With roots dating back to the 1950s, department store “complaint department” businesses have historically viewed “customer service” as a cost of doing business and one that required cost containment wherever possible. Call centres were originally conceived as a more cost effective way of providing customer service and outsourcing/offshoring of call centres was just a further extension of this mentality.
In recent years, there has been a dramatic shift in thinking, however, and today’s modern multi-channel contact centres are increasingly becoming a critical component in many companies’ strategic effort to achieve competitive differentiation through superior customer service. As an example, within the Canadian wireless carrier industry, customer satisfaction is a leading indicator of customer turnover or “churn” which in turn is a leading indicator of business growth and ultimately stock price. The financial performance of the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) tracking portfolio of companies with superior customer satisfaction scores has exceeded the S&P500 by a factor of four since the year 2000. This is why the vast majority of Canadian c-suite executives surveyed cite “improving the customer experience” as a top three strategic priority for their company. Recent industry trend data that shows decade-long growth of contact centre outsourcing and offshoring slowing or reversing is further evidence of this shift in thinking.
A happy employee makes a happy customer
Many of us have heard this expression and it couldn’t be more true when looking at contact centre agents. A study by performance benchmarking firm MetricNet shows that there is a direct one-toone correlation between agent job satisfaction and customer satisfaction (a one per cent increase in agent satisfaction will improve customer satisfaction by one per cent). MetricNet data also shows a one-toone correlation between agent satisfaction and agent turnover (a one per cent increase in agent satisfaction will reduce agent turnover by one per cent). So companies seeking to improve customer satisfaction and retain an experienced workforce can achieve this through improving the satisfaction of their agents.
With annual turnover rates for contact centre agents averaging 35% or more, however, it is clear that achieving high levels of agent satisfaction remains a major industry challenge. High agent turnover means new, inexperienced hires are continually being added to “the front lines” and often falling short on delivering the same quality of service that long-term, experienced agents can deliver. And this problem is getting worse—according to Dimension Data’s 2013–2014 Contact Centre Benchmark report, agent turnover rose 26% from the previous year.
Schedule-change empowerment makes a happy agent
To understand what drives agent satisfaction, it is important to look at agent demographics. With an average age of 24 years old, Millennials have now become the dominant demographic within the North American contact centre workforce. Job satisfaction drivers for Millennials are very different than the drivers for the generations that preceded them. According to a millennial generation research study funded by the U.S. Department of Labor, most Millennials consider when they work as more important than opportunities for more pay or advancement and although they are highachievement oriented, 75% of Millennials consider work-life balance as a primary driver of their career choices. So a key to improving job satisfaction for contact centre agents is to improve their schedulechange empowerment—providing them with the ability to adjust their work hours as needed to achieve an optimal balance between their work and home lives. Increasing agent schedule-change empowerment increases agent satisfaction which increases agent retention and agent performance which increases customer satisfaction.
The agent schedule-change empowerment paradox
So if companies know that a happy agent makes a happy customer and schedule-change empowerment makes a happy agent, why is it that the industry has been slow to respond to this need despite the growing strategic focus on improving customer satisfaction? The key to this seeming paradox can be found by understanding the schedule-change management process. For most companies processing schedule change requests is a complex, time consuming and stressful task for workforce administrators to perform. For each change request a workforce administrator needs to assess the impact on staffing levels (i.e. will this aggravate a projected understaffing or overstaffing situation?), confirm that the request meets regulatory (e.g. work hours) and company policy (e.g. seniority) compliance guidelines, assure that their approval decisions don’t create perceptions of employee bias (e.g. why was one request approved and another denied?), communicate approval decisions in a timely manner and manually update approved schedule changes in the scheduling system. Imagine all of this could be done in 10 minutes for each request. For a 2,000 agent contact centre operation, if each agent submitted five schedule change requests a week, it would require a full time workforce of over 40 people just to process the volume of change requests. In response to this, many companies actually employ cost-containment policies specifically designed to restrict schedule-change empowerment such as limiting the number of requests or requiring significant advanced notice for schedule change requests. So although there is a recognition that there are benefits to increasing agent schedule-change empowerment, conventional thinking would suggest that there is a corresponding business cost that must be balanced against this benefit.
Solving the paradox through intelligent empowerment technology
What if there was a way to provide agents with the schedule change empowerment they really want in a way that actually improved staffing variances and reduced administrative costs, instead of increasing them? The good news for the industry is that intelligent schedule change empowerment technology can make this on-demand contact centre dream a reality.
Here is how intelligent schedule change empowerment technology works: Almost all commercial Workforce Management (WFM) systems provide workforce administrators with projected staffing variances—future time intervals when the number of currently scheduled agents will exceed or fall short of projected need. Traditionally workforce administrators analyze this staffing variance data and try to optimize staffing levels by asking some agents to take on extra hours during projected understaffed intervals or take time off during projected overstaffed intervals.
Intelligent schedule change empowerment takes the latest view of projected staffing variances and matches the staffing variances to agent current skills, schedules and work-hour compliance through a convenient user interface (think smartphone) that displays for the agent pre-approved extra-time or time off opportunities that if requested will be instantly accepted. Projected understaffed intervals are displayed as preapproved extra hour opportunities and projected overstaffed intervals are displayed as pre-approved time-off opportunities. The available extra hour and time off opportunities are continually updated to reflect the latest projection of staffing variances ensuring that each schedule change opportunity if selected will actually help optimize staffing levels. And with this assurance there is no longer a need for workforce administrators to manually process change requests. The result is a true win-win for agents (maximized schedule-change empowerment) and workforce administrators (less staffing variances and schedule-change process overhead).
Real world impact on agent satisfaction and intraday performance
Companies who have leveraged intelligent schedule change empowerment technology to transform their contact centre agents into active workforce administration partners have reported dramatic improvements to agent satisfaction, intraday staffing performance and administrative overhead.
According to agent satisfaction survey data aggregated from several companies, the percentage of agents that were highly satisfied with their selfscheduling flexibility grew by over 450% within 45 days of deployment of the WorkFlex intelligent agent mobile app. Negative agent satisfaction scores went down from almost 80% to under 30% in the same timeframe.
And the impact on intraday performance is equally impressive. At the 2015 Society of Workforce Planning Professionals’ (SWPP) annual conference, Sutherland Global Services, a large business process outsourcer (BPO), reported that after the deployment of the WorkFlex mobile app over 95% of all schedule changes were now agent initiated through the app and automatically approved and that agents were able to cut the level of staffing variances in half all by themselves. In addition, Sutherland reported that agent utilization increased by over three hours per agent per month. With results like these, the impact of agent self-scheduling empowerment on contact centre cost-performance is clear and compelling. With results like this, it is no wonder that Forbes magazine recently cited WorkFlex as a technology that “will make on-demand contact centres a reality.”
Taking intelligent self-service empowerment beyond the contact centre The inherent benefits of an on-demand workforce have clear applicability beyond the contact centre and the power of intelligent self-service technology may also shape the future of other industries including:
Conclusion Any company seeking achieve competitive differentiation through superior customer service should place a strategic focus on improving agent satisfaction. The demographics of today’s contact centre workforce has made agent self-scheduling flexibility a top driver of agent satisfaction. Intelligent agent schedule-change empowerment technology provides the means to improve agent satisfaction and realize the substantial operational cost-performance benefits of an on-demand contact centre at the same time.