The customer is always right. The saying became part of the business lexicon years ago. The rise of the smartphone and social networking, however, are making that more true than ever, as customers are becoming more powerful every day.
That, and the fact that TMC this year celebrates 30 years of covering customer interaction, means it couldn’t be a better time to look at where we’ve been with customer service and where we’re going.
In this installment of our CUSTOMER coverage, we talk with Turgut Aykin, president and CEO at ac2 Solutions, a workforce management technologies company formed by researchers from the Graduate School of Management, Rutgers University and Bell Laboratories in 2001.
Prior to founding ac2 Solutions, Aykin was a member of technical staff at Bell Laboratories, Lucent Technologies and IBM Global Services. He has also assisted numerous Fortune 500 companies including Bank of America, Caterpillar, Celestica, Charter Communications, Convergys, Delta Air Lines, IBM, Lucent Technologies, Motorola, Phillips and Siemens (Munich, Germany) in improving their processes and performance.
Aykin has also served as an area editor and member of the editorial board for the International Journal of Operations and Quantitative Management, a scientific peer-refereed journal publishing the latest research results and technology development for the service sector, including contact centers.
What does your company sell?
Aykin: ac2’s main software product, the Advanced Workforce Optimization Portal (AWO Portal), provides advanced statistical and optimization technologies for contact center workforce management. The AWO Portal is available both as on-premises and hosted. Its modules including the AWO Forecaster, AWO Scheduler, AWO Capacity Planner, AWO RTA and AWO Workstation are also available as add-on modules. Our clients include Fortune 500 companies such as Delta Airlines in addition to numerous small and medium size contact centers.
We’re celebrating the 30-year anniversary of TMC’s Customer Interaction Solutions magazine. What has been the most important development in the past 30 years related to customer interactions and WFM?
Aykin: Certainly the widespread adoption of ACD-based customer service in the 1980s and 1990s, and Web-based customer service are two of the most important developments in customer interactions. These enablers have changed how customers interact with businesses drastically, making access and information readily available.
Workforce management existed even before the call center industry. In fact, the earliest research articles in scientific journals go back to 1953 by researchers working on workforce management (forecasting and scheduling) for highway toll collectors. Perhaps the most important development in WFM over the past 30 years was the automated WFM tools. These tools helped workforce managers deploy their resources more effectively in delivering service.
In the past decade?
Aykin: Availability of call handling paradigms such skills-based routing in the ‘90s, and new communication means such as chat and text (SMS) messaging together with the widespread use of smart devices are the most important developments in customer interactions we have seen over the past decade.
Important developments in WFM include improved forecasting, scheduling, capacity planning and performance management technologies to address the shortcomings of the WFM technologies introduced in 1990s. Namely, they include the introduction of advanced time series forecasting models instead of ineffective weighted moving averages method, advanced integer optimization for scheduling instead of scheduling using rule-of-thumb-based heuristics, abandonment based staffing models instead of Erlang C, sophisticated discrete event simulation for skills-based staffing and scheduling, advanced WFM-integrated capacity planning, and performance management.
In the recent past?
Aykin: Without a question, social media is one of the most important developments in customer interactions. Another important development is the widespread acceptance of the home-based agent model in the industry. Both of these changes in customer interactions have significant impact on WFM. Forecasting, staffing and scheduling for social media oriented interactions and home-based agents are capabilities we are currently providing to contact centers.
When and why did the trend toward call center offshoring take off?
Aykin: Outsourcing customer service dates back to the late 1980s and 1990s. In several cases, companies (e.g. TIME, Cincinnati Bell) either spun off their customer service operations as independent corporations with long-term service contracts or sold them to other companies. During the early ‘90s, there was a greater push toward moving manufacturing and service operations to more inexpensive geographies and focusing on core competencies. This practice accelerated toward the late 1990s and early 2000.
Is the tide turning on call center offshoring?
Aykin: I am not sure if the tide is turning on call center offshoring or temporarily slowing the pace. Some call center operations are being relocated back in the U.S. (e.g. Delta Airlines, Dell Co.). There are also the signs of expansion in the industry in the U.S.
If so, why?
Aykin: There are many reasons for bringing or expanding call centers back home including customers’ perception, competitive wages and steady workforce due to high unemployment rates, and currency exchange rates for the vendors.
How has the rise of IP-based networks impacted the call center and WFM? Customer interactions at large?
Aykin: IP-based networks are in use for more than a decade. They offer significant advantages over the traditional switch-based networks via integrated management of customer interactions through multiple channels such as phone, chat and e-mail. IP-based networks and interaction management made blended interaction service more effective. In this mode, an agent may switch between phone calls, chat sessions or answer e-mails depending on routing settings. To manage workforce in this type of system, the WFM technology used should support staffing and scheduling for blended as well as block operations. Likewise, performance management should allow monitoring and management of performance in an integrated manner.
How is the rise of cloud computing influencing how businesses target, engage with and deliver product/service/support to the customer?
Aykin: Cloud-based solutions are accessed over the Internet and supported by secure data centers. There are many advantages to businesses in using cloud-based multichannel interaction management and WFM solutions over the traditional in-house systems. These include small upfront investment, flexibility to scale up or down, low support costs and speedy roll out.
How is the widespread use of social networking technology influencing how businesses target, engage with and deliver to the customer?
Aykin: The use of social media in business is currently in a dynamic evolution. Its use by businesses includes dissemination of product and support information, delivery of services to customers based on their postings, and reputation defending among others. These interactions usually require timely response. Thus, forecasting, staffing and scheduling for social media is an important challenge many corporations are facing today. Of course, capacity planning, that is acquisition and retention of agent with skills needed, to deliver service through social media is also critical.
What other key trends are you related to how businesses target, engage with and deliver to the customer?
Aykin: Customer service has been gradually moving from mass service providing easy access and information to the mass customization phase in which customer service will be more customized and personalized to a customer’s needs and preferences. Current trends indicate a greater desire for customers to interact with agents that they’ve worked before and are familiar with their needs. Moreover, customer service is likely to move out of call centers into the field where service may be delivered by the employees of a company who are also responsible from delivery of products and services. This may further facilitate the delivery of personalized service, faster resolution and lower call center costs.