Once a communications provider — wireline or wireless — wins a consumer, it must continuously deliver rich service experiences as a means to keeping that customer. The single most common point of contact is the call center. Ninety-two percent of customer transactions flow through the call center at a cost of $8 to $10 per call. Eighty-five percent of incremental revenues are initiated through customer calls.1 Studies have shown that a customer who has a rich experience while having an issue resolved remains more loyal than a customer who has had no service problems.2 Clearly, the call center, which is at the forefront of the provider-subscriber relationship, is critical to driving business objectives: customer retention and lifetime value. With millions of subscribers to serve and support, telecommunications companies must ensure that every contact center transaction is as efficient, productive and costeffective as possible.
The most menacing problems in the call center are related to average call handling time (ACHT) and first-call resolution (FCR) rates — the former being too high, the latter being too low, and the result being poor customer satisfaction which, in turn, contributes to churn and increased costs per subscriber. Where efficient, productive, high-quality customer service creates satisfied loyal users who buy more; poor customer service creates a vicious cycle of frustration, costly transactions and, eventually, customer churn. According to a 2003 J.D. Power & Associates study, the percentage of wireless subscribers who said they were likely to switch nearly quadrupled among those subscribers who rated their carriers’ customer care below average.3 In a separate study of approximately 20,000 complaints against U.S. carriers, top-cited criticisms included failure to rectify the problem, contradictory messages from the call center and rudeness.4
The primary culprits in the customer service crisis are overly complex and insufficient agent training. Agents must cope with a wide, ever-changing variety of technical products as well as incredibly complex systems that manage customer data. Nowadays, it takes longer to get things done, especially if agents have not received adequate training on navigation of the call center’s systems. This repeatedly puts agents in high-pressure situations in which they ultimately fail to solve problems. It’s no wonder that subscribers don’t feel “loved,” which explains high agent turnover rates in the first year. Consequently, critical customer transactions are left to a constantly changing workforce that collectively possesses very little product knowledge or call center expertise.
What can telecommunications operators do about this? Industry research has shown that telcos can greatly improve call center efficiency, employee success and esteem, and costs by implementing e-learning programs that allow call center agents to rapidly acquire the skills and information they need to operate complex systems, stay up-to-date with the technical products and services they support, and politely and consistently solve problems. By keeping call center agents in the loop, telcos can realize the improved customer loyalty and lifetime revenues they desperately need to survive in an increasingly competitive industry.
Employee training isn’t a new concept. So why haven’t we seen more success in the telecommunications industry? The answer is rapidity. Historically, training programs have lacked speed. Telcos cannot afford to wait. Technology and offerings change too fast and customer attention spans are too short. Traditional training solutions and learning management systems cannot keep up. Learning has to happen at the speed of business — responding to change quickly, effectively and comprehensively.
Enter e-learning. E-learning allows organizations to deliver faster, more contextual and cost-effective learning — whenever and wherever it is needed.5 Network delivery makes it easy to roll out updated knowledge and track which call center agents have or have not reviewed it. Centrally archived content can be updated immediately and made current for all users. Agents can use low call-volume times to participate in selfpaced training at their workstations to stay abreast of new offerings and develop skills for career advancement.6 Newly learned skills can be put to practice immediately, which reinforces learning. And stakeholders can receive feedback on learner participation and knowledge retention.
So how do we successfully exploit these benefits? Following is a quick “hit list” for those organizations looking to cut to the chase with rapid e-learning for the call center.
Enable individual contributors at any skill level to develop content. Developing compelling content need not be complicated. To shorten the process of getting training information from the people who possess it to those who need it, contact centers must leverage familiar tools and paradigms. A 2003 study7 of e-learning professionals found that PowerPoint was the second most frequently used tool for creating e-learning content. Why? It’s practically ubiquitous, familiar to nearly everyone, and quick and easy to use. Virtually anyone can get up-to-speed quickly. So, unless a contact center has on-demand access to instructional designers, Web developers and IT staff supporting a full-blown learning management system, companies should keep it simple by leveraging readily available skill sets and familiar tools to create content quickly.
Incorporate rich content to accelerate and enhance knowledge retention. Numerous usability studies have shown that multimedia presentations deliver maximum knowledge in a minimum amount of time while achieving the highest retention and recall rates. Used in conjunction with readily available and easy-to-use content authoring tools, a familiar medium like PowerPoint can be readily transformed from boring text and bullets to engaging learning courseware complete with audio narration, graphics, quizzes, animations and simulations. These features are especially effective when the subject matter is complex or technical (such as communications technologies and service pricing schemes), and when your training goals stretch beyond simply broadcasting information to learning new skills (such as how to find and review a subscriber’s call history) and achieving certifications. It’s important to remember not to overdesign, however; content should be user friendly and intuitive to navigate, not intimidating and frustrating.
