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HR Call Centers A Smart Business Strategy

June 1, 1999
Related Topics: HR Services and Administration, Featured Article
It’s no small irony that the advent of employee self-service has left many workers feeling frustrated, even annoyed. At many companies, it’s no longer possible to saunter into the human resources department, pull up a chair and casually discuss various benefit options or retirement plans. Instead, employees are forced to confront an interactive voice response system that makes them punch a seemingly endless sequence of buttons on the telephone to get answers. Or they must turn to an intranet that forces them to ferret out their own information using a PC or kiosk.

Whether employees like it or not, self-service is here to stay. For companies, the cost savings and efficiency gains are simply too great to ignore. But what benefits the enterprise doesn’t always benefit employees. As anyone who’s participated in open enrollment or sorted through a 401(k) plan knows, making a selection isn’t always a simple button-pushing proposition. "Self-service can’t replace all human contact. No matter how sophisticated or well designed a system is, people are needed to answer questions and provide guidance," explains David Link, a practice director for The Hunter Group, a Baltimore-based information management consulting firm.

Increasingly, those answers are coming from specialists working in call centers. By funneling phone calls to representatives armed with the appropriate information, it’s possible to adopt employee self-service as a corporate strategy, but also offer human assistance, when necessary. Today, computer telephony integration (CTI) can create a seamless and efficient way to provide accurate information, track cases, spot problems and provide a higher level of service. It can replace tedious manual processes with a high level of automation.

Computer telephony integration (CTI): Integrates computers with the call center to provide advanced functionality. Typical call center CTI applications include screen pops, network screen transfers, IVR integration, screen based telephony and predictive dialing.

In fact, in recent years, call center technology has matured into a highly sophisticated solution. An employee using a telephone-based interactive voice response (IVR) system can punch in a Social Security number or employee number, and an accompanying CTI system can route the call to an appropriate rep, which might include a third-party provider such as a pension administrator or insurance company. Once the representative picks up the call, it’s possible to automatically view the person’s account, case history and other relevant data—all without touching the keyboard.

Interactive voice response (IVR): These systems allow customers to push buttons on their phones to navigate through menus and make selections. IVRs often handle employee self-service functions and route calls appropiately.

At its most advanced level, it’s possible to integrate phone calls, faxes, e-mail and Web access so that a representative can view the same material as a person sitting in his or her living room or at a desk. Some call centers also allow users to browse a Web site, and if a question arises, click a button on their browser. At that point, a rep calls back using a standard telephone—with more advanced capabilities, he or she can tap into videoconferencing or IP telephony—and discuss the matter with the caller while viewing the same screen.

IP telephony: Transmits voice over a TCP/IP network. This allows an instantaneous phone connection directly through a PC.

"Call centers solve a specific business problem for human resources and the entire enterprise," says Jim Holincheck, an analyst for Giga Information Group, a market research firm headquartered in Norwell, Massachusetts. "They help people obtain information that isn’t easily available through phone- and Web-based systems. What companies have come to realize is that the same techniques that are used for external customer service can benefit HR. A call center is an efficient way to fill requests for information in a large and decentralized environment."

Of course, putting together all the pieces is no simple task. Call centers require computer systems, telephone switching equipment, and various types of software. These systems capture data about each call—including numbers keyed into the IVR, hold times, transfers to various extensions, agent IDs and other information relating to the call or customer—by interfacing with CTI middleware or directly to an automatic call distributor (ACD) switch or legacy equipment.

Automatic call distributor (ACD): Processes telephone calls on a first-come, first-serve basis. The system answers each call immediately and, if necessary, holds it in a queue until it can be directed to the next available call center agent. When an agent becomes free, he or she services the first caller in the queue.

However, when it’s done right, the benefits can be enormous. Many companies not only cut administrative costs by creating a more efficient way to distribute information, but they also improve the overall quality of service. Instead of workers having to make an appointment with a person in the human resources department, they can call the system at their convenience. Tapping into relevant data, the call center rep can provide personalized information immediately. And if additional information is required, it’s possible to use workflow systems to route the request to the appropriate person.

"It’s important to think of the HR call center as a key component in an overall human resources strategy. It communicates the organization’s philosophy, mission and image as much as any other employee-communication vehicle," says Kevin Dobbs, director of the employee relationship management group at Edify Corp., a Santa Clara, California, firm that sells self-service software that can tie into call centers. Adds Jim Spoor, president of SPECTRUM Human Resource Systems Corp., in Denver: "It’s important to pay particular attention to technology, business strategy and culture when building a call center."

