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Tuning Up (and Engaging) The Workforce Engine


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May 15, 2009

Tuning Up (and Engaging) The Workforce Engine

By Brendan B. Read, Senior Contributing Editor

(This article originally appeared in the March 2009 issue of Customer Interaction Solutions Magazine)

Forget for a moment the fancy CRM, CIM, ACD/routing, and CTI (News - Alert) solutions. The engines that truly drive contact centers, and the customer retention, satisfaction, revenue and income they get in motion are the staff. These are the agents who interact with the customers and the supervisors and managers who ensure quality and performance objectives that make these functions roll.

In good times and poor ones alike there continues to be a strong need to obtain higher productivity from the contact center employees. There is also an equally powerful demand to keep them i.e. minimizing turnover that costs money, and cuts performance through new hire recruiting, training, and resulting output lags as they come up to speed.

To achieve greater workforce performance and retention there are a wide range of new and improved technologies. These solutions span from pre-hire screening software to increasingly sophisticated workforce management tools, and to incentives/rewards applications.

There is strong interest by contact centers in making these investments even in the current recession say observers because they realize that their key to survival and future growth is their ability to retain and keep customers. And that means having well-trained, high performance, and loyal staff to accomplish this aim.

“Many companies realize that they have to invest in service side of the business,” says Jeff Furst, President and CEO, FurstPerson, which specializes in employee pre-hire assessment solutions. “These smart companies have learned from the 2001-2002 downturn that when they did not put money into their people they damaged their businesses. Firms don’t want to give customers reasons to switch.”
Workforce issues
There are several issues that are impacting agent productivity and turnover. One of them is that agents must pass over higher skills bars. It is no longer enough for contact center staff to have pleasant voices and passable keyboard skills. They must have analytical and problem solving abilities and be equally adept at online communications as well as at using the phone.

Voice and web self-service applications are taking on more interactions that were once handled by live agents. That leaves those contacts that do come into centers today are for tougher issues from increasingly impatient and sometimes mobile customers and they come in via different channels, a call one time, an e-mail the next, and a chat session the time after that.

Another challenge is that contact centers are often poorly supervised, which is why too many agents underperform. Poor supervisors and coaches fail to monitor well, nitpick rather than focus on important issues, play favorites, and refuse to be flexible such on need to change shifts.

There is not surprisingly an observable correlation between bad supervision and declining productivity and climbing turnover. Unfortunately contact centers tend to promote to supervisors the best agents without assessing them for or training them on coaching, training, leadership, management, and administrative skills. Supervision and management requires talent that is not found in everyone.
“More than any other factor people tend to underperform or leave their jobs because they don’t like their supervisors or direct managers,” points out Furst. “While HR certainly has some influence here, our experience is that operations really owns the new hires and needs to make sure that they have the right supervisors with the right abilities and behaviors to perform.”

Pre-Hire Screening Methods
Ensuring optimal contact center productivity and minimal turnover begins by hiring and promoting the right people. There are now automated psychometric-based Web-applied pre-screening and assessment tools to enable this. These solutions, based on personality matches and work-sample simulations, leave out for final consideration top candidate agents and supervisors. The web tools also have another benefit: they screen applicants for their online communications and multitasking abilities.

These solutions have two keys. They are a job analysis process that defines the competencies that drive successful performance and a local validation effort that calibrates the scoring model to the organization’s business drivers.

“Personality assessments and work-samples have the most predictive power on job performance,” explains Furst. “The web delivery method permits firms to easily use them 24/7. It can also enable candidates to experience the work while at the same time the hiring organization can obtain a better view how they will perform on the job.”

One proven selection criteria is optimism, which Banks and Dean have incorporated into their Hire For Performance & Retention assessment solution, which provides predictions about actual job behaviors. The firm had come across Harvard medical research that found that optimistic people were successful because their behavior was planned; they embraced challenge and change and were more stable and disciplined in their work approach than others.

The individuals who pass these screens are then called in for in-person interviews for conventional contact center positions or interviewed over the phone especially for home agent postings. The conversations also enable voice skills assessment.

This process is becoming more automated. Furst is seeing more use of speech recognition to slice costs by eliminating the number of HR staff being engaged in conversations with applicants.

“The automated pre-employment screening from home takes a lot of work off the shoulders from the HR departments, “explains Furst. “They then know much more about the candidates and are spending the scarce and expensive face time or for home agents’ phone time they need with the most qualified. The entire process is accelerated, enabling hiring better people faster.”

Another benefit of these pre-hire assessment tools is that they obtain competencies about these individuals that could help trainers and coaches create and customize staff/career development programs that matches unique personalities with those attributes needed for success. As an example, a trainer understanding the competency make up of the new hire class might tailor specific learning modules based on the behavioral profile.

“If I as a manager get a much better sense of the agents’ different personalities and motivations I can turn these into strategies to improve output and reduce churn and implement them through knowing what buttons to push,” says Furst.

Maggie Klenke and Penny Reynolds of The Call Center School welcome these tools. Poor hiring and promoting have led to both poor performance and high turnover, they say. Pre-screening solutions also get around another issue: the inability of firms to use reference checks to verify aptitudes and past performance. Companies have been frightened off from this practice by successful lawsuits that have resulted from incorrect information given by employers about previous employees.

“We believe that hiring the right people in the first place is the right answer but it has been a question of interviewing people, and now there is technology to help,” says Klenke and Reynolds.

Workforce Management
There are new and increasingly popular workforce optimization (WFO) tools that can boost output and cut turnover. One of these is agent self-evaluation, whereby agents can listen to their recordings, check their performance metrics and if need to be schedule e-learning sessions.

