Using Workforce Management to Power Multichannel Management

By Jose Martinez

While the dynamics of the contact center have changed dramatically over the past 10 years, its fundamental purpose remains constant. The center is focused on customer service. To that end, whether the customer is interacting with the center via phone, email, Web, IVR, or fax, that experience colors their opinion of the call center.

To provide top quality service while controlling costs, even the smallest centers now employ complex multiskill routing strategies, run multisite organizations, and support a wide range of multichannel contacts. While many of the centers manage contact handling across multiple sites and by skill types, most don’t have a proven multichannel management strategy. This article explains how the center can set the stage for effective multichannel contact handling and power it with workforce management technology.

Effective Multichannel Handling: There are several ways to manage multichannel contacts (such as email and Web chat). Some are more effective than others. One way is to create dedicated agent pools. One group can focus on email, another on outbound, a third on Web chat, and so forth. While this process will definitely work, it prevents the center from taking advantage of cross-training.

Another approach is the universal queue. Using this approach, contacts are automatically routed to the agent. They may handle an email, then an inbound call, and then a Web chat. It adds variety to their work and allows the center to maximize cross-training. In theory this sounds good, but in reality it’s fraught with management issues. For instance, it’s difficult for agents to switch gears that quickly. Agents go from researching a written inquiry to a sales-oriented phone conversation to an interactive online discussion – all within a 10 minute window.

To overcome the challenges associated with the dedicated agents and universal queue methods, more and more centers are turning to skill-block scheduling. It automates multichannel contact handling to help the center realize cross-training advantages and overcome management issues.

With skill-block scheduling, the workforce management system finds optimal windows of time for agents to concentrate on specific multichannel contact types. Before realizing the full potential of skill-block scheduling, however, the center must lay the groundwork.

Determine Service Goals: Depending on the types of channels the center is managing, service goals will be different. For example, using a 20 second average speed-of-answer goal for inbound calls may work great. Unfortunately, it won’t work the same way for email because it’s a deferrable contact type.

To manage deferrable work, the center must set an appropriate timeframe for handling the inquiries. With email, that means figuring out how long the work will take to handle and then determining an appropriate backlog. The backlog should be large enough to keep agents busy, yet small enough to prevent the center from falling behind. Once that’s done, the center can set a response goal. Based on the calculations, 24-hours may be a good time frame.

Two Step Volume Forecasting: The center’s ability to meet multichannel service goals is contingent on accurate forecasting. Forecasting multichannel contacts is a two step process. First, the center must create the arrival forecast from history for multichannel contacts; then create the handle forecast for deferrable work. This allows the center to take advantage of agent availability during periods of low call volume for handling other multichannel contact types.

For example, let’s say the arrival forecast shows the center will get about 100 emails between 8:00 am and 8:30 am on Mondays, and those inquiries must be answered within 24 hours. The center can see that call volume slows down between 5:00 pm and 6:00 pm in the evening. Armed with that information, the handle forecast identifies that 5:00 pm to 6:00 pm can be earmarked for handling email that arrived between 8:00 am and 8:30 am.

Determine AHT: Beyond forecasting, perhaps the biggest challenge associated with creating a forecast is determining accurate average handle time based on history. The problem with AHT (Average Handle Time) in a multichannel environment is two-fold. For one thing, most multichannel contact routing systems don’t provide good historical reports. It’s also inherently difficult to calculate AHT for multichannel contacts. That’s mainly because handle time for deferrable work like email is hard to track and Web chats running concurrently often get double counted.

  • Email: Let’s say an agent starts an email, but can’t complete it before his or her shift is over. The next day the agent spends 10 minutes completing the response. By then, 16 hours have elapsed between the time the email was opened for handling and when it was completed, but it didn’t take 16 hours to craft the response.
  • Web Chat: There are similar challenges associated with Web chats. Some agents can handle two, three, or even four Web chats at the same time. If an agent starts two Web chats at 8:00 am and finishes both of them at 8:10 am, the AHT might actually be five minutes for each, not ten. In this scenario, double counting is a challenge. To address these challenges, supervisors can use a stop watch to time each agent handling the various multichannel contact types. Using the average for the group, the center can calculate AHT. Once AHT has been calculated, it can be updated in the workforce management system for building accurate forecasts and staff plans.

Integration: The center’s ability to build accurate staff plans is contingent upon the center’s ability to integrate its workforce management system and the contact routing technology. By integrating the two systems, the center can forecast when contacts are received and when they should be handled, taking agent availability and skills into account.

Workforce Management’s Role: Sophisticated workforce management systems will help the center establish service goals for each multichannel contact type and accurately calculate staffing requirements.

  • Multisite Planning: In many cases, the center is spreading the workload across multiple sites. Leading workforce management systems will give the center both a site level and enterprise view of contact handling while allocating workload across sites.
  • Skills-based Scheduling: Skills-based scheduling is another important factor in multichannel contact handling. As schedules are being created, the workforce management system should be able to take skill-block scheduling into account. If there’s an hour worth of email or outbound calling that needs to be completed, the system will find the optimal time to schedule the appropriately skilled agents.
  • Change Management: Whether the center is running multiple sites or just one, change management is an important element of effective multichannel contact handling. Top notch workforce management systems provide the ability to watch multichannel contact handling in real time. That way, the center can make adjustments to staff plans based on changes in volume.

Far Reaching Benefits: The benefits derived from skill-block scheduling are far reaching. From improving agent satisfaction to building customer satisfaction, the center will realize vast improvements in multichannel contact handling with skill-block scheduling.

Automation: Managing the multichannel contact center is a complex undertaking. Perhaps the biggest benefit to using skill-block scheduling is the automation of multichannel management processes. Automating the multichannel scheduling process improves operational efficiency while maintaining service quality.

  • Agent Job Satisfaction: Improved job satisfaction is one of the major benefits of skill-block scheduling. Agents are cross trained to handle a number of contact types. This adds variety to their workload and boosts confidence as they continually build skills.
  • Gain Visibility: Awareness is another major benefit of skill-block scheduling. Under this system, everyone in the center is aware of what they are supposed to be doing – the management team, supervisors, and agents. That way, it is easy to see how resources are being allocated for each contact type.
  • Build Customer Satisfaction: Effective skill-block scheduling ensures proper staffing to meet service goals. It also promotes job satisfaction and brings added visibility for a higher level of customer satisfaction. Agents that are happy will inevitably provide better customer service. Plus cross-trained agents generally have a better understanding of how customers interact with the business, which makes them more effective at answering a wide range of questions.
  • Making it Work: Building optimal staffing plans is paramount to success with multichannel contact handling. As the number and type of contacts the center handles continues to rise, multichannel management will become increasingly important. Skill-block scheduling helps the center overcome the barriers presented with dedicated agents and universal queue strategies.

First, the center must lay the groundwork for success. That means determining appropriate service goals, adopting a new forecasting process, and calculating AHT for those multichannel contact types. Once that’s done, sophisticated workforce management technology can power the process.

Jose Martinez is Product Manager of Contact Center Solutions at IEX Corporation. He can be reached at

[From Connection Magazine March 2006]

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