Proponents of workforce management software argue that the key to top customer service is simple: effective, efficient staffing. And technology improvements in recent years has produced a new generation of these applications that can help call centers assign staff according to their specific skills and work schedules.

Financial companies that have adopted call center workforce software report shorter telephone hold times for customers, fewer abandoned calls, and, perhaps most important in a tight labor market, reduced employee turnover.

While staffing software exists for many facets of a company's business, in the labor-intensive call center environment it can be both more vital and more exact. Call center workforce software interacts with a center's automatic call distributor to read historical and real-time data about call volumes, call lengths, hold times and abandoned call rates. Using a complex set of algorithms, the software manipulates this data to forecast how many calls are expected throughout the day, based on what day of the year it is, what day of the month it is, what day of the week it is, and a variety of other factors. Shift changes, breaks, lunches and labor law rules can all be added to the software's calculations.

The software can be used to coordinate schedules across several separate call centers that back each other up or can be scaled down for use with as few as 20 agents. Prices vary: IEX Corp., Richardson, TX, starts at $21,000 for its TotalView software package for small businesses with fewer than 100 agents, while Blue Pumpkin Software Inc., Sunnyvale, CA, charges $11,200 for its basic PrimeTime brand scheduling software for one server and 20 agents and $36,000 for its PrimeTime Enterprise products for one server and 100 agents. Extra features come as additional costs.

Users often tailor it to their own business patterns, programming the software to factor in spikes or drops in calls that may occur after a holiday, or following company specific events, such as statement mailings.

Peter Apostolu, call center manager for Lending Solutions Inc., an outsourced call center in Elgin, IL, representing 470 financial clients, notes the number of calls his center receives is affected by obvious events such as gaining and losing a client-as well as less apparent ones, like the Academy Awards broadcast.

Workforce management software vendors argue that part of the product's value lies in the fact that many of the more highly touted call center products-customer relationship management, computer telephony integration- could be rendered useless by inefficient staffing.

Notes Ofer Matan, chief technical officer of Blue Pumpkin Software, which began introducing versions of its PrimeTime line of workforce management products with skills-based scheduling in March 1999, "Without skills-based scheduling, it's highly unlikely you will be able to leverage the cost savings that skills-based routing can save you."

In addition, added technologies make the task of compiling schedules for hundreds of agents that much more complicated.

"What we are trying to do is to help enterprises have the right number of people, with the right skills, at the right time, in the right medium. It's not only having a warm body there, it's having the right warm body there," he says. "You can leverage your human resources to provide a better quality of resources to your customer. Doing these things by hand, which was acceptable without skills-based routing, is complicated with it."

The TotalView workforce management products from IEX Corp. include a simulation feature for skills-based scheduling that allow managers to assess whether it is more appropriate to use a multi-skilled agent versus a two-skilled agent. The feature allows companies to make training decisions based on what type of staff would help call centers run more efficiently, says Brian Spraetz, marketing director for the call center division of IEX.

For Apostolu of Lending Solutions, who uses Blue Pumpkin's PrimeTime Enterprise workforce management application, the software's main benefit came in retaining employees. The company's quarterly turnover rate, at 9% last year, is 2.3% this quarter.

"Attrition is one of the biggest problems facing the majority of call centers right now. It's a tight labor market; it's a boring job; it's a tough job-there's burnout. With this we could increase to a new caliber of employees, bring in split-shift employees and part-time employees and make them happy," he says.

Indeed, inbound centers have an average annual turnover of 26% for full-time reps and 33% for part-timers, according to the 1999 Call Center Benchmark Report from the Purdue University Center for Customer Driven Quality.

The software helped tackle the problem by enabling Lending Solutions to undertake a complete restructuring of work schedules, Apostolu says.

"In the past, we had three shifts and we also had one type of lunch," he says. "With this we were able to meet with people-and I met with every single person-to come up with shift assignments. Some like 10-hour days, some have children to watch."

Apostolu first asked everyone what their ideal schedules would be, then to add a bit of flexibility to the schedule, asked employees the earliest and latest times they would be willing to work and the maximum and minimum amount of hours they would accept.

"Previously one could never look at 150, 160 different schedules with the flexibility to match them up," he says.

Scheduling meetings has also become easier. "Instead of taking a shot in the dark, I can say, 'I want this person, this person and this person in a meeting. Tell me the best time,'" he says. Apostolu's key considerations in choosing the PrimeTime product he uses was strong ACD integration and ease of use, he says, noting he preferred a manageable solution to one loaded with many extra features. The ease of reading and understanding the data has helped managers show employees who have a history of tardiness or have taken extra breaks what effect their time away from the phones had on the rest of the center.

Overall, the center set goals with the new software of answering 80% of calls within 20 seconds, and now meets that target with 87% of calls, Apolstolu says.

At the 400-seat Owings Mills, MD, call center for Visa International, workforce management software from Aspect Communications Corp., San Jose, CA, installed at the center last summer helped supervisors find spikes in call volumes that they previously had not been aware of.

"We were having very small peaks where we began losing service levels around 2 a.m. because Europe was waking up. We needed more German, French, Italian speaking agents where we had them staffed during the day," says Valerie Hamilton, telecommunications analyst at the center. "We weren't aware of those peaks because call volume wasn't 100 calls, it was more like 21 or 22 calls, but it was in a specific language."

The company previously had forecasting personnel for different agent groups in the center, but had generally assumed that if a group wasn't handling 96 calls a day it did not need a forecasting group because the numbers were too small to be accurate.

Hamilton claims the system has been 99.8% accurate in the Owings Mills center. Up-to-the minute tracking has helped managers realize which agents, with which skills they should solicit for overtime, she adds.

The software, and the data it stores, is beginning studied by the company's finance department to assess how much the center is paying in overtime, and whether it would make more sense to start hiring more full- time salaried employees to avoid overtime costs.

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