How would you describe the ideal support team? Words like “reliable,” “tight-knit,” and “hard-working” probably come to mind.
These traits mean you can count on your agents no matter what comes your way. If someone takes an unexpected sick day or you find yourself facing abnormally high call volumes, you know your team will do what it takes to make sure that everything goes as smoothly as possible.
But just because your agents are willing to go above and beyond during crunch time doesn’t mean they should have to go into overdrive on a regular basis. You don’t want them to burn out! So at some point, you’ll need a more formal process that ensures your customer support team is prepared to deliver exceptional customer experiences both now and in the future.
This process is called workforce planning, and it’s something many successful companies are already leveraging to reach their organizational goals.
If you’re new to the idea of workforce planning, don’t sweat it. You’re about to get an overview of this strategy and how it benefits support teams. Take a look at what workforce planning really is and how to get started. 👇
What is workforce planning?
Before you worry too much about digging into details, let’s get a clear understanding of what exactly workforce planning is. According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), workforce planning is the process organizations use to evaluate their workforce and identify the steps they need to take to prepare for staffing needs in the future. Essentially, it’s determining how you can make sure your support team is able to keep up with customer demand without sacrificing quality.
While this might sound similar to workforce management, workforce planning is not quite as extensive. Workforce management is a robust strategy that involves everything it takes to effectively run a high-performing support team. This includes:
- Recruiting — all the work that goes into finding and reaching out to qualified candidates
- Budgeting — determining your team’s financial needs for all projects and initiatives
- Human resource management — overseeing all the people who do work for your company, which also includes part-time employees and contractors
- Field service management — managing all the on-premise resources at a client’s property
- Performance and training management — providing your team with all the resources they need to do their jobs effectively and identifying opportunities to improve
- Scheduling — planning when everyone on your team works, taking into account vacations, sick time, and other events that can cause variation in someone’s typical hours
- Real-time data collection — collecting data as it’s gathered to help inform decisions
- Forecasting — accurately predicting future outcomes based on what’s currently happening
In short, you can think of workforce planning as a vital process that supports your entire workforce management strategy. By preparing for future staffing needs, you can turn your attention to improving your team’s efficiency and efficacy.
Why is strategic workforce planning important?
There’s no shortage of benefits to planning for your future workforce needs. According to a report from the American Productivity & Quality Center (APQC), the most commonly cited advantages of workforce planning are that it helps companies:
- Improve business performance
- Proceed with digital transformation
- Realize cost savings
- Become more agile
- Leverage talent more effectively
There’s also a clear correlation between workforce planning and company-wide success. One of the key results from a workforce report by Oxford Economics is that 61% of high-performing companies say workforce issues drive strategy at the board level compared to just 46% of lower-performing companies.
Perhaps because so many professionals recognize how valuable workforce planning is, it’s often called “strategic workforce planning.” There’s no difference in the definition — it really just helps to reinforce the idea of approaching your future staffing needs in a thoughtful, logical way.
Workforce planning has also become more important over time as companies face an aging staff, rising costs, competition for top talent, and the need to become faster and more flexible. Unfortunately, many companies are struggling to navigate these challenges, which is leaving them in a tough spot. Consider these facts from a Gartner report on strategic workforce planning:
- 58% of recruiting leaders have difficulty acquiring talent to meet current business activities.
- The median time it takes to fill a job increased from 61 days in 2015 to 72 days in 2018.
- Only 1 in 10 organizations has a process for identifying and responding to strategic talent gaps that could affect them in the long term.
TL;DR — the time for workforce planning is now! Your agents and your company as a whole will thank you.
What are the steps in workforce planning?
Now that we’ve laid the foundation of what workforce planning is and how it can benefit your company, it’s time to look into what it entails. Call Centre Helper breaks down workforce planning, which they also refer to as resource planning, into four key parts that make up the entire cycle.
Forecasting is all about predicting contact volumes by considering historical data, seasonality, and other relevant factors. It helps to achieve predictable response times, improve visibility for the entire team, and evenly distribute the workload. How do you build a forecast?
- Start by choosing the interval and timespan that are most relevant to what you’re trying to achieve. When it comes to planning your total number of agents, you would likely want to forecast volume for weeks at a time — if not months.
- Export historical data, such as ticket count or case count, to establish some initial benchmarks.
- Use your data to average the number of contacts for a particular interval. Depending on what’s typical for your support team, you might have a consistent volume at noon each weekday or a different estimate for different days.
Because contact volumes can vary dramatically depending on the time of year, your June forecast will probably look much different than your December forecast. The good news is that over time, you’ll gather more data that can improve the accuracy of your forecasts.
Achieving 100% accuracy isn’t feasible, but don’t let that discourage you. Creating forecasts helps to set both you and your team up for long-term success. Learn more about how to accurately forecast in our blog post on the topic.
