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Workforce Optimization: Tuning Your Accuracy, Performance, and Engagement

Many customer contact organizations have implemented workforce optimization (WFO) as an operational strategy to improve the overall efficiency and performance of customer care professionals. However, call center solutions have evolved significantly over the last thirty years. The rationale for much of this investment has been to make the customer service experience more efficient, reduce voluntary attrition, and effectively manage the cost of the operation without debilitating customer service.

As a practice, workforce optimization (WFO) has been around almost as long as call centers. However, like all things, there’s always some room for improvement, especially with accuracy and employee performance and engagement.

In this article, we’ll focus on a couple of areas. One is forecasting, because without it, it’s extremely difficult to get any assured accuracy and predictability to best hire, manage, and schedule your precious employee resources. Next we’ll focus on operations, especially from the context of employee engagement and performance. These two areas will continue to push the limits of WFO in customer contact organizations.

Forecasting

Reliable forecasting is the cornerstone of modern workforce management. Unreliable forecasts that fail to accurately model the conditions of a contact center can have an undesirable effect on workforce schedules and service levels. That's why automated forecasting algorithms based on historical and seasonal trends as well as special events are so important. Accurate forecasting of contact requirements, considering both contact volume and handle time, enables better scheduling and staff planning.

The science of forecasting demand in a contact center draws on several techniques from mathematics and statistics. The challenge, however, lies in having the expertise needed to understand which forecasting method will generate the most accurate results in any given situation. A method that works effectively for one work stream may fail to perform well for another, or it may work for a work stream some — but not all — of the time. Other considerations include operational context, the stage of a work stream’s lifecycle, the availability of historical data, the relevance of history to the future, and the time horizon being forecasted.

More than one-third of contact centers struggle with unpredictable customer traffic, resulting in overstaffing or understaffing. Overstaffing is the simplest way to waste money, and understaffing leads directly to unhappy customers. To avoid either extreme, you need the right employees, in the right place, at the right time. To tackle the issue of unpredictable customer traffic, forecasting tools must be able to handle incredibly complex demands plus weigh and incorporate a range of source, input, historic, and real-time data. It needs to do this through an infusion of artificial intelligence (AI) to lessen the complexity and remove any knowledge gap that may be preventing the organization from applying an extensive set of models that can maximize accuracy.

Employee Performance and Engagement

Successful contact centers have environments that are motivating and provide a sense of purpose. Motivation and engagement have been studied and addressed by thousands of individuals. There's a lot of agreement on the core principles that enable it to succeed, such as creating clear goals/objectives, effective communications that are part of the ongoing training, coaching and KPI conversations, expecting the best from the individuals and providing them with the necessary tools to perform well, and more. One thing is clear, organizations that maintain the highest levels of engagement make it a serious requirement in their culture and structure. They realize enthusiastic employees unquestionably and predictably create great results for customers and the organization. Countless studies reinforce this view, showing a strong link between engaged employees and higher levels of productivity and profitability. Here is the commonality we've seen with the most successful contact centers:

  • Actions, actions, and actions: There are many organizations that codify and post their values, but then encourage an entirely different set of behaviors through their policies and actions. As an example, nurturing customer relationships may be the objective, but lack of staffing resources, or standards that stress volume-oriented production, may send conflicting messages.
  • Continual and factual communication cultivates trust: Communication creates an understanding and direction for people. When good communication is nonexistent, the operation becomes predictable in moving in the wrong direction: conflicting objectives, unclear values, unclear understandings, perceptions focused, limited data insights, limited coordination, confusion, low morale, and employees doing the minimum required.
  • Recognition is an exponential booster: In study after study, participants say personalized and sincere recognition from their superiors — in other words, simply being recognized for doing a good job — is one of the most powerful motivators. It creates a sense of connection between the employees and the organization.
  • Accurate and predictable planning: In the time-driven contact center environment, this is extremely important. You have to have the right people, in the right place, at the right times, doing the right things. In cases when that fails to happen, unfavorable consequences begin to surface: delays occur, there's a continual build up on supporting additional interactions, customers get unhappy and discouraged, and occupancy goes through the ceiling. That’s not what an organization wants.

