. This might help you be better prepared next time, and you might even be able to "build it" it into the forecast. For a short demo of intra-day management and exception handling please visit our website.


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Call center management tips - part 1

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The following is a list of practical tips, tricks and best practices on how to manage your call center more effectively and efficiently. In part 1 of this series, we focus on how to improve call center forecasting and scheduling:

Forecasting


Scheduling

Next week, we will provide tips regarding agent adherence and agent motivation - stay tuned.


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How to improve call center forecasting with simulation tools

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One of the most critical steps in the workforce management process is forecasting. Based on the work history you need to forecast call volume and agent requirements for desired time frames in the future - a forecast for future call volume, average handling time, and agent requirements for each 15-minute period of the day based on service level objectives.

How can you use forecasting simulation to improve forecast accuracy? A simulator forecasting engine analyzes all call types and routing policies when creating forecasts. This lets you accurately forecast staffing levels to manage all call types within your center, and build scenarios for budgeting and planning purposes. You can even use simulators to produce center budgets by running a costing of all forecasted agent shifts and agent schedules. Here are some tips on how you can benefit from using forecasting simulation:

  • You can quickly generate automatic forecasts for multiple sites, complex routing strategies, and multi-skilled agents.
  • You can accurately forecast staffing levels to manage all call types, as well as build scenarios for planning and budgeting purposes.
  • You get regular intra-day forecast updates, automatically calculating a new forecast based on what has already occurred to establish trends that will aid in proactive decision making.
  • It helps you evaluate and plan current and future workforce requirements.
  • You can develop "what if" scenarios to explore how a change in call volume or service level goals during a specific day or week would affect your center.
  • You are able to simulate routing rules, agent skill assignments, and schedules by date range and see the impact on staffing and scheduling.

For more information about this topic, please watch the call center forecasting video.


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