For Whom the Bell Rings

Sep 01, 2001 9:30 PM  By

Prices for scheduling software start as low as $30,000

Scheduling staff for your customer contact center is much more than simply plugging your customer service representatives’ names into time slots for each day of the week. It’s an infinitely complex task. You have to factor in days off, vacations, skill sets, seniority, and individual availability against the needs of the entire center, call volumes, and fluctuations in volume based on catalog mailings, TV ads, and special promotions. Scheduling all these variables manually can take days — and can leave supervisory staff little time for other important tasks.

Doing a poor job of scheduling can have serious ramifications for your business. If your call center’s seats aren’t filled when you need them to be, your service levels will drop, your abandonment rate will rise, and ultimately, you’ll lose sales and customer loyalty. On the other hand, if you have too many reps scheduled at a particular time, you can waste thousands of dollars and drive up your cost per call. With a scheduling system in place, staffing decisions can be made on the spot as problems unfold, instead of days or weeks later.

Up in the tower

With the scheduling software tools on the market today, there’s no need for reps to acquire the skills of, say, Quasimodo. Prices for scheduling software base packages start as low as $30,000, and with all of the bells and whistles can push $100,000 or more. But the right software package will pay for itself in many ways. Most clients we’ve worked with report that their scheduling packages have reduced their staffing process time by 50% or more per week. Abandonment rates can also be reduced by 5% to 10%. Many software companies claim that their products will result in savings of 10% or more for labor expenses; however, based on our clients’ experiences, we think reductions of 3% to 5% are more achievable.

Automating your schedule will also result in intangible benefits such as better employee retention through better scheduling, more time for supervisors to perform other tasks, and more effective hiring decisions. You’ll begin to see how, after a few months, you will be managing the process of scheduling instead of just spending hour after hour producing schedules.

If you are running a call center with 25 seats or more and you have 24/7 operations, you are at the point where a scheduling package could make a significant difference in your weekly and monthly scheduling routine. In fact, if your operation has reached this size and you’re not using scheduling software, someone in your organization is probably spending an inordinate amount of time producing inferior schedules.

Starting bell

There are many call center scheduling packages on the market, but not all are designed for direct-to-customer operations. It’s wise to limit your search to packages that are designed for catalogs. Within this category, too, some packages are more limited than others. It’s a good idea to have a sense of what the various vendors offer as you start out.

The telephone switch you use will influence your choice of vendor. These scheduling systems are independent from the telephone switch, which typically just forecasts calls, but the two must be compatible. Before you start to shop, review the specs of your current switch. Likewise, your personnel resources will be important in getting the most out of your scheduling software. Make sure you have personnel who have the skills necessary to learn and run the system.

As with many software packages, what you’ll get out of your scheduling software is only as good as the data you put in. It’s best to have at least one to two years of call history from your ACD. The system will need this information to configure the proper curves of incoming calls by day, week, season, and for events such as mailings and promotions. The more history you’ve got, the more accurate the scheduler’s predictions will be.

Because call centers handle informational inquiries, catalog requests, complaints and other calls, it’s important to look at overall call volumes and call-to-order ratios — not just order history — to get an accurate idea of your staffing needs. You’ll also need to compile your call center’s service goals, such as acceptable wait times and abandonment rates.

Bells and whistles

Scheduling software packages come with all sorts of options. Some of the latest versions interface with e-mail management systems, so that centers whose customer service reps phone and e-mail can be scheduled on one master schedule. Others have Web-based systems that individual service reps can access to download their schedules, chart their productivity, or request time off without leaving their work stations.

Some features and functions are sold as add-on modules, which can increase your total investment, so it’s important to clarify with the vendor what’s included in the base package. Many vendors will tell you — and we agree — that it’s a good idea to start with the basic package and master it completely before adding more advanced modules such as schedule adherence scorecards.

Nor should you assume that all basic packages are created equal. We advise our clients to start by asking about a system’s basic capabilities, features, and functions.

