Software development often progresses from standalone, single-task applications to integrated, multifunctioning suites. Good examples of this transformation growth are enterprises that used to run distinct accounts payable and accounts receivable applications. Now these firms rely on enterprise resource planning systems. In another case, word processing and spreadsheet applications were once autonomous, but now come clustered in office productivity packages. Not all suite initiatives, however, have been successful: Some vendors lumped network and systems management tools into integrated products, but few companies deployed these systems. A possible migration to suites has begun in call centers, and suppliers like Aspect Software, Envision Telephony, IEX Corp., Merced Systems, Nice Systems, Verint Systems, and Witness Systems have expanded their workforce management product constellations to include quality monitoring, performance management, speech analytics, and e-learning modules. The new products, dubbed workforce optimization (WFO) systems, offer potential benefits like improved staffing, better quality assurance, enhanced agent performance, and lower IT costs.
Tech Forward--The New Breed
The shift to suites has been driven, at least partially, by vendors' business needs. "Workforce management technology is mature and found in many call centers," says Seema Lall, an industry analyst with Frost & Sullivan. A company called American Electric Power (AEP) serves 5 million customers in 11 states, stretching from Texas to Virginia. It has been using IEX's workforce management product TotalView to improve its call center, which has 600 agents, since 1999.
"Because agents have the ability to input their own data, scheduling has become much simpler," says Aaron Johnson, supervisor of staffing and scheduling. Quality management has also been available for many years and its use is common in medium and large call centers.
New applications that have just begun to gain traction in the past few years include performance monitoring, speech analytics, and e-learning. Dick Bucci, an associate consultant at The Pelorus Group, estimates that fewer than 10 percent of all call centers now have these applications in place.
That low number is attractive to software suppliers, Bucci says: "Since other sectors of the call center software market are mature, vendors are focusing their marketing efforts on newer applications with high growth rates." The emergence of fledgling applications offers vendors the ability to generate new revenue streams and to protect their existing products from becoming commoditized. Consequently, suppliers have codified two compelling reasons why customers should add the nascent applications to their call centers. The main reason centers on the simplicity that suites promise: These solutions potentially offer consolidated maintenance, the convenience of one-stop shopping, and simpler product upgrades and enhancements. The second reason is that taken together, these items have the potential to lower WFO's total cost of ownership.
Application management has become a complex issue in call centers--many companies use tools to examine how their computer infrastructure (servers, desktop systems, network connections) is operating. But some businesses find it difficult, with the movement to more distributed applications through initiatives like service-oriented architecture and Web services, to determine what's happening with individual applications. Suites offer common management interfaces so that monitoring infrastructures becomes simpler.
One-stop shopping can also help improve employee productivity: Working with different applications can be cumbersome for users, who have to learn how to manipulate the various interfaces and reporting functions found in different applications. A suite makes it possible for them to move quickly from module to module. That simplicity could help agents improve their call quality by cutting down on the time needed to find or enter needed information. And suites also ease customer interactions with vendor support teams. "Dealing with only one vendor presents companies with a very compelling value proposition," says Nancy Treaster, senior vice president of global marketing at Witness. Currently, most users have to call different vendors to fix a problem; it can be time consuming and tedious to get all the vendors together to help identify a problem. But if a complication arises within a suite, solving it becomes a one-step rather than a multistep process.
IT departments can also benefit from working with a single vendor's products. For instance, many companies find that implementing system upgrades can be tedious. "Vendors roll out product upgrades so rapidly that it can be impossible to keep up with all of the latest versions of their software," notes Aaron Jacobs, manager of the workforce management team at Volkswagen Credit, which relies on Aspect's Ensemble to support 450 agents stationed in a handful of call centers across the United States. The new software has to be compatible with a firm's underlying computing infrastructure, such as operating systems, enterprise applications, and call center hardware. Suites have the potential to ease upgrade chores by providing a consistent set of application interfaces to the underlying infrastructure, as well as by reducing the number of applications (one rather than two, three, or four) that need to be upgraded.
After installing a WFO application, a company often tweaks it to support its unique requirements, such as call workflow. Because there are no standards for moving information among different call center applications, this integration work can take a lot of time and require a great deal of effort. In a suite, however, the vendor takes on much of the integration work. "We have developed more than 20 integration points in our system, so information can move more easily among different applications--and we have more in the pipeline," Treaster says.
Customized, streamlined, clarified
Once the integration work is simplified, companies can take on additional customization work. Often, they focus on putting more checks in place to monitor and improve call center performance. According to Mark Gally, director of marketing at Merced, suites can enhance agent productivity and revenue generation by offering agents the ability to more quickly access their performance data; enhance agent retention by providing clearer objectives; and help companies develop more effective agent incentives.
