• July 1, 2003
  • By David Myron, Editorial Director, CRM and Speech Technology magazines and SmartCustomerService.com

Service on Steroids

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Gary Kirkham is laughing. And on matters of CRM he has every right to, thanks to the shots of adrenaline his CRM system regularly gets from performance-optimization tools. "While there's been a lot of press on why CRM has failed, we had to explain a couple of times why we haven't," boasts the vice president and director of the planning and support divisions at American National Insurance Company (ANICO), in Galveston, TX. Kirkham is referring to the long-standing success the $2.2 billion insurance and financial services company has enjoyed in its call center since the implementation of a Pegasystems Inc. workflow automation solution in 1998--the precursor for what is today PegaHEALTH Member Services. Since the Pegasystems implementation five years ago, ANICO has been consistently seeing significant drops (as much as 71 percent) in caller abandonment rates within the IVR system. The poorest performing year saw a 37 percent drop. As for average-speed-to-answer, the best year saw a 61 percent improvement, while the worst year saw a 38 percent improvement. "That's just off the charts," Kirkham says. With numbers like these it is no wonder performance-enhancing solutions are steadily finding their way into contact centers. Yet, workflow automation is only part of a group of performance-optimization tools, including workforce optimization, workforce management, and training solutions, that are driving innovative strategies for saving time and money, as well as maximizing agents' efficiency and productivity. Workflow Automation Prior to the PegaSystems implementation, ANICO was suffering from integration nightmares. Simple customer inquiries would often send agents stumbling through a maze of windows before finding the right information. Some customer service tasks would require agents to fetch hard copy documents buried deep in a file cabinet. All the while these service bottlenecks added costly seconds to support calls. With increasing pressure from ANICO's top brass to cut support costs and improve customer service, ANICO had to find a way to decrease its agents' average call handling time. ANICO found the answer with a Pegasystems workflow automation solution that pulls data from many sources, including the caller, the agent, and the account history, says Earle Tutunjian, manager of strategic alliances at Pegasystems. PegaHEALTH Member Services provides customer services representatives (CSRs) with various interconnected capabilities, including contact management, claims inquiry, contract and policy maintenance, and member eligibility benefits--all on a single, composite screen. The information is built in an XML structure, so all of it can be shared and evaluated to help drive an agent's interaction. "The product is so highly configurable that we've never been in a situation where we couldn't get the data we needed," Kirkham says. Today call volumes at the five ANICO call centers are higher than ever. And the size of the staff is not increasing. Yet, thanks to PegaHEALTH Member Services and the guidance of an internally developed ANICO team overseeing CRM efforts, Kirkham can proudly guarantee his third-party insurance agents will have their questions answered in 10 seconds or fewer. Kirkham considers this a key competitive differentiator over other insurance companies vying for his insurance agents' business. The ability to help agents quickly get the right information to the customer in a shorter amount of time is exactly what ANICO was looking for, but after regularly using the workflow automation solution Kirkham noticed another benefit. Agent training times were significantly reduced. "Training time with Pegasystems is shorter, because agents don't have to learn five different systems. Instead, they learn one system," Kirkham says. Training
Like power lifters and weight belts, performance-optimization and training solutions go together. In fact, so integral are training tools to performance-optimization solutions that companies like Blue Pumpkin Software and Witness Systems that identify agent skills gaps are partnering with developers of training applications like Knowlagent and Sivox to seamlessly marry the two efforts. Witness is one vendor that has already incorporated training capabilities into its eQuality performance-optimization suite. All of the investments in technology are important, but the point of implementing these tools is to support the agents. "This is a people-intensive business. You can optimize the calls and you can optimize the data, but you can't optimize the workforce without optimizing the agent," says Matt McConnell, founder and cochairman of Knowlagent and coauthor of Customer Service at a Crossroads. "Customer service reps are the most responsible for customer interaction, yet are often the most neglected assets." There are various methods used to train employees, including training CDs, Web-based e-learning, instructor-led courses, computer-based training, and simulation training. All have their strengths, but simulation software gets closest to a real-world environment, and unlike role-playing requires only one person. This is one reason simulation tools like Sivox Technologies' RealCall are increasing in popularity for contact center training. Sivox's RealCall, for example, uses a speech-recognition engine that listens and reacts to what trainees say, providing instant feedback and enabling agents to immediately retry segments. The solution addresses issues like time-to-performance by getting agents to quickly understand the real feel of working the phones, says Jeff Carpenter, vice president of client services at Sivox. It also addresses customer satisfaction by not using the floor as a training ground for agents. Carpenter says early adopters are discovering innovative uses for training solutions as well. One customer, he says, uses the Sivox simulation-training tool as a means to prescreen job applicants. "It serves as a two-way validation that enables the