10 Mistakes in Making Contact Center Forecasts

You might recall the old nursery rhyme:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.

For want of a shoe the horse was lost.

For want of a horse the rider was lost.

For want of a rider the battle was lost.

For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.

And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

You might not lose a kingdom, but don't underestimate the consequences of inaccurate workload forecasts. Recruiting, hiring, staffing, and scheduling—virtually everything to do with determining the resources you need in your contact center—depends on having a good estimate of the workload.

How accurate should your forecast be? Let me suggest some parameters. Large agent groups (100 or more agents) generally see relatively stable contact arrival patterns and should strive for plus or minus 5 percent (or better) down to specific intervals (see Table). Small groups (15 or fewer agents) often have more volatile patterns and should shoot for plus or minus 10 percent. Those in-between should strive for something as close to 5 percent as possible.

This is not to suggest you can't do better. But if you're just getting started with, say, a small group handling new mobile or social interactions, being anywhere remotely close is a good start! Don't give up. Make this aspect of planning a priority.

Over the years, my colleagues at the International Customer Management Institute (ICMI) and I have investigated why some contact centers have accurate forecasts and others don't. Ten common problems consistently emerge, and they are summarized here (in no specific order). In centers with inaccurate forecasts, usually two or three of these issues are most prevalent. The good news is, you can avoid these problems! By identifying the culprits, remedies become evident.

  1. Insufficient communication with other departments. Most of what happens in a contact center is caused by something going on outside the center. The forecast, along with any larger business transformation initiatives, is doomed if strong ties with other departments don't exist.
  2. Lack of a disciplined approach. There are two erroneous beliefs that many use to justify the absence of a disciplined forecasting process. One is that the environment is just too unpredictable, that forecasting is not going to help. Others are convinced it's not worth the time and effort. Either will set you up for failure.
  3. An assumption that the software knows best. Don't get me wrong, forecasting software can be very helpful. But you can't just plug numbers in and have accurate forecasts pop out. The software doesn't know what your marketing department is about to do, or competitive activity, or significant initiatives you put in place that will reshape services. It's a tool, not the end-all answer.
  4. Not forecasting at the agent group level. Even a perfect forecast of the aggregate workload will be of limited use if you route contacts to specialized groups. If, for example, you have a group of Spanish-speaking agents handling services A, B, and C, you will need to forecast contacts from Spanish-speaking customers who need help with those services.
  5. Events that should be exceptions become part of the forecast. Utilities tend to get lots of contacts when storms knock out power, the financial industry gets swamped when markets swoon, and many centers have, on at least one occasion, dealt with contacts from an unannounced marketing campaign. Those preparing the forecast need to be aware of the root causes of contacts to make a good judgment on what is likely to continue (versus the exceptions).
  6. Agents use work modes inconsistently. If agents are not using work modes consistently, especially after-call work, then accurate forecasting will be elusive.
  7. Planning is done around goals, not reality. If staffing is based on a handling time of four minutes when actual handling time is more like seven minutes, the resulting staff calculations and schedules will be based on a pipe dream. Maybe lower turnover, improved training, or better systems would move things in that direction. But ignoring reality in the planning process is no way to achieve better results or build confidence in the forecast.
  8. The forecast is taken lightly. If the forecast has been wildly inaccurate in the past or if no one understands the assumptions used in the process, it might not be given the credence it needs in the planning steps to follow.
  9. Not making the connection with resources required. Forecasts mean nothing unless they are tied to staff and system resources required.
  10. No one is accountable. Someone needs to be responsible for bringing the various types of input together, ensuring that it is integrated into the forecast, and investigating which assumptions were off when the forecast is not accurate.

Forecasting takes practice. You will never learn all there is to know about it, but you'll get better at it. One of the most important steps you can take to improve accuracy is to compare your forecasts with actual results and then ask, "Why?"

Brad Cleveland is a customer service consultant, specializing in contact centers, support desks, and other customer-facing environments. One of the two original partners in the International Customer Management Institute (ICMI), Brad acquired ICMI outright in 1996 and served as its president and CEO from 1996-2008. Today, Brad consults and speaks to a broad range of organizations and associations and serves as a senior advisor to ICMI. He is author/editor of eight books, including "Call Center Management on Fast Forward." His current research is focused on the future of customer access management and the impact of social media; his blog can be followed at www.bradcleveland.com/blog.

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