Workforce Management

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

Call Center Forecasting Hints, Tips & Best Practices

How effective is your call center forecasting and scheduling process?

Posted: August 11 2014 by: Chuck Ciarlo

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

Posted: June 6 2014 by: Chuck Ciarlo

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

Posted: May 23 2014 by: Chuck Ciarlo

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

Posted: October 19 2013 by: Chuck Ciarlo

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

Posted: July 23 2013 by: Chuck Ciarlo

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

Posted: June 28 2013 by: Chuck Ciarlo

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

Posted: April 28 2013 by: Chuck Ciarlo

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?

Posted: April 22 2013 by: Chuck Ciarlo

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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5 Tips for More Accurate Call Center Forecasting

Posted: February 8 2013 by: Chuck Ciarlo

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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Call center forecasting and scheduling tips and best practices

Posted: September 7 2012 by: Chuck Ciarlo

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

Posted: July 11 2012 by: Chuck Ciarlo

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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Best call center forecasting & scheduling articles of 2011

Posted: January 3 2012 by: Chuck Ciarlo

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

Posted: December 12 2011 by: Chuck Ciarlo

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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How to improve intra-day call center forecasting and scheduling

Posted: November 8 2011 by: Chuck Ciarlo

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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How to improve call center forecasting with simulation tools

Posted: August 1 2011 by: Chuck Ciarlo

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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