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Mission-Critical Workforce Scheduling: Hosted Solutions Are the Answer

1 May, 2007

By: Drew Judkins

Modern contact centers are tossing aside their spreadsheets in favor of more flexible, feature-rich, hosted tools suited to the dynamic nature of contact centers. During the last decade, contact center technology providers have made significant advances that can boost operational efficiency and effectiveness by giving managers more control over their constantly changing environment. Now, hosted workforce management (WFM) products that are integrated with the contact-handling system and retain knowledge about the frontline population, facilitate real-time communications between mangers and frontline agents and improve tracking of real-time schedule adherence, while reducing the complexity and associated costs.

Contact center managers have traditionally approached scheduling through expensive forecasting tools or inexpensive spreadsheets and gut instinct. While these techniques have helped develop shift-level schedules, this process has inherent weaknesses.

The shift-based model was never intended to support the scheduling flexibility required for managing a large workforce or a distributed workforce. These old methods can translate into overstaffed or understaffed situations that lead to increased labor costs or poor customer experiences.

There is an industry-wide need for software that can accurately forecast demand and simulate activity, revealing supply/demand mismatches based on skill groups. Managers need automation tools that can quickly communicate schedule changes to on-call agents via their communication method of choice, such as phone, e-mail, chat and/or text messaging.

The New Breed of WFM Solutions

The best of the new breed of WFM solutions for contact centers is a hosted solution that is integrated with an ACD system and takes into account variables unique to the contact center industry, such as multi-skilled agents, agent proficiency levels and mixed contact media. These WFM products are typically offered as an add-on module to an existing contact center solution. Or, if purchased from the same vendor providing the ACD, IVR and agent monitoring tools, they come pre-integrated with the core technologies as an all-in-one solution.

These new tools significantly reduce the time to create weekly and monthly schedules. Skills-based forecasting and dynamic, rules-based matching of agents-to-forecasted demand can streamline the staffing process, producing a list of pre-qualified agents from which the manager can select for automatic notification.

The experience of Jodi Smith, call center manager with eCallogy, an outsource service provider based in Salt Lake City, demonstrates the time-saving nature of an automated workforce scheduling system. eCallogy is somewhat unique, said Smith, because the 60-person workforce she supports is made up of independent contractors working from home. “You can’t force a contractor into a specific schedule or assign them to a shift,” she explained. “They have to bid on the shifts they want.”

As a result, it used to take Smith about eight hours to create the shifts, send e-mails to contractors, process responses, then build her weekly schedule within a spreadsheet, based on the received bids. “Now, our hosted, automated WFM tool, I’m able to pull a forecast based on last week’s data from the integrated ACD, then adjust based on this week’s specifics.” To select their shifts, each contractor logs into a browser-based interface and clicks the “bid” button on each shift desired. When the shift is filled, the bid button disappears. Putting a shift up for trade is equally as easy and managed by each contractor. The whole process is automated and takes Smith about 30 minutes to prepare and post. “The great thing about this system is I’m totally out of the loop in terms of managing the bid and shift-trade processes,” remarked Smith.

Dialogue Marketing was also using a manual spreadsheet scheduling approach to support a three-center, 750-person operation. It was taking Marci Broumas, staffing coordinator of the Michigan-based company, seven hours to complete her weekly staffing schedule. “The new [hosted] scheduling tool allows us to create schedules based on agent skill groups, saving me a lot of time and creating a culture of accountability,” explained Broumas. “If an agent needs to request time off, they go online, post a time-off request and another agent can accept that request. I simply get notified and approve the exchange.”

Automated schedule validation is another advancement in hosted workforce management technology. Until recently, validation of the schedule meant waiting to see if the center was overstaffed or understaffed, then trying to compensate for that situation manually. Today, hosted WFM solutions enable managers to “test” a proposed schedule by simulating predicted call volumes against the proposed staffing resources, then viewing the impact of volume changes over time in much the same way automakers and other manufacturers simulate an automated assembly line.

Hosted WFM solutions affect both managers and agents, so it makes sense that agents should be involved in the scheduling process at more than just the weekly schedule notification stage. With a hosted WFM solution, integrated with the call-handling system, agents can configure their communication method of choice through a browser-based interface, update their availability or preferred shift windows and enter time-off requests. These tools typically capitalize on standard contact center features, such as programmable outbound/inbound IVR and ACD functions, as well as e-mail scripting. These features are used to automatically notify agents of schedule requests, notify managers of agent availability changes, and allow both to accept or reject the updated data, which feeds back into the scheduling logic to keep the view of supply and demand accurate and up-to-date.

When evaluating WFM automation tools, look for a hosted solution that utilizes an easy-to-learn browser interface for both managers and agents. If your workers are home-based, this should become a requirement, as a hosted solution removes the IT complexity off-site. Users indicate that hosted contact center solutions have an efficiency advantage when it comes to supporting a distributed workforce, especially the new all-in-one solutions that integrate the IVR/ACD system with the WFM features.

If That’s What’s New, What’s Next?

The pioneers of contact center WFM solutions are clearly on the right track with new tools for improving the basic scheduling process and avoiding most major staffing crises. But what about the inefficiencies that result from short-notice emergency staffing needs, like the evening during peak call volume when half of the remote agents scheduled to work are unavailable due to weather-related road conditions? Or during the day shift when call volume drops unexpectedly to 40 percent of forecasted volume?

Scheduling software must evolve to provide rapid-response tools for unexpected events that impact staffing efficiency at the sub-shift level. Managers need better tools with which to handle unexpected intraday variances --- tools that help them quickly alert temporary help to address unplanned volume spikes. Likewise, no manager enjoys reducing inventory — sending good agents home — when demand decreases with little warning, especially if there’s a reasonable chance inbound volume will pick-up again before the next shift begins.

Cutting-edge hosted WFM applications are targeting this problem with tools to fill urgent needs. To do this correctly, managers must be able to perform the following:

• Identify the urgent need. This implies that the ACD system must be feeding real-time data to the manager.

• Quickly identify agents who could potentially fill the need. In the overstaffed scenario, this is as simple as knowing who’s on the job and filtering that list by variables such as hours worked in the shift or collectively for the week. But in a short-term understaffed scenario, it’s more complicated. In a multi-skilled environment, the manager needs to have a clear and accurate snapshot of which agents have the skills to meet the staffing needs, and then be able to whittle down the prospective agents by proficiency on the needed skill as well as the other “hours already worked” variables.

• Efficiently communicate the request to selected agents. Ideally, agents would have configured their own best methods of personal contact — such as one or more phone numbers, instant message accounts, text message addresses, or e-mail addresses—each method supporting some form of automated notification from the WFM system. The most intelligent rapid-needs-fulfillment tools will be able to filter agents by skill, proficiency, availability and by contact methods so the anxious manager doesn’t need to wait for e-mail responses from some agents if there are other valid agents who the system can reach by phone. The software should be able to simplify and streamline the entire notification process, thus saving the manager from inefficient trial-and-error attempts.

• Manage responses to urgent requests. No manager wants to waste time hearing excuses from agents about why they can’t come in on such short notice. Best-of-breed, urgent-need solutions will have a response management interface, similar to the real-time dashboard tools in ACD software, giving current information about who has been successfully contacted about the need, who has declined the request, who has accepted the request, and who needs to communicate directly with the manager about the request before declining or accepting.

Clearly, innovation isn’t dead in contact center technology. In the hosted WFM space specifically, tools are evolving at an exciting pace.

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