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Agent Self-Service: Take Control Of Your Destiny

By Rick Seeley, IEX Corp.


It's not enough to simply say that a company can attract employees by providing them with the tools they need to do their jobs. Increasingly, employees expect to be given the tools they need to manage their careers as well, using the transparency, ease of use and speed of response enabled by the always-on nature of the Web. A self-service approach to contact center workforce management can pay significant dividends in short order, and provide a key differentiator for a workplace in a competitive market.

While sophisticated workforce management can sometimes be misconstrued as disruptive and life-controlling, self-service diffuses those problems by putting agents in control of their own destiny, so to speak.

After all, agents want to be part of the management process ' particularly as it relates to their own careers. Therefore, agent self-service should not be viewed or deployed as a way to put a wall between agents and the rest of the organization. Rather, it should be seen as a key opportunity to open up more lines of communication and render transparent more of the company's human resources, scheduling and operational practices, procedures and goals.

Self-Service: A Solution To Business Problems
This is not merely a matter of feeling good about the working environment the organization creates for front-line agents. When agents have control over their employment situation, they are happier, and customers notice the difference. Gartner principal analyst Jim Davies concludes in the 2005 report, Agent Esteem and Self-Actualization Are Key to Customer Satisfaction that a one percent boost in agent job satisfaction leads directly to a customer satisfaction increase of over half a percent point. That's a solid return that can also bring better efficiency to the organization.

There is simply no contest. Supervisors and team leaders are most valuable to the operation when they provide the just-in-time intervention, short-term guidance and long-term coaching that all agents need. Determining break schedules and optimizing paid time-off requests, on the other hand, are inherently low-value activities for the management team. Fortunately, these rote tasks can be automated, cutting a great deal of uncertainty and presumed bias out of the process.

When agents have primary responsibility for entering the data and work preferences used to produce their schedules ' and better yet, when they see instant feedback provided in a clear, neutral fashion ' everybody wins. Agents see that their requests and scheduling priorities are being handled according to a set of established, impartial rules. And they are able to get the schedules they want without believing that change requests are regarded as an inconvenience or special favor by the management.

Self-service tools in the contact center are not, as some supervisors fear, productivity-killing toys that produce nothing but additional conflicts.

The fact is that the manual, closed-curtain practices that have governed many contact center operations for so long create an unhealthy paranoia and distrust. Given no insight and little influence into processes such as scheduling and advancement recognition, some agents will come to believe that scheduling is a hidden, manual process that is out to 'get' them. Self-service quells those doubts because information is provided openly and typically, responses for tactical issues, such as accepting or rejecting a day-off request, can be generated almost instantaneously.

Meanwhile, management is freed from poring over scheduling requests and is protected from fairness disputes. Additionally, agents can be confident that all requests have been handled fairly and objectively. This is a good thing, considering that the typical holiday time-off request in a manually managed organization looks something like this:

' Multiple agents send an e-mail to the supervisor requesting the same day off.

' The supervisor, inundated with such requests, sends all of these requests to a vacation planner or scheduling specialist.

' The specialist reports back to the supervisor how many applications can be accepted and how many must be rejected to maintain staffing requirements.

' The supervisor decides whose applications to take, or goes back to the employees and requests that a certain number of employees retract their requests ' perhaps by offering an incentive.

Clearly, throughout this process, too much time has been spent focusing on scheduling, and not enough time on improving the core business of the contact center. With self-service, even organizations with dedicated workforce management specialists benefit. When the workforce is managed in a self-service fashion using agent input and automation, resource managers are free to spend more of their time analyzing schedule adherence and shrinkage as well as developing overall policy recommendations and strategy implementations.

Agents working in a self-service environment come to feel they are self-managing ' which gives them a sense of empowerment. When they have the capability to look at their own performance statistics and evaluate their activities against the goals of the organization, a number of them will have the self-discipline to recognize when they are behind and take steps to improve.

The conventional alternative involves supervisor browbeating days or even weeks after the fact, because in most contact centers that don't have self-service capabilities, managers typically get large packages of statistical data on their agents on an irregular schedule. They must then analyze the data and decide which agents to bring in for coaching.

The same systems and procedures that enable agent self-service create greater management productivity and timely intervention. Self-service and the timely delivery of analysis take administrative repetition out of the equation while giving supervisors the opportunity to take action when their agents need it most, whether for corrections or congratulations.

