Finding the Right Agent-to-Supervisor Ratio for Your Contact Center

In contact centers, the agent-to-supervisor ratio is an important consideration. Effective ratios depend on the tasks, standards, and responsibilities of both agents and supervisors.

Span of control refers to the number of individuals a manager supervises. A large span of control means that the manager supervises many people. A small span of control means the manager supervises fewer people. Span of control tends to decrease as the complexity and variability of the conditions in the environment increase.

As a starting point to consider, many contact centers have between eight and 12 employees per supervisor. However, there are notable differences by industry. For example, agent groups handling complex financial or insurance issues tend to be on the low end of that range (with more supervisors managing fewer agents), while retail companies and reservations centers tend to be on the higher end. Technical support centers can have as few as five staff per supervisor. Even within an industry, there can be a wide variance (one well-known retail company has several dozen agents per supervisor—not a number I recommend—while another has 10).

Be careful about drawing quick conclusions based on these figures or industry benchmarks. There are no simple answers along the lines of If you are a such-and-such type of contact center, you ought to have X staff per supervisor.

Some of today's trends are working to drive the span of control up, including the following:

Growing Workloads

In some sectors, contact center workloads have consistently increased. In centers that struggle to keep up with more contacts, the span of control tends to increase. (The COVID-19 crisis has driven span of control up in many organizations—though that's not where most want to stay.)

Budget Constraints

As organizations go through restructuring or budget cutbacks, they often must reduce the relative number of supervisors, which increases spans of control. Many senior managers admit that a downward adjustment of span of control would be ideal but say that funds are simply not available for more supervisor/manager positions.

Growth of Teams

A positive development has been the growth of team-based environments, which has challenged the traditional role of supervisors. Contact centers have largely moved toward organizations that are flatter and more team-oriented. In many cases, team leaders are assuming functions that traditionally have been the domain of managers and supervisors.

Lower Turnover

Another positive development is that a growing number of centers are directly and successfully reducing turnover. As the average experience level of agents moves upward, less supervision is generally required.

Conversely, there are other developments that tend to drive span of control down, including the following:

The Growing Complexity of Contacts

As better technologies offload routine contacts and new contact channels open up and expand, agents are handling interactions that require more human savvy and know-how. The growing complexity of the work tends to necessitate more coaching and feedback from supervisors and managers.

More Observation and Coaching

Many contact centers are employing more robust observation approaches and taking larger samples for coaching and development than in the past. Observations, feedback, and coaching take a significant amount of management time.

Hours of Operation

Hours of operation can be a subtle but significant factor. Many organizations maintain a minimum number of supervisors, even during off-hour shifts that require proportionally fewer agents.

More Smaller Contact Centers

This might be the biggest reason that the average span of control across the industry has moved down—there are simply more small groups. For example, if a new contact center has only seven or eight agents, it will likely have only one supervisor, even though that person will be able to supervise more people as the center grows.

There are other factors that can confuse the span-of-control issue. For example, team structures vary widely from one organization to the next. Some use lead agents (team leaders) who provide support and guidance to agents while also handling contacts (this can justify an increased span of control). In other organizations, supervisors are highly involved in strategic management responsibilities, which leads to a lower span of control.

Additionally, the time that supervisors spend observing and coaching (generally the most time-consuming activity beyond handling contacts) can vary greatly. And many organizations have set up support teams to field inquiries from agents who need technology-related help—a responsibility previously handled by supervisors.

Recommendations in business literature vary from "train them, empower them, and get out of the way" on one end of the spectrum to a more structured approach on the other. In their classic book, Executive Leadership, authors Elliot Jacques and Stephen D. Clement mince no words: "There is more nonsense centering around the topic of span of control than around nearly any other subject in the whole field of organization and management." They go on to criticize managers who search for "easy-to-apply rules of thumb that need no thought."

This is applicable to the contact center environment, as well. While somewhere between eight and 12 agents per supervisor makes sense in many centers, a 5:1 or 20:1 ratio might be equally justifiable. I always get great insight when I ask agents themselves: Are you getting the support you need? What ratio would make sense for you and others on your team?

I would encourage you to be proactive in approaching this issue. Don';t let your ratios gravitate to a place that is not optimum. That might mean moving the dial up or down, but put some thought into it. And by all means, pull in your supervisors and agents to help make these decisions.

Brad Cleveland is a customer experience consultant specializing in contact centers, support desks, and other customer-facing environments. He consults and speaks to a broad range of organizations and associations, and is author/editor of nine books including Contact Center Management on Fast Forward, recipient of an best-selling award ( Cleveland was founding partner of the International Customer Management Institute (ICMI), where he now serves as a senior advisor. His current research is focused on the future of customer experience; his blog can be followed at