Call Center Solutions: An Overview of Workforce Management (WFM)

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Workforce optimization goes beyond agent performance

Many of today's WFO solutions really only focus on improving agent performance, which is not to say that is bad or undesirable, since just a few short years ago WFM was strictly focused on forecasting call volumes to determine necessary staffing levels and to automate the agent scheduling process.

This section will break down the individual components of a WFO solution that can affect agent performance directly, with the bulk of the focus on the traditional WFM segment, which still attracts the most attention from today's call centers.

Workforce management solutions in call centers

Traditional WFM solutions are excellent means of projecting yearly and monthly call volumes to help determine staffing and recruiting requirements; understanding daily and intraday volume trends to assign agent schedules, including break and training times; and monitoring adherence to the established schedules through the use of real-time displays or system reports that can focus on a specific agent. It is important to remember that call center managers and supervisors were performing these tasks before this technology entered the scene. Therefore, WFM is essentially a process, not a technology or a software solution. It is the process of forecasting demand, scheduling staff to meet the demand, and monitoring the staff's adherence to the schedules so that the expected demand can be handled effectively.

As a process enabler, companies can install a WFM software solution, which allows an organization to perform these functions more quickly and with much greater precision. This distinction is important because all too often a center will purchase a WFM package and then stop performing the process, expecting the software to take care of everything. So, without the proper processes in place first, the technology will only produce the same poor results faster. As a result, the promised return on investment (ROI) never materializes for the company because the WFM software is simply an automated schedule builder. The finer points of the software and the bulk of the opportunity related to agent productivity as a result of improved planning and staffing are missed completely. Therefore, a WFM software solution will not replace the need for a dedicated resource to be responsible for the forecasting and scheduling in a call center. This individual's role will change to one of an administrator who sets parameters on the front end, examines and accounts for exceptions within the process, and reviews the final output. This person constantly compares actual results with forecasted and scheduled results and tweaks software parameters to improve future results.

In centers that use the technology to its capacity, they constantly evaluate volume forecasts as each day of the week and hour of the day occur, making adjustments accordingly. For example, if intraday volumes indicate significantly higher or lower volumes than forecasted several weeks before when the schedules were originally published, extra staff can be called in or agents can be contacted and asked to stay home. These tools help the center to eliminate unnecessary costs and take advantage of incremental opportunities as they are presented.

Many packages allow agents to view their schedules via a Web browser connected to the company network. Agents are typically authorized to request time off, swap shifts, and view remaining sick or vacation time over this connection. Some solutions, when implemented in conjunction with an Integrated Voice Response (IVR), enable agents to call in sick to the automated service, which will alert the supervisor and record as a sick day used in the WFM software. The software will then alert the center manager or a designated supervisor if agent shrinkage becomes too great for the day so that additional resources can be called in to the center.

One of the trends that has been growing throughout Europe and has spread to the United States is the demand for a robust scheduling solution that prioritizes agent preferences. As work rules in Europe have changed and the demands of the core agent demographic (Millennials) has shifted, center managers have begun to ask for scheduling capabilities that won't further erode the employee retention rates. Of course, center managers must remain cognizant of the impact that preference-based scheduling can have on productivity, coverage, and service levels. But the powerful forecasting and scheduling tools available on today's market offer managers the ability to meet these dynamic needs.

Most of today's WFM products offer a Virtual Call Center solution that allows forecasting, scheduling, and even the updating of call flows by communicating with the ACD (automatic call distributor) to be managed by a single person for multiple call center sites. In addition, WFM systems have the capacity to handle forecasting and scheduling for multiple interaction channels, including agents that are cross-trained to handle two or more channels in a shift or even simultaneously.

To benefit the administrator of the software, most vendors allow specific agent preferences to be incorporated so that they are not scheduled on days or at times whey they cannot or will not work. They also allow identical changes to be made by the administrator to more than one agent simultaneously. Schedule bidding is another common feature that permits agents to bid on the schedules that the administrator finalized in the system. Often, bidding is done by seniority, which is one of the work rules that has recently been implemented throughout Europe. However, some organizations have instituted performance-based bidding rules to reward the top agents and to provide an incentive for others to boost their own performance.

To speed the forecasting process, most vendors include some type of automatic feed of data from phone switch or ACD to the WFM software. Some basic versions are on the market where manual downloading of files from one database to another is required.

Social media management in call centers

As mentioned, WFM solutions offer centers the ability to forecast, schedule, and measure performance for multiple channels. This includes Web and social media channels such as email, live chat, Facebook posts, blog comments, and Twitter feeds.

Each channel has distinct types of customers with unique preferences and expectations. For example, a consumer has a much higher expectation for timely responses when communicating with a company over live chat versus email. So the parameters that are established in the WFM solution for email responses may be as much as 24 hours, whereas the expectation of service over live chat is connecting with an agent in less than two minutes.

Responding to customer posts on a blog or on Facebook can be reasonably handled within a business day. But comments tweeted out on Twitter can cascade very quickly, so an expedited response may be required.

