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Contact center admin: Life without management tools 'is hell'

Anticipating call volume, juggling agents' schedules and monitoring employee performance aren't easy tasks. That's why workforce automation management software is so popular.

Rick Seeley is no acrobat, but his job managing the call center workforce at Brink's Home Security Inc. forces him to walk a tightrope every day.

It's Seeley's responsibility to make sure the Irving, Texas, center is properly staffed round the clock. That means juggling 400 agents' schedules and making sure that the right staffers with the right skills are at the phones to field 180,000 inbound customer service calls each month and make 300,000 outbound security checks. To complicate matters, Seeley must adjust staff levels to meet demand at peak times, like when inclement weather triggers home alarms.

Seeley now depends on workforce management automation software to take the guesswork out of scheduling -- and the massive scheduling spreadsheet out of his hands.

"I've worked at call centers without [workforce management] software before," Seeley said. "There is no purgatory. A call center with no software is hell."

A good workforce management automation system does several things, according to Penny Reynolds, co-founder of the Call Center School, a Nashville, Tenn.-based contact center consultancy. It analyzes historical patterns to predict call volume, calculates staff requirements, sets employee schedules and tracks agents' performance. Reynolds said workforce management software is advisable for centers that have more than 40 agents and which are likely to experience unforeseen events that affect scheduling.

"It's the complexity of the operation, not just the size of the staff," she said.

Reynolds cautions companies to take great pains when selecting a vendor, which means giving more than just a cursory glance at providers' financial stability. With more than a dozen vendors serving the market, the workforce management arena is ripe for a shakeout, she said.

Some of the larger workforce management vendors today include Aspect Communications Corp. (which got into the game with its acquisition of TCS Management Group Inc.), CenterForce Technologies Inc. (which now includes RightForce Inc., since the companies merged), IEX Corp., Blue Pumpkin Inc., Genesys and Pipkins Inc.

Reynolds said that businesses investigating workforce management shouldn't be scared off by the seemingly hefty price tag of comprehensive packages. Prices escalate significantly from a single module solution to an integrated suite. Businesses should also realize that workforce management software systems are "not simple, off-the-shelf packages," she said. Ongoing support, training and documentation are important factors to consider.

Licensing, implementation and training fees range from just a few thousand dollars for basic scheduling functionality to hundreds of thousands of dollars for several hundred agents and added features. Most vendors charge 15% annually for maintenance and support.

Reynolds said that it's relatively easy to justify an investment in workforce management software, even when the budgetary belt is tight.

"It's pretty quick ROI," she said. "This software is very cost effective." Among the benefits organizations can expect are efficiencies in scheduling that save man-hours, automation of certain tasks, reduced head count, improved customer service levels and revenue growth.

Seeley estimates that Brink's Home Security has spent roughly $1 million on workforce management-related software, hardware and maintenance since deploying it five years ago. But he said the Aspect Communications suite -- including forecasting, scheduling, automation vacation scheduling and agent monitoring -- paid for itself within two years. Brink's credits the software with setting appropriate staffing levels, helping it meet defined service levels and, perhaps most important, ensuring that all call center departments made budget for two years running.

Seeley recommends that call center managers be up front with their staff and convince agents of the value of the system, especially since the software is monitoring their work.

"It's a morale thing," he said. "You have to get their buy-in."

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