SPECIAL SERIES FORECASTING, PART 2
Shortly after Scholastic Inc. started using new workforce management software at its Missouri-based customer contact centers last September, one of its three staffing analyst positions became vacant. The vacancy went unfilled for four months, during which time the two remaining analysts did their own jobs and shared the third.
“While the one position was vacant, we didn’t fall behind,” says workforce manager Jennifer Gaia, who supervises the analysts. She attributes that happy circumstance to the new software — VantagePoint, from St. Louis-based Pipkins Inc. “Since we’ve been using it, it has saved us a ton of time,” she says.
It has also helped them function more efficiently. The three-site operation, which handles customer service for Scholastic’s children’s book clubs, magazines, and software products, has a workforce that swells from 200 to 1,000 over the course of the year. About one-third of the peak-season workers are on flex-time, and with the old, outdated software package that Scholastic was using, these workers had to be scheduled manually. It took so much time that they just kept using the same schedule. As a result, they were often overstaffed and regularly had to seek volunteers to go home early. Nor could the older-generation system factor the customer service reps’ cross-training requirements into its schedules.
“The new system has so many parameters,” says Gaia. “I like it ten times better than what we were using.”
Indeed, the latest generation of workforce management technology has enough bells and whistles to make a manager’s heart skip a few beats. In today’s soft economy, operational efficiency is an imperative, and workforce management software has become a vital tool to achieve it.
“Our research shows that companies using workforce management technologies can significantly reduce cost per call,” says Curt Barry, president of F. Curtis Barry & Company. The Richmond, VA-based consultancy’s proprietary benchmarking study of 24 users revealed that on average, those that used workforce management software improved their cost-per-call numbers by 10% to 15%.
“Clearly,” says Barry, a frequent contributor to this magazine, “workforce management software has a high return on investment. And as labor rates continue to increase, it will continue to yield savings.”
Consultant Daryl A. Gonos believes that “whether the economy is booming or we’re in a recession, workforce management software is mission-critical.” Gonos is a senior partner in Delray Beach, FL-based WorkForce Management Group Inc., a consultancy that assists companies to select and make optimal use of their workforce management software. “You’re optimizing resources — increasing revenue in good times or controlling expenses in a down economy.”
The software achieves these gains by using a contact center’s historical data to forecast call and contact volume for various time periods in the future. With these forecasts, it predicts staffing requirements and creates schedules using data on the company’s service rep population, its service levels and other business rules, and any other parameters that supervisors choose to input. The products currently on the market also enable supervisors to monitor real-time experience, compare it with the forecast, and take corrective action.
Vendors, consultants, and users alike tout the technology for several reasons. It enables user companies to schedule the number of contact center agents they need, avoiding costly overstaffing (and last-minute reactions such as sending workers home), while preventing the revenue-depressing call abandonment that results from understaffing. The various vendors say their products are useful for contact centers with as few as 25 to 50 agents.
“You want to provide an optimal but least-cost schedule,” says Bob Webb, vice president for sales at Pipkins Inc. “Personnel costs are roughly 80% of the cost of the call center, so you don’t want more people than you need.”
According to Bob Kelly, president and CEO of Bethesda, MD-based CenterForce Technologies Inc., workforce management applications allow you to put in your service level goals, create schedules, and place the right number of people in seats to meet those levels. CenterForce merged with RightForce late in 2002, and added the latter’s RightForce workforce management software to its product lineup.
“We have customers who have saved hundreds of thousands of dollars in labor costs as a result of the software,” says Brian Spraetz, marketing director for Richardson, TX-based IEX, a Tekelec company. IEX, maker of TotalView Workforce Management, currently has about 28% of the workforce management technology market share — the largest in the industry.
“One company, just by optimizing when its people were working, had a better framework for planning seasonal fluctuations,” says Spraetz. “Before they implemented the system, they were requiring mandatory overtime and burning people out.” With the system running, he says, overtime dropped, costs were cut, and as a bonus, morale improved, the latter evidenced by a 40% decrease in the turnover rate.
TIME TO COACH
The technology also saves supervisory time in the creation and adjustment of schedules, freeing supervisors to perform other tasks such as reviewing performance and coaching. “It removes a significant amount of rote, repeatable work from supervisors,” says Larry Skowronek, senior manager for product management at San Jose, CA-based Aspect Communications, which produces a system called eWorkforce Management. “They no longer are processing these little itsy-bitsy requests for a vacation day here and an hour there.”
Major breakthroughs in the technology came in the latter half of the 1990s, when the makers of workforce management software added blended channel capability, skill-based scheduling features, and Internet interfaces. The latter enable dissemination of schedules over the Web and allow agents to communicate with supervisors about necessary changes and bid for swaps with colleagues electronically.
Aspect Communications, which acquired longtime industry player TCS in 1995, calls this “agent empowerment.” Skowronek maintains that it improves morale and therefore reduces the cost of recruitment and training. “More and more customers say their biggest issue is training the people they’ve got and keeping them,” he says.
In today’s economy, however, others cite immediate cost savings as their major concern. “Purchasing a workforce management solution is a high priority for many businesses due to the simple fact that the application contributes to a more efficient and effective management of their most costly resource, their staff,” states a report by the market research firm Frost & Sullivan. The report, written by industry analyst Katrina Howell, notes that “workforce management applications offer proven ROI payback models of only six months to a year.”
In an interview, Howell pointed out that the software “has a very useful application in this economy.”
While the benefits of the technology seem clear, and the entry price not overwhelming, there are still companies that are not taking advantage of it. Howell’s report notes that although the market among companies with more than 500 agents is “fully penetrated,” among firms with fewer agents, “ample opportunities exist” for introduction of the technology.
BEYOND THE BASICS
Even for those who currently use the technology, says Gonos of Workforce Management Group Inc., there is room for improvement and additional efficiencies. That’s because many users master only basic system functionality, he says. In fact, he adds, much of his practice consists of helping clients to get more out of their software. Intra-day planning (reacting to situations before crises develop) and real-time adherence monitoring (watching to see how well contact center agents adhere to their schedules and managing the results) are two key areas where gains are waiting to be realized, he says.
For all the efficiencies that can be realized in the contact center, the future for workforce management technology may lie beyond its walls.
“One thing we’re beginning to see is that they’re using the workforce management technology not just for call centers, but in other departments such as the mailroom or the warehouse,” says CenterForce’s Kelly. “They’re extending the same capabilities from the front office to the back office. They all run off the same system.”
Howell also notes this phenomenon in her report: “The definition of workforce management is expanding…. The concept is expanding beyond the contact center and evolving into an enterprise-wide optimization tool.”
Karen Berman is a Connecticut-based writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times and Wine Enthusiast magazine.
Aspect Communications Inc.
Blue Pumpkin Software Inc.
IEX, a Tekelec company,
The WorkForce Management Group Inc.
F. Curtis Barry & Company
Society of Workforce Planning Professionals,
Frost and Sullivan,