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October 2008 | Volume 27 / Number 5
Listen and Learn

Beyond the Numbers Game

By Joe Fleischer
When you encounter a phrase like "workforce optimization," it’s understandable if your first impulse is to dismiss the term. The idea of optimizing something as abstract as a workforce seems to come from a mindset that perceives call center agents only as units of labor. But in practice, we don’t aim to optimize agents. Instead, we aim to optimize how agents use their time.

For a call center, the ability of agents to manage their time has greater implications than whether agents follow their schedules. Call center managers expect that, at a minimum, agents are available to assist customers. But agents’ schedules don’t revolve entirely around work. Many agents seek employment in call centers so that they can have flexibility outside work. Like call center managers, agents have expectations. At a minimum, agents want their employers to recognize the circumstances when they are most productive. For call centers, the cost of not offering flexible schedules is turnover.

Call center agents are not the only members of the workforce who choose what they do for a living based on how wellequipped their employers are to accommodate their schedules. To offer sufficient flexibility to attract and retain people who are most effective at serving customers, companies are looking to call centers for guidance.

As I and some of my colleagues in the call center field have observed, bank branches and retail stores are starting to use many of the same scheduling software tools that call centers have relied on for years. I suspect that one reason companies have broadened their use of scheduling software is that as call centers receive greater attention and earn greater influence within their organizations, so too do the types of tools call centers depend on.

Consider the variables that call centers take into account when they schedule agents. These variables include the reasons that customers call, the skills that enable agents to fulfill customers’ most typical requests and the level of proficiency agents demonstrate with each skill. It’s hardly surprising that when you schedule people who serve customers in retail operations, you come across variables that are similar to those you encounter when you schedule agents in call centers. That’s because in terms of their functions, call centers have often replaced or served as adjuncts to retail operations, such as walk-in payment centers.

But a reverse trend, especially with banks, is that retail sites are emerging as adjuncts to call centers. When a company recognizes that its customer service staff spans a continuum of care, then it has an opportunity to achieve economies of scale by managing schedules not only for call center agents, but for all employees who serve customers. Beyond the realm of customer service, companies can apply call centers’ scheduling techniques to assign back-office work, like programming or accounting, to correspond to different projects or constituents. In effect, companies can learn from call centers how to manage employees’ time and determine their priorities.

The problem is that if we think only in these terms, then we run the risk of defining employees, as we noted earlier, only as units of labor. Scheduling people is more than a numbers game. When companies evaluate agents on the basis of how much time they communicate with customers, they convey an inadvertent lesson that the quantity of time matters more than the quality of agents’ service. For a call center to be more than a factory, it has to set aside, rather than dictate, time agents devote to improving their service to customers.

One of the advantages of using scheduling software both within and beyond call centers is that these tools enable agents to dedicate time to perfecting their craft. For years, scheduling software has enabled call centers to come up with a variety of scenarios for how they train and evaluate agents without sacrificing their overall responsiveness to customers.

There is much that various types of organizations can learn from the way call centers optimize their employees’ time. First, call centers use workforce management tools, which give them the flexibility to hire people whose schedules other workplaces haven’t yet figured out how to accommodate. Second, call centers are adept at setting aside the time employees need away from customers, such as time for coaching, so that employees continually learn how to serve customers better. Third, and most important, because call centers help agents use their time most efficiently when they’re at work, they enable agents to devote time to aspects of their lives that matter far more.

Joe Fleischer has covered the call center industry for more than 11 years. With Brendan Read, he co-authored the book The Complete Guide to Customer Support.

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