Let’s examine an important area: creating and establishing the right performance objectives and measures. Starting with the agent, performance measures on the actual metrics that are tied to the performance of individuals has always been a debatable area — and for very good reasons. Performance measurements are usually tied to behavioral expectations and service center standards. As a result, many areas of concern enter the discussion, such as fairness, individual accountability that is associated with metrics, KPIs that are directly controllable by the agent, individual agent strengths and capabilities, and how good are the processes that the agents should follow. There aren’t too many other areas that that bring about such strong and varied opinions. Across a variety of organizations, there are different performance measurements and standards in play, but there are also consistent principles at work in centers that are getting better results. Let's look at some distinct trends, and how the right performance measures and expectations encourage the right contributions.

Adherence

Adherence is, first and foremost, a measure of how much time during an agent's shift he or she is handling, or available to handle, interactions. The reality is, we're in time-driven environments. It doesn't matter if we have the most incredible knowledge and expertise, if we're not there when customers need us, then we are doing a disservice to ourselves and the organization. If adherence is expected to be 85 percent, each agent should be available to handle contacts for 51 minutes on average, per scheduled hour. Adherence consists of time spent in interacting with the customer (active interaction time), after-call work (ACW), waiting for calls or other type of interactions to arrive, and anything else associated with their particular service work. Interruptions such as lunch, breaks, and training are not counted against the measurement. There are two different things that happen when adherence to schedule goes up: service level will go up, and ultimately occupancy goes down.

Adherence can also incorporate the issue of compliance, such as when a person was available to handle an interaction. This is often called schedule compliance. The key is to ensure that agents are ready to go when needed. Adherence to schedule should be established at levels that are reasonable and that reflect the many things that legitimately keep agents from the work. It should also be flexible when the workload is light — which highly impacts engagement — so agents can be able to take voluntary time off or be able to follow up on some coaching or training.

Agents cannot control the number of interactions that will arrive, the clustering that may happen with their arrival, how positive or negative the customers might appear, whether there are any promotional activities in the market landscape without getting the proper briefing from marketing, and so on. However, they can be in the right place at the right times and coupled with good resource plans. That requires accurate forecasting and insures the agents and organization succeed. At the same time, providing flexibility to agents to alter their schedules through intelligent automation without impacting service levels and/or adherence is a huge boost to engagement.

Quality

In successful contact centers, quality criteria are usually well defined. When delineated well, quality criteria focus on the time it will take to handle contacts or interactions well. That specifically means not rushing contacts, but also providing the essential parameters to keep them as focused as possible on the resolution or requirements they may have. Adherence and quality are a powerful pair and when properly set up, all other measures — such average handling time (AHT), number of contacts handled, percent of time spent in talk/interactive mode of the active communication or after-call work — fall in line as expected. For example, when you want to increase the number of interactions agents are handling, there are two options: increase their availability to take interactions and/or coach/train on how to agents can improve on the handling of the interactions.

In the end, placing adherence and quality as primary areas of focus enables agents to concentrate on the two things they can control: right place at the right times, and doing the right things. However, they must be implemented fairly, with foresight and care. Putting your approach in place should be a team effort that includes those who will be assessed by it. Average adherence should be determined individually and for each agent group. At the same time, individuals need specific coaching or training that isn't necessary for the whole group, and tracking adherence as an average for the group reveals how well management is doing in creating an environment in which objectives can be achieved. Ensure your approach is supporting the culture you want to establish. Here are some key areas to achieve the best results:

  • Educate each person on how much impact he or she has and the importance of quality and adherence to schedule. Make sure there is a clear understanding on the objectives and the available resources to support them.
  • Establish concrete service-level and response-time objectives, and provide them with real-time visibility they can see and compare against their team and similar agents.
  • Develop appropriate priorities for the wide range of tasks your agents handle. Make it easy for your agents by not over-complicating activities or processes. You want their focus on customer success, which will undoubtedly lead to their own success.
  • Provide real-time service level information and other informational insights to agents, so they may know what to adjust or augment to be even more successful.

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Adherence results and quality trends for agent groups and the contact center itself are valuable for planning and to assess how well the management approach and supporting processes are working. In summary, adherence and quality are important objectives and should be applied carefully, so that in the end you are creating an environment and culture where agents are performing at a high level and feeling engaged.

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