Make learning content accessible. The value and impact of rapid training dissolve instantly when learners spend more than five minutes attempting to join or log in to a training session. Training content should be readily accessible regardless of browser, platform or operating system. Find out what’s required on the learner’s end to participate. Does the individual simply click on a URL, or must a client be installed? Which platforms, browsers and operating systems are supported? Factors such as client size and interoperability limitations can significantly impact how quickly and broadly rapid training initiatives are adopted and accepted by learners, managers and executives.
Measure and tie achievements to the business. Only by measuring can contact centers justify the e-learning investment by tying it to achievement of learning objectives such as new product competency and reduced training costs. The online aspect of e-learning makes it easy to track learner participation and performance, and report these metrics to key stakeholders in a timely manner. When tying e-learning investment and achievement to business goals such as customer satisfaction and increased sales, it’s important to establish metrics and consistently measure before and after the e-learning initiative is implemented. 8 Short-term value, such as training cost reduction, can be measured as a one-off, but to illustrate long-term and recurring value and encourage ongoing investment, contact center organizations must dedicate a little more planning and commitment. CIS
Melanie Stoll is Solutions Marketing Manager for Telecom Vertical Marketing at Adobe Systems (http://www.adobe.com). (news - alert) She can be reached at email@example.com.
- Automated Self-Service Comes to Telcos. The McKinsey Quarterly, Web exclusive, February 2005.
- Achieving First Call Resolution. The Ascent Group, Inc., 2003
- J.D. Power & Associates Reports: Wireless Customer Switching Intent is Nearly Four Time Higher Among Users Who Rate their Services Provider Below Average in Customer Care. August 28, 2003.
- Mobile’s dissatisfied customers. The McKinsey Quarterly, 2004 Number 3.
- Metadata in Corporate E-Learning. The Seybold Report, October 20, 2004.
- Justify e-Learning Investments in Three Phases. Gartner Research, October 13, 2005.
- Bersin and Associates Study. March 2003.
- Managing Knowledge in Internet Time. Larstan Business Reports, 2003.
Things to Consider When Buying A Workforce Management Solution
As the role of the contact center within the enterprise continues to expand, workforce management (WFM) has emerged as one cornerstone in an overall optimization strategy. As a result, WFM solutions and other contact center software applications are undergoing unprecedented and accelerated changes. This leaves administrators with the challenge of finding the right blends of technologies to meet the specific needs of their organizations.
Traditionally, WFM has been recognized as a tool that automates and improves call center forecasting and scheduling activity. Today, WFM solutions introduce “agent-pleasing” capabilities and enable access to a remote workforce without the need for costly software and hardware infrastructure. These technological advances allow for the most skilled agents — regardless of their locations — to be optimally scheduled at the most strategic times to maximize the workforce.
As WFM continues to evolve, it is playing a more strategic role for enterprises looking to maximize the business value of their contact centers. There are many WFM solutions available, so it’s important to avoid the danger of “information overload.” This, ironically, leads to poor decisions, so organizations must carefully evaluate their individual needs and align them with specific products and feature sets.
Make An Impact With Your WFM Solution
Being effective requires us to create new metrics that better connect to the enterprise. It is important to educate other enterprise departments about what the contact center does today and what it could do tomorrow if so tasked and resourced. Centers are in the middle of a rich dialog involving customers: current, returning and defecting. Other departments may already be paying for or desperately seeking information that the contact center can capture, distill and deliver. This game plan places a greater burden on agents. Training, development and coaching for appropriate behaviors will be key factors for success.
Too often, applications are fragmented and stand-alone; they do not work synergistically with the complete contact center technology infrastructure. Using a pre-determined set of criteria can help an enterprise select a WFM solution that will best suit the company’s specific contact center needs. To thoroughly evaluate potential applications, organizations must focus on the following categories:
- East of Use
- Forecasting Flexibility
- Proficiency-based Scheduling
- Agent Self-Management of Preferences
- Agent Self-Management of Schedules
- Long-range Planning
- “What If ” Functionality
- Real-time Agent Adherence
- Exception Management
- Performance Management
- Strategic Consulting Services
Strength in these 11 categories must reflect both the quality of the WFM solution as well as the company providing it. Understanding why each is important can help enterprises move beyond the simple comparison chart to pinpoint an effective WFM application able to anchor the successful contact center.
