BEYOND SCHEDULING

Optimization is not just for search engines. The latest buzzword to hit the contact center scene is workforce optimization, which some describe as workforce management software on steroids.

Workforce management software helps allocate the number of customer service reps required to handle a workload and helps reduce cost per call by more accurately predicting contact center volume. Workforce optimization systems do all that and more — providing quality assurance metrics; offering monitoring, reporting, and analytics functions; enabling e-learning and online staff training.

“Workforce optimization doesn’t replace workforce management,” says Nathan Stearns, vice president of the business solutions group for Richardson, TX-based contact center solutions provider IEX Corp. “It’s more of a broader mindset.”

THE HOW, WHAT, AND WHY OF OPTIMIZATION

A contact center uses the workforce management portion of the solution to schedule the precise number of people needed — across multiple sites if appropriate — to ensure that it can meet the service level expectations of its customers. The monitoring component allows management to track agent attendance and workload volume — making sure that reps are plugged in during their shifts and taking their breaks accordingly. The quality assurance technology enables supervisors to assesses the skill level and performance of its agents. And if an agent is identified as having an area that requires improvement, the optimization suite can push the appropriate training module to the agent the next time he logs on for his shift.

Individual solutions exist for each of these functions. The payoff with a workforce optimization solution is that all the components are integrated into one system, says Kathryn Jackson, president of Ocean City, NJ-based contact center consultancy Response Design Corp. “An agent’s data is located in one common database. There’s no multiple logging of agent data required. Workforce optimization provides the link between the people, processes, knowledge, and data required to deliver the optimum level of service, which means no gaps and waste.”

With conventional workforce management software, says IEX’s Stearns, not all of the statistics necessary to improve contact center efficiency are available in one place. That makes it more difficult to integrate the contact center into the business’s overall marketing plan. Average call handle time, for instance, is a useful statistic, but the mere length of a call doesn’t tell you that your customer is furious with your service and wants to go to a competitor. But when you combine handle time data with information gathered by the monitoring technology, he says, you gain a more robust picture of the the contact center and customer service and satisfaction as whole.

“It is a pain to not be able to go one place and look at everything you need,” says Elisa Lowry, vice president of operations for Jacksonville, FL-based Venus Swimwear. The apparel merchant doesn’t have an optimization solution in place. Instead it uses a workforce management system, “which its not as productive” as having all of the data in one place.

Indeed, workforce optimization gives the marketer a chance to drill down more deeply to get to the root problems in a way not possible with workforce management, says Nancy Treaster, senior vice president of global marketing for Roswell, GA-based Witness Systems, the maker of the Impact 360 workforce optimization solution.

Suppose you’re a contact center manager and you want to get more information on Sarah, one of your CSRs. An optimization solution can enable you to see Sarah’s schedule, her actual work time, any exceptions to her schedule, and all recorded interactions during her shift. You can focus on times when Sarah is out of adherence, such as when she took her break when she should have been on the phone or when she stayed on the phone when she should have been on break. In the latter situation, you could play back the phone conversations she had during the time she was scheduled for a break to see if there was a valid reason for her staying on the line. Perhaps she was helping a particularly difficult customer — or maybe she was spending too much time in wrap-up or simply chose not to take her break right then.

“Since I can replay contacts directly from an adherence screen, I can for the first time marry up managing adherence with reviewing customer interactions for a unified view of performance,” Treaster explains.

WHO’S OPTIMIZING?

Most contact centers are already using a solution that addresses at least one of the areas covered by a workforce optimization suite — scheduling software, for instance, or monitoring technology. But few have implemented the full complement of technology. Most of those that have are in the financial services and insurance industries. Among the multichannel merchants said to be ahead of the curve in terms of full-scale optimization implementation are gifts marketer 1-800-Flowers.com, apparel, outdoor gear, and home goods mailer L.L. Bean, and electronic components supplier Digi-Key — all of which are multimillion dollar companies large enough to make the Multichannel Merchant 100.

So is implementation a matter of company size?

“There are a lot of opinions about workforce optimization and the size of your contact center,” says Response Design Corp.’s Jackson. “Most multichannel marketers have used workforce management and find that it fits their needs.” Bigger companies with more call agents stand to gain the most from optimization systems, Jackson continues, as “the cost savings for systems that optimize the highest cost of the call center — its people — is huge.”

But she adds that because personnel accounts for 70%-80% of the cost of running a contact center, even smaller companies can benefit from implementing an optimization system. While the conventional wisdom had been that a facility would need more than 50 reps or multiple centers for a workforce optimization system to be worthwhile, some experts now say that contact centers with as few as 25 reps can benefit from a system.

As for the cost of a workforce optimization system, it’s difficult to pin down, Jackson says, in large part because few integrated suites are available and so many variables come into play. Currently, though, most systems are sold as separate licenses for an average of $800 per user.

WATCHING AND WAITING

Burlington, VT-based Gardener’s Supply Co. might consider a workforce optimization system in the future, says Tena Perrelli, senior customer contact center manager. The cataloger now uses Blue Pumpkin (now part of Witness Systems) for scheduling and Nortel’s Symposium for call routing.

But Perrelli, in fact, thinks that workforce optimization software is somewhat overrated. “The return on investment is typically a lot longer than a sales rep might tell you,” she contends. “But when you consider all the numbers that a contact center manager has to deal with,” she admits, a single solution would be a “no-brainer.”

For her part, Jackson says that for a contact center to realize optimum cost savings, it needs to implement all the components of workforce optimization. “And if a company is willing to factor in the effect on customer satisfaction and loyalty,” she adds, “the suite becomes very appealing.”

Certainly solutions providers and industry analysts expect the appeal of the technology to grow during the next few years. According to New York-based research firm Datamonitor, spending on workforce optimization will jump from $700 million in 2003 to $1.2 billion in 2008.

In the meantime, it seems that most multichannel merchants will make do with workforce management systems for a few more years. “If the only dictate a contact center has is to meet a service level within a constrained budget, then the marketer is probably not going to invest in all the components of workforce optimization,” says Jackson.

But merchants challenged to deliver superior service and meet ever-increasing service levels without boosting budgets may need more than workforce management software and processes. That’s where workforce optimization — the integration of multiple key functions — comes into play, she says.

Workforce systems sourcebook

The following companies are just a few that provide workforce optimization and management systems and solutions

ASPECT SOFTWARE www.aspect.com

DEMOS SOLUTIONS www.demosolutions.com

EXAMETRIC www.exametric.com

IEX CORP. www.iex.com

LEFT BANK SOLUTIONS www.leftbanksolutions.com

PIPKINS www.pipkins.com

SYNTORA www.syntora.com

VOICE PRINT INTERNATIONAL www.voiceprintonline.com

WITNESS SYSTEMS www.witness.com

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