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The Changing Face of the Right People, in the Right Place, at the Right Time

There was a time, not so long ago, that workforce management was all about efficiency.  Whether we were long range forecasting, scheduling or designing shifts for recruitment it was all about getting the best bang for the buck.

However, slowly but surely (and maybe even a little reluctantly) the times are a changing.  In the past workforce management (WFM) has been equal measures of black box computing and Harry Potter magic with an authoritarian command and control approach to real time operations.  But the dark arts of WFM will soon consigned to history.

Good scheduling and forecasting have been, and always will be, at the very heart of contact center operations.  For an operation to run smoothly it needs, at the very minimum, people with the right skills, available in the right place, at the right time to help customers.  However, the transition from WFM to Workforce Optimization (WFO) significantly changes the way we approach these disciplines. 

In the contact center world we often fall into the trap of defining things based on technology.  And, therefore, on that basis WFM is scheduling and planning software and WFO is WFM plus analytics and performance software.  But technology is just an enabler and we must remain focussed on what we are enabling, not the technology.

Our workforce can only be optimized, in it’s true sense, if we can leave the old command and control habits behind and seek first to make the agent and the customer happy.  And why not?  We know that “the basics” make agents happy.  And we know that happy agents improve the customer experience.  And we know that customers with a better customer experience create more shareholder value.  Therefore, if we optimize the workforce in a human way, focussed on the customer, then we will make more profit.  Win.  Win.

So, for me, our objective of having the right people, in the right place, at the right time has evolved into a set of optimization principles

  • The resourcing plan should be optimized for the customer; not for the profit and loss account.  This means that resourcing plans will have headroom (or inefficiency as we used to call it).  Creating odd shift patterns to fill gaps and running the supply versus demand tight stresses the system.  And whenever we stress things they eventually break  - broken isn’t a desirable outcome in the call center.  So we need to turn our perception of what a slick operation looks like on it’s head.
  • Headroom must be converted into value: I spent most of my career working in finance so I never advocate frivolous inefficiency.  The headroom that is created by good customer centric planning should be put to great use – training, coaching, customer focussed projects and so on.  This time isn’t about being slack – it is about continually learning and improving.  Headroom cannot mean dead time or we will have a stagnating, lazy contact center.
  • It’s all about the people.  Contact centers are all about person to person relationships.  If the culture and the working practices are not optimized for people then the customer will feel it.  As Shep Hyken says, “treat your employees the way you want your customer treated – maybe even better”.  So, spend as much time thinking about the employee when you consider right people, right place, right time as you do the customer.  For example, I regularly see planners create weird and wonderful shifts to match volatile demand patterns – and without fail these shifts would have the highest absence and attrition rates and the worst customer satisfaction.   But if we start from the employee and strategically design shifts, with the objective of increasing customer and employee satisfaction, we can see much better results.
  • Technology is our slave, not our master. A WFO software suite gives us a bewildering choice of KPI and performance management options.  Probably too many.  The real business benefits come from designing with an outcome in mind not just implementing because we have the functionality.  The perfect WFO feedback loop might look like this – customer satisfaction on billing calls is low – why?;  design hypothesis and testing on WFO tools – maybe speech analytics or employee survey tools to test knowledge; identify tailored training need and build e-learning solution; schedule and deliver e-learning to agents with greatest need; use analytics to monitor improvement.  When WFO is seen to be a benefit to the agent in doing their job they will embrace it.  If they see it as a monitoring tool they will resent it.

The contact center will always be about have the right people, in the right place, at the right time.  But the days of expecting a warm body, taken straight off the street and handed a headset, to be enough have passed.  We have to make our workplaces an desirable place to work to attract and retain the best people to look after our customers; and we can only do that if we move away from the command and control environment and unleash the systems capabilities that we have to optimize our working practices, our training, our coaching and our leadership.

When we think of Workforce Optimization we may think of technology; but the future success of our operations depend of us thinking of it as a new way of life.