Ease Of Use
Although “ease of use” remains one of the industry’s most overused buzzwords, it is critical that when customers begin to use any software, they find it to be highly intuitive and very straightforward. This simple difference shortens the learning curve and enables organizations to realize a quicker return on their investment.
Because WFM software has evolved in recent years, some solutions have simply added layers upon layers, making them inherently more complex. Applications that are difficult to learn often become underutilized or even abandoned as the job function moves from person to person over time. Solutions that are truly easy to use generate more success over a longer period of time.
Forecasting accuracy is the most costeffective method for achieving desired contact center results. Typically, the better the forecast, the better the schedules will deliver against service level goals. When evaluating WFM solutions, companies must consider the range of flexibility in forecasting capabilities.
For example, many WFM applications provide a forecasting engine tied to recent history (typically 13 weeks). Users can re-weight those weeks, but that is the extent of control. Some WFM solutions allow enterprises to build their own forecast model by creating a “template” of weeks, using any week in the entire history database. Because more accurate forecasts are highly desirable, greater flexibility empowers forecasters to find the models that are most accurate for each of their specific contact center environments.
Scheduling in a non-skill-routing environment is relatively straightforward, with few differences among the various vendors. The situation is much different in a skill-routing environment, as are the associated scheduling needs. A set of schedules generated for a skillrouting environment requires an application that can process detailed information about agents. The more information the WFM application can process, the more accurate and precise the results will be. Therefore, it is important that solutions are capable of defining each associate individually with respect to their proficiency within various skill sets.
Many WFM applications require users to define agents as members of skill groups. Agent performance within the group is aggregated and averaged, and the resulting score is applied to all members. However, because agents perform quite differently from one another, this type of scheduling creates undesired variations in actual service levels. This forces management to focus on service levels instead of productivity and quality. WFM solutions should provide insight into the performance capabilities of each agent to achieve greater scheduling precision in matching the workload with the workforce. This can drastically reduce variances in service level from one time of day to another.
Agent Self-Management Of Preferences
Many WFM vendors preach agent empowerment. This includes making use of agent preferences in schedule generation as one way for agents to influence the scheduling process. Schedule preferences are driven by the demands of everyday life, and without having direct control over their schedule preferences, agents must interact and request that the changes be made on their behalf. This forces contact centers to add middle management staff to handle the work. It also causes supervisors and team leaders to spend their time performing simple administrative tasks instead of coaching their teams.
WFM applications should provide agents with direct management and control over their schedule preferences from a standard Internet browser. Giving agents greater control over the scheduling process improves morale, employee buy-in and agent retention. It also frees team leaders and supervisors to spend their time on activities that impact the contact center’s performance goals.
Agent Self-Management Of Schedules
The second component of agent empowerment is to permit staff members to engage in their own schedule management through “shift-swaps” and trades. The Web-enabled, self-service scheduling model discussed earlier allows associates to more easily switch shifts with colleagues. Because agent empowerment is essential for maintaining morale, WFM solutions should be equipped with these capabilities.
Even in the most successful contact center environment, some agents will not receive schedules that meet personal needs from time to time. Like self-managing scheduling preferences, providing an easy mechanism that permits them to swap or trade shifts improves morale, increases agent retention and frees supervisors and team leaders from lowvalue administrative tasks.
Basic long-range planning tools equipped with some financial data — including average wage rate — are common in most WFM solutions. However, many of these tools lack applications that support the decision-making process for contact center management teams. Long-range planning requirements extend far beyond simple monthly projections of historical data into the future.
True long-range planning tools are designed to permit management teams to arrive at logical, well thought-out conclusions to challenging questions. These questions include decisions about what skills should be crosstrained to maximize the training budget or the number and skill-profile of agents who may be required 18 to 24 months down the road. Long-range planning must be done with greater precision and accuracy to avoid putting the contact center into a “can’t win” budget constraint situation.
Every WFM solution provides a “what if?” function. This permits management to alter the forecasting and scheduling environment in various ways to identify alternative scheduling outcomes. For example, what may happen if call volume increases in a particular queue or if a particular shift is added to the schedule? Comprehensive WFM applications allow users to create profiles of fictitious agents with respect to skill mix and schedule preferences. These profiles can be used in “what if?” scheduling, especially when blended with profiles of existing agents to achieve optimum aggregate schedules.