Nike Golf implemented that feature on Envision Telephony’s solution and found that had helped create a positive work environment that challenges the agents to continually elevate their game, which helped to slice turnover. It also realized improved service quality, higher call resolution, and fewer escalations and was able to reduce new-hire phone training time by 50 percent.

Another WFO solution is enabling agents to change schedules without outside intervention, such as shifting shifts with colleagues that have the same skillsets, bidding for shifts, and going on vacation. This feature can be married with performance metrics, reports Jim Davies, a research director with Gartner, and serve as agent motivators, such as granting preferred shifts, avoiding coming on holidays, or working from home to high performers.

“Providing agents with visibility into their performance via dashboards and the flexibility to swap or bid for shifts, book a vacation and enter their shift preferences, all of which can be approved or rejected automatically and can take past performance into account, gives agents a highly motivating sense of control over their destiny,” explains Davies.

There are numerous other contact center applications that can boost agent productivity. Enkata’s FCR (first contact resolution) Metric Plug-in leverages the firm’s unique sequence detection algorithm to tag (News - Alert) every call as either a first call or a repeat call, based on the customer, call reason and elapsed time since the previous call. Supervisors can now be aware of which agents who are causing the most repeat calls and coach them to reduce the volume.

Autonomy (News - Alert) eTalk's Assist which helps agents instantly find information to help customers by analyzing the last few seconds of the audio conversation using speech analytics, interpret what the question was, and populate the agents' screens with the appropriate information or links. The solution reduces response times and promotes learning while boosting FCR rates and increasing customer satisfaction.

Finding out what your agents and supervisors think of your firm including your operations and image, and obtaining their suggestions can boost performance and cut churn. Confirmit offers automated online employee, corporate image, and exit surveys to obtain this information. Your staff is one of the best sources there is of ideas and insights and listening to them increases their loyalty because they then feel that they are valuable members of your team.

Making agents’ work easier helps gain more output and job satisfaction. Desktop unification software achieves this by minimizing the number of screens that agents have to toggle between through integrating with underlying applications. Vendors offering this capability include Cicero, Jacada (News - Alert), and Microsoft Customer Care Framework.

“Say the agent has a change of address to enter and 8 out of the 20 applications running have customer address fields,” says Davies. “With the desktop unification software agents will have done it once on the one screen and all those other systems have been updated."

Coaching /Supervision Tools
There are new tools to enable more effective coaching and supervision. Knowlagent’s Coaching & Performance Management solution includes patented technology that finds time for coaching sessions without impacting service levels and builds in adherence to coaching standards. The software allows you to train supervisors on how to be effective performance coaches and in turn provides supervisors with easy-to-use tools to diagnose agent problems and create individualized solutions. It also measures coaching impact and effectiveness.

Merced Performance Suite v3.5 enables supervisors to quickly and easily tailor their coaching activities to each individual agent's specific needs further boosting agent and operational performance. Preconfigured coaching and recognition workflows improve coaching consistency and effectiveness. To assist coaches and supervisors there are e-learning tools that prompt improved agent performance through giving them training at their seats without sacrificing productivity occurred by leaving them. For example Verint’s Impact 360 eLearning allows for the creation, assignment, delivery, tracking and reporting on individualized curriculums for each agent, group or center within an organization. Yet where individual coaching is needed a sister module, Impact 360 Coaching may schedule sessions. Also Enkata’s Enkata Manage automates agent performance data production and interpretation, and then presenting the highest value coaching topics for each agent or team. Enkata Coach makes coaching more productive and less contentious by attaching the specific calls that illustrate agents’ performance challenges.

There are applications that cut the time spent in assigning staff, and giving more time to coach. GMT’s new GMT Planet 9.9 workforce management solution offers what it calls 'multivariate scheduling'. This feature meshes different performance-related attributes, including agent competencies, proficiencies, skills, customer satisfaction results, and quality scoring into a single blend of attributes which supervisors can then use to select and assign staff. The tool avoids the time-consuming tasks of having to check agents against each of these factors individually.

Infor’s Infor HCM Workforce Management Business Edition also helps to reduce administrative work by as much as 60 percent. This leaves staff time to focus on more strategic activities that impact the bottom line and improve the work environment.

Time and resources spent in coaching can be cut with automated realtime monitoring and remindering tools that will correct agents’ behavior, provided by firms such as E-Glue. If the solution ‘knows’ that an agent is not very good at a certain activity and the agent is about to do it, it will screen pop them and say 'don't forget to do A, B, and C'. If the agent tends to forget to ask customers for their cellphone numbers, when it takes that customers' details it will remind the agent to do so.

“If you're a really good agent then you will not know that this technology exists, but if you are awful agent then you will know definitely it is there,” explains Davies.

Automated Incentives Programs
There are automated employee performance incentives programs that provide cash, gift cards, or other prizes to motivate staff and keep them loyal to employers. One of the more innovative is Xactly’s non-cash-based Xactly Rewards program. Xactly’s solution differs from others in that it is based on CRM application, in this case (News - Alert), rather than the more typical WFO-based solutions.

The company says its method provides superior and direct performance-award accuracy because they are based on the actual results unlike WFO obtained in and through the CRM software. Xactly Rewards points can be based on any individual agent-connected metric, including customer satisfaction, FCR, problem resolution, and qualified lead generation rates and sales per hour.

Jeff Furst says these tools can be a powerful economic model as employees get better compensation that ties into overall business performance. At the same time they are no substitutes for excellent coaching, supervision, or corporate culture. Compensation, including rewards, ranks close to the bottom of the scale of why people leave: poor supervision is at the top.

“If you are going to deploy automated incentives/rewards programs you should align them closely against the behavior that leads to the business outcomes,” points out Furst. “Rewards also must be consistent or the employees will lose faith in it.”

Brendan B. Read is TMCnet’s Senior Contributing Editor. To read more of Brendan’s articles, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi

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