Off Center
Many call centers do a good or at least passable job of forecasting and scheduling for phone contacts, but when it comes to the other channels they handle, such as email and chat, they show about as much concern as I do for Renaissance festivals or people who say “irregardless”.

According to a 2010 ICMI study on call center workforce management practices, nearly three in four centers (72.9%) handle customer email, but just over one in three (37.5%) of these centers actually forecast and schedule for email contacts. Likewise, only 49.5% of centers that offer chat as a contact option take the time to formally forecast and schedule for chat.

Failure to adequately staff the call center for text-based interactions is asking for trouble. While e-contact volume may not be nearly as heavy as call volume is in most centers, customers who receive inefficient and ineffective service online often cause even more problems for the company than unhappy callers do. After all, an online customer who is slighted or ignored today in the Age of Social Media is just a few mouse clicks away from creating a virtual public relations and brand nightmare for the organization. Angry rants on sites like Twitter and Facebook can turn an ignored email or a poorly handled chat session into an attack on your company that goes viral and infects many other existing and would-be customers. Ashton Kutcher might even take notice and re-tweet someone’s complaint to each of his 17 billion followers, some of whom are old enough to read.

Department of Redundancy Department

Possible brand damage and customer defection aside, failure to effectively forecast and appropriately schedule for email and chat can cause expensive increases in call center operational costs. Customers who become impatient with long delays in email responses are quite likely to contact the center via phone to check the status of their query and/or rip an agent a new orifice out of frustration.

So now the center is handling repeat contacts via multiple channels AND coping with increased toll-free costs and decreased agent availability due to long customer diatribes. Not a fun situation for anybody involved, unless your center has made it a habit of hiring masochists, which actually isn’t a bad idea if you are looking to reduce turnover.

I Never Said It Was Easy 

Accurately calculating expected email and chat volume, and scheduling the right number of agents not crippled by Carpal Tunnel to handle that volume, is a little easier these days due to advances in workforce management software; most WFM solutions today feature multichannel forecasting functionality. However, many centers don’t have the budget for such advanced tools, and those that do don’t always know how to use the technology for email and chat. Thus, in many multichannel call centers, WFM can quickly turn into WTF.

So, if you are fortunate enough to be equipped with a modern-day multimedia WFM system, don’t insult the system’s intelligence by using it only to forecast call volume. That’s like buying an iPhone and not using the data plan or watching an Angelina Jolie movie in only 2-D.

If, on the other hand, your call center can’t afford a window let alone an advanced WFM system, you still can’t just blow off forecasting for email and chat. (Unless, of course, your center handles neither; numerous studies have revealed that managers who forecast for non-existent contact channels are idiots or very drunk.)  Plenty of feisty “blue collar” call centers do a solid job of manual workforce management for text-based transactions – tracking how many (and what type of) email and chat contacts the call center receives every day, when these inquiries typically occur, and how long the average interaction lasts, as well as factoring in events (e.g., marketing campaigns, etc.) that may impact email and chat volume. Over time, such analysis has enabled these centers to uncover key historic trends on which they can base staffing decisions.

Of course, you could just ignore everything I’ve written like my mother always does and simply continue to chase after chats and emails as they arrive. Who needs best practices when you can just hope for the best? Sure, your customers will despise you, your brand will begin to disintegrate, and your agents will start bringing weapons to work, but at least you won’t have to spend time doing any nerdy staffing math or worrying about chat-astrophic deluges before they occur

2/4/2011 12:08:44 am

Greg, I agree that centers should plan for customer contacts beyond calls. Even if e-mail, chat, and other non-call activities are unforecasted, it is possible to find time for such tasks while agents would otherwise be idle.

2/4/2011 12:34:54 am

Hi Matt -- thanks for your input. What you say may be true if you are only handling email and typically do not receive a high volume of email contacts. However, if you are handling chat -- a channel that requires a real-time or near real-time response to a waiting customer, it's pretty dicey to just have agents "get to those contacts when they can." Chat, unlike email, is a service level oriented contact channel. It's difficult to meet a solid service level objective consistently if you do not forecast and staff accordingly for it. (Unless you are receiving just a handful of chats a day; even still, if agents are overloaded with phone calls, they won't get to those chats in time either, leading to customer frustration with your e-support.)

2/4/2011 12:55:12 am

Real-time chat does have to be handled differently, that is true. Our activity queue approach is particularly useful for e-mails, social media posts, and other off-phone contacts that do not require immediate response.

2/6/2011 07:59:54 pm

HI, I work for a company that offers a real and powerful WFM solution, that includes multi media handling, and most of our customers and definetely all our prospects are very sensitive to the multi media side of things. So, would definetely agree with you also. Each media has its own set of rules, and it is very important to take this into account when forecasting, then scheduling.

2/6/2011 09:51:40 pm

Thanks, Céline -- I appreciate that a dedicated WFM expert has my back! And right you are: Forecasting & scheduling for email is different than it is for chat. (Chat is a near real-time channel that is "service level" oriented, whereas email is a "response time" oriented channel that generally doesn't have the same "get to it immediately" requirements. Though both channels are equally important!

Casey Kirkpatrick
11/15/2012 04:49:14 am

What staffing model would you use for a channel such as WebChat which does require an immediate response versus an email which is more of a delayed response, still with a SLA but not immediatly like chat or a phone call.


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