If you’re still chasing CRM, ERP, SCM, VIM, TIM, and what have you, you’re barking up the wrong tree. None of these much-heralded applications have had discernible effects on the contact center, much less fulfilled their promises of revolutionizing it. The next big thing in technology, industry gurus say, will not be a mighty software blitz but a far more mundane program: workforce management (WFM; alas, another acronym to remember).
“We’re at the very early stages of this technological evolution, but people are beginning to recognize the impact of workforce management within the enterprise,” says Daryl Gonos, senior partner at Workforce Management Group, a consulting firm based in Delray Beach, FL. “They’re also beginning to recognize the link to warehousing and fulfillment. The workforce management system impacts hiring, invoicing, shipping. It’s too powerful a planning tool not to have now.”
Dog bites man
Workforce management programs do many things, but their main purpose is to balance the work to be completed with the resources available. Although very small enterprises can do this manually by entering data into a spreadsheet, the task becomes highly complex, time-consuming, and labor-intensive for companies of even moderate size. Automating the process enables contact centers to deliver the highest level of customer satisfaction affordably.
“Manual workforce management processes will not work when the contact center has more than 60 agents,” analysts Lindsey Higgs and Joanie Rufo write in a recent report, “When to Buy Contact Center Workforce Management,” published by AMR Research, Inc. “In most cases, contact centers with less than 60 agents can schedule service reps using spreadsheets and monitor the quality of customer service by having a manager walk the floor. However, once the agent workforce grows beyond 60, these manual processes fall apart, forcing users to turn to technology for help.”
The demands of today’s contact centers are so stringent that software is essential just to monitor and keep pace with them. According to AMR, contact center managers who wish to provide great service must stock each workstation with three ingredients: (1) the right contact — capturing the interaction and using intelligent routing to get it to the appropriate agent’s desktop; (2) the right information — pulling the relevant customer, product, and order information from customer relationship management, ERP, billing, and other systems; and (3) the right person — an agent who is fully trained, has a pleasant attitude, and is scheduled to work the most appropriate shift. In the best-equipped contact centers, these three cornerstones are backed by analytics technology, to check and improve the service experience for customers.
Once perceived as a “luxury item for a non-mission-critical application,” according to Gonos, today WFM software is the closest thing to a killer app. Its buyers, Gonos says, are “usually driven by pain. That person struggling without an automated WFM is entering data from many groups. And it’s not just how many calls per day, but constant updates at 15-minute intervals. A workforce management system can optimize an entire schedule in 20 minutes, reallocate breaks in shifts, consider lunch breaks, and a host of other variables.”
WFM applications have yet to make much headway in U.S. contact centers. Although there are between 74,000 and 78,000 facilities in the country, only about 10% have automated their processes with integrated solutions — and once the threshold of 60 agents is surpassed, it’s critical to automate as much of the process as possible. First, you’ll want a WFM solution that can automatically determine the expected workload and allocate resources. The system should also be able to handle large volumes of work that can vary daily or hourly. Without this ability to anticipate volume, over- or understaffing results, bloating the company’s fixed costs and undermining service.
“There’s a basic difference between a single site and a multi-site operation,” says Brian Spraetz, marketing manager at IEX, a Richardson, TX-based workforce management vendor. “Say you have four different call center sites and they want to consolidate the forecasting and scheduling as well as let the respective sites do individual scheduling. While a central location does the forecasting, you need to make sure that the software you’re purchasing can fit your entire operation, from headquarters to satellite sites.”
Spraetz points out that agent headcount, although important, should not be the sole basis for configuring a WFM application. “It’s also a reflection of the types of calls, whether they’re long-duration and short-duration calls. If your center is open 9-5 with set hours, there’s no need to have a scheduling function, but it can make sense to have an automated scheduling product if your call center is open 24 hours a day, with several shifts.”
The 15-minute manager
The workforce management market is still small, although some WFM features are available in CRM suites. The largest niche workforce management vendor is Witness Systems, which posted $44 million in sales in 2000. Scheduling capability is so vital in the contact center market that software from Aspect, Blue Pumpkin, CenterForce, IEX, Genesys, and Pipkins are the ones most people think of when they talk about workforce management. But other functions, like incentive management, key performance indicator tracking, call recording, scripts, e-learning, and its sister, e-recruiting, have all become more sophisticated, and more desirable, in the last few years. WFM applications must also be able to handle various channels of communication, such as online chat, e-mail, and phone, at the same time.
