This article originally appeared in the May 2011 issue of Customer Interaction Solutions
If there ever is a time for contact centers to tune up their workforce management to ensure that the right agents with the right skills are available at the right time, that time is now. There is a growing focus on efficiently delivering higher quality service to retain customers and attract new ones. That is on top of generating more income from interactions directly via sales and collections and indirectly through service. More contacts are now going through nonvoice channels.
Meanwhile the economy is slowly turning around and that will mean higher contact volume and staff churn, especially as highly skilled employees who took on contact center work because they had been laid off from their original fields return to them. Agents are beginning to know their power and are starting to use it, such as through seeking more scheduling flexibility.
“Over the past couple of years, if you have been anywhere near a newscast, you would believe that employers have their choice of any employee they want,” says Teresa Schwartz, business performance consultant at Envision. “However that is not often the case in our marketplace. Quality contact center staff are not likely to stay if their needs are not met. More and more often, we see contact center employees who want to be challenged in a flexible, rewarding atmosphere.”
Quality and Multichannel Trends
Economic rebounds and their driving up of volume and churn is not a new phenomenon for contact centers. There are two factors that appear to be different this time around that are affecting workforce availability.
The first is the quality focus. Simon Angove, CEO of GMT, reports that interactions that emphasize specific outcomes such as first call resolution, relationship building and sales targets will take longer than those that aim at handling calls as expeditiously as possible, which impacts scheduling. Each agent will typically handle fewer interactions, meaning that more agents may be needed for the same volume of customer contacts.
“Companies and their employees will then need to work together to craft innovative staffing approaches, including split-shifts, a part-time and full-time mix and others to ensure customer contact objectives are met,” Angove points out.
Yet as interactions become more complex, so does agent training, consuming added time as well as resources. That is beginning to limit contact centers’ ability to rely on part-time staff, reports Maggie Klenke, founding partner of The Call Center School; the savings in benefits cost and the gains in schedule flexibility are often offset by the management challenges.
In response, she is seeing contact centers getting more creative on scheduling their full-time agents. One technique they are employing is assigning different schedule lengths on different days of the week.
“Flexibility in scheduling is not limited to part-time workers although that certainly makes it easier,” says Klenke. “The idea is to have more man-hours available on peak days and fewer on the lighter days each week. If just 5-10 percent of the staff worked non-traditional shifts, it can help a great deal in matching staff with demand. And what agent objects to getting a 1/2 day off every week? The idea is to be creative based on your distribution patterns.”
The second trend is onboarding and scheduling agents who can effectively utilize nonvoice channels–chat, e-mail, SMS/text and now social media. These methods do take time and talent to utilize, and while the volumes are presently low, the expectations are that their use will increase, while the acceptable response times will decrease.
Suppliers are coming out with workforce tools that make managing these channels easier. NICE IEX (News - Alert) Workforce Management, part of NICE’s SmartCenter suite, includes multichannel adherence, which provides visibility into whether agents are doing their scheduled tasks regardless of mode.
Peter Bollenbeck, CEO of InVision Software (News - Alert), points out that adding these new channels will cause a “highway effect” which is comparable to opening up additional lanes. This multiplies the workforce management (WFM) planning requirements for contact center managers and operations executives.
“Accurate WFM solutions help to optimize staffing to ensure that multichannel interactions are handled by agents with the right skills on a timely basis,” says Bollenbeck.
For example, social media outreach and response requires highly trained individuals fluent in the language of the channel who must reach out and reply in near-real time, between voice and chat, explains Dr. Turgut Aykin, president of AC2.
“Contact centers need to use social media monitoring tools to capture company, service and product mentions, and with this allocate workflow to agents for a timely response,” advises Dr. Aykin. “They need to plan for social media agent availability for customer services and support, and campaigns such as when firms launch new products or services. Different than the other channels used at a traditional contact center, speed-to-response is a critical performance target for social media.”
Yet do contact centers really know who has the right skills, including for these new channels? Karen Hardy, product marketing manager at Genesys (News - Alert), an Alcatel-Lucent company, observes that contact centers too often lack a centralized view into employee skill sets. This means there is no effective way of managing the talent, and “which as a result, processes and people become misaligned.”
Genesys has come out with the Genesys Workforce Optimization (WFO) suite in the Genesys 8 solution which permits effective centralized workforce management and control. There is a tight integration with routing to ensure that agents only receive customer interactions that they have been trained to handle or that fall within their expertise areas. It feeds internal and external data, into a single common skills repository, which helps to identify those employees who are exceptional at their jobs and isolate the skills they have in common.
These features then allow scheduling the right agents at the right time. It also enables the quick addressing of agent skills gaps, and permits introducing training on new skills by dynamically creating, scheduling, and managing training at the most convenient times, without impacting service levels.
The challenge for agent scheduling and forecasting in the newer media is that there is very little history to draw from, reports Tim Kraskey, vice president of marketing and business development at Calabrio (News - Alert). He expects this issue will ease as contact centers determine the right match of personnel skills to the channel, and historical patterns settle in. There is a looming downside though– the generation who grew up with and knows these tools are more likely to demand greater flexibility, more immediate feedback and job hop.
“This reality puts new demands on contact center managers to provide them with visibility into job performance, and to offer more self-service in terms of scheduling input and flexibility,” says Kraskey.
Scheduling for Work/Life Balance
Contact centers have to be more accommodating to employees’ needs, which impacts scheduling. For example, enabling agents to self-schedule gives them more control but the downside is that it risks leaving unpopular shifts unfulfilled.
