What’s the Right Number of Staff?

NYC: American Intl Building and Manhattan Comp...

NYC: American Intl Building and Manhattan Company Building (Photo credit: wallyg)

Over the years a lot of my carrier clients have asked me what the right number of staff should be for their organization. And of course, to some extent the answer is – it depends. There are differences between carriers that make it hard to compare two companies that might have roughly the same number of end-user customers.However, even with that said there are some general industry metrics that I have used during most of my career as a guideline when I want to examine the level of staffing at a given company. These are metrics that I gleaned from my mentors in the industry, and it is a little surprising to me that these metrics still seem to be a good guideline thirty years after I first heard about them. A typical telecom company is far different today than they were thirty years ago, but they still have the same basic functions that need to be done – administration and back office, technical, install and repair, customer service, and sales and marketing.

The general metrics I have always used as a starting point to look at an individual company is as follows:

Small Carrier               – Under 15,000 customers

Medium Carrier           – 15,000 – 50,000 customers

Mid-size Carrier          – 50,000 – 250,000 customers

Large carrier                – Over 250,000 customers

The metrics for the right number of employees is expressed in terms of the number of employees per customers. Basically, the larger a company gets, the more efficient they ought to be in terms of that metric.

Small Carrier               – 175 customers per employee

Medium Carrier           – 350 customers per employee

Mid-size Carrier          – 500 customers per employee

Large carrier                – No idea

These metrics apply roughly at the midpoint of each range. This means that one would expect a carrier with 7,500 customers to have about 175 customers per employee and one with 32,500 to be at 350. It’s straightforward math to see the metric for any company by knowing the number of end-user customers they serve.

There are factors that can change these metrics for a given company. For example:

  • Side businesses. Many carriers run side businesses in addition to their core business. These might be such things as construction or telephone system sales. As long as these side ventures are paying for themselves, then the employees engaged in these business lines would not be considered as part of the metric.
  • Geographic spread. A carrier that has to cover a large geographical area is going to need more technicians in trucks than a company that is geographically concentrated. A company with widely dispersed exchanges is also probably going to need more inside techs.
  • Outsourcing. One has to look at what functions are outsourced. For example, a company that is providing its own help desk or NOC is going to be different from one who does not. In looking at staffing, though, one has to always question whether the company should be doing functions internally that could be better outsourced.

In my career I have rarely seen a carrier that is understaffed, but it is fairly common to find companies that are overstaffed according to these metrics. If a company looks at these metrics and finds itself to be overstaffed, the question is what to do with that knowledge. What I have found is that workforces tend over time to find ways to justify themselves. When there are too many staff internal processes will be less efficient than at other companies and the employees will have found tasks to keep themselves busy. These inefficiencies can be of many types including things like inefficient paperwork for installation and repair, excess record keeping for time and materials, or excess testing and maintenance being performed.

Another common issue in companies with too many staff is that every job is in a silo, meaning that each employee only performs the tasks for their own job description and do not do tasks outside of their silo. Silos are necessary for large companies but they can be poison to smaller ones. It is very rare for the amount of work needed to match up exactly with the number if silos, and so you end up with staff who don’t have enough work within their silo to fill a full day. In smaller companies a better structure is one where employees wear many hats and are able and willing to kick in around the company where needed. I know that I am visiting a very competitive company if I walk in and find an outside installer manning the phones because somebody called in sick. That is the kind of teamwork that is needed in smaller companies to be efficient.

It often requires an analysis by an outsider to spot these kinds of inefficiencies because over time it’s easy for people at a company to think that the way they do things is the only way. I have worked with many companies over the years who have undertaken to reduce staff to be more efficient and I cannot think of one of them that was not a more profitable and efficient company after the transition. It is never easy to make a decision to reduce staff, but it is sometimes exactly what needs to be done to have a better and more profitable company. But before using these metrics to reduce staff get an outside opinion because these are ideal metrics and there are reasons why you might need a different number of staff than suggested by these metrics.

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