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Call center workforce optimization (WFO): Pros and cons

Workforce optimization software is being deployed in more and more call centers as organizations look to optimize their call center and other business processes in a single, unified system. Learn the pros and cons of workforce optimization and get tips for building a business case for WFO in this article by expert Richard Snow.

Every call center is under severe cost pressures, so minimizing the number of call center agents and best utilizing...

the agents you have are the most obvious ways to save money. This cannot be done without careful consideration, however, because having too few available agents with the right skills will increase queue times and result in lower first call resolution -- two things that often lead to poor customer experiences.

To solve this common problem, specialist agent workforce management (WFM) products were developed. Initially, WFM was designed to allow companies to use historic call patterns to forecast the required number and skill requirements of agents. Companies also used WFM to produce their work schedules in the call center. 

Gradually, WFM vendors added functionality to these tools to include time management and the management of call center agent training and coaching, alongside ever-more comprehensive reporting and analysis. But even this was not enough for some companies, so certain vendors added a new module that takes these schedules and, based on a series of rules and algorithms, optimizes the agent work schedules to the nearest best fit of expected call patterns. This new product suite is now termed workforce optimization (WFO).

Why do call centers use WFM?

WFM is all about assigning the right employees with the right skills to the right job at the right time. Although that may sound simple, it represents a complex business challenge in the call center because of the unpredictable volume and pattern of calls and the variety of skills that agents must be trained in to handle different types of customer calls. A recent Ventana Research benchmark study on the core call center technologies showed significant variations in how companies approach this issue. The 2007 study included 395 responses from senior operational business and IT managers running call centers of 10 to 2,500+ seats across the globe, in many different industries.

The results showed that 20% of companies felt comfortable working out schedules manually, 22% had developed a system of their own, 32% resorted to Excel spreadsheets, and the remaining 26% had invested in a specialist WFM product. The results showed a clear link between the number of seats in a call center and the system that companies use – the bigger the call center, the more likely the adoption of a specialist product, while medium-sized call centers were most likely to develop an in-house solution, and small call centers usually opted for Excel. The use of a specialist product shows clear advantages over the other three because it standardizes and automates agent staff planning, thereby ensuring as far as possible that the profile of agents available is in line with requirements.

The specialist WFM products typically include these core modules:

a. Requirement forecasting – This works on historical call patterns and volumes to predict how many agents, with what skills, will be required to meet future demand (assuming future demand remains the same or stays within set parameters). This forecasting can be relatively short term or can stretch to encompass several years. Most products also forecast any additional recruitment needs, again based on historical numbers of leavers and set parameters. Many also come with a "what if" capability so managers can see the probable outcome of changing call handling times, opening a new center, changing labor costs, new legislation, changes in operating hours, and so on.

b. Work schedule planning – This produces work plans for agents and typically shows what agents will be doing in 15-minute intervals. It can include tasks such as handling calls, handling other interactions, breaks, training sessions, coaching sessions, and so on. Agent scheduling will typically take into account planned team structures, shift patterns and skill requirements. More advanced products also include an option whereby agents can enter their own preferred work times and the remaining schedules can be built around their preferences.

c. Time management – This tracks agent adherence to planned schedules and determines agent work time accounts.

d. Analysis and monitoring – This provides comprehensive reporting and analysis so companies see whether the results match targets, and, if not, they can then take quick and effective action to rectify any deviations.

e. In addition to the core modules, some vendors include optional modules that support:

i. eLearning -- creation and delivery of eLearning sessions
ii. Coaching -- management of more formalized agent coaching sessions
iii. Quality monitoring -- management of the agent assessment and appraisal process

How is WFO different from WFM?

WFO builds on top of the standard WFM modules and adds the ability to fine-tune work schedules so they best fit a number of different rules. This is no easy task. Just by applying simple mathematics, you could come up with 800 million options for scheduling just 25 agents starting work at three different shift times. Expand that to a few hundred agents working multiple shifts, and include skill requirements, break times and training/coaching/appraisal sessions, and the number of combinations is huge. Typically, WFO allows companies to set up these rules and then -- based on these and a number of specialist algorithms -- it will run through multiple options until it finds the one that best fits all the requirements.

