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Call Center/CRM Management Scope
November 2002


Myths And Realities In Successful 
Skills-Based Routing

By Robin Harris Foster, Avaya

Skills-based routing is a logical idea that can easily miss its mark. Quickly matching a customer with an appropriately skilled service agent is a deceptively simple concept. This seemingly straightforward process is often derailed because the right things are measured the wrong way or the wrong things are measured the right way, or the company fails to measure effectively at all. This is true in both the planning phase and the results measurement phase of skills-based routing implementations.

The key to successful skills-based routing is the accurate evaluation and improvement of 'match rate,' the rate at which a contact center is able to match a customer with an agent who can meet the customer's needs and deliver the results that a company has specified.

In order to improve match rate, companies first need to decide on their objectives and prioritize them. Goals can range from enhancing service for platinum- level customers to reducing average speed of answer (ASA) or implementing new upsell strategies. The more specifically the goals are defined, the more accurately companies can plan and measure results. Next comes the process of measuring where the company stands today and mapping out a path to achieve the goal or goals at hand. Put simply, companies must first figure out where they want to go, assess where they are right now, and then use the information they've gathered in the process to map out the best route from point A to point B. Many times it's wise to plan on a phased approach to ensure that interim benchmarks are successfully achieved before moving on to the next step.

In any complex process, it's natural to look for shortcuts, but sometimes shortcuts can shortchange the end result. Below are five myths that have been identified during the process of planning and implementing skills-based routing initiatives for many companies, along with strategies to avoid the pitfalls inherent in each myth and achieve a more successful match rate.

Myth 1: Dedicated agents are the answer.
Many companies believe that identifying groups of agents as experts in a given task or subject matter is a shortcut to enhanced service, but this theory fails on many scores. Often this strategy is the result of an expedient decision made to fix an immediate problem. For example, if platinum-level customers are consistently left on hold longer than service level agreements allow, companies sometimes choose to segment a group of agents for platinum service only. In theory, this means that no matter what else happens, a service issue with the company's best customers will be solved. In reality, agents in this situation may end up sitting idle for prolonged periods of time, which increases average transaction costs, while other segments of the contact center are overloaded or lack the skilled agents needed to meet customer requirements. The key is to find a dynamic routing system that can evaluate and manage traffic load and customer segmentation in addition to agent skill levels in order to balance work across the entire operation.

Myth 2: Shorter forecasting windows equal greater precision in managing traffic patterns.
Evaluating work schedules and workloads in shorter and shorter time increments convinces managers they are gaining accuracy, but in most cases basic statistical theory about sample size will prove them wrong. You need a significant sample size over a variety of conditions in order to evaluate overall success. For instance, if traffic is broken down into 15-minute increments, the actual traffic volumes and average handle times are likely to deviate more from the forecast rather than less, even if agent breaks fit nicely into 15-minute windows. Designing call flows to fit shorter time frames does not work because callers arrive randomly and agents become available randomly. The advice here is to use predictive algorithms to evaluate and handle traffic patterns in real-time ' the window of time that ultimately matters to the customer.

Myth 3: A drop in average talk time means service is getting more efficient and effective.
Faster service is better service, right? And shorter talk times mean the right agent is handling interactions more effectively? Not always. If shorter talk times are not resulting in increased revenue and/or better customer satisfaction numbers, shorter talk times may simply mean that customers are becoming frustrated and abandoning the interaction before completing a sale or transaction. Experience shows that customers who get the information they need quickly are happier with the service they receive, but it would be unwise to assume that customers who do not get information quickly are happy to remain on the line waiting or deal with multiple agents until they are satisfied. Likewise, a longer talk time between a new customer and a well-skilled agent may result in a larger initial order. In this case, a drop in talk time could actually signal a drop in sales. You won't know if your strategy is working unless you keep track of match rate and results against revenue and/or customer satisfaction goals.

Myth 4: Training and skills development are the same thing.
There are ways to evaluate agents that go beyond basic number crunching and training portfolio assessment. Listen in on calls or review recordings of customer interactions with agents at all levels of seniority and training. Ask supervisors to help identify agents with unique talents in crisis management or interaction with upset customers. By taking the time to look past the primary objective indicators, companies can often identify hidden expertise in their organizations and harness this talent for bottom-line increase. This exercise can also help identify skill gaps for training opportunities prior to going live with a skills-based routing program. 

Myth 5: Screen pops will fix everything so skills-based routing is unnecessary.
Sophisticated computer-telephony integration (CTI) makes everyone an instant expert. Not true. Agents need to get the right information at the right time and they need to have the skills to use the information correctly. Simply supplying the maximum amount of data does little good if the agent doesn't have the training or the expertise to use it effectively. There are ways to measure how much benefit a company can expect to gain by providing more information, when, where and how. For example, if a company knows that Monday morning draws a large number of orders from a certain customer segment, skills-based routing could pair specially trained agents with an appropriate screen pop to expedite order confirmation and editing.

The final step in any skills-based routing project is evaluation of end results. Think about this at the front end of the implementation in order to design metrics that will help you gather your results while you complete the project. For instance, if your goal is to have your best agents serve your best customers 90 percent of the time, regardless of whether the communication is phone, e-mail or Web chat, make sure you know what your starting percentage match rate is for each communications channel. Depending on what analysis tools are available, this may seem daunting. It won't be any easier after a new system is in place so do everything you can to gather intelligence before implementing changes. Set times to benchmark progress so that adjustments to the routing system can be made if necessary. Knowing where you stand at the beginning and middle of the project will make success at the end that much easier and more satisfying to evaluate and report.

Robin Harris Foster is a Senior CRM Specialist with Avaya, a global communications networking company. Her experience includes more than 15 years helping businesses use practical methodologies to maximize the benefits of contact center technologies.

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