Workforce management applications are used by contact centers (as well as back offices and branches) to forecast the volume of interactions they can expect to receive, determine the resources needed to handle the transactions, and generate optimal staff schedules at a given service level. The process is complicated, but can be greatly enabled, automated, and simplified with the right WFM application. The challenge is to find the right solution for each operating environment.
A Competitive Environment
In the last few years, the WFM market has come to life as the challenge of managing contact centers made WFM a necessity for all but the smallest environments. This substantially increased the addressable market, as did the age, complexity, and inflexibility of the more established WFM solutions--a growing number of companies are now willing to trade functionality for ease of use. The introduction of strict work rules in some European countries drove the need for truly localized WFM applications, and the cloud made these solutions available without a capital investment. While it is still complex for a vendor to build a WFM solution, the barriers to entry have changed, along with customer expectations. This does not mean that all of the solutions are equal; far from it. Many of the newer entrants are more basic products that have more intuitive user interfaces and are easier to use.
Another factor to consider when selecting a WFM solution is the underlying algorithms used to forecast and schedule the various contact center channels. When contact centers just handled phone calls, WFM vendors could employ the erlang C algorithm. There are known mathematical challenges in using erlang C to forecast and schedule contact center calls, but at least there is a body of science to support it. This is not true for many modeling techniques and algorithms that emerging WFM vendors are introducing to handle newer channels, including chat, email, social media, and back-office work. The forecasting requirements of these channels are different from calls--they include deferred activities, carry-over modules, the need for agents to handle multiple interactions simultaneously, etc. While it is possible that one of the newer algorithms could be more accurate than some more established ones, someone needs to prove it scientifically.
WFM applications should do more than forecast and schedule. They should come with real-time adherence capabilities that track whether agents are doing what they are scheduled to do. They should have agent self-service modules that empower and engage the staff by allowing them to submit their schedule preferences; initiate schedule swaps; request vacations, overtime, or voluntary time off; and a great deal more. Some have strategic planning modules that allow managers to forecast the resources they will need by skill up to five years into the future, and also project the costs for budgeting purposes. Others come with training and payroll.
One major weakness in all of the WFM solutions is intra-day management, or the ability to change schedules on the fly throughout the day. Currently, with manual intervention, some WFM solutions identify areas of concern. But none fully automate the rescheduling process; a submarket of vendors, specifically Intradiem and WorkFlex, has emerged to address just this issue.
Workforce management is mission-critical for most contact centers with more than 50 agents because it improves productivity and helps ensure that the right number of resources with the right skills are available to handle the forecasted volume of transactions. Prospects can now purchase a WFM solution on a stand-alone basis, as part of a WFO suite, or from their ACD vendor. The functionality, price, level of integration, and benefits vary greatly. Despite all of the known challenges, it's usually more cost effective to use a WFM solution than to do workforce management manually. However, buyers should do a great deal of due diligence before making a WFM selection, as the degree of differentiation between offerings is greater than ever.
Donna Fluss (firstname.lastname@example.org) is founder and president of DMG Consulting, a provider of contact center and analytics research, marketing analysis, and consulting.