Call centers connect people with knowledge.
Designing a call center is a complex task, even for the most IT-savvy organization. Part of the problem is that a call center relies on various layers of technology—all of which must fit together like pieces of a puzzle. And, as Shirley Pantelleria, director of the employee services center at Whirlpool Corp. in Benton Harbor, Michigan, puts it: "You have to consider all the various components together when making a decision. Everything is interrelated, and how the systems work together affects performance and capabilities."

Whirlpool began building its call center in February 1997. The facility went operational in September of the same year, with nine reps fielding calls from 21,000 U.S. employees and 7,000 retirees. When employees dial into the TALX Corp. IVR, they can handle benefits enrollment by punching the buttons on their phones—using a Social Security number as the identifier. If the individual requires the assistance of an agent, he or she pushes a button and connects within seconds.

A CTI screen pop automatically identifies the caller and populates the screen with data from a PeopleSoft HRMS and the IVR. The system also can identify where an employee is calling from. At that point, the call center rep can help guide the employee through the decision-making process. The information base that supplies reps with the details on policies and procedures is stored on the company’s intranet site. Agents can conduct keyword searches to find the information they need.

Screen pop: Uses an identifier, such as a Social Security ID or PIN to aggregate relevant contact information from various databases. The information displays on the call center agent's computer screen automatically. IVR and Web-based systems can initiate screen pops.

At Whirlpool, 65 percent of the company’s employee base taps into the self-service capabilities of the IVR. About 35 percent of those employees opt to speak to a live associate. That translates into call center reps handling more than 34,000 inquiries a year. "The idea was to create a self-service system people would want to use, but if they needed a rep they could easily get to one and have the call handled quickly and efficiently," says Pantelleria.

The Whirlpool call center runs off a Lucent ACD, an IBM mainframe computer and a DB2 database. At present, the TALX front end provides interactive phone capability, including speech recognition that allows employees to spell their names and input other information verbally. However, Web-based capabilities are on the horizon, Pantelleria notes. The Web component will be accessible from desktops as well as kiosks positioned in factories.

Increasingly, employee self-service and call centers are part of a tightly integrated strategy: Supply individuals with the information to conduct transactions on their own, but provide help when it’s needed. "It’s important to realize that you’re forcing people to do things differently when you implement employee self-service. To gain a higher level of acceptance, it’s a good idea to have a call center in place to address questions, problems and concerns," says Holincheck.

According to Link, call centers usually rely on three technological components—all dependent on each other. First, there’s the underlying call center server, which routes calls to the proper location and representative. Using ACD, the system can capture revealing data about each call, including hold times, the number of transfers that take place for callers, and the time spent by agents handling various problems. It’s also possible to generate detailed statistics and reports that can be used to create more efficient staffing and information delivery models.

Case management software also provides some muscle. It allows any service center agent to track a caller’s history by viewing a composite file that contains records of employment status and classification, previous benefits choices and selections, and past discussions, among other things. With IVR and CTI capabilities, it’s possible to populate the rep’s computer screen with relevant data from various sources, including the ERP or HRMS, as soon as the call comes in. That saves time and allows the rep to "manage the relationship rather than the transactions," says Link.

Case management software: Offers the ability to track case histories by documenting dates of contact, issues discussed, information provided and more. Most programs let agents insert pre-defined boilerplate text into the record to document an array of situations. Not only does this make it easier to track the case over time, it also can reduce legal liability.

Call centers can reduce legal exposure.
The capabilities of the software are growing all the time. Some programs now allow a rep to consolidate an array of tasks right on the desktop, including Web, e-mail, faxes and paper correspondence. The HR department can access information quickly and provide better service, but it also can ensure legal compliance. By documenting dates, the exact information the rep provided and a suggested course of action, it’s possible to reduce exposure to lawsuits, says Link. Equally important, it’s possible for reps to provide far more consistent information.

The third part of the equation is knowledge-base software, which lets agents search out needed information—usually with keyword searches. The most sophisticated of these programs can reflect policy changes throughout the entire organization on the fly—and bridge the self-service and call center systems. "It adds intelligence to the update process. It eliminates errors due to reps receiving and giving out-of-date information," Link explains.

Kknowledge-base software: Allows a call center agent to answer detailed and highlyy customized questions by accesing comprehensive information—often via keyword search. The more advanced programs can update information real-time and mine information from ERP packages such as PeopleSoft, SAP, Oracle and Lawson.

