Whether you’re just getting started or you're a seasoned veteran, workforce management is filled with specific terms and acronyms which can become confusing. Below, we’ve outlined 25 of the key terms to know for workforce management in the context of customer support. Next time someone mentions the team’s scheduling efficiency versus scheduling adherence, you won't have to just nod and smile.
1. Workforce management: The forecasting, staffing, scheduling and metrics involved in helping your team meet its service goals reliably and efficiently.
2. Volumes: The support contacts expected to be handled by a customer support team. These can be subdivided by the channel through which they're received—e.g. email, chat, phone, SMS.
3. Volume Forecast: A prediction of the incoming support contacts your team will receive over a given interval—whether that’s a day, a week, a month or the next 15 minutes.
The simplest forecast would look at the last interval measured and predict that the current interval will remain the same.
Beyond simply taking the past at face value, additional patterns emerge as your forecast accounts for more and more factors that affect and explain your volume—such as time of day, day of week, seasonality, a new product launch, etc.
Forecasts for support generally start with the smallest interval measured and build up to larger forecasts for days, weeks and months.
4. Interval: A period of time which is measured and treated independently for volume forecasting, staffing and analysis. Common intervals for support operations are 60 minutes, 30 minutes or 15 minutes.
Shorter intervals allow for more granular analysis of your team’s projected capacity and its actual support volumes as well as allow for more granular staffing plans to meet those needs.
Dynamic staffing models enable more responsive solutions to changing conditions. Intra-day forecasts and intra-week forecasts use the information gained in early intervals to adjust forecasts for future intervals within the time period.
5. Arrival pattern: A structured representation of the times and frequencies of inbound contacts derived from an analysis of past contacts, designed to identify peaks and troughs in contact frequency.
6. Erlang formulas: A set of industry-standard formulas which allow you to model the relationship between staffing, call volume, and response time. For a given set of inputs, these formulas yield a number of required agents. Read about Erlang C in more depth here.
7. Forecast accuracy: The degree to which your prediction of support volume reflects the reality of observed support volume.
A forecast accuracy of 100% would mean that in each interval, you saw the exact number of support requests you expected to. A 5% forecast over-projection would mean that you received 5% less contacts than you expected to, resulting in idle time whereas a 5% forecast under-projection would mean that you received 5% more contacts than you expected to, resulting in a backlog.
The interval length you choose has cascading implications. In general, forecasts with shorter intervals yield more precise outcomes. A forecast with 100% accuracy on a daily level, for example, could mean that you received 0 contacts for the entire morning and all of the expected contacts in the afternoon.
The accuracy of your forecast has deep implications on your cost-effectiveness since it is ultimately the number that staffing projections are based on.
8. Backlog: The gross number of support contacts that have yet to be addressed or resolved within a set amount of time. A backlog usually specifically refers to those contacts which have extended beyond your team's expected handling time and does not include those still within the expected handling time. That said, a backlog can easily compound upon itself as new contacts continue to breach the expected handling time while the team works on addressing the issue.
9. Schedule efficiency: The degree to which your scheduled staff aligns to a given interval's projected requirement. This can be expressed as a percentage of alignment in absolute value.
If your projected requirement was 50 FTE, and 48 FTE were scheduled, your schedule efficiency would be 96% for that interval: 1 - (2 FTE difference/50 FTE projected).
If you scheduled 52 FTE, your schedule efficiency would still be 96%: 1 - (2 FTE difference/50 FTE projected).
10. Occupancy rate: The proportion of time that an agent is actively working with a customer contact, either directly engaged with a customer or completing any ancillary work associated with the contact. Industry standard occupancy rates range from 70-85% and it is often recommended not to exceed 85% occupancy to guard against agent burnout.
11. After call work (ACW): The "wrap-up time" associated with a contact beyond the actual communication with the customer. This can include tagging or flagging the contact appropriately, adding notes for future support, rerouting the contact to the proper team or solving their underlying problem.
12. Availability rate: The proportion of time that an agent is actively ready to work with customers but not engaged directly with a customer contact, i.e. their time between contacts or waiting for a customer contact.