As CRM technology has improved, a growing number of companies have focused on using improved customer service to increase their revenue and profits. By consolidating WFO data into central databases, suites enable companies to use their contact center performance data to gauge how well the firm is doing in meeting other enterprise objectives, such as providing superior customer service or upselling their products or services. Suites offer many potential benefits, but they also come with their own set of shortcomings. A major concern is that best-of-breed suppliers will be more keenly focused on their modules and deliver more functionality and more innovative products than suite suppliers, who must divvy up their application development resources among a series of applications. "We think there is still a lot of innovation needed with applications, such as workforce management systems, and would prefer that our vendors concentrate on their areas of expertise rather than on rounding out their product lines," says Osam Hamdan, senior workforce manager at CRM outsourcer Sitel Corp., who runs IEX's TotalView.
Companies need better tools in support of outsourced contact center operations, as moving information from in-house to outsourced call centers can be onerous. Without such integration companies find it difficult to generate accurate data about items like agent schedules, resource requirements, and individual and call center performance. Another area where more work is needed is the impact of new multimedia call center features (especially video and VoIP) on agent scheduling and productivity. Potential clients also find cost justifying the purchase of a suite arduous. Because it includes a number of modules, a suite usually carries a higher price tag (often starting at $100,000 and working its way up, depending on call center size and required customization level) than a single system. Typically, installing a new application is complex, tedious, time consuming, and costly, so not only do these modules come with high price tags, but they also feature a number of soft costs: migrating to the new system, integration work, and employee training.
Call centers want to reap as much of a return from their WFO systems as possible, and that includes maximizing their returns on installed workforce management and QM applications. "Vendors often have to convince companies to displace their current systems," Frost & Sullivan's Lall says. Integrating different WFO apps is possible through partnerships different vendors have signed or that are available from third-party value-added reseller and systems integrators that specialize in call center systems. These choices can enable a company to reap many of the benefits suites may provide without requiring them to displace existing applications.
Compelling ROI scenarios can be difficult to identify because of recent call center advances. The traditional method of cost justifying software purchases has been to identify additional productivity improvements. "During the past few years there has been such an emphasis on improving agent performance that the question,'What else can we do to improve performance?' in many cases can now be answered with 'Not much,'" AEP's Johnson says.
Because of the various issues, suites have garnered some acceptance in small and medium call centers, but have not been popular among larger enterprises. In many cases small and medium businesses do not have a call center, so justifying the suite can be simpler than in those instances where a corporation needs to displace one or more of its applications.
Yet, there are also some instances in which large companies have realized benefits from suites. AAA Washington provides travel, insurance, financial, and automotive services to more than 875,000 members in the state, as well as to northern Idaho. Recently the organization put in a Verint Ultra suite to improve performance in its call center, which has about 175 agents. Earlier this year, the company was having trouble getting through to one of its travel partners. "Agents were on hold for at least half an hour each time they needed information--it was so bad that one agent would hold for the company, and the rest of the agents sent their questions to that person," says Janet Ryan, call center director. The service company collected information about the call holding patterns and presented it to its partner, which then took the info to management and made the case for adding more agents to the center.
In sum, few established call centers are forging ahead with WFO deployments at the moment. In the next 12 to 24 months suppliers will try to convince more customers that deploying a suite is in their best interest. After that marketing push ebbs, it will become clear whether the use of suites will be widespread, common, or limited to medium and small corporations launching their first call centers.
After the M&A Storm; WFO Product Lines Now
Workforce optimization (WFO) vendors have been forced, in their drive to deliver systems, to round out their product lines so that all the modules fall under their aegis. Suppliers have taken several different paths to reach this goal, either adding them through acquisitions, signing strategic partnerships, or building the applications themselves. After a recent period of volatility, the market seems ready to enter a calmer phase, one with less vendor jockeying and more fine-tuning of suites.
Witness Systems's purchase Blue Pumpkin in December of 2004 shined a spotlight on the emerging WFO market. "Witness's acquisition was the first clear sign that vendors viewed WFO as key to their future," says Dick Bucci, an associate consultant at The Pelorus Group. Verint Systems started out in the quality monitoring space and added workforce management to its line via an acquisition of Opus Group in September 2005. NICE Systems expanded its speech analytics lines with a purchase of performance management supplier Performix Technologies and workforce management supplier IEX Corp. in April of 2006 (the transaction was expected to be finalized during the summer). Envision Telephony took a different approach and built its WFO line through internally developed products.
The maneuvering can be challenging to manage. Merced Systems has a partnership with IEX, which had been using Merced's software as its performance management application. Once Performix and IEX are acquired by NICE, the future of that agreement becomes tenuous. Potential customers do not want to be saddled with impotent WFO systems as vendors jump in and out of each other's arms. "A lot of dramatic moves were made in the WFO market during the past few years," Bucci says. "If you take a look around, there really aren't a lot of players left that could be acquired or additional partnerships that could be forged, so potential customers can feel a bit more confident about their vendors' long-term plans as they make their purchases." --P.K.
Paul Korzeniowski is a freelance writer specializing in technology issues. He can be reached at email@example.com