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Workforce Management for E-Mails – Now is a Great Time to Invest! 

Workforce Management for E-Mails – Now is a Great Time to Invest!

Workforce Management for E-Mails – Now is a Great Time to Invest!

Enterprises have to do a much better job of providing service in order not to alienate customers in the e-mail channel.

By Donna Fluss
ICCM Weekly

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E-mail is the second most common form of customer inquiry in most enterprises today, yet most companies haven’t invested in either an e-mail response management system (ERMs) or a workforce management application to forecast and schedule e-mail volumes.

And while e-mail or any other electronic form of communication is not expected to overtake phone calls as the primary channel for customer inquiries or sales activities during the next five years, enterprises have to do a much better job of providing service in order not to alienate customers in the e-mail channel.

A September 2001 study of the eService capabilities of top-rated eTailers revealed that 16% of these vendors did not bother to respond to customers’ e-mail inquiries at all. (See the November 2001 issue of Customer Interface Magazine,, for the complete story.) On the positive side, 12% of eTailers responded to e-mail inquiries within one hour, another 12% responded to e-mails within 1 – 3 hours and an additional 10% responded within 3 – 6 hours. More than half of the eTailers, 52%, however, failed to respond to customer e-mails within 24 hours.

Good service is currently a four hour response time and a 24 hour response time is considered acceptable, so the numbers make it clear that many eTailers don’t consider it important to provide decent or even any customer service. In an era when so many consumers view most products and services as commodities, with service as the primary differentiator and revenue and loyalty often tied to the quality of service, the neglect of customers is a very short-sighted practice.

Setting up a service organization that is both productive and effective at handling e-mails makes good business sense for Tailers, of course, and for any other organization that allows customers to send e-mail inquiries. Efficient handling of customer e-mails also reduces costs and improves service quality and therefore builds customer loyalty. Enterprises that receive more than 250 e-mails per day will benefit from a workforce management application that helps them predict the arrival rates and timing of e-mails so that they can match service needs with the right service agents and make sure e-mails receive responses on a timely basis.

According to a 2001 report by Frost & Sullivan, the penetration rate for workforce management applications is less than 10%. This number sounds small, but makes sense in the context of average call center size. “70% of the 250 seat call centers have already purchased a workforce management application,” says Steve Blood, Gartner Research Director. The use of workforce management applications is much more prevalent in North America than Europe where the “typical size of a call center is 40 seats,” states Mr. Blood.

It’s time for enterprises with large e-mail volumes to invest in management tools to help them do a better job. Three major issues are holding back enterprises from investing in e-mail workforce management applications. All three concerns have merit, but the benefits of workforce management greatly offset the challenges. The three issues are:

Issue 1: Handling e-mails on a timely basis increases servicing costs.

Reality: As e-mails have the potential to be less expensive than phone inquiries (according to Gartner, a phone call costs $5.50 and an e-mail $5.00), enterprises should promote this service channel at least as much as their phone-based channel, while always allowing customers to use their channel of choice. A great way to promote a service channel is to provide outstanding service.

It is a misconception that responding to e-mails slowly reduces costs. Sure, delaying e-mail responses reduces the number of agents required to handle e-mails inquiries, but it increases both the number of follow-up phone calls made to the company and the number of duplicate e-mail inquiries, consequently increasing service costs. In general, customers expect a response to their e-mails within four hours but most will wait one business day before sending a follow-up inquiry. After 48 hours, most customers assume that they will never receive an e-mail response and are very likely to call. These customers are likely to take their business elsewhere.

Issue 2: The algorithms used to forecast and schedule e-mails are not as accurate as the algorithms for handling phone calls.

Reality: There is some truth to this statement, but the current offerings from the leading workforce management vendors, Aspect, Blue Pumpkin, Genesys, and IEX, are much better than adding additional non-call tasks to an agent’s schedule. The early Erlang algorithms yielded significant improvements in the handling of phone calls and great benefits in service quality and productivity even while they were being improved. The e-mail forecasting equations have been around for only a couple of years and are expected to improve during the next few years as they are more fully tested in live, high-volume environments.

The task of forecasting and scheduling e-mails is very different from the same process for phone calls. Unlike calls where you either answer the customer right away or lose the call, customers don’t abandon e-mails inquiries and a backlog results. All the leading workforce management vendors have recently made available products to address e-mail forecasting and scheduling. Although these vendors are not using a common approach to address the e-mail challenge, all of the methods make sense.

While there is a need for improvement in the equations and processes used, just as there is still room to enhance the algorithms used for calls, these methods are significantly better than the paper and pencil ad hoc approach. Any enterprise that processes more than 250 e-mails per day should test an e-mail forecasting and scheduling application to determine how it will improve their operating environment. Vendors are very interested in selling their new e-mail workforce management offerings; now is a good time to try to cut a deal.

Issue 3: Because e-mail handling is still considered a new function in most contact centers and the majority of companies have not invested in an ERMs to automate the handling of e-mail inquiries, a workforce management application also isn’t necessary.

Reality: Even though less than 10% of enterprises have purchased an ERMs, an increasing percentage of companies are receiving enough e-mail to justify this investment. (Keep in mind that the ROI for an ERMs with a clean implementation can be as short as three months.) Almost all companies that haven’t purchased an ERMs have built or modified internal applications to handle the inflow of customer e-mail inquiries. The need for an e-mail workforce management application is not dependent on having purchased an external application to handle ERMs; rather it depends on the volume of e-mail inquiries and an enterprise’s commitment to service quality.

Best Practices: There is no incumbent or market share leader in the area of e-mail workforce management. Awareness of best practices can help your organization select the most suitable vendor.

  1. Use the same vendor for forecasting and scheduling phone calls and e-mails, particularly if the same group of agents handles both activities in the contact center.
  2. Choose an application that is web-based and allows agents to view their schedules and make changes on-line.
  3. Select a vendor whose future product plans are in alignment with your organization’s technology agenda.
  4. Don’t buy promises. If an important function is missing and the vendor won’t support your need in writing, it is unlikely to be delivered in your time frame. Given the increasing number of choices in the workforce management market today, enterprises should be able to find a vendor with the right offering.

Final Thoughts

Workforce management applications have improved greatly during the past three years. The positive changes were driven by Blue Pumpkin, which entered the market in 1997 and has since pumped a great deal of R&D and marketing dollars into what was previously an uninspired market. Today, workforce management vendors understand that if they don’t provide good functionality in an easy-to-use and well-architected product, a competitor will pick up their business.

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