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July 2003

Rich Tehrani The Financial Outlook On Productivity

By Rich Tehrani
Group Editor-In-Chief, Technology Marketing Corporation

I wish I had taken more business classes in college and a few less math and engineering classes. That way, I would be able to understand everything I hear on CNBC and Bloomberg ' especially when these programs feature interviews with economists and other intellectuals who throw out financial acronyms faster than I can possibly type them into Google to learn what they mean. Lately, I have been paying attention quite closely and I think I have the economy narrowed down to three basic concepts:

  • Inflation (rising prices over time) is bad.
  • Deflation (lowered prices over time) is bad.
  • Deflation as a result of increased productivity and better technology is good.

So I started thinking, how can we make contact centers more productive using technology? Sure, there are many ways to do this and many companies from which to choose, but I decided to focus on two companies for this article, Symon Communications, Inc. (www.symon.com) and CenterForce Technologies (www.cforcetech.com).

We are all familiar with LED-based wallboards. They help us communicate information to our agents such as when they need to be at their desks to receive calls, how close we are to our financial goals and other important bits of information. Wallboards can be pretty boring, so if you're a vendor in this space such as Symon Communications, how do you improve on a staple product in the contact center space? You launch a new product called the NetLite II with integrated WiFi, of course, so that it can be mounted anywhere and without the additional cost of running a data cable to the board itself. Power via a plenum air-space-rated cable can be located up to 300 feet from the board. This is one of the first non-computing devices to have WiFi built in. Expect to see many more soon. As it's a great idea, we can expect to see these boards in more call centers, factory floors and other places where information needs to be disseminated quickly.

Getting back to business, I got to thinking that business magazines might help me learn more about all those pesky financial acronyms. I was right. I learned a new one a while back: RTB or real-time business. The loose definition of this term is, 'getting important operational data into the hands of decision makers quickly.' It's another buzz word aimed squarely at boosting productivity, and this is where Symon's Vista comes in. The company refers to it as 'dashboards in a box,' and by that they mean that by using their off-the-shelf Vista product, you can develop views of the inner workings of your contact center and, more importantly, your entire business. Just as the dashboard of your car tells you how fast you are going, how much gas you have, etc., Vista tells you all the vital details of your contact center in a similar graphical and numerical format.

There are two parts to this software. First is the editor which, in a fashion similar to that of MS FrontPage, allows the building of Web pages. The power of this editor comes from its ability to link the display with the back-end, which in this case consists of databases and telephone switches, enabling you to have a complete overview of your business at all times.

It is possible to use this product to allow you to compare the response times and performance of disparate ACDs from Nortel, Mitel and others. As the software supports most any hardware you're likely to have, you can select the fields based on the ACDs you have and then determine if those fields should change color when the data element rises too high or low.

Second, it is possible to view data from a variety of industry-standard databases such as Oracle, Siebel, Sybase, etc., and as a result, you can put together a screen that compares real-time sales with real-time service levels. The view you choose can be numerical or graphical and can detail items such as abandon rates and hold times. Applications can easily be designed to allow a manager to drill down as needed to determine what problems he or she needs to solve. These problems can be with agent groups or with individual agents. It is possible to spot agents with excess idle time easily by displaying numbers that are worth scrutinizing in a different color. Again, the software is highly flexible, allowing users to re-sort lists on the fly based on column headers. In this way, a user can rank the agents at all times based on whatever criteria is deemed most important.

Other items that can be compared are close ratios, the number of incoming calls taken by agents and the total idle time for the day. Call center managers can also see who is making/taking the most inbound, outbound and internal calls.

Just as a wallboard is an invaluable tool in allowing communication with agents, dashboards too can be used to empower agents to see how they are performing versus their peer group, regardless of where this group is physically located. The theory is that by empowering employees, you motivate them to compete against the rest of the team and take part in team successes.

Truth be told, machines need as much monitoring as people. At least with people you may be able to visually determine if they are working at their peak capacity. But what about an IVR? Vista works with these devices as well, allowing call center managers to determine if the system is working properly. It can tell managers the number of dropped calls, busy ports, utilization percentages, etc. Managers and supervisors can also drill down to get the details, just as they do with agents.

If managers aren't at their desks, they can choose to be notified in case of a business rule violation by any medium they choose: e-mail, text-to-speech, pager, etc. Users can even set a new page to spawn, with the problem presenting itself to them.

Pricing for Vista with three different data sources and over 20 desktop views is under $50,000. Additional data sources are $3,300 each.

When you think of productivity in the contact center, workforce management is one of the first technologies that comes to mind. The largest contact centers cannot survive without workforce management, but many smaller ones that could benefit from this technology often view the cost as too high to justify the expenditure. This is where CenterForce Technologies' RightForce Express comes in. It allows call centers of less than 100 seats to have the features they need without the features they don't. For example, multisite virtual schedules are not included, but smaller call centers likely won't need this feature. A call center can grow to the full-blown RightForce product, which supports thousands of agents and multiple sites, without ripping out what it already has installed. All these companies need do is pay the difference in price and upgrade accordingly.

To get started with workforce management/performance optimization, a company needs to define its process flow within its organization. They are encouraged to first look at the various queues for sales, help desk, marketing, etc. They then define the types of shifts agents can work.

At this point, a few different types of schedules can be defined:
Planning schedules determine the best possible schedule to meet demand, considering a company's rules, and allows users to schedule a year in advance to see how many people are needed given the demand forecast for the various demand types.

Operating schedules determine the best possible schedule for current employees, depending on skills, availability and known schedule exceptions such as vacation, training, etc.

Fixed schedules allow an administrator to define a schedule with explicit instructions such as, 'I want 20 people working, at these hours and with a one-hour lunch.' This is where a call center manager can begin to get comfortable with utilization of the software's capabilities. Some contact centers use fixed schedules exclusively, as they provide the most flexibility.

The software also allows managers to track productivity history with such details as who is taking long lunches or breaks. Another great feature that eliminates management overhead is the ability to schedule events such as training sessions while simultaneously taking service quality levels into account.

There are a variety of optional modules users may choose to add-on that can perform tasks such as managing e-mail, chat, outbound calls, real-time adherence by agent, agent productivity history, vacation staffing, skills-based scheduling and, finally, a sleek application that allows agents to bid on schedules and can be used to reward agents based on merit by looking at proficiency, seniority or other factors determined by managers and supervisors. Managers can even allow agents to trade schedules with others.

The base price (without the optional modules) for RightForce Express is $22,500 for a contact center of 50 people.

I know what you're thinking. 'Rich, we have no CAPEX budget. We can't afford to spend money on something we aren't sure will work.' Vendors today are more competitive than ever, which means you can likely get them to help you see how their products will work in your current environment before you purchase. Can you imagine working without a predictive dialer, voice mail or an ACD? Of course you can't. Just as these technologies are commonplace now, we will see workforce management and the other technologies discussed above find their way into all but the smallest contact centers over time. Just remember, if we're all contending with more and more pricing pressure (deflation), we had better make sure to boost our productivity to offset the loss of revenue.

Good luck, and may your sales exceed budget!


Rich Tehrani
Group Publisher,
Group Editor-in-Chief
[email protected]

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