Call monitoring/recording in call centers

Historically a popular stand-alone solution, call monitoring and recording technology, has been added to WFM suites in recent years. Most call centers employ ACDs with functionality that allows supervisors to monitor or "listen in" to agent calls. A host of companies offer solutions that record, either based on a specific schedule or on a full-time basis, agent phone calls for review at a later time. WFM providers simply added this technology, through their own production efforts, partnerships with other firms, or strategic acquisitions, to their suite. 

Current solutions allow management to flag recordings by call type so that they can maximize their time reviewing calls they deem relevant or important. For example, in a reservation center, management may want to focus their limited monitoring capacity to calls in which customers are inquiring about rates and service details. In a customer care environment, they may choose to focus on calls in which customers have a certain complaint.

Another new feature provides for digitized scoring in which supervisors can log scores to established parameters as they listen to the call. Some solutions link the audio and video (actually a "movie" of the screens the agent accessed as they spoke with the customer) to the score sheet so that authorized personnel, including the agent, can access them all at once.

These solutions help management identify specific areas of opportunity for each agent to improve what they say to customers, the manner in which they say it, and how long it takes them to complete the call in a qualitative way.

Analytics for call centers

Agent performance analytics systems are data repositories that help management generate reports to determine agent effectiveness as well as overall team and center productivity. ACDs offer reports like average handle times, agent availability, and calls per hour. WFM solutions help expand performance analytics by offering integrated system reports. Management perceives trends that are difficult to quantify but now can have relevant statistics to validate or dismiss their theory. For example, the call center manager may feel that agents are having difficulty selling a new product, which is evident from the low sales numbers, but they cannot determine why. If the call monitoring/scoring parameters are setup properly, the manager can query the database to determine the cause of the poor sales figures. They can correlate the strong call monitoring scores with those that are performing well and compare them with those that are not performing well. Then they can access the call recordings to hear the different delivery techniques to remedy the situation.

e-Learning in call centers

e-learning solutions work well in conjunction with call recording/scoring and agent analytics systems. The call scoring and analytics help determine training opportunities within the center. e-learning is a mechanism that can circumvent the need for setting time aside for large groups of agents that require training in a specific area. e-learning enables the training team to develop instructional tools that an agent can access from his or her desktop. The e-learning solution, linked with analytics, provides details as to who received what training; if tests were created, it records how each agent performed; and it allows home or remote agents to have the same training as the in-house agent.

Call Routing in call centers

ACDs offer effective call routing technology. However, a call routing solution integrated with WFM can improve center performance drastically. As centers expand customer interaction to other avenues of communication, such as social media, e-mail, and Web chat, and increase the scope of their operation to include multiple sites and home agents, routing strategies are essential. In addition, more centers are adding integrated voice response (IVR) systems that segment callers based on the options they select from the menu. Agents are designated to handle call types based on assigned skill sets. As a greater number of specialties develop within the center, management must ensure proper staffing levels and appropriate schedules for each unique skill set. Only a solution that integrates call volume forecasts, IVR menu selections, agent skill sets, and scheduling functions can effectively manage today's call center,

Benefits of workforce management for mobile operations

One of the newest groups within a business that can benefit from WFM solutions include field services organizations, which provide on-site services or support. WFM systems can help schedule field resources more effectively, offering customers a more refined time frame to expect the service for improved satisfaction. Integrated with mobile services applications, customers can automatically be contacted if the expected time of their appointment is altered. Most of us are familiar with the old phone or cable company service calls in which they provide the customer with a 4-to-6-hour window in which the technician can show up for the service call. Invariably, at least if you are the consumer, you feel as if they always come at the very end of that window, causing you to waste 4 or more hours of your day. WFM applications specifically designed for field services scheduling can help provide customers with much more accurate projections.

The future of call center technology

For operations that have already incorporated and effectively implemented WFM solutions as well as firms looking to make an investment in this arena for the first time, additional workforce optimization technologies are becoming increasingly attractive. As contact centers spend almost $7 billion in staffing and training costs each year, largely caused by employee churn, e-learning and agent performance analytics technologies, which both go hand-in-hand with an effective call monitoring plan, are expected to close the gap with traditional WFM solutions.

Overall, implementing a WFM or WFO solution is not as simple as picking out software. It requires taking a 360-degree look at how a center currently manages its staff and then assessing where WFM fits into that model. It also means having an understanding of where the center is headed and determining its future needs. Management must understand that a WFM package will not replace manpower or miraculously solve all staffing or scheduling issues. Essentially, as long as call centers exist, there will be a need for WFM. And as long as there is the process of WFM, there will be a need for solutions to aid in the process. Any center should be wary of the statistics that show how under-utilized most WFM solutions are. Many firms spare no expense on the solution but suddenly get penny wise and pound foolish by shirking on the WFM training programs that are offered.

About the Author

Sheree Van Vreede is a technical resume writer and brand strategist with ITtechExec and an independent consultant who has worked with the IEEE in the fields of telecommunications, information technology, and various scientific- and engineering-related issues. She works with IEEE Standards as well, helping to publish guidelines for technological processes.

This article is based on a comprehensive report published by Faulkner Information Services, a division of Information Today, Inc., that provides a wide range of reports in the IT, telecommunications, and security fields. For more information, visit www.faulkner.com.

Copyright 2013, Faulkner Information Services. All Rights Reserved.

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