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Make the Case for Training

Alex Coxon investigates the success of the Foundation Certificate in Contact Centre Planning in delivering powerful returns for contact centre leaders who invest in the professional development of their planning teams. 

The philosopher Sir Francis Bacon coined the phrase “knowledge is power” several centuries ago, but it’s as applicable today as it’s ever been.

In the world of contact centre planning, the saying is especially poignant. Here, staff have the potential to make or break a business; the decisions they take with regards forecasting and scheduling could result in their employer making a profit or bearing a loss. Yet research conducted by the Professional Planning Forum shows that 65 per cent of planning professionals have had no formal training or development in the past 12 months. Worryingly, some have never had any formal training at all. Under these circumstances, just how sound can a planner’s decisions really be?

If knowledge is indeed power, then an individual’s lack of expertise can equally be the Achilles’ heel in business. As Steve Woosey, Membership Director at the Planning Forum, puts it: “How can you challenge something if you don’t know what you’re doing wrong? Many planners are what we would call ‘home-grown’ – they’ve been promoted from being an agent on the contact centre floor and have been taught on the job by maybe one or two other people. They pick up bad habits and practices from those who’ve trained them and don’t recognise the weak spots because they don’t have any understanding outside of their own experience.”

Formal training plus practical projects creates measurable improvement

So what can planners do to improve their knowledge and make the best decisions for their organisations?According to Woosey, the best solution is to combine formal classroom learning with mentoring, practical project work and dialogue between peers. And it is exactly this combination of techniques that the Forum has brought together in its Foundation Certificate in Contact Centre Resource Planning.

The Certificate begins with a three-day intensive course, providing participants with an understanding of what good operational performance looks like, the principles of forecasting and scheduling, the different approaches that can be taken in each of these areas based on proven planning processes, and guidance on how to avoid the most common pitfalls.

“For me, the best part of the course was getting a thorough overview of all areas of resource planning and how to run each of them,” says Mark Stringfellow, Performance Analyst at Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), who started his Certificate programme in October 2007. “At RBS, different members of the planning team tend to focus on just one area each – for example, forecasting, scheduling, real-time adherence or the collection of management information (MI). When I went on the course, I was working in the real-time environment and made day-to-day decisions, but had very little experience of the forecasting or scheduling side of things, so learning how those areas work and being given a series of planning processes to practice with really helped.

Even slight changes can make a massive difference in the contact centre

“The point of the course is to show people how even slight changes can make a massive difference in the contact centre,” explains Dave Vernon, Senior Contact Centre Planning Specialist at the Planning Forum. “We take a very practical approach, getting people to sit down with a pen and paper so they learn how to schedule effectively without workforce management (WFM) technology. This way, people actually begin to understand the data they’re putting into the computer and how the system works for them.

“The three days are really intensive, so we allocate10-minute breaks throughout each day to allow people to absorb what they’ve just learnt and ask any questions before we go on,” he continues. “We call these take-away moments.”

Su-Ann Pauline, Telephony Manager at leading long-term savings provider AEGON has been so pleased with the changes she’s been able to implement since taking her Foundation Certificate that she has enrolled on the Planning Forum’s Advanced Certificate.

“One of the things I really liked about the Foundation course was being able to take time out to experiment with the planning models the tutors gave us rather than just sitting there and letting them show us how to use them. It was really interactive,” she says. “The other thing that impressed me was the assistance provided by my tutor during the four-month mentoring programme. We had regular conversations about my project – which was about reducing the amount of inbound hours for the AEGON sales team – and the guidance he gave me was really useful.

“The project has had a really huge impact on the business,” she continues. “Previously, thanks to inefficiencies, sickness and shrinkage in our inbound customer service team, our outbound sales team kept finding themselves having to answer inbound calls, which ultimately impacted on their ability to sell. Now, as a direct result of implementing the different aspects of the project, people are doing the jobs they were employed to do,  the team is more energised, and we’ve started seeing a rise in revenues."

I was feeling isolated in my role ... this was a fantastic experience

While the course is going on, students are encouraged to spend a lot of time talking to one another in order to learn from each others’ experiences. “When I signed up for the Certificate, I was feeling pretty isolated in my role,” admits Karen Ollerenshaw, Resource Planning Manager for the housing association Guinness Northern Counties, who began her programme in February 2008. “At the time there wasn’t anyone else in the company in a similar role, and few people in the  centre who really understood my job. So going on the course and being able to talk to people who were in a similar position – being able to bounce ideas off them – was a fantastic experience.”

Participants also spend time working out what changes they want to implement in their own contact centres and, with the guidance of the Planning Forum’s expert tutors, action plan what steps they can take to effect those adjustments. Over the next four months, students then undertake a minimum of three process reviews in their business – each relevant to the changes they want to bring about. They are mentored through the reviews via a series of six phone calls with their tutor from the three-day course, who gives advice on how to project manage the alterations most effectively based on the results of the reviews.

“This is a crucial part of a programme like this,” says Vernon. “Having managed an operation myself, I know that it is essential not to overload people with additional work but to ensure that projects are based on problems they’re actually facing in their own contact centre.

“To make sure they get the support they need within their own business, we always encourage people to engage with their manager as soon as they’ve finished the three-day course, and to carry on engaging with them as their project goes on,” he continues. “We also get them to go on a benchmarking site visit to another contact centre and to complete a short report on the similarities and differences between their own organisation and the other one. We find this really helps people to understand the strengths and weaknesses in their own contact centre operation.”

10% improvement in adherence to schedule

For RBS’ Mark Stringfellow, undertaking the project has been invaluable. Having focused on adherence to schedule, he has now made a 10 per cent improvement in this area and says that his contact centre is currently running at 95 to 97 per cent adherence to schedule.

These aren’t the only changes Stringfellow has made since completing the final part of his programme in January 2008 – a ‘certificate integration day’ that involved getting all the original participants back together to assess their progress, share the results of their practical work, and to develop a continuing professional development plan for each of them.

“Doing the certificate has given me a lot of confidence – both in my abilities and in the differences I can make in the call centre,” he says. “Since I finished the course, we’ve started doing highlight reporting – looking at actual call volumes, handling times and staffing numbers in 15-minute periods during a given day and comparing them against our forecasts so we can work out how we are performing and whether specific issues are to do with the number of calls we’re taking, the length of time spent on each call, or if there’s a problem with our agents.

“We’re also putting the finishing touches to another big project, gathering a lot more agent MI than we ever did previously,” he adds. “It will give us much more visibility of their performance than we ever had before.”

Guinness Northern Counties’ Karen Ollerenshaw is similarly pleased with the progress she’s made since completing her course. Having chosen the ambitious task of overhauling her entire resourcing plan as her project, she has managed – among other things – to reduce her full-time equivalent headcount by over 10% and has introduced a scheme whereby contact centre agents get to visit other parts of the organisation once every nine weeks in order to learn more about the way the housing association operates.

By far the biggest change has been morale in the centre

“By far the biggest change has been morale,” she adds. “Because people have had a substantial input into the changes, there’s a real buzz about the place – a really positive attitude all-round.”

Ultimately, then, it would seem that planners have the ability to deliver real change in their organisation’s call centres. However, they do need professional development to show them how to consolidate and hone that knowledge to make powerful changes.

“We’ve calculated that if you have a call centre with 500 agents at a cost to the business of £20,000 per head, even making a one per cent improvement in schedule fit or adherence will save you £100,000,” says the Planning Forum’s Steve Woosey. “It’s all about how you do things. Carefully selected training gives people the confidence and skills to drive genuine efficiency while engaging colleagues and improving customer experience at the same time.”

 

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