With a completed forecast — hopefully, a few — you can set to work calculating the correct number of agents it will take to meet the predicted demand and maintain your service level goals. Many support managers find the easiest way to calculate this number is by using Erlang C, a formula that allows you to model the relationship between staffing, call volume, and response time.
If you really like math (one of us, one of us!), you can take a relatively manual approach to calculate your staffing needs. But knowing you’re already short on time, an online calculator is probably your best bet. You simply need to enter inputs, such as contact volume and target response time, to determine your staffing needs. Then you can schedule agents to meet your shift patterns.
⚠️ One thing to keep in mind is that Erlang C will only help you with staffing for live channels like phone and chat. Communicating via email and customer support forums is incredibly variable when it comes to response times, so this type of modeling isn’t ideal for those channels.
Just as with forecasting, scheduling will vary depending on the time of year. You’ll inevitably need more agents and possibly more shifts during busier seasons.
When the timeframe you targeted with your forecast and schedule arrives, it’s time to see how things shake out. Keeping an eye on real-time metrics, including service level, occupancy rate, and average response time, will clearly indicate how your support team is doing.
With a robust analytics tool, you can review team-wide performance and also drill down into specifics for each agent. Does monitoring every individual’s performance metrics feel like spying? 🕵 Think of it this way: looking into how one agent varies from another can help you identify their strengths and figure out if there are workforce gaps you’ll want to fill in the future.
A key part of monitoring is also knowing when to take action. If contact volumes are especially high, for example, it would really help out your team to have a few on-call agents you can tap for additional support. They can pick up some of the workload to make sure customers’ needs are being met — and give your other agents some breathing room.
After you’ve carried out your plan, you’ll want to zoom out to take a look at the bigger picture and determine how successful it was. Identify problems you see, and then take some time to think about what you could have done differently.
As you conduct more analyses, you can also identify trends that you can use to better prepare in the future. Do you need more part-time agents on Mondays? Is there a lull that leads to overstaffing late in the afternoons?
The reviewing part of the cycle is particularly important for customer support managers who are used to jumping in to take action. Taking a step back to really dig into performance ultimately benefits the entire team. It also gives you the final bit of insight you need to propose future staffing needs to company leadership. Who can say no to a thoughtful analysis that clearly shows how bringing on new team members will drive ROI?
When you do eventually get the green light to continue building your support team (!), remember everything you’ve learned about your current team’s strengths and weaknesses. Workforce planning should ensure you have all the right factors in place — the right people with the right skills in the right roles.
Once you have a process in place to manage current and future staffing needs, you can focus on your larger workforce management strategy. After all, it’s not just about making sure you have the right number of qualified agents. Managing and supporting an excellent team also takes thoughtful recruiting, individual performance evaluations, training, budgeting, and more.
How does workforce planning apply to holidays?
In customer support, the holidays are more like holi-months when you consider all the planning involved. Days like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and even Mother’s Day can see drastic contact volume fluctuations that have implications for both your customers and agents. It’s possible to get by with an understaffed team during the holidays, but it’s stressful for everyone involved.
While the same basic workforce planning steps still apply, you’ll need to take a different approach to holiday forecasting. Why? Because the business-as-usual rules don’t apply when business is quite different than usual. Here’s a quick breakdown of how to think about holiday forecasting:
- Forget your usual forecasting process — Looking into data the same day the week before the holiday, whether it’s Tuesday or Saturday, isn’t going to provide you with any valuable information since you already know your contact volume is going to differ.
- Assign a category — Some holidays are always on the same date (New Year’s Day) and some are always on the same day (Black Friday). Make note of this for all holidays.
- Review last year’s volume — You might not be able to get any reliable information from the previous week, but you can from the previous year. Look for any trends from the holiday, maybe a spike at a certain time.
- Compare the holiday with weeks leading up to it — Still looking into the holiday from last year, review the four or so weeks leading up to it to determine the average contact volume. Divide your holiday volume by the average volume to calculate your holiday multiplier.
- Adjust your forecast using the multiplier — All you have to do is multiply the number of contacts you’d normally expect by your holiday multiplier for your holiday forecast. Ta-da 🪄
The thought of dealing with holidays can be a bit overwhelming, but there’s a silver lining to keep in mind here. Holidays occur every year, so they simply become a regular part of your overall workforce planning process. You’ll have holiday forecasting and workforce planning down to a science in no time.
Prepare your customer support team for continued success
There’s obviously a lot to know about workforce planning. If you take away just one lesson, let it be that strategic workforce planning can future-proof your support team and pave the way toward a robust workforce management strategy. In short, you can worry less about staffing, and devote more attention to making sure your team is the best they can possibly be.
But what if you find yourself feeling like you’re still trying to get a handle on staffing needs in the near term? That’s alright — everyone has to start somewhere.
For many support managers, fine-tuning their forecasting abilities is a good place to begin. Delve into more of the specifics of what it takes to create good forecasts.