System requirements. Most scheduling software packages run on Windows or Windows NT platforms, and in most cases, you buy a standalone server that will network with your ACD. The packages that we have listed in the accompanying box (see “Curt’s Picks: The Best of the Schedulers,” page 73) are all interfaced with all of the major telephone switch makers. If appropriate, you’ll also want to ask if the system supports multiple or mixed ACD environments and/or multiple time zones.

Service rep scheduling variables. You’ll want to ask how precisely you can program your schedule. How much information can it digest about your customer service representatives? How many fields of information can each service rep’s individual file accommodate? Does it define work rules for employees, allowing for seniority or productivity? Are there interactive scheduling functions that service reps can access from their desks, enabling them to remain in their seats for their entire shifts?

Overall call center variables. It’s important to ascertain which variables about the overall call center operation the system takes into account and how flexible it is. Can it schedule for multiple and simultaneous events that take place throughout the seasons? What about multiple queues or skills? Does it allow you to specify varied service levels for different queues, times of day, days of the week, or teams and/or catalogs? Does it factor in service levels like average speed of answer, acceptable abandonment rate, minimum/maximum calls handled?

Management functions. How can the scheduling package help you with key management decisions? Can it create “what-if” scenarios for budgeting or planning? Can it schedule for meetings and training? Can it tell you when you need to hire more staff and what skills and availability you’ll need to look for? Does it analyze the effects of suggested hiring on your budget? Does it include a real-time or batch adherence function (or offer an add-on module) so that you can track absenteeism and tardiness?

Reports, analyses. Does the system print out individual service reps’ schedules easily? Does it have robust and graphical reporting for management functions? Can it generate graphs to help service reps track their own productivity and attendance and compare themselves to the overall call center?

Installation, training, and support. How long will it take to set up the system and go live? How much training will your people need? Will training take place on your premises or off-site? How much ongoing technical support can you count on? Remember that you will likely need support not only for your staff, but also for the interface between the scheduling software and your telephone switch.

E-mail and Internet functions. Does the system interface with e-mail or chat management software so that you can centralize scheduling for reps who handle phone, Internet, or both? Is it accessible on the Web, so that reps can download their schedules from home or from their seats during their shifts? Does the Web access enable supervisors to perform scheduling functions by logging on from wherever they are? Does it allow individual reps to communicate directly with their supervisors via e-mail — or with their peers to swap days or schedules?

Call center scheduling is a complicated and potentially costly proposition, but the right scheduling software package can save both time and money and make your operation more efficient. Software developers in this field are continuing to come up with ingenious features and functions that will leave you more time for management duties and make you a better scheduler.

This column was written by Bill Kirkland, a vice president of F. Curtis Barry & Co. He can be reached at 1897 Billingsgate Circle, Suite 102, Richmond, VA 23233; by phone at (804) 740-8743; or by e-mail at bkirkland@fcbco.com (Web site: www.fcbco.com).

CURT’S PICKS

THE BEST OF THE SCHEDULERS

Company: Aspect (formerly TCS)
Headquarters: San Jose, CA
Product name: eWorkforce Management
Phone: (888) 412-7728
Selected Catalog Clients: Nordstrom, J. Crew, Cabela’s

Company: Blue Pumpkin
Headquarters: Sunnyvale, CA
Product name: Blue Pumpkin Director-Enterprise
Phone: (877) 257-6756
Selected Catalog Clients: Hammacher Schlemmer, Plow & Hearth, Sundance Catalog

Company: IEX
Headquarters: Richardson, TX
Product name: TotalView Software
Phone: (972) 301-1300
Selected Catalog Clients: Land’s End, Delia’s

Company: Pipkins
Headquarters: St. Louis, MO
Product name: Vantage Point
Phone: (800) 469-6106
Selected Catalog Clients: Victoria’s Secret, Blair, Hallmark