Executives' Guide to Call Center Excellence: Workforce Management--Quality Is Job One...Or Is It?

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Twice a year top brass at Vision Service Plan (VSP) gathers around a conference table to listen to customers. But the executives of this eye-care benefits provider are not sitting with customers; they're listening to tapes. The recordings they tune in to--actual interactions between the company's service representatives and doctors and corporate employees who use VSP's plans--tell stories rarely communicated by the efficiency-related metrics most contact centers churn out. "These sessions have been very effective in pointing out how specific facets of our product design or business processes can be improved," says Laura Costa, vice president, customer service. Those conference room chats, courtesy of Envision Telephony's Click2Coach quality monitoring software, have resulted in executive-level changes to product design, business processes, and sales and marketing strategies. The replays, which include recordings as well as the click-through paths on informational screens service reps charted while resolving the customer's problem, also inspire the Rancho Cordova, CA, company's 31 call center supervisors and 500 agents to rethink and improve their tactical approaches to solving customer problems. The success of the VSP's quality monitoring processes, and the Click2Coach application that supports those processes, hinge on the front-line behavior of the service reps. "We consider them our top athletes," Costa says, "and they have coaches and tools that help them deliver peak performance." But many quality monitoring and workforce management applications--software designed to improve contact center efficiency--fail to achieve that peak performance, according to Judith Cole, an executive consultant with Compass America Inc. in Toronto with 20 years of call center management experience. "There is a tendency to think the tool is a screwdriver," Cole says. "You use it the same way every time without understanding what's behind it." Too often, she says, management and measurement of contact center processes suffer from myopia. They rarely look beyond contact center tactics to focus on how specific contact center operations relate to overall corporate strategy. Although that alignment may be rare in too many companies, it exists at VSP, as well as at Timberline Software Corp., a software provider to the real estate and construction industries. In fact, using quality monitoring and workforce management applications can translate to benefits including and beyond quicker calls, increased first-call resolution, and other efficiency gains. Human Math Beaverton, OR--based Timberline operates a 100-person call center with 10 managers that handles a variety of complex technical questions from the company's user base. Mark Brannan oversees the call center's technology and the processes that support the technology, including forecasting, scheduling, and performance management applications from Blue Pumpkin. The call center moved from a call-back model to an inbound model, which meant a change in focus for how Brannan ran the operation. In an inbound contact center, managers need to forecast how many calls of what type will occur throughout the day to ensure that the right amount of customer service representatives with the right expertise will remain busy, but not too busy, throughout their shift. "We needed a tool that allowed us to figure out where we needed people and when we needed them," Brannan says. Blue Pumpkin's tools--Advisor, Director, and Planner--fit Timberline's needs. Tools like Blue Pumpkin's Director and Planner applications execute sophisticated calculations to identify optimal schedules for customer service representatives--who comprise the largest cost of operating call centers. That means that the data loaded into the forecasting applications must be accurate and complete. So Brannan regularly evaluates the data quality. Brannan maintains a firm grasp on Timberline's call center ROI by also regularly revisiting assumptions within the forecast and scheduling tools, such as unscheduled absences and a representative's available time during a call-handling shift. That focus, Brannan says, has helped Timberline evolve its workforce management processes into performance management. Using Blue Pumpkin Advisor, Brannan has developed a daily analysis of Timberline's key performance indicators (KPIs) that representatives receive. These KPIs comprise a balanced scorecard of performance metrics that link individual performance to corporate objectives. "Essentially, we're telling employees, 'We're giving you control over whether or not you're helping the company achieve its overall objectives,'" he says. Quality Divided By 13
Customer retention remains one of VSP's most important overall objectives. "We look at satisfaction ratings with our doctors and the people who use our plans, and with the employers that buy our plans," Costa says. "We have been able to tie the service we deliver back to being a key driver of satisfaction." Costa and her staff have deconstructed high-quality service into 13 characteristics, which support the methodology VSP's 30 contact center supervisors use to monitor the quality of service their 500 service representatives provide. The 13 quality characteristics focus on the customer's service experience, the representative's technical competency, and the speed and accuracy with which the representative ferreted out a solution using the call center's database of reference materials. And, like Timberline's Brannan, Costa regularly reevaluates the data that feeds the quality monitoring software to ensure that the information streaming out of Click2Coach--the evaluations of service quality for each representative--remains aligned with larger corporate objectives, such as customer retention rates. In fact, VSP also has an eight-person unit that conducts independent call center evaluations. "We give our reps feedback, so they know exactly what they're measured on," Costa says. "They can listen to the calls themselves if they have any questions about a supervisor's suggestions. We're very concerned about our employee satisfaction." Ultimately, experts say, employee satisfaction leads to customer satisfaction. But often the goals of many workforce management and quality monitoring practices run counter to what's necessary to achieve satisfaction. In contact centers there is often too much focus on efficiency, and at the same time too little focus on individual performance and how it ultimately affects corporate performance. As VSP and Timberline have demonstrated, quality monitoring and workforce management applications can give executives a useful link to customer experience. However those applications will fulfill their potential only if the service representatives understand how their performance connects to higher-level objectives. Making the Right Measurement Call
  • Workforce management and quality monitoring ROI does not always translate into the tidy metrics--such as calls answered or call completion time--that drive business cases supporting software investments. But Timberline Software Corp. has some success measurements of its own:
  • Planned new hires at Timberline Software cancelled due to workforce management implementation: 30
  • Annual cost avoidance achieved by not recruiting/hiring 30 contact center employees: $1.4 million
  • First-call resolution rate improvement following workforce management application: 30 percent Eric Krell is an Austin, TX--based freelance journalist
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