The Near Death of Workforce Management
ILLUSTRATION BY JOSH McDaniel
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If your livelihood depends on the sales or service of WFM technology, calm down. Despite the title of this article, your occupation is safe. WFM systems are valuable tools and will continue to play an important role in contact centers well into the future. In fact, given the strategy to branch out and serve related operations, it would not be at all surprising to see revenue from this technology grow significantly in the coming years.

So if WFM technology is alive and well, what exactly is dying? Call it the potential, or the promise, of the value that WFM could be providing the enterprise. The term “workforce management” was never meant to be limited to hardware and software. WFM is the analytical, engineering side of our centers, producing the design and planning required for efficient and effective operations. Yet sometime during the past 15 years, the concept of WFM became too strongly linked to the technology of WFM. Amid version upgrades, user conferences and self-help forums, we built WFM teams that know how to operate a system, but are less certain about how to truly optimize service design and solve the structural problems that face contact center leaders.

A Long, Slow Demise

This march toward death has not occurred in a flash. It has built up slowly over time, and I believe I can pinpoint the start of the demise. It occurred a dozen or so years ago when one of the WFM vendors started advertising “one-click forecasting.” The appeal of this to the market only meant that users were starting to see forecasting as a task in and of itself. Save an hour a day on it, and we drive down the cost of WFM by one-tenth of an analyst over the course of the year. And since the system is doing the forecasting, we can save even more money by putting less skilled staff in place.

Forecasting, though, is far from an independent activity. It is the first step of a crucial process that directs the moment-to-moment activity of our most important (and most expensive) resource—our agents. Anyone intimately familiar with it knows that success hinges on evaluating and adjusting past data, understanding the impact of events, experimenting with various statistical approaches, staying updated on marketing plans, and countless other skills. Yes, technology can help, but sacrificing forecast accuracy for speed is a classic example of short-sighted management. A high degree of forecast accuracy is crucial for optimized WFM, and it takes more than one click to get it.

Unfortunately, our approach to WFM has continued to be defined by the system in front of us, bringing us to a point where our WFM services often fall far short of what the enterprise needs (click on “Is It Still Breathing?” below). This is in no way a knock on these systems—most are very well-designed and can help users accomplish some great things. But a system is built for a market, not an individual organization. Contact center leaders need to provide great service at the lowest possible cost, and that means expert call-flow design, accurate long-, mid- and short-term planning, and customized analytical services to support key decision-making. The scope of what is required falls well beyond the boundary of the technology, and if the WFM team does not provide all that is needed their value is greatly diminished.

Life-Saving Surgery

If we continue to view WFM staff as system operators rather than skilled analysts, we simply will never tap our WFM potential. In the best-run organizations, WFM team members are valued internal consultants who recognize the contact center as its customer. Their expertise goes far beyond scheduling and traffic control, and they present their input in ways that inform and educate. The rest of the industry needs to follow this lead, and here are four ways to start moving in that direction:

  • Expand the scope of WFM. Great forecasts and schedules are of little value to an organization that suffers from poorly designed call flows, ineffective overflow parameters and suboptimized agent skilling strategies. All of the work that happens on a call prior to its delivery to an agent needs to live in one area, and that area is a WFM team.
  • Start using the term “engineer” for those valued team members who have a complete understanding of call-flow design, WFM practices and principles, and advanced integrated analytics. Our contact centers are every bit as complex as a manufacturing production line, and no one would ever dream of operating one of them without engineers at the helm.
  • Have your team do their work temporarily without the benefit of a WFM system. Radical? Yes, but doing so forces the team to truly learn the inputs and processes required to succeed at their particular WFM role. It will also help them appreciate the strengths of the WFM system they use daily.
  • Value the role of WFM. We work in organizations dedicated to service, where communication and customer satisfaction are rightly our main focus. All of our efforts can go sideways, though, when we are staffed incorrectly. The right call-flow design supported by the very best forecasts and schedules enable all of the great interaction we can have with our customers, and as leaders we need to make the importance of these activities visible.

It’s Not an Either-Or Decision

WFM teams exist to help us run efficiently and effectively. This is a substantial challenge even in a simple single-channel, single-skill contact center—and there are very few of those left today. Our more common complex centers require much more analytical attention. It is not a case of deciding to invest in great technology or expert staff. You will need both to deliver the robust WFM services critical to contact center success.

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