Making Self-Service Work
The self-service, self-directed contact center workforce can and must start with preliminary agent training. As a key component of introducing this new working environment to agents, one or more members of the workforce training team should instruct new hires on the use of the self-service tools the organization provides to all its members, along with basic orientation on the 'rules of engagement' for requesting and checking schedule alterations.

This is the first and ultimately best opportunity to deflect any organizational concerns that self-service tools will be over-used or used at inappropriate times. For instance, agents who are spending time looking for someone with whom to trade schedules can easily become a source of distraction and counter-productivity. Trainers can put the use of self-service tools directly in context with schedule adherence and company etiquette, explaining how and when the tools can be used most effectively. They can also show agents how to propose changes or exchanges with co-workers in a way that minimizes distraction and maximizes chances for success.

Whatever the approach, agents should be aware of the role statistics play in the organization, and that they are not something to be used against employees. Employees should understand that the scheduling statistics are available on-demand for agents to examine and analyze.

This approach delivers vital information to agents about exactly how their job performance will be evaluated, and gives them the opportunity to initiate their own changes in working behavior if their performance is clearly not meeting expectations. Organizations that do not use conventional desktop computers or do not open their intranet to agent desktops can set up functional kiosks around work and break spaces for agents to use throughout the work week while off the queue to update their schedules and evaluate their performance.

Self-Service: A Confidence Builder
Self-service engenders confidence. Given the right tools and insights, agents can quickly view and understand their responsibilities, and at the same time get the message that the company is fairly, accurately and consistently dealing with its employees on crucial issues such as scheduling and performance recognition.

In an organization of any appreciable size, the benefits of this transparency cannot be overestimated. If agents see themselves as virtually indistinguishable cogs in a large machine, they may have little reason to believe their individual needs are being heard and understood by management. Management becomes a dark and mysterious void to employees, one which hands out the schedule every week or two and does little else to interest the employees. In this situation, it is too easy to believe that one's requests aren't being taken seriously, evaluated fairly or even viewed at all.

The instant feedback and traceable, rules-driven results that come with agent self-service systems alleviate that anxiety and make scheduling exactly what it should be ' business, not personal. Self-service also leads to better and more needs-based deployment of training. Employees can be presented with a clear, concrete evaluation of their skills and performance. They also have an opportunity to schedule training or even launch e-learning sessions directly from their desktops, depending on how training is deployed to the workforce.

Managers can also 'help themselves' to detailed reporting on each agent, breaking down performance either by the day, hour or even by the type of call handled, depending on the level of detail recorded and shared between the automated call distribution (ACD) system and the self-service application.

This allows managers to build a key understanding of agents without having to call lengthy all-hands or one-on-one meetings simply to discuss small trends in work results. Most importantly to managers in their supervisory role, the presentation of statistics and reporting for agents can be 'pushed' as well as 'pulled.' Self-service systems can provide alerts to agents when their performance is out of certain boundaries that have been defined by the organization.

This takes the pressure off coaches and supervisors to be the face of bad tidings, and instead puts them in a perfect position to follow up on the results delivered via self-service. Management can act as interpreters of the reports and guide agents toward improvement or correction, focusing on positive developments rather than spreading dread.

Self-service does not replace the need for coaching and development by supervisors. It makes coaching and development more effective by giving agents a solid understanding of where they are in the organization even before any coaching occurs. It also gives them a clear-cut method to monitor their progress after they have been given a new direction.

Self-service in the contact center can begin tasks that are simple yet crucial: scheduling and schedule trades, exceptions, work preferences, performance statistics and the management of time off. But it also has the potential to do much more. It can lead to a sense of empowerment and better job satisfaction among the workforce. It can also become the bridge between agents and managers. By creating and maintaining an environment that rewards looking out for one's own interests as well as keeping a careful eye on company goals and performance, self-service creates value and ownership at the individual employee level.

It can also spare management from administrative burdens, freeing them to focus on bolstering and maintaining peak performance and operational integrity. Once agents see the power that self-service can bring them, they will be more likely to stick with the company over the long term. Based on these benefits, more companies are finding investments in agent self-service technology much easier to justify. CIS

Rick Seeley has more than 15 years of contact center management experience. Prior to joining IEX (www.iex.com) (news - alerts) as a workforce management and optimization technology consultant, he was a contact center manager at Brinks Home Security. In addition to his contact center management experience, Seeley was a founding member of the Board of Advisors for the Society of Workforce Planning Professionals (SWPP). He can be reached via e-mail at [email protected].

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