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Tool Time

Trying to balance staffers and time with a growing volume of pleas for help? It may be time for workforce management tools.

Maybe you’ve heard these questions lately: “Can someone help me figure out a workable shift schedule for my help desk? Is there a software package I can use that will tell me what I need to know?” Possibly, the questions are a bit more basic: “Is there software that can tell me how many agents I need?” Or, the reverse: “I’ve got 12 agents, and the administration is telling me that I’m about to lose two of them. Is there a product that will show me what the effect will be on my help desk?” Such queries are common in the campus IT support community; they turn up regularly in discussion forums and around the tables at the end of convention days. The answer to all of these questions is generally, “Yes, there is software—workforce management (WFM) tools from a number of companies that can help you, if you do your homework first.” WFM tools are not magic wands, however. In order to use them effectively, you will first need to build a supporting structure of usable data. In fact, the answers to the questions above depend, in large part, upon the data.

Feeding the Formula

A campus help desk manager, like the university itself, is actually dealing with a knowledge inventory management problem. The help desk manager has to try to maintain, in balance, a knowledge inventory, the access channels to it, and the demand from the campus community. Let’s look at one access channel, the telephone line, to see what this might mean in terms of staffing. On one end, we have faculty members, students, and administrators with technical problems—and all of them want an answer as quickly as possible. On the other end of that phone line, we have some help desk agents who have access to the knowledge in their heads and (hopefully) in their computer knowledgebase system. If we give a WFM tool the right data, it will tell us part of the answer to the question: “How many agents do I need?” The equation looks like the chart below:

Responsiveness is simply how fast the caller can be connected to an agent. Staffing is the number of agents that are ready to take calls. AHT, or Average Handle Time, is how long those calls will last, and the Volume is how many of them we will have to deal with in a set time frame. If you enter the AHT and the Volume figures, and provide either the Responsiveness piece or the Staffing piece, the tool will give you the missing element. In general, though, if you want faster response, you’ll need to add more people or decrease the number of incoming calls. Push one end of the seesaw down, and the other end g'es up. Simple, right? After all, you already know how many staff members you have available to be assigned to the phone. But what about the other required pieces of data? If you have a good telephone system, it should be able to give you both the AHT and an idea about the volume to be expected from historical data and trends. If your phone system d'esn’t supply that information, then you’ll need to develop it by having your staff keep records on tick-sheets as to numbers of calls received, time of day, and the length of each call. Are there known peak periods where the volume rises? Do you know of anything coming down the pike at you that will boost the load? Is there a new system coming online? If so, factor it in. If you don’t have hard data, then do the best you can to estimate it, using your operational stats as a base.

Changing the Support Equation

The above equation is only a starting point. What happens when you add a second access channel in the form of a service desk for walk-ins? What would be the effect of a third— the creation and maintenance of a campus IT-support Web site? Both new channels would take people away from the phone lines, but they also might cause a decrease the incoming volume of calls. There are other factors to be considered as well. Breaks and meetings take up a chunk of each day. How about training time? What about vacations and sick time? If one or more of your team leaves for another job, how long will it take to train the replacement?

What will you do in the meantime? For some of these factors, there are some good—and free—WFM tools such as Westbay’s eight free calculators (available at, and cc-Modeler Lite ( that can help you play “What if?” by modeling the likely outcomes of different scenarios. They can show you, for example, that losing two agents to budget cuts will probably cause the average delay experienced by your callers to go from 90 seconds to three minutes, and will also cause the number of people who hang up in frustration (abandons) to rise significantly. Some of the tools, such as Portage Communications’ AgentTime Scheduler ( and Call Center Scheduler (www.callcenterscheduler .com) can design shift schedules for the support team to handle phone time, research time, meetings, breaks, and the like. None of them, however, will gather all of the supporting data for you, or take the meeting with the CIO in your stead.

Staffing Equation Variable

IT Support Fig. 1

Want faster response time?
Add more staff or cut back the calls.
In other words; push down one end
of the seesaw, and the other g'es up.

Before You Buy Those Tools…
Start with the basics. Head over to Westbay’s Web site (see URL,above) for one of their Erlang calculators, or do a Google search for “Erlang calculators,” then download one or more of the free ones (pick any from the several pages of options), and learn how to use it. As for the software you’re looking for, The Society of Workforce Planning Professionals has a vendor page on its Web site ( that lists various packages and their makers. Visit some of the vendor sites, and check out white papers and other resources to see what functionality the products offer. And remember: You aren’t alone in trying to solve the staffing equation. Join a forum or discussion group; every other support manager struggles with the same issues, and what worked for them might also be of use to you.

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