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Workforce Management Software Simplifies Scheduling of Seasonal Staff

September 03, 2009

It’s late summer and that means merchants are gearing up to staff their call centers with seasonal help. For merchants that do most of their business during the holiday season, that can mean doubling, tripling or even quadrupling the number of call center agents they normally have onboard.

Typically this results in a recruiting and training nightmare for HR departments and call center managers. Not only do the HR departments have to slog through thousands of resumes from applicants (and with some areas seeing up to 9 percent unemployment this year, there will be a lot of resumes to go through), many of which don’t have appropriate experience, they also have to do the usual background checks and then move into the ever-time consuming interview stage to find people who have decent verbal skills and who are (at least somewhat) the right fit for the job (not to mention the company culture). But the thing is, time is a luxury HR managers simply don’t have: The company needs the extra agents lined up and ready to come onboard starting in mid-October, otherwise customer service levels could be in jeopardy when customers start calling in, in droves, come mid-November.

After the hiring stage is finished, the call center managers (and often the permanent, year-round agents) take over with the training process – which is a whole other topic – but needless to say it can be extremely arduous and time consuming. Here again, time is a luxury that the managers do not have: The new agents (especially the ones that aren’t returns from the previous season) have to be fully trained a ready to deliver good customer service within a relatively short time-frame. And as managers move through the training process they often have to weed out a percentage of the new hires because they simply do not possess the soft skills (or computer skills) needed to deliver fast and efficient customer service. That means new agents need to be quickly recruited and trained in order to fill in the empty spaces.

But after the hiring and training is completed, there remains yet another significant challenge to the seasonal call center -- and that is how to efficiently schedule the agents. This was probably already a challenge – but it’s even harder now that the size of the staff has grown exponentially. Heaven forbid if the merchant is still using spreadsheets or some other manual system for scheduling agents – the rationale perhaps being that, since the call center staff consists of only a few dozen people during the off-season, there’s no financial justification for investing in fancy call center scheduling software for the peak season, which last only a few months at best.

What some merchant companies might not realize is that workforce management software is invaluable tool for planning seasonal hiring as well as the efficient scheduling of agents during both the peak and off-peak season. Most of today’s workforce management software solutions offer advanced analytics capabilities that allow call center managers to forecast, with a high degree of accuracy, how many agents will be needed for any particular shift. This is achieved through integration with the call center’s ACD, or automated call distributor, and, in the case of multichannel contact centers, additionally through integration with the center’s email and Web chat servers. By using the historical call and other data captured through the ACD and related call center systems, a workforce management system can generate accurate forecasts that in turn help call center managers plan seasonal staffing.

This is critically important because, as most people know, labor is the single biggest cost facing any call center. Schedule too many agents for any particular shift and you’ll have agents sitting around doing nothing. Schedule not enough agents and call hold times will increase and customer service will be negatively impacted. The balancing of call volume to the number of agents scheduled is essentially the holy grail of effective call center management.

It’s no secret that accurately scheduling hundreds of agents in a large call center is a huge challenge. For seasonal businesses it can be an even greater challenge because the managers have to dynamically ramp up their efforts, in terms of managing and scheduling the extra staff – they may even need to use new management techniques that they don’t normally use during the off-season.

Also complicating the picture is that fact that a majority of seasonal help is part-time. This may offer some benefits – for example, a part-time staff can often be more flexible, in terms of scheduling, plus the agents can sometimes deliver better customer service, as they are “fresher” than agents who work eight hour shifts – but it also means it can be much harder to accurately schedule the proper number of agents for any given shift. Part-time agents typically have more schedule conflicts than agents who are full time: They tend to be stay-at-home moms, retirees with occasional health problems, or people who already have full time jobs and are simply seeking additional, part-time seasonal employment -- thus they often have more conflicts. That means managers have many times more “obstacles” to work around in order to build a team for any given shift.
This is where a workforce management solution can really prove its value. Many WFM systems today -- especially those that are hosted or Web-based -- offer a secure agent portal, or Web page, where agents can swap or bid on shifts, sometimes without manager approval. This results in much greater schedule flexibility – which has been shown to improve agent satisfaction (and, as a result, agent retention).

For example, if an agent has a schedule conflict, he or she can post a message to the portal alerting the other agents of the conflict and giving them the option to pick up the shift. By the same token the call center manager can see the message and ask other agents to fill in that shift. This is a much more efficient process than having the agent pick up the phone and play “phone tag (News - Alert)” with other agents in an effort to get a shift filled. It is particularly advantageous in instances where a schedule change needs to take place at the “last minute.”
As mentioned earlier, it can be extremely challenging to accurately schedule a larger number of agents, especially when the manager isn’t accustomed to doing it. But what many merchant companies might not realize is that it can be just as challenging, if not even more so, to accurately schedule a smaller number of agents.

That’s because every agent -- and every call -- has a greater effect on overall performance. For example, if you have a 20-agent center and one agent does not show up, you suddenly have a “5 percent resource problem.” And 5 percent can make a huge difference in overall call center performance. The impact can be even greater when you have agents that are trained to handle specific channels – such as Web chat or email – or when you have agent groups that are dedicated for handling specific customers, or specific brands.

So when upper management at a merchant company claims that workforce management software isn’t needed because there aren’t enough agents during the off-season to justify the investment, it is a bit of as misconception: In fact, the opposite is true. Therefore it can be argued that workforce management software provides and even greater value and return on investment for those businesses that must dynamically ramp up their call staff for seasonal peaks.

Monet Software is a leading provider of Web-based workforce management solutions. Its Monet WFM Live offering is a fully-Web-based solution, which means there is no need for capital investment in hardware or network infrastructure in order to deploy the system. The service is delivered on a subscription model, based on the number of seats in your call center.

One advantage of Web-based WFM systems is that they can be readily scaled up and down based on your business needs. This is particularly advantageous to merchants that have to significantly ramp up call center staffing to handle seasonal spikes in volume. Monet WFM Live lets customers forecast and schedule agents to handle inbound calls, outbound calls, email, Internet messaging, web callbacks and other related back office activities.

Because Monet WFM Live is delivered as a managed service, there is no need for IT staff to support the application. All hardware and software is managed by Monet Software, reducing the complexity and risk significantly. What’s more, all upgrades are included, so the technology is always current. Currently the software is available on a trial basis.
To learn more about Monet Software and its WFM Live offering, click here.

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Patrick Barnard is a contributing writer for TMCnet. To read more of Patrick’s articles, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Patrick Barnard

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