Some people may still call them call centers, but they’re sporting more than telephones these days. A transition from call centers to full-fledged contact centers is taking place; customers expect to interact with us via media other than the phone.

For most of us, inbound and outbound calls are the core activity. We are now adding e-mail, Web chats, and Web interactions with voice-over Internet protocol (VoIP) technologies. These new electronic contacts may represent a small percentage of the total today, but more are on the way. In an April 2000 survey of call center managers, Datamonitor estimated that e-mail will grow 720% by 2003, but phone contact would still be preferred by 72% of customers. It is estimated that total contacts will require double the number of agents over that three-year period.

How will this evolution in contact media affect the organizational design of your center? We saw the beginnings of it when we added outbound calling to inbound calling and found ourselves dealing with competing priorities. The next wave was skill-based routing, which segmented customers and agents into more defined groups. This added a level of complexity to the scheduling process and the supporting technology. It was no longer good enough to be “intuitive” to adjust the day-to-day operations to meet shifting demands and priorities.

Now, multimedia requires completely different agent skills and more new technologies. Should agents be sorted into smaller groups dedicated to specific media specialties as well as skills that match customer requirements, or should all contact types and customers be blended together?

Many of the vendors of multimedia management systems are touting the benefits of blending calls and e-mails. Fill in the valleys of inbound workload with the e-mails and gain high productivity, they tell us. This is the same message we heard ten years ago from the vendors of outbound dialers, whose products managed blending outbound with inbound calls. And yes, theoretically, it is all true. Inbound work comes in definite peaks and valleys that can leave agent occupancy low during some periods. If the agent group is small, say ten people, then achieving a good service level will leave some idle time and occupancy may hover around 70% or less. That seems wasteful, and idle agents get bored, so filling in their time is beneficial. But in a center with 50 or more agents in the same team, occupancy on just inbound calls will be 90% or more, and there will be few valleys to fill with other work. It is unrealistic to raise the average occupancy of the agents to more than 95% on an ongoing basis–agents burn out, and turnover will rise.

Second gear

It is also true that some agents thrive on variety and are quite capable of doing several different kinds of work. Others, of course, are really good at one thing and should be left alone to do it. How do you find the right way to optimize productivity, provide great service on all media, and maximize agent retention?

Experience suggests that there is no reason that the entire contact center must follow the same organizational structure. There are some agents who should be dedicated to a single type of work and medium. Blending on a contact-by-contact basis is certainly an option for the cleverest and most experienced agents. But task switching on a block-of-time basis is also a reasonable alternative. This method allows an agent to exercise multiple skills on a regular basis while concentrating on one thing at a time. In a survey conducted by the Incoming Calls Management Institute (ICMI) in September 2000, 52% of the centers surveyed said they use a task-switching method, while 29% use separate agent groups for each channel. Only 8% rely on multimedia queues and multi-skilled agents to handle whatever type of transaction is next in queue.

In a sense, planning for multimedia is a lot like planning a skill-based routing environment. You need to identify your workload and the demand from your customers by media and skill type. Next, inventory your agents’ skills and preferences by media and skill type. Then create a plan that uses the newest single-skilled agents well and allows mid-level agents to grow and learn, but does not unfairly work experienced and capable agents into the ground.

The plan still needs to match your customers with the best-skilled person available in the center to maximize customer satisfaction and revenue. You are likely to end up with a mix of dedicated teams, blended teams, and task-switching agents. Since the agent population continually evolves, and the customer choice of contact media also evolves, this planning process should allow you to both meet current needs and re-position for the evolution as it comes. Not a trivial task, but well worth the effort.

Ms. Klenke is managing director of the contact center consulting practice of Getronics, a provider of vendor independent IT solutions and services. She helps companies develop and implement strategic and tactical plans, technology applications and integration, network design, staffing and scheduling, service level analysis, and solutions to overall management issues. Ms. Klenke can be reached at

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