February 1, 2007, 12:00 AM

Work It

(Page 2 of 2)

“The order entry and tracking process for custom orders chews up large chunks of time and slows turnaround,” Duquette says. “Automating entry of custom orders can get us to 24-hour turnaround, which is what we and our customers want. The application is enabling us to reconfigure distribution and warehousing to operate more efficiently.”

The contact center, however, remains the area where e-retailers are most focused in gaining efficiency, as this is where the bulk of the workforce is concentrated. With consumers able to communicate with service representatives via the phone, live chat and e-mail, e-retailers want workforce management applications that can not only forecast staffing needs across each communications channel but also track volume in each channel in real time so managers can redeploy workers as needed.

Cabela’s Inc. uses a workforce management application from Aspect Software Inc. that enables it to forecast staffing needs based on promotions being run. Information such as the date the promotion goes live and the order channels that will be presented in the promotion are fed into a forecasting model so retailers can determine staffing needs by each communications channel. The retailer also can forecast how much customer support it will need for each promotion and how consumers will seek it out, whether through live chat, e-mail or the phone.

Weekly promo drops

“We do weekly promotional drops, so our scheduling fluctuates quite a bit,” says Jolaine Bamford, forecasting and staffing manager at Cabela’s. “We can use our workforce management application to schedule our up to 2,000 representatives over ten groups to accurately forecast manpower needs.”

On a micro level, Cabela’s can integrate the application to its phone switch to track not only the number of incoming orders or customer service calls but how long each representative is spending with a customer. The retailer can feed the data into the forecasting model to recalculate staffing needs throughout the day. This flexibility supports Cabela’s policy of starting employee shifts at 30-minute intervals.

Supervisors can use the data to reassign employees if order and customer communications volume is less than anticipated. “We can shift people into training or offer them the opportunity to end their shift early or simply take the day off,” explains Bamford. “This gives us a lot of flexibility in managing staff productivity.”

Historical data also can be used to forecast staffing needs so the company can set up training sessions in advance for employees and tailor staffing to the expected workload. This capability has enabled Cabela’s to hire more students that are good workers and have highly fluid schedules.

“Our flexibility in forecasting is a benefit we can promote to new hires, especially students that might be able to work only one day a week,” Bamford adds.

Predicting staffing needs based on historical call center data and promotional activity only scratches the surface of what web-based workforce management applications can do. Retailers can input elements such as the skills of the available workforce-for example, whether workers can perform order entry, customer service and/or help desk-to determine staffing needs. Supervisors can quickly consult the information on their desktop system to identify which employees have multiple skills and reassign them to different tasks as needed throughout the day.

Gaining insights

“Web-based applications bring data to the PC so supervisors can monitor performance and sales goals, gain insights into each metric for those daily targets, and manage staff accordingly,” says Brett Williams, senior manager, production management at Aspect Software.

Ultimately, e-retailers foresee using the new generation of web-based workforce management tools to link contact centers, distribution hubs and warehouses to provide a single overview of the entire workforce and their projected staffing needs for each facility months in advance.

“This is an area we want to move our workforce management capabilities to,” acknowledges Norm Thompson’s Larraneta. “We have a lot of customer centers and a lot of ebb and flow in them. Our goal is to take the daily progress of our workforce and sync it to our sales and customer communications strategies.”

With providers of web-based workforce management solutions making it possible for retailers to view worker productivity at a macro and micro level and schedule to meet seasonal demands and expected responses to promotions, retailers now have the tools to understand how their marketing and merchandising strategies fit together with workforce productivity, and vice versa.

Peter Lucas is a Highland Park, Ill.-based freelance business writer.

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