My workforce planning journey – the early days

Given the last post to this blog (nearly three years ago) was by Sean and his WFM Journey to that point, I thought I would relaunch this site with some of my story – or at least my very early days in workforce planning.  

I, like many other workforce planning professionals, found this career path through wanting to escape from taking customer calls. I still today deeply respect those colleagues who day in and day out relentlessly serve customers. Often dealing with system issues, ever growing/changing complex processes and irate customers – they are the real-stars of any organisation that has a contact centre, it’s not an easy job.
I will however admit I was not a particularly good customer representative, my schedule adherence was poor (although back then with no WFM system it was hard to track) and if there was a way to call avoid or cut corners I had found it. However, even back then my corner cutting exercises led to a fascination over how I could improve my productivity, using “Lotus 1-2-3” (yes excel had not yet dominated and was reserved for analysts) and macros built into the CRM platform I had automated at least 50% of my customer file notes – no one could understand how my wrap and talk time was so low and yet my quality satisfactory.
Then I came across an internal secondment role, advertised as “Mission Control Specialist”. Well I had no idea that an insurance company was into space travel, but if I could be part of that – well that was for me.
As it turned out “Mission Control” was not related to space travel but instead a team managing what we now commonly refer to as “Real-Time”, “Telephony”, and “Management Information”. Biting back my disappointment that space travel was still out of my reach I endeavoured to make the most of this opportunity. Aparently my call avoidance experience as a customer representative was now a valued skill – they say the best security professionals are ex-criminals.  Well, this also stands true in real-time management.  

At this point in time, all forecasting, scheduling, capacity planning and reporting was done on excel, complex excel formula, VBA, and model building became my life. Changing skill sets was a breeze, setting up routing on the telephony system fairly simple and with most agents being single skilled, the most you had to do was perhaps switch on overflows every now and again. As my experience grew, I ventured from “Mission Control” into forecasting and scheduling and found erlang.
Now forecasting and scheduling for 2500 agents using excel alone is not an easy job, nor is it particularly efficient – I would love to go back and measure my schedule efficiency from that time. 
However digital at the time was nothing more than an internet landing page, agents were mainly single skilled, schedules were mainly team based and most marketing was postal and direct. This environment compared to today was much more predictable (due to lower volatility), and slower paced. Meaning simple moving averages for forecasting got you to below -/+5% variance and once you had worked out how to rotate a schedule pattern on excel this also became a breeze. And then we decided that we needed a workforce management system.
Now us excel geeks were proud of our work, many of those excel models were built by hand, they were like pieces of art to us and we were resistant to change. The solution of choice, for my then current employer, was from “Blue Pumpkin Software” (later bought by Witness Systems, later bought by Verint and renamed “Verint i360”), We were so resistant to change, we even had one analyst at the time rename his excel scheduling models to “Green Carrot”. 
After 12months of doing everything on excel and then importing into WFM, we started to learn more about the benefits of what a workforce management system can provide when you really make use of its functionality. I don’t want to make this post purely about workforce management systems but the reality is, at the time it did revolutionise workforce planning. For example:
  • Before moving to WFM you could spend a week working in Excel to create just four weeks of schedule vs 1 day on WFM
  • Excel can be very flexible but it is less able than WFM in how it can handle multiple variations in agent skills or shift starts.
  • When something goes ‘wrong’ in the contact centre, say an unprecedentedly high call volume, a larger than normal number of agents off sick, a system issues – Excel doesn’t have the real-time responsiveness to solve these intraday issues.
  • Excel planning tools cannot monitor schedule adherence in real-time, and it was common that agents would work a schedule that was out-of-date (due to a communication failure) because of communication failing.
  • With Excel, the slightest wrong keyboard stroke, say the delete button, could ruin formulas and undo years of building. There was more than one occasion I had to call IT to do a file restore.
  • There is the simple truth that Excel sheets only allow one person in them at once.
  • The data-focused, non-flexible nature of Excel does not handle employee turnover particularly well, leaving schedule gaps and skill gaps galore.
  • In the 21st century, where the communication has to be immediate, Excel lacks support for these instantaneous communications.

I am going to stop the story there (for now) and pick it back up again if this audience is interested in hearing more – please comment below if you want me to continue. I will however end this post where Sean ended his back in 2015.
Many of his key growth points in the field of Workforce Management have come to fruition; there has been an increased involvement in the strategic decision making of the businesses and bricks & mortar , field, back-office, social media, and live chat workforce planning is a thing – although I still think there is lot more learning ahead in this space.
As I write this today, I see the near term growth trends for workforce planning to be:
·        Real-Time automation – to dynamically manage daily operations, making better use of time to create productive time opportunities – to schedule offline activity automatically during identified quiet times.
·        Digital outbound management (Email, SMS, Social Medial) – we have got quite good at matching the workforce to demand. If however you can predict a customer response accurately, send your email and SMS at the right time and you are able to match demand to your workforce.
·        Capacity Planning – I still see most of this work completed on excel and disconnected from interval data.
Interestingly, bar real-time automation, I am yet to see much improvement in the core WFM software engines. Yes they have vastly improved the user interfaces (GUI), but they are still mainly using variants of Erlang, trial and error scheduling, call centre dominate with little to no functionality for Chat/Social media, and forecasting techniques that are not far removed from moving averages. 
I am however starting to see a few WFM software developers push the boundaries and suspect that we will start to see major upgrades in the years to come.
As Sean said “Either way it’s an exciting and dynamic industry” and I would love to hear your views on the next big thing in Workforce Management?

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