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Applying Inbound Techniques To Outbound In Workforce Management

By Nathan Stearns, IEX Corp.


Many outbound call center managers have always had a powerful workforce management tool that inbound managers have never had: control over call volume. Think of that control as a giant knob on a radio. When a person wanted to adjust the volume due to staffing issues, that person merely needed to 'reach for the knob.' In fact, in some outbound operations, the whole of outbound contact center workforce management (WFM) could be summed up as follows: Turn the knob up or turn the knob down.

The strong temptation to reach for that knob ' and the effectiveness of doing so ' is now being tempered by new business priorities. The cost containment movement born in the early years of this decade has not gone away. Over the past five years, virtually every aspect of the contact center ' inbound and outbound ' has been under serious scrutiny. These centers have had to answer hard questions about whether companies should own a center at all or turn to outsourcers.

The trend toward virtually sharing campaign lists and skills-based routing in the outbound center is leading to greater awareness of the potential for improved multisite and multiskill blended environments. In these environments, agents handle and supervisors manage both inbound and outbound calls within and between sites.

Applying Proven Techniques
To maintain operational and profitable excellence in the face of increased competition and outsourcing, outbound managers should consider the proven WFM strategies that inbound centers find indispensable. Many of the principles that improve effectiveness and efficiency in the inbound center are already directly applicable to the outbound center. Until recently, however, there were few formalized implementations of outbound WFM. Most have been quietly implemented by outbound managers who adapted conventional inbound WFM software to their own particular circumstances.

Applying WFM in the outbound center requires embracing many of the same scientific and value-focused principles that have guided the success of inbound WFM. But the gains are far from academic.

By migrating from a fixed scheduling practice to sophisticated forecasting, planning and scheduling processes, organizations can boost the return on personnel investment. This boost is delivered through improved planning, effective scheduling and skill matching. Taking a disciplined, proactive approach to outbound WFM ensures better capacity usage, schedule adherence and agent utilization. Using this technology, agents won't sit idle due to a foreseeable lack of dialer targets or overstaffing. And they won't be overworked due to resource constraints.

The more advanced outbound WFM systems can capitalize on the emergence of unified dialers and outbound center virtualization. Distributing calls to the next available agent across multiple sites ensures time zone 'hot spots,' or site-specific staffing issues, get the attention needed using whatever agent capacity is at hand.

A greater understanding of call trending and performance history will aid the center in working with clients such as marketing and accounts receivable groups to ensure calling lists are managed to a high standard of performance. This interdepartmental interaction raises an interesting question: Which outbound environments will see the greatest benefit from advanced WFM processes?

Collection Focused
The outbound centers that probably have the least need for advanced WFM practices are collections-focused organizations. These centers have clear revenue potential on every call and are often staffed by dedicated specialists, and agent utilization is typically high due to a steady and predictable stream of calling lists. These centers are also not subject to do-not-call constraints and other regulations. Even so, many are ill-equipped to deal with unexpected variances in call volumes or to staff down to the half-hour precision level afforded by a complete WFM solution.

Sales And Marketing
The sales and marketing centers that often have a complex array of campaigns running simultaneously are somewhat less well structured. They are frequently assembled on an ad-hoc basis and are short-lived. Because of these overlapping and oft-changing goals, outbound centers must manage competition for agent resources just as an inbound center must. But unlike inbound centers, many sales and marketing outbound centers attempt to manage without the benefit of advanced WFM. Without sophisticated WFM that supports skills-based forecasting, planning, scheduling and change management, the customer may not be getting the best service possible.

Customer Retention
Retention-focused campaigns may be the quickest win for outbound WFM. Typically, these churn-avoidance or blue-chip customer recognition campaigns are run in fits and starts, sometimes with an unclear understanding of performance. By adopting advanced WFM practices for blended environments, retention campaigns can be deployed to operate in inbound/outbound contact centers. This helps make the best use of idle time when the flow of calls decreases on the inbound side. Suddenly, these 'nice-to-have' campaigns, bolstering customer value, become a feasible and practical part of the center's mandate.

Taking It To The Next Level
Many outbound centers are moving to virtual dialers, where a campaign list is shared between multiple dialers and agent pools. In these multisite environments, managers need to understand how key inbound WFM concepts, such as schedule adherence, can benefit the outbound world.

Schedule adherence is often de-emphasized because of the call volume 'knob' outbound managers can employ. The real power of schedule adherence comes from the ability to create concrete call targets for each day ' down to the 15-minute operating interval. Centers can build schedules to fulfill targeted requirements, and then hold the agents and supervisors accountable for contributing to the success of the campaign by adhering to the schedule and plan, even a plan that spans multiple sites.

Schedule adherence is also critical to ensuring a smooth transition to longer and more diverse operating hours, which are needed to accommodate ever-increasing outbound regulations. Not long ago, it was typical to see outbound centers working limited operating hours. However, in order to increase revenue generation and better comply with federal and state regulations, outbound centers have expanded hours and days of operation while creating targeted dialing campaigns. This has the effect of creating volume curves resembling traditional inbound call patterns of peaks and valleys. Although providing increased accuracy for planning, these more detailed plans and schedules require advanced WFM process to successfully manage.

Effectiveness And Efficiency
Schedule efficiency metrics work hand-in-glove with schedule adherence. If a center is going to expand and diversify its hours, schedule efficiency measurements track whether the center is realizing the best return on investment (ROI) for each new operating period, based not only on observed call volumes but on occupancy and close rates as well. It can also identify places where the organization is overly reliant on unplanned time off or overtime staffing to meet the erratic campaign needs.

Although the outbound center's focus is often strictly on the ratio of closed sales or dollars collected, the advanced reporting and agent self-analysis tools provided by WFM solutions can bring a more complete view of performance, both to managers and to agents. For the first time, agents will be able to see the entire slate of criteria used to measure performance; and better WFM systems provide a balanced scorecard that gauges agents, not only on close rates, but on schedule adherence and overall call throughput.

The monitoring tools provided to managers will give them unprecedented control over their own operations. No longer will they have to sit by while agents do nothing because of insufficient calls in a particular dialer queue. Management choices expand beyond the 'call volume knob' to include proactive, profit-protecting and revenue-generating activities.

Managing The Transition
Just as it is in the inbound center, successfully adopting workforce management is about more than technology, advanced planning techniques and performance measures (such as adherence). Before moving to WFM-based practices in the outbound contact center, companies must be prepared to clearly articulate their strategy to employees.

It is no secret that many contact center veterans have shifted from inbound centers to outbound operations, the goal being to elude the scrutiny workforce management brings to bear on their activities. Any extension or reorientation of an outbound center's hours and staffing patterns ' as a result of the ability to schedule with greater flexibility and precision ' could be a tricky internal sell to an outbound staff accustomed to predictability and consistency. Maintaining both morale and proper levels of training and supervision are just as important as bolstering efficiency. Without a clear transition plan that includes creating and communicating benefits to employees, the adoption of advanced WFM techniques can turn into a significant problem.

Support Corporate Goals
Many outbound contact centers have operated without clearly articulated or functioning WFM processes for years. But the motivation to get more serious and more scientific about behavior and activity on the dialer side of the house is clear. WFM affords greater accountability and flexibility to managers who, until now, have had little visibility and little basis on which to make informed choices about operations. Greater control leads not only to greater accountability, but to processes of constant improvement which only further highlight the pivotal role the outbound center plays in supporting corporate goals and profits. Retire the call volume knob in favor of solutions that matter. CIS

Nathan Stearns is the director of training and consulting services for IEX Corporation, a provider of contact center workforce management and optimization technology. Inquiries can be sent to [email protected].

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