Research shows that 85% of organizations view the customer experience provided through the contact center as a competitive differentiator. Yet 45% of customers can’t remember having a positive customer experience!

At the same time, today’s buyers are more empowered than ever. Not only can they do their own research online, but they can also use social media channels to express their opinions.

The role of the contact center agent continues to evolve to meet the needs of buyers in this “age of the customer.” But what does this evolution of customer service mean for workforce management professionals? How will their role change?

The Evolution of the Customer

In the 1900s, manufacturers had the upper hand. Henry Ford made an affordable, high tech product (automobiles) that was available to the masses in one color: black.

Then, in the 1960s, some of the control started to move from the manufacturer to the retailer. Supply chain management became important as companies like Wal-Mart required manufacturers to wire their warehouse and production schedules into their supply chain systems in order to accurately forecast and keep costs down.

With the advent of the Internet in the 1990s, the dial started to turn towards customers, as they had the ability to comparison shop online and have products delivered directly to their doorstep.

“As we move into the new millennia, we see consumer power boosted even more,” said Art Schoeller, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research. “Empowered buyers demand a new level of customer obsession. Leveraging smart phones and social media for customer service provides challenges to companies today.”

These challenges, Schoeller explains, fall into three primary categories: making it easy for customers to do business with your company; efficiently providing customer service; and boosting your overall brand by listening to customer feedback and doing more to empower agents.

The Customer Mindset

So, what exactly is going on in the customer’s mind?

For one, customers as a whole are becoming more and more inpatient. In a recent survey, 55% of customers said they abandon online purchases if they can’t find a quick answer.

But the issue isn’t simply handle time, Schoeller warns, but also the customer’s perception that their time is being valued. Research shows that for 77% of customers, valuing their time is the most important thing a company can do to provide good service.

Today’s consumers also rely more on self-service. They research products online, visit company websites, and use their smart phones to access FAQs.

If they can’t find what they need through self-service channels, then they escalate their inquiry to an agent through phone, e-mail, chat or even posting something on Twitter.

“As consumers start to spread themselves across these channels, they want to be able to do it quickly. They want to be in control and they want a good experience,” says Schoeller. “We are challenged as an industry to be able to do that across all these channels and to really look at the effectiveness of our interactions with customers.”

WFM and the Forefront of Change

Despite the increased automation and self-service in the industry, contact centers continue to grow. Some 13% of centers say they are increasing by more than 10%, while 51% say they are increasing by 5-10%. (Another 29% say they are staying the same.)

Contact centers still strive to find and hire great agents.

“Being able to efficiently drive and increase revenues places additional challenges in front of us in terms of how we staff, when we staff and how we flexibly staff,” said Schoeller.

This flexibility of staffing includes leveraging multi-channel skilled agents. In a recent survey, 30% of centers say all of their agents support multiple channels; 47% say most of their agents support multiple channels.

Some larger centers have the size, scale and ability to segment traffic and still maintain efficiencies, which adds to the complexity of what’s done from a WFM perspective. This effects forecasting for tomorrow, next week, next month and even in the strategic planning realm of what we are going to do next year, says Schoeller.

“Adoption of workforce optimization is very high. I have seen a pretty consistent stream of organizations that have already put in – or are about to put in – quality monitoring and workforce management to manage forecasting and scheduling,” said Schoeller.

But in today’s fast-paced, multi-channel environment, how do we really flex capacity to changing events?

Champions for Customer Service

When an intraday event happens, you have to have a plan. There are a number of steps that can be put into place when you are in the midst of an “intraday firefight,” Schoeller says.

Technology can help with scheduling and finding the right agent availability to provide customers with a better customer experience. But from a management perspective, it’s about building a tighter link between workforce optimization and what’s going on between a center’s real-time routing and escalation rules.

Intraday automation reads data in real time from the schedules in the WFM system to automatically make frontline adjustments based on business rules you define.

Unlike WFM systems, which are all about forecasting and scheduling, intraday automation manages the actual events that happen throughout the course of a day and is used by real time and intraday teams within WFM.

This allows your intraday team to automate the decisions and actions they are currently doing manually, which is impossible to do consistently across centers, channels or even queues in real time.

Instead of manually firefighting, the team that was responsible for watching what was going on from an intraday perspective can now start to do what it was initially designed to do – think strategically around how to better improve the customer experience.

They can move from the back of the bus to driving the bus.

“There is an opportunity now to change the rules,” said Schoeller. “Now workforce management can earn the right to be at the planning and strategy table and level the game. They have the opportunity to share the knowledge they have and its value to the organization and really effect change.”

To learn more, listen to the whole webinar, “WFM and the Forefront of Change” at the link below.