employer to determine the candidates' cognitive baseline skills and their ability to type and talk clearly. Then, employers can ask if this is something the candidates really want to do," Carpenter says. The alternative, he maintains, might be to spend $6,000 to $15,000 training a new hire only to have that person quit six weeks into the job, because it's not what the disgruntled agent expected, he says. Once the agents are trained and working the phones, there are some other performance-optimization issues to be mindful of, such as mapping agent schedules to call volumes and identifying skills gaps. Management and Optimization Time management issues continue to plague contact centers. Intermittent call volume spikes are difficult to forecast. And to complicate the matter, it's not enough to staff up a call center in anticipation of a call spike. Contact centers also need to have the most appropriately trained agents helping each customer. That's where workforce management and workforce optimization solutions come in. Workforce management, which began to get traction in the mid-1990s, is designed to manage agents and employees in the contact center by balancing their skills and their time. Workforce optimization, which grew out of workforce management, provides managers with information on what their agents and customers need to be more efficient and boost customer satisfaction, says Lisa Hager-Duncan, a customer service and support strategies analyst at Gartner Inc. Call center volumes will always operate in peaks and valleys. Depending on the company, call volumes can increase for such reasons as seasonality, promotions, time of day, marketing campaigns, and new product rollouts. A common mistake is to have agents work overtime to manage call spikes. This often leaves organizations paying too much for overtime that may not have been in the budget. "The number one cost-eater from a pure scheduling perspective is productivity. How well are you leveraging your staff and their skills? In many cases, [call centers] are overstaffed at some parts of the week and understaffed at others, and they're not always providing great service," says Tiffany Riley, vice president of marketing at Blue Pumpkin. There is one common solution that doesn't require a ramp up in staffing. Instead of booking agents to work a typical 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. day, smart organizations plan their agents' work schedules to accommodate spikes in call volumes. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan (BCBSM) receives the majority of its calls at the beginning of the week. Assigning agents to 9-to-5 shifts five days a week was forcing the organization to be "incredibly understaffed on Mondays and overstaffed at the end of the week," Riley says. "We helped BCBSM get more creative with work schedules and suggested that agents work ten-hour shifts and get six three-day weekends every ten weeks." Sometimes simply adding 15 minutes to the day can reap big rewards. Timberline Software Corp., a financial and operations software company, was stuck in a hiring freeze and struggling to handle increasing call volumes, Riley says. With the help of Blue Pumpkin Timberline discovered that by asking each existing employee to work 15 more minutes on frontline customer support each day (with employee profit sharing as an incentive), the company would save $2 million in staffing. Once an organization has mastered scheduling its agents to match call volume, it then must ensure that when agents are working, they are making the most of their time. Blue Pumpkin customer Musician's Friend realized a total return on investment of more than $400,000 in roughly nine months by taking this approach, Riley says. The music gear provider was experiencing adherence issues: Employees were not doing what their schedules dictated, so it was difficult for the company to calculate how they were spending their time. To keep better tabs on how its employees spend their days, Musician's Friend beta tested Blue Pumpkin's Activity Manager, which provides time and activity assessment by measuring what employees are doing, how people get paid according to that, and if they are spending their time well. Now Musician's Friend employees double click on their schedule to tell the system when they're working and when they step away from their desk. They log off for lunch and breaks, and log in when they come back. "This reduces payroll losses. So the company is not losing money to people who aren't working," Riley says. "It also makes sure people are adhering to their schedules." Just because agents are at their desks, though, doesn't mean they're working. Performance optimization tools police employee performance by pulling together the appropriate metrics, like calls handled and sale conversions, to improve agent productivity. These tools are available from several companies, including Aspect Communications, Blue Pumpkin, CenterForce Technologies, and Witness Systems, and enable managers to conduct performance evaluations on a monthly, weekly, daily, and even 30-minute basis. "In the past there were just so many applications coming into the call center it was hard to focus on what companies should go with first. Workforce optimization, however, is coming more into the forefront," Gartner's Hager-Duncan says. "There's an increased awareness of workforce optimization, because it's important to maximize how well agents handle calls, so customers don't call multiple times to resolve an issue." While the performance optimization market is still relatively new, the melding of workflow automation, training, workforce management, and workforce optimization solutions is starting to provide a soup-to-nuts means of identifying and improving agent performance levels. Even in performance optimization's early stages, ANICO's Kirkham says, "I feel really good about what we achieved." Global Workforce Optimization Market 2001 $553M 2002 $638M 2003 $789M 2004 $961M 2005 $1.138M 2006 $1.297M 2007 $1.474M Source: Datamonitor Contact Senior Editor David Myron at dmyron@destinationCRM.com
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