13. Utilization rate: The amount of time that an agent is either productive (e.g. occupied) or available to handle incoming contacts as a proportion of their total paid hours. An agent’s total time consists of their utilized time + their time away from support (breaks, meetings, trainings, meals, etc.).
14. Schedule Adherence (SA): The amount of agent time actually spent in accordance with their scheduled tasks as a proportion of their total scheduled time.
If an agent is scheduled for 100 minutes (of either directly productive or non-productive activity), and they stick to their schedule for 90 minutes, their SA is 90%.
Schedule adherence involves acknowledging the reality of when your team was available vs. when they were scheduled to be available and working to close the gap between the two. Methods like vacation tracking and attendance tracking help to increase schedule adherence.
15. Schedule Conformance: The amount of agent time actually spent working as a proportion of their total time scheduled to work, regardless of their adherence.
If an agent is scheduled to work for 100 minutes and they work for 95 minutes, their conformance is 95%, regardless of whether they complete the work in their scheduled time or not.
Conformance measures an agent's alignment with their scheduled amount of work while adherence measures an agent's alignment with their schedule itself.
16. Service level (SL): Your team’s stated objective for the amount of time until your first response to a customer.
Service level is expressed as "x% in y seconds,” e.g. 90% of contacts will be answered within 30 seconds.
A service level agreement (SLA) is a contractual agreement between two parties for a given level of service.
17. Abandon rate (ABN): The number of customers who abandon the queue after waiting for a given time period (30 seconds, 90 seconds, 10 minutes.etc.), expressed as a percentage of total contacts.
As customers' time spent in the queue increases, your abandon rate will increase.
Letting the customer know how long it will be until an agent will be available can increase initial abandon rates but decrease later drop-off.
18. Average speed of answer (ASA): The mean of all first response times for your support team.
This is closely related to service level but is expressed as a simple average rather than as a “x% in y seconds” expression.
19. Average handle time (AHT): The average time spent on a customer contact, including any hold time and after-contact work of tracking, follow-up resolution or note-taking.
20. First contact resolution: The percentage of issues handled completely in the initial contact where a customer does not need additional assistance.
Teams with aggressive service levels or AHT targets may compromise elsewhere, such as on their first contact resolution. This ultimately leads to less customer satisfaction and costlier support operations as cases reopen in addition to the incoming queue.
21. Customer satisfaction score (CSAT): the score a customer leaves in response to a survey question about their satisfaction after a contact.CSAT scores can be detailed and ask about different sub-aspects of the support experience (such as total time spent, agent experience, and issue resolution) or simply ask for a rating from 1-5.
22. Cost per case: The average cost per support contact, which can include both fixed costs (such as office payments and Internet expenses) and variable costs (such as scheduled labor, unscheduled overtime, etc.).
In practice, "cost per case" usually refers to the associated variable costs while a "fully loaded" cost per case includes both the fixed costs and variable costs.
23. Full-time equivalent (FTE): The number of hours needed to handle case volume, expressed in units of full-time work weeks (40-hour increments).
For example, if it’s forecasted that a queue will require 400 hours of work per day, this would be communicated as 10 FTE.
24. Shrinkage: The reduction in productivity associated with managing a real-life workforce instead of theoretical FTEs. This number accounts for breaks, trainings, meetings, vacation time and absences.
35% shrinkage is an industry standard. This means that if you calculate a queue needs 10 FTE, 35% shrinkage would increase your expectation to 13.5 agents.
25. Attrition: The rate at which employees leave your support team. This can be both external (leave the company) and internal (move to a different team). It can also be voluntary or involuntary.
One important consideration in setting cost-saving goals is a potential increase in attrition, which could offset any operational gains made.
"Annual Attrition Rate" is commonly used to measure attrition and is calculated by dividing the number of employees who've left the team by the average number of employees throughout the year. For example, if the team was 90 employees at the beginning of the year and 110 employees at the end of the year and 15 employees left the team during the year, the annual attrition rate would be: 15 / ((90+110)/2) or 15%.
Cleveland, B. (2012). Call center management on fast forward: succeeding in the new era of customer relationships. ICMI Press.
COPC Inc. (2020). COPC 2020 Customer Experience Standard: The Performance Management System for Customer Service Professionals (CSPs). https://www.copc.com/copc-standards/for-csps/.