Benefits of using WFM and WFO

The introduction of a WFM solution with WFO will generate immediate benefits:

1. Better customer service -- Agents with the right skills will be on the job exactly when they're needed, reducing queue times and avoiding excessive idle time.

2. Reduced personnel costs -- Increasing agent utilization, reducing non-productive downtime and reducing agent overtime will result in decreased personnel costs.

3. Lower costs for recruitment and training -- Schedules will be fairer, since you'll be able to take into account employees' work assignment preferences. In turn, that will result in reduced staff turnover and subsequent recruitment and training costs.

4. More flexibility to cater to non-call-related tasks -- Agents will be able to handle other types of non-real-time interactions during quiet call periods and schedule training/coaching/appraisal sessions.

5. Faster reaction to changes and non-adherence to plan -- Agent numbers and skills can be matched to actual call patterns and volumes by changing team structures to meet demand.

6. Increased acceptance from unions -- Individual agents will have proactive involvement in determining their schedules, thereby reducing objections in a unionized environment.

Building a business case for WFO

As with any other investment in software, the up-front cost of WFO can be quite high. The Ventana Research benchmark confirmed that in the majority of cases, an executive will have to sign off on any investment in WFO. Since the fully loaded cost of agents is by far the largest ongoing cost of running a call center, in our experience the business case for the executive is normally based on the potential cost savings that can be achieved by matching the number of agents more closely to demand, and pushing up utilization by even a few percent can reduce the overall head count and overall costs. Therefore, the basic business case is built around the total cost of ownership for the chosen product, compared with the potential reduction in costs associated with reducing agent head count.

Another expense is call center agent turnover, since many call centers can easily lose 20% to 25% of their agents each year. The business case is more powerful when you consider how WFO will reduce costs for recruitment training, typically associated with taking on new hires (although even the most advanced products are unlikely to reduce turnover to zero). WFO products that allow agents to directly input their schedules -- thus helping them balance work and home life -- will have a significant impact on reducing turnover.

More advanced business cases build on the above factors and include some more intangible benefits. A recent benchmark research study from Ventana Research showed that agents have the largest impact on the customer experience because they are in the best position to understand and react to customer issues. Having the right skilled agents available at the right time is obviously key to achieving this, so companies should factor in the cost of losing customers or missing sales opportunities when considering the business case for WFO.

Pitfalls to avoid when implementing WFO

  • Don't keep IT out of the loop. It's important to involve all interested parties when building the business case and during implementation -- including IT, as they will need to be involved in the initial set-up and configuration of the product.
  • Don't underestimate the importance of a project plan. WFM and WFO products are sophisticated pieces of software and can take months to fully implement, especially when it comes to setting up all the base data and optimization rules. The vendors will usually help with this, but with so many interested parties, having a well-thought-out project plan is critical to success.
  • Don't make price your only criterion. Vendor evaluation is not just about price. Companies should also consider financial stability, ability to support the software when you need it, functionality, ease of use, technical compatibility with existing systems, scalability, and ongoing licensing and support costs, which all come into play.
  • Don't leave smaller vendors off your list. Consider all options before making a decision. The vendor landscape has changed considerably over the last 12 to 24 months. Most of the previously well-known vendors, such as BluePumpkin, IEX and TCS, have been taken over and are now part of much larger companies. Companies therefore need to make sure that they can buy just what they want (e.g., WFM, WFO) and that it isn't bundled in with products they don't need. There is also a newer set of vendors in the market, such as Genesys, GMT and InVision, which have standalone products, often with innovative features.
  • Don't skip the sandbox phase. It is becoming more popular to create a short list of two possible vendors using a traditional paper-based approach and then ask the final two vendors to create a model solution to demonstrate how they meet your requirements. This has the dual benefit of getting early buy-in from all interested parties because there will be "live" results to demonstrate, and you will see what the products can actually achieve.

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