The output of creating a “what if?” scenario provides information about what agent profiles — and how many agents that fit the particular profile — are required to achieve lower labor costs and more consistent workload matching. Contact center managers can then seek to hire agents for the newly profiled shifts. Hiring new agents with specific shifts in mind improves the focus in the recruitment process and avoids the premature agent turnover that typically results from unmet, unspoken expectations on both sides.
Real-time Agent Adherence
Another important component of a WFM solution is a real-time agent adherence (RTAA) function. The inherent flaw with RTAA is its ephemeral nature. For example, when an agent falls out of schedule adherence, the agent’s name and exception condition is displayed on a screen after exceeding a pre-determined threshold. However, when the agent returns to adherence with the schedule, the name disappears from the screen. This “here and gone” display forces contact center management into an unproductive, inefficient, reactive mode.
WFM solutions should provide realtime rolling agent adherence and exception display, so when an agent is out of adherence, the team leader or supervisor can view the agent’s adherence history, not just a snapshot of current status. A real-time, historical view enables perspective and sharpens assessment by providing deeper and richer adherence information.
RTAA can be a valuable tool when used in a positive way within a coaching- oriented environment. Ordinary RTAA fosters reactionary management and resentful agents, but an effective WFM solution should provide a more rational, deliberative RTAA functionality that enables supervisors to coach rather than react.
When RTAA capabilities are present, it is also critical for WFM solutions to possess exception management functionality. In any contact center environment, no matter how well-run the operation may be, agents will deviate from their schedules. These deviations are sometimes deliberate on the agent’s part, sometimes accidental and sometimes caused by customer needs. WFM systems that have RTAA implemented capture and generate fairly significant numbers of agent exceptions.
Effective WFM solutions enable team leaders and supervisors to differentiate among these various exceptions by approving those particular schedule deviations associated with positive behaviors. This level of control rewards positive agent behavior (even if that behavior causes a schedule exception) while preserving the schedule exception. Because agent shrinkage is one of the fundamental measures and focuses of management attention, it is important that the exception management capabilities of the WFM application isolate and identify sources of shrinkage with greater precision and accuracy, enabling management to better control costs.
For decades, the core offering of any WFM solution has been forecasting and scheduling. This is somewhat a contradiction of terms because forecasting and scheduling are focused on deployment of resources rather than the actual “management” of these or any other resources. As contact centers and WFM applications evolve, a new term has been injected into the lexicon to reflect the need to insert the management component back into WFM: workforce optimization (WFO).
WFO solutions drive efficiency and effectiveness throughout the contact center operation by establishing clear objectives, goals and key performance indicators. They also create a consistent daily feedback process to everyone in the center. In addition, formalized and controlled benchmarking information permits centers to align themselves with the performance characteristics of the world’s best operations.
Performance management solutions and processes drive individual agent performance improvements. The best WFM solutions will have a WFO component to complete the loop: performance management improves performance on an individual basis.
Strategic Consulting Services
In addition to the functional features of a WFM solution, it is important to consider the availability of services and support beyond simple software installation. During the installation process, some vendor representatives will make process and procedure recommendations based on their experience. For many vendors, this is the extent of their strategic consulting services. However, because WFM plays such a crucial role in the contact center and, as a result, in the enterprise as a whole, a comprehensive consultation can help organizations maximize the return on investment for the WFM solution.
One of the more important consulting services that a WFM vendor should offer is guidance for creating scheduling solutions that meet business objectives, respect employee requirements and support health and safety in the workplace. This can assist contact center management teams develop agent-pleasing scheduling choices that generate hundreds of thousands — and sometimes millions — of dollars in labor savings. Many contact centers still offer very little in alternative scheduling choices and rely on inefficient block scheduling that drives labor costs needlessly high. A WFM vendor’s consulting services can provide assistance in implementing alternative scheduling practices to detract from this trend.
Because contact centers have evolved into critical, revenue-generating components of the enterprise, organizations must ensure they have the right technologies and process in place to achieve desired results. Workforce management is one of the most important elements of a contact center’s technology infrastructure, so selecting a solution is not a task to be taken lightly. With diligent analysis of existing applications, organizations can ensure that the WFM solution they select will cost-effectively align with their specific business needs. CIS
Bill Durr serves as principal solutions consultant for Witness Systems, Inc. (http://www.witness.com), (news - alert) a provider of workforce optimization software and services. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.