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May 2009 | Volume 27 / Number 12

Workforce Management Grows New Legs

By Keith Dawson (News - Alert)

As recently as the mid-1990s, true workforce management software was too expensive a proposition for contact centers in the middle or low end of the marketplace. A center had to devote significant resources to purchasing (and managing) the complex, standalone systems of that era. The choices available were either sophisticated high-end tools that threw massive computing resources at the complex problems of skills-based routing and multi-site management and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars — or very rudimentary "calculators" that were little more than spreadsheets with Erlang C functions built into a pick-list interface. Little wonder that many medium-sized centers chose to go their own way and build Excel spreadsheets to do their workforce planning.

Late in the 1990s the first mid-market tools with real usability and lower cost started to emerge. Some of those tools are the original systems that are now embedded in the big suites — Blue Pumpkin, for example, which found its way into Witness’ QM suite and then into Verint (News - Alert)’s. Other suites contain what were once marketed as the high-end standalone tools. The most widely used tool of the early 1990s was one made by TCS, which was acquired by Aspect (News - Alert) and over time and many versions and improvements became the foundation for Aspect’s eWorkforce Management. A similar tale can be told for IEX’s very sophisticated multi-site WFM tool that is now part of NICE’s SmartCenter.

And there are still smaller, independent vendors of WFM, though increasingly we find that they need to collaborate closely with vendors of other parts of the agent optimization spectrum. Few contact centers are willing these days to buy WFM in a vacuum; they seek to buy it as an integrated component. Regardless of how WFM is purchased, and by whom, we have reached a point where there is rough feature parity among vendors for the basic design of WFM. The technology is well understood, and there is a widespread consensus that using WFM is one of the quickest ways for a contact center to streamline processes and get maximize cost efficiency.

What is amazing is how many centers there are, at all levels of the marketplace, that still use internally-developed systems to do their scheduling. A 2006 Frost & Sullivan contact center end user survey found that 32% of centers were not using WFM to schedule their agents. The implication is that they were using homebrew schedulers, most likely spreadsheets. But Homegrown systems don’t have the kinds of call volume forecasting that makes labor allocation more efficient. They don’t have worker-friendly features like shift bidding, incentives and visibility into future plans.

When asked what deterred them from using WFM, the most cited answer was cost (44%), and then complexity (42%), and then lack of ROI (35%).

It is fair to say that those answers, and the large portion of the marketplace that is eschewing WFM, indicate a misreading of the capability, the effectiveness and the relative cost of running today’s WFM.

Some of this misperception may paradoxically be due to the efforts by the vendors to more tightly roll the WFM components into the agent-facing suites. In touting the analytic, quality management and enterprise-friendliness of their agent suites, they may be missing an opportunity to speak clearly to a part of the marketplace that has an urgent need for better forecasting and scheduling tools, but that doesn’t have the context or the tenure in the industry to see the true value of this steadfast old product.

The largest vendors in the sector have become (understandably) convinced that in order to succeed they have to transform themselves from contact center application providers into enterprise application providers.

To do that, they are trying to leverage their existing workforce management tools and make them useful to other, non-contact center departments. This is their way of moving up the corporate value chain. If contact centers can benefit from having software that quantifies "work" (in the form of calls) and allocates resources according to the most effective workflow formula, then why can’t retail, back office and other kinds of workers use the same system? They can.

By some estimates, there are as many as three to five times as many schedulable seats to be found outside the contact center as in it. When that many seat licenses are at stake, vendors will naturally begin listening intently to the needs and feature demands of those buyers. One major vendor already finds more than 40% of its WFM revenue coming from outside the contact center. That is going to tip the balance of purchasing power away from contact center managers and towards interdisciplinary committees of executives. They, along with IT management, will determine the needs and priorities of what are becoming enterprise-wide workforce management systems.

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