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Treat your people like numbers

Treat your people like numbers

People are the most important resource of any organisation so allocating that resource effectively is critical to success.

Things were getting desperate at Westnet, an Internet service provider that was acquired by iiNet after building up a solid reputation based on award-winning customer service. For a company in which 75 per cent of staff are direct customer sales representatives (CSRs), it’s essential that the contact centre work as efficiently as possible. However, the company's ageing contact centre management system had become increasingly inadequate as its CSR base swelled from 50 towards 250, and the critical task of rostering – essential to ensure enough people with the right skill sets are available at all times – was groaning under the company's Stone Age methods.

"Our guys were rostering 400 staff in Excel," says customer service manager Ryan Bunter. "We have 24/7 support, and group people into seven different teams based on their skill sets – each with its own team mangers and supervisors, KPIs, and future planning. Rostering really was a nightmare, and I still can't believe we did it: we always got the roster out in time, and it was always well-rostered and forecasted."

Although the system was working somehow, Bunter knew it was only a matter of time before something went wrong – and when your primary market differentiator is your customer service, there's no leaving something so important to chance: "We knew any drop in customer service would immediately affect our growth," he explains.

Aiming to make rostering more of an interactive, responsive bottom-up exercise than a top-down, didactic one, Westnet ended up working with NEC and Genesys to implement a new workforce management (WFM) system that has revolutionised the process.

Rather than being compiled manually, the new system allows Westnet to set certain rules about who can work when, which skills people have, what profile of skills the contact centre needs at any given time, and so on. Rosters are automatically generated, and adapted by the system to match customer calling patterns.

Perhaps most significant about the new environment: staff have been given more control in allocating their shifts, and are encouraged to exchange shifts as necessary by going directly through the system. Westnet has even been trialling a shift bidding system, and is exploring ways to use key shifts as incentives for those with the highest conversion rates in the contact centre.

And what of the Excel gurus who were doing rostering before? "We've been able to put those very clever guys to other tasks that are of good benefit to the business," says Bunter.

Tapping into talent

Strategies for numerating human capital have long taken a back seat to overall technological direction in many companies: a Forrester Research review of enquiries from contact centre managers, for example, found that only 9 per cent related to benchmarking and best practices; by contrast, 51 per cent were more interested in comparing vendors – highlighting the enduring focus on technology as a solution for business problems.

Yet as tough times force companies to pare back their human capital, a growing number of organisations are looking to implement smarter ways of managing their people.

In contact centres, haphazard manual rostering is often being targeted by more flexible systems that consider factors such as individual skills, past performance and personal preferences. Throw in some concerted human analytics applications, and managers are learning more about their workforces – and, in turn, managing those workforces better – than ever before.

Automotive parts retailer Repco had real problems with its customer support, which is delivered by over 90 CSRs in two countries to support 450 retail outlets and six distribution centres across Australia and New Zealand.

With 175,000 permanent product lines and another 50,000 products that may or may not be available at any time, telephony manager Alan Hodgson knows that Repco’s success is based on efficiently matching customers with staff who are skilled in the products they’re enquiring about – but this goal had proved chronically elusive.

“We just could not get the right customer talking to the right person at the right time,” Hodgson concedes. “Our call centre had high attrition and extraordinarily high absenteeism, and any KPIs we had weren’t aligned with business needs or with the call centre. We didn’t keep call centre metrics at all because they just didn’t mean anything to us.”

Hodgson has since driven a concerted effort to improve the situation, building a framework for better tracking the skills and performance of its workforce over time. The company has implemented NEC telephony infrastructure complemented by Zeacom communications and workforce management tools, giving management staff an unprecedented view of the company’s staff profiles and their ongoing performance.

As a result, incoming enquiries are increasingly being routed to the correct person sooner rather than later – and the whole mood of Repco’s support environment has improved.

“We introduced metrics into all of our business units,” says Hodgson, “and we were able to report [on performance] and create a results-based contract that has increased productivity in all of our call centres. Instead of having different performance requirements in each area, we have been able to change on the fly.”

Counting your chickens

The value of Repco’s deployment came not only from its establishment of consistent KPIs across business units, but also in its ability to finally compare staff performance and to match telephony services with workforce capabilities. The project isn’t completely done yet, but Hodgson says things are looking up.

As companies explore new ways to get better control of their people-based processes, formal workforce management systems are climbing IT executives’ lists of priorities. There is considerable room for improvement: Catriona Wallace, managing director of contact centre consultancy Callcentres.net, says that while WFM is well inside the top-five contact centre manager priorities, only around 44 per cent of contact centre operators have deployed formal WFM solutions – and many of these are focused around simple rostering exercises rather than executing more-strategic optimisation initiatives.

"The art to rostering well is matching up your people to your business forecast," says Tom Haslam, commercial operations manager with WFM specialist firm Open Wave. "You don't want team leaders spending valuable days building rosters; you want them doing reporting, analysis, simulation, and changing processes in the call centre to improve first-call resolution. But you need to be able to do this in real time as it's happening; you should be building your forecasts not in hours, but in minutes."

Making this change can be hard, though: for many managers, even the concept of a contact centre as being strategic is hard enough. However, with up-selling and cross-selling generating a considerable part of many companies’ revenues, Wallace says it’s important for reluctant business and technology managers to start tracking staff performance using metrics that reflect real, bottom-line results – and to change the way they see contact centre and other staff.

“The call centre has become a primary revenue channel, and there is less and less reliance on the sales force and branch networks,” she explains. “This is a significant shift in the strategic purpose of the call centre. However, there is also a lack of sales skills and sales culture in the call centre, and a lack of technology that supports the sales process; most solutions put in place are really structured round passive service, rather than active servicing of customer needs.”

