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October 1998

A Little Of This, And A Pinch Of That

Technology Editor, C@LL CENTER Solutions

Answering the greatest number of customer inquiries in as much detail as necessary and at the least possible cost to an enterprise requires some pretty sophisticated technology. Tools like the automatic call distributor (ACD) were invented and installed to streamline call handling; and so evolved skills-based routing. As ACDs matured (and as CTI and IVRs changed the face of call control), calls could be classified and routed with much greater precision. Managers were also able to assign agents multiple skills, enabling them to load balance between queues; i.e., should service level drop in queue A, 10 agents could be switched from queue B to assist and then switched back as needed.

Workforce management/scheduling in this environment has traditionally posed a few challenges. Namely, if one (or more) agents are able to answer calls from a number of queues, how does one predict agent availability for different call types given: agents skills, agent skill levels, agent schedules, agent seniority, forecasts for each call type, network and/or ACD routing rules (time of day, day of week, idle agents, time in queue, etc.) …you get the idea - you're probably more familiar with the problem than I am. To whit, the multiskilled agent, while invaluable, throws a pesky wrench into the Erlang C universe, the mathematical formula generally used to calculate the number of agents needed for a given time period and service level.

The Rub
Three workforce management vendors (Blue Pumpkin Software, IEX Corporation and TCS Management Group, Inc.) have recently announced products designed to solve the skills-based scheduling dilemma. Since some of these solutions involve some sophisticated math, simulation algorithms and the like (and since my blood chills at the thought of balancing my checkbook), I suggest you contact the vendors directly for more information on how their specific products work. Here are the contact details:

  • Blue Pumpkin - PrimeTime Skills, Ofer Matan (650-948-4998), www.blue-pumpkin.com
  • IEX Corporation - TotalView Workforce Management Version 2.0, Stan Jasinski (972-301-1300), www.iex.com
  • TCS Management Group - SeriesFive, Jennifer Stroud (615-221-6800), www.tcsmgmt.com

Here are a few ways, irrespective of vendor-specific solutions, I see skills-based scheduling taking root and even transforming the way call centers operate:

  • Outbound skills-based scheduling in a blended environment - Trying to figure out a way to put those idle agents to work? Being able to reliably schedule skills for a given period time affords a certain degree of control over your environment which, in turn, bequeaths flexibility. Why not schedule a set of secondary skills for a predicted call trough and let those agents loose on the phones making customer retention calls, or have them respond to e-mails or even make sales calls. When call volume picks back up, switch the blended agents back to inbound, and their primary skills, to maintain your service level.
  • Improves employee morale - Skills-based routing has been invaluable in emphasizing the importance of the agent's abilities, rather than merely focusing on their worth to the enterprise as "another warm body." To my mind, skills-based scheduling extends this premise, enabling the elegant resolution of problems through the discrete application of skills; there is little elegance in a brute force solution, i.e., throwing more bodies at increasing call volume.
  • More efficient staffing - Skills-based scheduling allows for a more efficient deployment of your workforce, fielding skilled agents when it's predicted they'll be needed. These new software solutions don't bestow wondrous powers of mystical prognostication, however. Your staffing schedules are still firmly rooted in historical data. Real-time monitoring of call volume, therefore, is still vital to your call center's health.
  • More efficient hiring/training - From skills-based routing software you know what skills your call center has. Now, with the scheduling software, you can more efficiently deploy that workforce. By inference, you're now more aware of what "skills-holes" you need to plug. This frees you to focus entirely on hiring and/or training those skills you need to be redundant (in case of turnover) or simply lack. During training, why not target specific skills and plug them into a work schedule that will maximize the trainees' usefulness to the call center. A skills-based scheduling solution may even further encourage agents to learn more, making themselves more useful in more ways to the organization, and thus, happier employees (lower turnover).
  • Take the initiative, don't react - All of the problems in the call center are related: poor service level is to outdated technology as agent unhappiness is to poor training as bad management is to unclear business goals, and so on and so forth. Granted, you probably were already scheduling agents on the basis of skills rather than on the relative warmth of their bodies, but these vendors I've mentioned have proffered a solution that may help make call center management less of an art and more of a science, thus allowing managers to devote their time to more important things than extinguishing fires.

