Despite the growth of online self-service, call centers remain the most common way for customers to interact with companies. New technologies promise ROI by focusing on the performance of the people who deliver service to the customer-call center agents.Driving customers to the Internet for self-service is an effective way for insurers to reduce the high costs of providing information and processing transactions off-line. The fact is, most customers still prefer to call and talk to a human being-the most expensive customer-service channel.

"We're finding through a lot of analysts' studies that, on average, customers communicate with companies 60% of the time through call centers," says Oscar Alban, principle, market analyst, Witness Systems Inc., an Atlanta-based workforce optimization vendor. Even when customers do use the Internet, he says, more than half the time they finish the transaction on the phone.

As a result, carriers have been implementing technologies to reduce costs and improve call center efficiency and customer satisfaction.

Call center technology has progressed rapidly in just the past two years, says Robert Hayes, president, Carrefoure Technologies, a Brentwood, Tenn.-based call center optimization consulting firm.

For decades, the most popular call center technology was the automatic call distributor (ACD), which routes calls to available agents, he says. But many more products are on the market now, and they're much more complicated and expensive.

Insurers have invested in computer-telephony integration (CTI), which automatically routes pertinent customer-information screens to a customer service representative's desktop. They've also installed customer relationship management (CRM) systems, which provide contact history, customized scripting, and personal customer information to assist CSRs.

Now, multichannel integration is all the rage-enabling policyholders to contact the company by phone or the Internet and receive the same up-to-date information. "It isn't a simple phone switch down there in the air-conditioned room that sends a dial tone and calls up the various agents anymore," Hayes says.

Measuring Performance

Indeed, in addition to enormous investments in CRM and multichannel integration, the most recent technologies to become popular in the call center arena fall under a category of "workforce management" or "performance optimization" software.

Vendors in this arena offer tools ranging from agent scheduling and forecasting software, to skills-based routing of calls, to just-in-time online training modules, to online scorecards that rate both the employee and call-center performance on a multitude of business objectives.

The appeal of these newer products is the solid data they provide on how an agent and a call center are performing. "Performance optimization tools provide intensive metrics that enable you to drill down to the rep level," says Greg Bland, director of service, at Seattle-based Safeco Corp., which has assessed several vendor offerings.

"They provide a good tool to get an overall temperature gauge, or when the pressure's dropping," he says, comparing the technology to an engine-monitoring system.

In addition, workforce optimization tools typically are much less expensive and simpler to implement than complex IT projects such as CRM and multi-channel integration. And, unlike CRM, the ROI often is tangible and swift.

In the last half of the 1990s, the focus of call center technology was on CRM-on the relationship between the customer and the business, says Bernadette Cullinan, COO of Performix Technolgies Ltd., a Burlington, Mass.-based performance optimization vendor.


"Staggering amounts of money have been spent on CRM," she says. "And if you did a survey of companies that have invested in it, you would find high levels of dissatisfaction. It didn't quite deliver what was promised."

CRM hasn't delivered on its promise because it focused solely on the process, and not on the people who deliver the relationship between the customer and the business, according to Cullinan. "It's a classic example of how focusing on the process alone-without focusing on the people at the same time-will never achieve the overall results you want."

By focusing on agent performance, optimization vendors have hit a nerve with call center managers who are under constant pressure to control costs without degrading customer service. Their interest in tools that can help them measure and improve agent performance is understandable-considering some compelling industry statistics:

* At least 60% of call center costs are associated with personnel.

* Average annual turnover in call centers ranges between 25% and 40%.

* The average cost to recruit and train a call center agent is between $6,000 and $7,000. (In a 500-seat operation that amounts to at least $750,000 per year.)

* And, perhaps most importantly, call center agents handle an average of 1,440 customer contacts per month.

"More customer information passes through a call center in one day than through most other areas of an organization in a week," Witness Systems' Alban notes.

To be sure, insurers face a conundrum: Call center agents represent a significant expense, but they're also one of the richest sources of customer information, of reinforcing the company brand, and of retaining customers and selling additional products and services.


Knowing this, most call center managers for years have been gauging call handling times, the number of calls an agent handles, the number of calls in queue, and the number of abandoned calls. And many operations have installed quality-assurance systems, which record calls to monitor agents' adherence to customer-service standards.

Yet, the problem that exists with measurements today is they're viewed in a disparate rather than in an integrated and balanced manner, Performix's Cullinan says. As a result, agents often perceive the feedback they receive from their team leaders as subjective, and call centers can unwittingly place opposing demands on their agents.

For example, when some companies-using a Witness Systems' software component called E-Quality Balance-captured and reviewed agents' voice and screen navigation, they found an interesting reason for disappointing results with their CRM system. The recordings showed that the CSRs were bypassing the CRM screen prompt-which provides a customized presentation to offer the additional products and services. The reason: The CSRs didn't want to increase their call-handling times.

Mixed Message

"Companies are pushing agents to decrease speaking time, but they're also asking them to use this $12-million piece of (CRM) software they've installed," says Witness' Alban. "The agents are getting a mixed message."

Call center agents know it's important how many calls they handle, they know they need to deliver a certain amount in sales and they know they need to have a certain qualitative style, Performix's Cullinan says. "They're very clear about these things. What they're typically not clear about is: How do they all work together?"