Tying staff performance to sales results may be common among sales teams, but doing the same in the contact centre reflects a natural progression in WFM strategies. By comparing the bottom-line value of each employee as well as their skills, it’s possible to more meaningfully match employees with particular customer segments.

Busy times are a good example. CSRs with a good track record of up-selling, for example, might be prioritised in the rostering queue so that they’re matched with what are historically the busiest times of day. Those with consistently lower results could be directed towards less intense periods of demand, as well as being targeted for potential sales training. And, because the whole exercise would work within the parameters of the WFM solution, staffing changes always conform with staffing rules and higher-level skills matching strategies.

Australian Catholic University (ACU) has seen considerable success in pairing dollar values to its staff, applying Inform Group analytics tools to workforce data from its PayGlobal HR system to develop a hierarchy of costs versus returns for each course. By tying this in with activity-based costing exercises, ACU is getting eye-opening results – and turning the analytics process into a source of critical information as the university moves to optimise its course delivery.

“We had really good HR systems, but until we could do something with data to turn it into meaningful information, we were struggling,” says Diana Chegwidden, acting director of personnel relations and equal opportunity at ACU. “You can look at HR data all the time, but until you combine it with data from other sources, you’re only seeing part of the story. We’re constantly looking at the different attributes of the data to understand what’s actually happening in our workplace – and to begin to inform workforce management strategies.”

When this hierarchy was analysed in terms of the lecturers delivering each course, it became clear that previous staffing arrangements had some highly-paid lecturers teaching low-attendance courses that effectively weren’t paying for themselves. This didn’t necessarily mean the courses would be axed, says Chegwidden, but will help ACU better match lecturers and courses based on cost as well as area of expertise.

Workforce analytics is also helping ACU with its statutory reporting requirements, and will allow it to begin benchmarking its cost and HR structures against those of other universities. This is only possible with consistent metrics – and consistent metrics are only possible when organisations can apply analytic rigour to their data.

Involving your employees

As companies shift from a passive, customer-responsive employee base to a highly-optimised one that aggressively pursues revenues backed by informed analytics, managers need to be aware of the likely changes such analytics will create.

Staff invariably have strong feelings about being tracked and benchmarked, and IT managers need to work with HR and business line managers to ensure that the system’s operations and intentions are clear to all concerned.

Anticipate some repercussions: CSRs who were hired to handle customer calls may well bristle if they’re suddenly being judged on their sales performance.

Chegwidden saw similar issues at ACU, where university provosts face financial realities that often clash with the academic idealism of their employees: “as with any project, this is significantly different to how we’ve done things in the past,” she says. “It’s something people fear. But the project really gains ascendancy as people gain the understanding that it is going to be very beneficial right across the university.”

Managing such transitions naturally requires careful handling and setting of expectations – but it’s a challenge that can be well handled if managers take proactive steps to keep employees in the loop. Empower your employees when it comes to rostering, and you’re likely to see even less pushback – and may even help employees discover a competitive streak they didn’t even know they had.

“We’ve built a self-optimising workforce” that gives home agents, regular employees and contractors a standard way of comparing their performance,” says James Grieve, contact centre program manager with New Zealand’s ASB Bank, which used Genesys WFM tools to improve visibility and management of its customer care environment.

Real-time performance monitoring, backed by policies that base 30 per cent of employee pay on schedule adherence, have created a spirit of friendly and productive competition at ASB.

“A key area is getting these agents to have access to their own reports and core outcomes, so they can see how quickly they’re handling calls,” Grieve explains. “I’ve got agents that are passionately fired up, and pathologically focused on accessing their reports in near real time so they can make more money.”

Rostering on their terms

This type of flexibility reflects a basic truth that Callcentres.net’s Wallace is quick to point out.

“The most successful retention strategy offered by call centre managers is flexible working conditions,” says Wallace, who says many overseas companies are starting to engage notoriously demanding Gen-Y workers by extending staffing strategies into their heartland.

Some companies, for example, are setting up rostering sites in Facebook and other sites where staff can view rosters and nominate shifts from their home computer, iPhone, or whatever they like.

"The Gen Ys can interact in their own time,” Wallace explains. “Call centre workers can bid for and trade their shifts, vacation time, leave time, and organise carpools. WFM strategies like this are absolutely essential, especially in larger contact centres.”

By building an infrastructure where better accessibility and information steer WFM strategies, companies can shift away from arbitrary top-down staff management and begin to take a more collegial approach to employee management.

Westnet’s early experiments with shift auctions suggest that this approach has some merit. “It was really about empowering our agents to say 'you're all adults, you know what times we need staff; work it out among yourselves," explains Westnet’s Bunter. "It has worked really well for us, and we're now extending it through the rest of the organisation."

Importantly, because the WFM system enforces rules such as minimum requirements for availability of certain skills, employees can’t compromise the business effectiveness with their haphazard changes. No matter what freedom they gain, it is constrained by established criteria – and readily available metrics still allow for management intervention where necessary.

The end result, feedback suggests, is a more harmonious working environment that delivers better customer service and improves staff satisfaction by eliminating the sense that they are helpless subordinates.

"It's always surprising to see how well agents react to being some part of the rostering process," says Open Wave's Haslam. "If they feel you're taking notice of what they want to do, and that you have a fair and equitable process, they really respond – and you can work with them to increase staff retention. WFM isn't just about forecasting and rostering anymore; it's about the full 360-degree optimisation of your people."

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