Shifting Sands
When we look upon the world we (more often than not) gaze through Windows. Many call center software vendors, like Intecom (a call center/PBX solutions provider) and Witness Systems (a provider of customer interaction recording and monitoring solutions) for example, have moved their software platforms to Windows NT.

This move is important for several reasons. It provides further evidence (as if more was needed) of the general shift toward open, standards-based hardware and software platforms. This shift allows consumers a more expansive range of options. Solutions can be mixed and matched on the basis of personal preference and need. And, most obviously, the Windows OS is familiar and fairly intuitive. Applications developed for it, if well-fashioned, can leverage those features, decreasing the user learning curve, and increasing efficiencies for call centers.

In The News…
There's been a lot of attention given to voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) technologies in the past months. Exciting stuff to be sure (we've got an entire publication dedicated to it), but I'm of the opinion that Internet "click-to-talk" buttons won't begin to penetrate the consumer Internet (if such a distinction can be drawn) for at least six months, if not a year. Why? One of the major challenges to date has been achieving PSTN-quality voice over the public Internet (over a managed network, it's a different story). Also, most American homes lack PCs and Internet connections; until that situation changes (and it shouldn't be that long) I don't see much point in outfitting your call center to handle incoming IP calls. It is time, however, to start evaluating the solutions currently on the market and to begin planning for the time that your call center will have to handle Internet telephone calls, synchronized Web collaboration, video calls or any combination thereof.

Which is a good thing, really, because call center technology vendors like Aspect, Nortel, Siemens, Rockwell, Lucent, and more recently, Intecom, stand ready with Internet-enabled call center solutions. Intecom's (www.intecom.com) offering, recently announced, represents the fruition of a partnership with eFusion (www.efusion.com), a provider of Internet telephony application gateways, in which Intecom has integrated its server-based communications platform, the Intecom E, with eFusion's eBridge Interactive Web Response system. The eBridge IWR system, with its Push-to-Talk, button allows customers to talk to a call center agent while they browse the Web, exchange information and complete transactions. Pretty standard stuff; I had an opportunity to demo the product recently - the voice quality of the conversation was surprisingly good, and the latency was slight.

The Undiscovered Country
PakNetX Corporation (www.paknetx.com) has announced a product that takes this concept of the Internet-enabled call center one step further. The PNX ACD is the industry's first software-only, H.323/T.120 IP telephone switch. It performs routing and switching functions for audio, video and/or data calls with equal aplomb. Specific features include: skills-based routing of incoming multimedia or plain audio calls to agents, hold/retrieve; transfer and conference; integrated firewall functions which serves to protect the individual IP addresses of agent computers from incursion; and it provides workforce management tools for call center operations. Based entirely on industry standards (H.323/T.120), the PNX ACD will work seamlessly with any other standards-compliant hardware or software; and via CTI links, will integrate just as seamlessly with your existing call center infrastructure. For more information, visit their Web site or give Chris Botting, PakNetX's vice president of marketing, a call at 603-890-6616, ext. 203.

The Oracle At Delphi
On the consulting scene, I spent some time recently with Ray Banas, vice president, Ameritech Call Center Solutions (www.ameritech.com), which has made three recent announcements. The first, a new service called Ameritech Systems Integration (ASI), is designed to help customers who want to modify the technology infrastructure of their call center(s). ASI will manage the project from start to finish, integrate different products from different vendors, tailor it to suit your business' particular needs and then oversee and maintain the finished "product" through its Customer Support Help Desk.

We also discussed the expansion of Ameritech's call center portfolio; their effort to provide a one-stop-shop for all its customers' call center product/service needs. It's a long list, made longer by a recent partnership with eFusion, to flesh out Ameritech's ability to Internet-enable call centers; and with Periphonics (www.periphonics.com), which enhances the selection of IVRs from which Ameritech customers can choose.

Mr. Banas also outlined the Ameritech Quality Assurance Program. Through this initiative Ameritech consultants analyze existing processes like agent monitoring, evaluation and coaching, employee development, and then create customized programs designed to consistently optimize call quality and employee effectiveness. Ameritech takes two approaches in examining the services a call center provides. The first looks at the call center's internal processes; the second examines service delivery from the customer's point of view.


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