If a company wants to purchase software to address the nine workforce management issues listed in the box on page 25, “it has to buy from no less than four vendors,” the AMR report states. “Specialty vendors are hot today, but CRM suite players are starting to get active in workforce management.” Siebel Systems, for example, offers an employee relationship management portal that aggregates information from human resources and other systems.
Most contact center managers require workforce management solutions that go beyond the traditional focus on the scheduling function. As IEX’s Spraetz says, “Your workforce management system should do more; it’s a management tool for measuring performance and measuring the level of service you’re delivering to your customer.”
IEX’s workforce management system, TotalView, integrates with eOn communications’ eQueue, a single-cue routing for Web and voice interactions using the Linux open operating system. “The eOn system is basically an ACD product, from our perspective,” Spraetz says. “We interact with it by collecting information from the contacts that are handled — when they occur, how quickly they are handled — and volume, and we use that information to create the forecast for the upcoming week or two.”
eOn provides 15-minute updates that enable managers to compare performance with expectations or forecasts. “We can give them a good idea of whether they’ll be meeting their goals or not,” Spraetz says. “It’s an early warning system.”
Some companies don’t want to do it all — they just want a system that will let them efficiently manage the bulk of their contact center concerns. That’s the case with WearGuard-Crest, the Norwell, MA-based industrial clothing manufacturer.
“The advantage of the workforce management system we installed [from Pipkins, in St. Louis, MO] was its ability to do scheduling for multiskilled reps,” says Chris Shortall, sales department operations manager at WearGuard-Crest. “We have both sales and customer service representatives. If you have multiple prompts and are directing them to the switch through the ACD, it’s important for the software to be able to handle that.”
Shortall says that his company strives for a 3% abandonment rate, with an average queue time of 30 seconds and 80% of incoming calls answered within 20 seconds. WearGuard, whose customers are primarily businesses, handles companies as large as PepsiCo and CocaCola as well as mom-and-pop shops, small electrical companies, plumbers, HVAC firms, and restaurants. Before a firm with such a diverse customer base decides on a workforce management system, it’s important to determine the required staffing level. The company must set objectives not only for the quality of service it wishes to provide, but also for the all-important task of satisfying its customer service and repair representatives.
The next most important thing, Shortall says, is that “you need to find a software package that will mirror and accommodate the rep’s scheduling requirements. One rep may work Monday 12-4 and the next day 4-8.” The WFM must automate these requirements, Shortall stresses. Weekends are another complication. Reps at WearGuard-Crest work a rotational weekend schedule, putting in 16 weekends throughout the year. “We want to make sure that each rep’s work schedule is done fairly — we don’t want to schedule any representative for an excess number of two or three weekends a month,” Shortall says. “Pipkins set us up by assigning points every time a rep works a weekend.”
When choosing a WFM vendor, start with one who has domain expertise in the contact center — a vendor with a product designed for the contact center’s unique needs rather than retrofitted from an existing one outside the contact center market. “Early leaders that fit this description include Witness Systems in quality monitoring, Aspect Communications and Blue Pumpkin in scheduling, and Knowlagent in e-learning,” the AMR Research report says.
The AMR researchers recommend choosing scheduling software first if budget constraints allow room for only one WFM investment and if your mix of skills, business hours, and time zones is complex. Buy quality monitoring first if you are managing hundreds or thousands of agents with little diversity in skills. Most companies roll out software in one center first and add seats in other locations later.
During the initial phase, make your expectations clear to everyone involved in the form of a workshop or training session; this helps prepare agents for the change. Get experienced service reps involved in the scripting process so that they feel they have more ownership over the suggested answers. Record everything using a scalable, analytics-driven tool (although few on the market today have forecasting capability) to make the most out of every interaction, or employ a consultant to help define your business rules to get the best use out of the tool.
Although not as crucial as interaction management and customer management technologies, workforce management applications are less expensive. “There’s real-time information coming out of these systems now,” says Gonos of Workforce Management Group. “You have the forecast of calls and average handling time. These systems predict expected service levels. It’s extremely powerful technology.”
Its return on investment is impressive, too. “Say someone is taking 50,000 calls a month,” Gonos says. “What if you could increase the accuracy of the forecast by just 2%; what if you were able to show just 5% more efficiency? That’s a huge potential productivity increase.”
Richard Sawyer is principal of Richard Sawyer Associates, a Natick, MA-based public relations firm specializing in CRM, field force automation, and service management. He can be reached by phone at (800) 217-7372 or by e-mail at Paris43@aol.com.
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