Why workforce management and customer experience go hand in hand

Associate workforce management, or WFM, and customer experience have more in common than you might think.

Contact centers are typically considered cost centers, and call center employees are viewed as the organization's greatest expense. Today, when budgets are lean but customer service is a competitive differentiator, companies are challenged to deliver the best service within budget. Workforce management (WFM) software is a valuable tool in helping contact center managers reach this goal.

"Workforce management … forecasts volume and schedules people," said Donna Fluss, president of West Orange, N.J.-based DMG Consulting. "It forecasts the volume of incoming interactions, and once you know how many calls, emails and chat sessions you're going to get, scheduling software helps to figure out the optimal schedule employees should adhere to in order to handle calls within the service level."

Determining how many agents need to be scheduled at a given time isn't as straightforward as one might think. "If you have 25 people in your shop, you can manage your workforce on Excel. Maybe even 100, if you're just doing phone calls -- but it gets complicated when you're a multichannel, multisite environment," Fluss said.

Fluss explained that if an organization receives one call, it needs one agent; two calls, two agents. But if the organization receives three calls, it will queue the third instead of staffing a third agent. Workforce management applications help take advantage of economies of scale so, for example, you can ensure that 80% of calls are answered in 20 seconds or less. They also account for shrinkage when scheduling personnel -- when employees are on sick leave or vacation, or arrive to work late.

Workforce management vendors also offer modules that provide additional capabilities. Adherence modules, for example, ensure that agents are returning from breaks on time, and if not, notify the agent and the supervisor. Self-service modules allow agents to input their own schedules, request vacation or time off, and swap schedules with other agents.

"Ultimately, the raison d'être for workforce management is that if you have more reps than you need, you're throwing money down the drain," said Mitchell Lieber, president of Chicago-based Lieber and Associates, a call center consultancy. "If you have too few reps, you're throwing customers down the drain, in that they may wait too long, get frustrated and switch to another company. You don't want to lose customers, but you don't want to pay a lot of people to sit around with nothing to do, either."

"Workforce management gives you the tools to manage and optimize staff and, in doing so, keep your costs as low as possible," DMG Consulting's Fluss said.

In addition to reducing costs, optimizing the workforce can mean delivering better customer service. "The goal is not to lay people off," said George Larribas, executive vice president and head of client delivery at Wells Fargo's Treasury Management Group. "It's about taking it to the next level. How do we make the workforce more consultative, be more productive, reach out to customers and help them ahead of time?" As the organization improves its case volume, service agents can make outbound calls to proactively address customer needs.

Managing workforce management

"It's an incredibly powerful tool and can really optimize the bottom line and service to customers, but it really has to be managed," Lieber and Associates' Lieber said. A WFM system can make certain calculations, but the system needs the correct information and it has to be configured correctly. Because call centers are dynamic environments that change on a daily, if not hourly basis, the WFM software has to be capable of responding to that.

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WFM: The contact center equilibrium

Larribas' group at Wells Fargo uses customer survey data to help calibrate the organization's WFM software. He found a tipping point at which his staff ran lean, but customer satisfaction began to decrease. His agents brought their talk times down but couldn't identify the root cause of a customer's problems. "The only way to do that is to allow the call to take its natural progression," he said. "We need more team members as a result, but it also allows us to give good customer service."

The more agents you have, the more likely you'll need a full-time staff member to manage the WFM software. The larger the call center, the more important it is to account for variations in staff availability.

"Workforce management is easy to say, but doing it is complex-- you get into more robust systems. For companies with 1,000 or 2,000 agents, you have to staff people who just run these systems," Lieber and Associates' Lieber said. This should be taken into account when evaluating the software. "What is the learning curve? Who is going to run it? How much time is it going to take?"

Is workforce management worth the investment?

Despite the complexity of workforce management software and the need to dedicate human resources to it, experts agree it is a worthwhile investment. "If you're doing this stuff by gut [instinct], you're probably spending too much money on staff or not delivering services to customers because they're waiting longer than they would need to if you redistributed the staff," Lieber said.

"The traditional tipping point where companies should look at a robust solution is 50 agents," Lieber said. "However, now software is available that, rang[es] in price from hundreds of dollars to a few thousand that can make it worthwhile for smaller centers."

"If you have 50 or more agents, are multichannel or multisite, take a look at and seriously consider investing in workforce management," DMG Consulting's Fluss said. "It probably will have a relatively rapid payback within nine to18 months." She suggests that organizations that are not happy with a current WFM vendor consider other options. "Find a system you're comfortable using, that has the functionality you need and is from a vendor you're comfortable working with," she said.

About the author:
Crystal Bedell is a freelance technology writer. Connect with her via LinkedIn or email.

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