The Art of Winning the Call Center Workforce Management Game

by Sean Miller in Call Center WFM, Sean Miller


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There will always be people who are ahead of the curve, and people who are behind the curve. But knowledge moves the curve.” – Bill James, Author, Statistician, Senior Advisor on Baseball Operations – Boston Red Sox

What do baseball and call center scheduling and workforce management have in common?

All of us on the Call Center Workforce Management (WFM) team at Blue Ocean Contact Centers share a common passion for baseball and statistics. You could ask the chicken or egg question: do we love baseball because we love statistics? Or do we love statistics because we love baseball? Either way, a talent for predictive pattern analysis works as well in managing outsourced call center resources to meet service level as it can in managing a ball team.

Managing the Curve in the Contact Center

Just like in baseball, (where empirical analysis known as Sabermetrics helped the small market Oakland A’s compete successfully against large market teams with colossal budgets) your company will benefit from workforce planning that puts exactly the right resources in place at the right time doing the right thing to operate at peak performance with high efficiency. While the theory behind the A’s amazing story captured in Michael Lewis’ book Moneyball focused on KPIs like “Runs Created,” your team might be focused on reaching  “average speed of answer” targets, for example.

When you work with an outsourced call center partner, you, as the client, can play a key role in getting your team in the best position for a big win. Look at it this way: you’re the team owner. Your workforce guy is the “team manager.” You can help him (or her) put together a winning season by empowering him with great data and clear goals.

Five Ways to Be a Great “Owner” for Your “Team Manager”:

  1. Get deep and specific with your historical data.
    Building an accurate forecast is always going to begin with a look back. Insights into what happened last year can shed light on what’s likely going to happen this year. But dig in deep when you see exceptional blips in last year’s patterns. What was going on? Is it something that is likely to repeat itself or not? Let’s look at a couple of examples: 

    The Super Bowl in New Jersey created higher than average bookings for ground transportation in the greater New York area in 2014, for instance. Those exact conditions won’t be repeated next year when Phoenix hosts. While the Super Bowl always drives a spike in volume for our executive ground transportation clients, a Super Bowl in New Jersey produced a huge spike. It would be a mistake for us to forecast equal or greater volume for Super Bowl weekend 2015 based on what we saw in 2014. 

    And for folks in the online grocery business, 2013 was the year of Thanksgivukkah – an extraordinary coincidence that impacted holiday purchasing behavior in ways that won’t be repeated in 2014. (Or for the next thousand years, for that matter.)

    These are big ticket items that will likely be easy to recall – but don’t forget to share with your WFM the dates that you experienced something like a website crash or a significant weather event. Knowing what to exclude is as important as knowing what to include.

    We often hear the phrase “the numbers don’t lie.” But what you don’t hear quite so often is that the numbers don’t always tell the whole story. The biggest thing in our business is being able to make “reads.” Making a “read” is essentially deciding what can we use, what can’t we use, and what can we use at a different time? The reads we make build new footprints into future planning. All data is relevant – we just need to use it strategically.
  2. Preach the importance of collaboration in forecasting.
    In many ways the forecast is the most important factor in the success equation. If the forecast is off, it can have a domino effect. It is understandable that your marketing, sales, or technology teams may not fully appreciate the crucial relationship between their departmental plans and the call center’s staffing requirements. By being an advocate who preaches the importance of an accurate forecast, you can help create collaboration and get the data flowing both ways. If your tech team knows they are doing an upgrade to your website or back office functions, that is information your WFM team can use in advance to help you get ahead of the curve.

    Forecast is the most important first step and the whole plan starts with good collaboration. If we get it wrong here then your team will be off too a bad start and making judgment calls based off bad information. Your call center workforce team wants that forecast to be as close as possible to the actual – reality is: 100% accuracy is not always possible. Like they say in poker, every hand is a winner – it’s how you use it and play with it. The same thinking applies to forecasts. As a workforce management professional, sure, I would prefer pocket aces, but if I don’t have those, then I have to figure out a way strategically to make what I do have work.
  3. Keep your eyes on the metrics that matter. 
    In the movie version of Moneyball, Oakland A’s manager Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt) sums up Bill James’ philosophy quite simply by telling a player, “I pay you to get on first, not get thrown out at second.” For Billy Beane, getting safely on first base is the fundamental first step in creating runs that add up to wins. Taking a gamble to steal second might run contrary to that established formula for winning games. Apply that same thinking to your formula. If a great customer experience builds brand loyalty and that loyalty in turn drives revenue, maybe your focus is on Average Speed of Answer and low Abandon rates and less on Average Handle Time for complex service scenarios. Good service level measurements will always tie back to specific service goals that match your brand promise.
  4. Build the right parameters for your game.
    In baseball, it’s the score at the end of nine innings that counts. So those early innings are building to that moment. What does a win look like for you? If you have a monthly service level with your outsourced partner, they may not be ahead of the grade of service for every half hour interval of those 30 days, but your WFM team will do everything in their power to make sure you are exactly on the target at midnight on the 30th day. Be realistic. If you are buying a monthly service level, can you accept that there will be intervals and possibly even days when you won’t make the grade? If the answer is no, you might want to reconsider and upgrade to a daily service level.
  5. 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. Trying to explain why something happened is not always the best use of your partner’s time. The next call still needs to be answered.  The reality of the service level you choose in almost all cases does allow for error. If you contract your outsourcer to answer 80% of your calls in 30 seconds then that may also mean they will answer 20% or less over 30 seconds. Does it make sense to look into the 5% of calls that didn’t work out or do you want your team focused on making the future moves that ensure that your customers are getting a consistent, high quality service experience?

When services levels are being met and everything is working smoothly, a ton of preparation was done in advance.  In their quests to win championships, it’s how the best teams also seem to make it “look easy.”

We know it’s not easy, and we’ve been fine tuning our craft for 20 years. Contact us if you need to engage a contact center partner to help you improve service levels, scheduling, or forecasting.

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