In fact, the capabilities of the software are growing rapidly. Some systems, such as Foundation Technologies’ Beneflex, allow an HR department to dynamically publish information so that it can be used in a general way or customized to a single employee, if necessary. It uses a Windows NT server to connect to PC or legacy databases distributed throughout the organization. "That makes it possible to quickly extract accurate information based on life events, employment history, date of hire and an array of other factors," states Tod Loofbourrow, president and CEO of the Waltham, Massachusetts, company. Moreover, when HR adds or changes information, "it’s updated throughout the knowledge base," he notes.

Giga Information Group’s Holincheck emphasizes the importance of tying together various components. "Although the idea is to funnel employees through the self-service component, the questions and issues that can’t be resolved by the employee must be routed to a call center. If a rep in the call center can’t resolve the problem, it needs to be routed to a manager. In order to ensure that a system works, it’s necessary to use routing and workflow effectively." And since there’s no shrink-wrapped solution that can fully run a call center, "a company has to glue together its own solutions from various products in all the different categories," he says.

A call center presents challenges, but offers rewards.
Ken Millen understands the complexity of building a call center. In 1998, as director of HR services at Hoffman Estates, Illinois-based Sears, Roebuck & Co., he helped the retailing giant introduce an HR call center that now handles benefits selection and 401(k) administration. Using Sun Unix servers, a Siemens ACD, PeopleSoft HRMS, Edify self-service software, Quintus’ case management software, and Foundation Technologies’ Beneflex knowledge-base software, Sears is able to answer questions for more than 325,000 current and former employees in more than 4,000 locations. Altogether, the call center uses 60 customer service reps to handle approximately 1 million calls a year.

When employees dial into the IVR, they push the buttons on their telephones to make selections from within the Edify self-service component. If they have questions or need clarification, they can connect to a live representative in the call center. Using a screen pop, the system automatically pulls the employee’s record from the PeopleSoft database while populating the rep’s computer screen with his or her case history. In a separate window, the call center agent checks the Beneflex knowledge-base. All this has replaced manuals, loose pieces of paper and sticky notes.

"It’s a model for far more efficient delivery of information," says Millen. And he has the numbers to back him up. Sears forked over about $500,000 to assemble the technology for the call center, but expects to realize about $2.2 million in savings over the first four years—mostly by reducing staffing requirements within human resources. In addition, the system is helping reduce transactional overhead—something that creates gains for both the company and the employees.

It’s important to get beyond the company line.
Call centers aren’t for every organization. They work best, says Link, when a firm has 10,000 or more employees. Below that number, the high cost of a call center can make it a frightening proposition. The various pieces of hardware and software required to build a call center can easily slide past $1 million. The largest call centers can cost double or triple that amount—though many companies achieve a return on investment within 12 to 24 months.

But all this doesn’t mean that small- to medium-sized companies are shut out. The same concepts—and some of the same equipment—can be used to drive improvement at virtually any company. Using a hotline, contact management software and an employee manual residing on the intranet, HR reps can find information quickly, even without CTI. Callers will no longer find themselves explaining their situation over and over again to a seemingly endless succession of reps who have no way of tracking the history of the case.

Contact management software: Although less sophisticated than case management software, programs like Act! And Microsoft Outlookâ offer the capability to keep notes about conversations and actions.

Not surprisingly, the next generation of call centers promises to usher in further gains—featuring live chat, videoconferencing and Internet telephony. The latter option offers a direct phone connection through computer systems, without the added hassle of picking up a standard telephone. What’s more, multimedia customer interaction will usher in an era of streaming video, audio and remote presentations managed by a rep in a call center. For example, New York City-based Sitebridge Corp. has developed software that lets an agent show a customer PowerPoint® slides, an animated product demo, or virtually any other file directly through a Web browser. The program, Customer Now 2.0, also makes collaborative Web browsing possible.

Impressive capabilities, to be sure. Yet Link maintains that developing an HR call center isn’t as daunting a task as it may initially seem. For one thing, advanced capabilities shouldn’t be the top priority. For another, human resources can often borrow on the expertise and experience of other departments that have already built call centers—including marketing, sales and customer service. In some cases, it’s also possible to use technology that those departments have outgrown. "It isn’t necessary to reinvent the wheel," he says.

Ultimately, call centers are changing the structure of the human resources department. "Just as the ATM brought 24-hour convenience to banking, call centers are bringing greater convenience and flexibility to human resources," states Loofbourrow. "Many HR departments that implement a call center to complement employee self-service are seeing their costs decline and their customer service ratings jump. The goal is to use self-service technology to reduce transactions, but have live agents available to solve real world problems. That’s the best of both worlds.

Workforce, June 1999, Vol. 78, No. 6, pp. 116-122.

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