A Little Of This, And A Pinch Of That
BY MATTHEW VARTABEDIAN,
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
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.
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
- 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
- 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.
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
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.