She describes a scenario in which agents were so concerned with call handling time that, as their calls got close to the time allowed, the agents cut the calls off.

"That's extreme," she says. "But you can understand that if agents have been told they've got two minutes for every call, they don't think about having a dissatisfied customer who's going to ring back and increase the volume of calls."

They don't think about it-unless it's measured and included in an overall view of performance expectations. And that's what newer performance optimization tools do. The most sophisticated software now provides an overview and details on a variety of measures for each agent as well as for the call center overall. And the measures are tied to the business' goals and to rewards and recognition for agents.

Performix's product, called Emvolve Performance Manager, for instance, incorporates data from a company's corporate and contact-center IT systems, including customer relationship management, computer-telephony integration, policy, claims, finance, and quality monitoring.

Productivity, quality, and revenue measures are weighted in the system according to their importance to the business goals. Therefore, a productivity measure, such as call handling time, won't override other substantial goals, such as customer satisfaction or revenue generated.

Originally founded in Dublin, Ireland, Performix moved to the United States two years ago and doesn't have any insurance customers yet.

Evaluation Stage

At press time, however, four carriers were evaluating the product, according to Cullinan. The value carriers perceive in the system is the marriage between process and people, she says. "There's been a lot of money invested in CRM, and we actually close the loop."

Still, few insurers are using the most sophisticated performance optimization tools, and if they are, they're reluctant to talk about it, vendors say. Witness Systems, which offers a similar product called E-Quality Analysis, was also unable to provide an insurance company to discuss any of its products.

It appears, however, that carriers are entering this arena by implementing "quick-hit" components of a vendor's workforce optimization suite. Scheduling software, for instance, seems to be a popular choice because it produces impressive results.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, for instance, installed a scheduling tool-called Director Enterprise-from Blue Pumpkin Software Inc., Sunnyvale, Calif. The software works in conjunction with the insurer's automatic call distributor to forecast the volume of calls and the number of agents needed to achieve a defined service level-all based on historical trends.

The automated system replaces a manual Excel spreadsheet method, and it provides the company with real-time data to share with the workers' union, says Barbara Viaene, director of quality and administration for auto national operations at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.

Because the Detroit-based company provides health insurance to the auto makers, its call center agents are represented by the United Automobile Workers (UAW) union. "It was somewhat difficult for us to go to our union leadership and say, 'We have to change people's schedules because we're not meeting our service goals,'" Viaene says.

But this software eliminates any perception of subjectivity. "We're now able to present data to (the UAW) that is objective and based on customer demand," she says.

It also helps the employees to understand that management is not trying to be difficult when planning schedules. "We're just trying to meet the business demands."

Empowering Agents

The benefits of scheduling software are numerous, according to users. It reduces inefficiencies associated with understaffing and overstaffing. It measures agents' adherence to their schedules. And it frees supervisors from extensive data entry to engage in "what-if" scenario planning around product releases and marketing campaigns.

Scheduling the 800 call center agents who work for Foremost Insurance Group is a budgetary, operational, efficiency and effectiveness issue, says Nancy Treul, senior vice president of marketing for the Grand Rapids, Mich.-based member of Farmers Insurance Group. "We want to maximize our workplace," she says. "We want to make sure we have the right people on the phones at the right times."

Yet, as crucial as cost savings and efficiencies are to the business, they weren't the only reasons for Foremost to decide to install Blue Pumpkin Director. The company also wanted its agents to have more flexibility and control over their schedules.

"You can imagine in a call center where we have hundreds of adults-we don't employ any children-it's a bit demeaning for them to have to call someone to ask, "Can I have these two hours off to take my child to the doctor?' It's like 'Mother may I,'" Treul says.

With the new scheduling software, which Foremost currently is implementing, CSRs will be able to post schedule change requests via a Web browser, and other employees will be able to view requests and swap schedules. The system automatically ensures that only agents with the appropriate skills will be covering the phones for each other.

Big Brother Watching

The system addresses one of the major challenges of operating a call center: the lack of flexibility for agents, Truel says. "People who work in a call center are either physically tethered to the phone, or if they can move around a little bit, they're still closely monitored as far as adhering to their schedule," she says.

"It's kind of like Big Brother is watching you, and that's not a comfortable feeling for most people," she adds. "So we're always looking for ways to provide more flexibility and make the job fun."

In fact, although these optimization tools might appear to be just another watchful eye on the already highly scrutinized call center agents, proponents of the technologies insist they empower employees-providing them with clearer, more objective information on their performance.

"When agents see their own performance on a daily basis, they don't have to argue about it with a team leader whom they might view as making subjective judgments," Performix's Cullinan says

Instead, "they already know what their performance is. Now, they're able to work on what they can do to improve it. The agent is in a much stronger position to manage themselves," she says.

The job of the inbound call center agent, in particular, is one of the most stressful jobs in the United States, says Witness Systems' Alban, who has monitored, coached and talked to thousands of agents.

"Overall, these people really do care," he says. When they have information on their performance and how it ties into the business goals, "it's amazing the ownership they take on," he says. "They're part of a cause. And they like that."

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