“It is OK for a few high ranking agents to devise their own schedules as a reward as long as the rest of the agents have enough flexibility in the schedules to fill in where needed,” says Klenke. “We see that done in a number of places; it needs to be kept to a small percentage of the total staff – say less than 5 percent.”
The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) has also affected agent availability, with some centers experiencing 25 percent absenteeism, reports Klenke. The law entitles eligible employees of covered employers to take unpaid, job-protected leave for specified family and medical reasons with continuation of group health insurance coverage.
Some employees could be gaming the system she points out, reportedly aided and abetted by physicians who are allegedly willing certify patients for FMLA for a fee; when one is found, the word spreads quickly among the staff. Contact centers are getting wise; they are now requiring second opinions by doctors of their choosing, and they have seen dramatic reductions in losses in some cases.
“So it is incumbent upon HR and call center management to be totally familiar with the laws and know what their rights are as well as the rights of the staff so that a balanced approach can be taken,” recommends Klenke.
Home-based agents are typically used to manage peaks in increments as small as every 30 minutes. These agents can work split-shifts much more readily than those who have to commute to employer-provided premises. Yet that requires having home agents available. And if the agents are independent contractors–there are companies that offer them on an outsourced basis–they cannot be compelled by firms to work specific hours and shifts, leaving those hours uncovered.
Dr. Aykin recommends a hybrid and web-based system where home-based employee agents are either pre-scheduled up front or are required to work a minimum number of hours each week, and to work out these needs with companies supplying independent contractors. Home-based agents can sign up for additional hours as they are made available based on the latest forecasts.
LiveOps supplies independent home-based agents that use its cloud contact center platform. Tim Whipple, vice president of LiveOps’ Agent Community concedes that occasionally agents may choose not to service a program, leaving some time slots with low or no agents choosing to take calls. The firm then typically offers higher incentive pay to provide services.
“Because the LiveOps opportunity is so highly flexible and rewarding, we typically have enough independent agents who want to service our client calls,” says Whipple.
Scheduling for Customers
Empowering customers to schedule interactions, such as callbacks, and allowing them to select agents that turn them into individual account representatives, builds customer relationships and loyalty by permitting more personalized service. WFM tools can be deployed to permit this.
Customer empowerment increases scheduling challenges though. For example, if agent self-selection contact centers have to plan for outbound calls for those agents if the customers are not able to reach them and they leave messages, reports AC2’s Dr. Aykin.
Bill Durr, principal global solutions consultant at Verint (News - Alert) points out that callbacks are troublesome as they warp the data that workforce management professionals rely upon. The technology, he says, shifts the caller demand into subsequent time intervals, while at the same time disguising the true interval demand. The more a contact center relies upon callbacks to flush out long queue times, the less likely they are to ever understand actual demand and will probably never schedule correctly to meet initial caller demand.
“Most scheduling efforts are predicated upon the notion that any agent with the appropriate skills can handle the interaction,” Durr points out. “When customers are given the opportunity to select particular agents, or are afforded the opportunity to receive a call back at a time and place convenient to them, the underlying basis for scheduling agents is altered.”
Workforce Management Needs
These needs and challenges are pushing WFM solutions’ envelopes. Matt McConnell, president and CEO of Knowlagent, points out that WFM solutions have to become more dynamic in scheduling agents based on customers’ intraday demands and more labor segmented by matching agents’ skills to customer demand. They also need to route the right secondary shrinkage activities (see box) during downtime.
AC2’s WFM solution, AWO Portal, revolutionizes WFM technologies with sophisticated statistical and mathematical optimization models and algorithms, says Dr. Aykin. It uses advanced time-series forecasting algorithms including Box-Jenkins ARIMA, Holt-Winters with additive/multiplicative seasonality and various trend models. It also has Transfer Function/Dynamic Regression that analyzes call drivers to provide future looking forecasts and superior accuracy.
AWO uses queuing models capturing abandonments correctly for non-skills based environments. It also has a discrete event simulator that accounts accurately for caller abandonments, and captures and models the complexities of skills-based routing configurations. It incorporates ac2-pioneered integer-linear-optimization models and algorithms, which capture all scheduling rules with hundreds and thousands of equations and inequalities. It then solves them to optimize start and break times and on-and-off days for all agents concurrently.
Aspect Workforce Management has added a new enhancement package to optimize seats in the contact center. This package allows contact centers to streamline and automate the seat assignment process, utilizing the optimal schedules put in place. It also helps them to strategically plan and manage seat utilization to optimally meet long-term facility requirements as well as short-term, intra-day seating needs while reducing costs.
In the pursuit of high quality customer service through connecting customers’ specific needs and channel preferences to the right agents, contact centers can get too granular. Klenke sees many centers with more skills defined than makes sense, resulting in low volumes that make them difficult to plan and forecast. She recommends that centers take a hard look at the routing plan and redesign based somewhat on the feasibility of staffing to the plan.
“When a skill gets 50 calls a week, who is to say, with any degree of accuracy, which half-hours will have calls and which won't,” says Klenke. “Forecasting accuracy is not statistically possible with these low volumes, never mind the ability to schedule when some periods show no work but we know we might get a call anyway.”
The following companies participated in the preparation of this article:
The Call Center School
Brendan B. Read is TMCnet’s Senior Contributing Editor. To read more of Brendan’s articles, please visit his columnist page.
Edited by Jennifer Russell