Off Center
 
If the key call center metrics were to form a rock band, Forecast Accuracy would most likely be the bass player – less flashy and famous than its fellow members like C-Sat, FCR and Service Level, but no less critical for an effective performance.

Forecast Accuracy is sometimes referred to as “forecasted contact load vs. actual contact load”, but only by managers who like to make things more painful than necessary. The metric shows the percent variance between the number of calls (or chats) predicted to arrive during a given period and the number of contacts that the call center actually receives during that time. Most managers consider a 5% variance to be acceptable, though they naturally shoot for better (a lower %) than that. Those that regularly achieve a 15% variance or worse are sent directly to workforce management prison.



Missed it by That Much

So how exactly does one go about tracking Forecast Accuracy?

I’m glad I asked.

Call centers can retrieve data on forecasted contact load from whatever system or tool they use for forecasting (e.g., the center’s WFM system or Excel spreadsheets), then compare that to the data on the actual contact load received, which comes from the center’s ACD, email/chat management system as well as other report sources. The best call centers report forecast accuracy at the half-hour or hour interval level, rather than across days, weeks or months, as interval-level tracking gives a much clearer view of how horribly you botched the forecast.  

Accurate forecasting is paramount in any call center that gives a darn about customers, agents and cost efficiency. Without a measure in place to gauge the effectiveness of the center’s forecast, under-staffing can often occur, causing queues to fill with furious callers, furious callers to verbally eviscerate innocent agents, and innocent agents to throw fists through expensive equipment. Of course, all of this adds expensive seconds and minutes to wait and handle times, causing irritated executives to cut budgets and rescind their promise to add a window in the call center. 

Inaccurate forecasting may result in costly over-staffing, as well. And while this may make customers happy, it will certainly ire senior management -- as well as give agents too much free time between calls to think and figure out that they could probably earn more money making balloon animals for children in the park.


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Whenever your contact center is hit with a sudden unexpected spike in call volume – one that requires all hands on deck (and then some) – wouldn’t it be nice if there was a glass case marked “Do not break unless an emergency” that contained a handful of extra agents who could help out on the phones at no additional cost to the center? 

Well, that’s the idea behind agent reserve teams, only no glass-shattering is typically involved – unless some of your staff have a habit of diving through closed windows during call spikes. Reserve teams are a contingency of former agents and other individuals within the company who have ample customer service/call-taking experience and who can thus help out when unforeseen call deluges occur. Sounds complicated, but many progressive centers have implemented such rescue crews and experienced very positive results.

Some detractors may say that using a reserve team takes key resources away from other important areas in the company just to solve the contact center’s problems. It’s true, but who cares! Remember: The contact center, in most cases, is the voice of the entire organization – the key to customer loyalty and acquisition. Thus, borrowing a few skilled individuals for an hour or so from departments that are not experiencing a crisis at a time when the contact center is – and doing so to ensure solid service to the people who keep the enterprise afloat – is a pretty smart idea.

It’s not like the contact center needs to draw on its reserve team very often, or that reserve team members need to spend hours and hours on the phones, shirking their regular responsibilities. (If such is the case, then fire your WFM team, or at least threaten to take away their pocket protectors if they don’t start doing a better job of forecasting and scheduling.) Besides, the reserve team is usually comprised of volunteers – former contact center agents, supervisors and team leads who have moved on but who still secretly sleep with a headset and who enjoy getting their customer service groove on now and again. Like the old adage says, “You can take the boy (or girl) out of the contact center, but you can’t take the contact center out of the boy (or girl)”.

Of course, coordinating an effective reserve team does not come without some challenges. It’s not always a simple task to sell managers of other departments as well as senior management on the idea. And even when you do, you must work closely with the other departments to determine who will participate and under what specific circumstances. Be prepared to return favors. If you want Marketing to cooperate with you and lend you some of their staff to help out on the phones, they might ask you to start providing them with special detailed reports to help them in their promotional efforts (something you should be doing anyway). And if you expect IT to cooperate with you, you might have to attend a Star Trek fan convention with them.      

The use of reserve teams is not a way to make up for poor forecasting and scheduling practices; however, the reality is that, regardless of the mastery of your workforce management team, unforeseen call spikes are a common occurrence in contact centers. Reserve teams can be a cost-effective way for organizations to handle the unexpected, save customer loyalty during difficult times, and temporarily steal your best agents back from the internal departments that ripped them from the center’s womb too soon in the first place.

If any of you have implemented some form of agent reserve team in your center, I’d love to hear about it – but only if it has been successful; otherwise you will undermine the power of this blog post and send me spiraling into a chasm of self-doubt.