Fall 2012

Workforce Optimization:

A Synergistic Approach to Customer Service

By Marshall Lee, Carewise Health

This is not a story about a software package. You have been working for eight weeks to prepare training and support documentation for a new initiative that is going live on the floor. You have four sessions scheduled and you are ready to go.  The initiative will go live in two days. Right as you plan to roll out the training you get an e-mail from Workforce Management (WFM) cancelling all trainings for the next three days to allow for coverage in response to a new call driver and  absences. Unfortunately the agents need the training that was just cancelled to address all the concerns callers will have. Quality Assurance (QA) has replaced the forms used for call scoring to include the same new skills set. So agents may be penalized for  training that has not yet happened.

Sound familiar? You are not alone. This is more common than you might think. What causes this to happen is a failure in workforce optimization (WFO) strategy.

This is not about technology. Often we think  technology is the root of WFO.

This is about making a concept in to a workplace cultural driver. This type of culture will yield results. WFO has been  a buzz term in contact center circles for years. WFO is the idea of marrying quality, training, and workforce management to maximize the effectiveness and efficiency of the contact center staff. It seems to be a concept that is an easy sell, easy to buy into, and yet somehow it is hard to reach in practice. When you marry things, you make them one. The key in making your contact center operations support services work as one is to ask “Why am I here?”

Why we are all “here” is to bring a positive outcome to the customer. The most important person in our world is the person who is calling or that we have  called right now. The second most important person is the next person   to be called or calling. In order to meet the needs of those most   important people, we must empower and best utilize the ones who interact  with them — our agents. No matter the type of contact center you support,  the chief aim of that center is to provide the best service and support possible in all contexts. If you are in QA, the mission is to guarantee that agents are  providing a level of service that is commensurate with expectations. The  Training team is there to ensure that the agent is prepared to deliver service. WFM is there to predict needs and place the resources where they can best be utilized to provide that service. These are by no means mutually exclusive goals and in fact are all interrelated parts of the same function: workforce  optimization. With a focus on “Why are we here?” it begins to become clearer how support services can complement and not conflict with one another.

Synergy is multiple parts acting together to have a greater output than the  sum of the parts acting alone. Think of a stool with three legs. No one leg on  its own can support the full weight that the stool can as a whole. Each leg is in a specific place for a specific purpose but it does not act alone. In the same way, no part of the WFO equation acts alone. Often in many contact center  environments there is a lack of linkage between the legs of quality, workforce
management, and training. In the ideal scenario, these three key components work in tandem to provide the complete customer experience and positive outcome. Remember the most important person in our world is the caller. What we do for them is deliver a quality agent at the right time to meet their needs.

Let’s revisit the scenario from earlier, the cancelled training. How could that have been avoided? The simple yet correct answer is to focus on why are we are here. We exist to provide service. The trainer is here to prepare the agent  for new content of the call, and document information they will need to relay.  QA is there to measure to ensure the correct information is being  provided to the caller. WFM is there to ensure that we are staffed appropriately to facilitate volume and ensure that timely service is provided.
When the training was cancelled, the training and workforce teams did not have conflicting goals. In fact the goals were the same, but a lack of  understanding of methods and timing were in place.

Let’s dig deeper. Time for a disclaimer — I am a workforce manager, I do have a training background but my current world is WFM. One thing that  WFM has taught me is that anything can and will happen in the course of a  day to disrupt service levels. When I staff and schedule contact centers I have to look at many variables — how many calls come in or go out and when are  the obvious ones. WFM also looks at how many calls an agent can reasonably handle. Then we look at how much loss of agent availability there is. We then  staff to a certain amount of that unavailable time — if we go over a  certain percentage, we then get bad service levels. So let’s say I need 10  agents and I know I’ll have 30% unavailability, I will then staff 13. In WFM we call this loss shrinkage. If I go over that 30%loss of agents or 30%  shrinkage on the floor we begin to get bad service levels. Bad service levels or  slow answer rate can be the beginning of bad customer service. The longer someone waits, the more frustrated they become. On the agent side, the more calls are in queue, the more call fatigue sets in. When inbound calls are in queue and not getting answered quickly or outbound scheduled calls are running late, both callers and agents are unhappy, this hurts call quality. On the flip side if agents aren’t equipped, it really doesn’t matter if they  answer in 30 seconds or 30 minutes because they can’t help the caller. Good  WFO teamwork would prevent this from happening. Proper planning and working together allows for both service and needed shrinkage — in this case the training.

The right question is “How do we keep enough agents on the floor and get the training accomplished?” Staffing is at the core. Remember the most  important person is the current caller. Let’s start with the knowledge that  workforce has planned for that 30% shrinkage level. If I can’t go over 30%  with only four trainings, I now have set myself up for 25% shrinkage at any  one of those time slots before anything else happens. I have a simple rule of  six; there should always be a minimum of six sessions for any activity that will affect coverage. Six sessions is 16% shrinkage — at any one point this is  an amount of shrinkage most contact centers can absorb. If we then plan for  two more training sessions to allow for Murphy’s Law, we know we need to plan on having eight sessions spread out enough for coverage. We may not  need the last two, but if we do, the make-ups are already in place, with ample  lead time for the needed information to be in the hands of the  agents. This is the start of a WFO philosophy in preparing to equip agents while meeting existing needs.

Imagine now what can happen if each area begins to work together on a   consistent basis. There is more a unified WFO approach can tackle than just  scheduling training. Take the example of skill warehousing. A skill warehouse is a repository of all the skills that someone can have in your  contact center, every skill from the most basic to the most advanced are all  included. Then each agent is listed with the skills they possess marked, and their proficiency in that skill rated. This tool is used and maintained by QA,Training, and WFM. Let’s say that we are experiencing a shortage of staff who can handle a more advanced call type. QA has identified the existing  agents with aptitude in the skill matrix. WFM then can identify how many of  those agents we need to cross train and when we need coverage. Training  plans sessions for cross training with workforce management. After the  training, Quality ensures these new skills are being used at an acceptable level. This is the core of WFO.

Why are we here? To equip and place agents where they are needed to assist the most important people in our world, the callers. When we all adopt this  mindset and acknowledge our differing but complementary expert contact  center support services, we all shine. If we work in sync to hire and maintain agents, we will find more shared areas to improve the overall customer and employee experience. This is not an article about technology, though there
is technology to help with unified WFO. This is about a philosophy. A WFO culture is something you have to cultivate. Begin by exploring the other  support services areas. If you are a trainer spend some time in workforce, ask to help with exceptions, this will be eye opening. If you are in QA, spend some time in training sessions or also help with exceptions. Have your WFM team review a few calls periodically. If you have call calibrations, invite WFM and Training teams to sit in. Spend time building the compatibility and you’ll see that together you will address challenges you didn’t even know were  there. If the most important person in your call center is the caller, it is best  for everyone to work together equip and correctly place those who interact with the caller to provide the best experience. This is about the caller.

Marshall Lee is a QATC Board member from Carewise Health.
He may be reached at marshall.lee@carewisehealth.com