Multi-Channel Forecasting: Dedicated Agent Pools vs. The Universal Queue

We live in an era of specialization. 

Look up any listing of doctors in your city and try to find one general practitioner. They used to be commonplace, but today it’s the rare physician that does not graduate medical school with one specific field of interest, whether it’s pediatrics or cardiology or sports medicine. 

The contact center has also witnessed the encroachment of specialization; in the way certain calls are routed to certain agents, and in multi-channel centers where customers also communicate via email and online chat. 

But is specialization really the best option? Or is there still a place in our industry for a good general practitioner agent? 

Dedicated Agent Pools

Multi-channel forecasting typically begins with a specification of service goals based on the types of channels the call center must handle, followed by agent skill assessment within each of these channels. 

Once these standards are set, forecasting will require accurate calculation of the Average Handle Time (AHT) for each contact channel. This is easier to do with calls than with emails, but a workforce management system can make volume forecasting easier. With this information, the contact center manager has two options to choose from – dedicated agent pools or the universal queue.

In the first scenario, once an agent’s skill sets are determined, he or she is assigned to a dedicated group that focuses solely or primarily on their best channel, whether that is inbound calls, emails or web chat. 

Such specialization also exists within call centers that only handle incoming telephone calls, as agents are assigned to specific areas such as handling complaints, closing sales on high-ticket items, and solving the problems no one else can solve. Over time, through the use of call monitoring and call recording software, managers discover these special talents within certain agents, and funnel calls to them where their skills can be deployed. 

The Universal Queue

With this simpler method, all contacts are routed to agents based on order and availability – first come, first serve. In a call center, that means the same agent should be able to handle a billing question and a technical support question, without having to transfer the call (or put the customer on hold while they find someone who knows the answer). 

In a multi-channel contact center, universal queue agents might first respond to an email, then resolve a customer’s issue via web chat, and then take a phone call.

The advantage to this method is how it facilitates cross-training and forces agents to become adept at handling the various methods of customer communication in a shorter time span. Cost is another advantage. If agents can support multiple channels, less staff will be required. 

Not every agent will have the skill set to become a “universal” agent. In addition to product, service and support knowledge, these agents must be talented, motivated and able to command a wide range of technologies. 

As a result, contact centers that opt for the universal queue approach will inevitably devote more time and effort to coaching and training on multiple customer touch points. Some people have a natural inclination to communicate verbally, and may need more help with the written word. Others will arrive with an inverse set of abilities. Thus, managers need to determine if the additional time and capital investment in agent evaluation and preparation will be more than offset by the advantages that universal agents provide. 

The Role of Technology

Whether a contact center opts for dedicated agent pools or a universal queue, it is also necessary to have the right technology platform in place, and agents fully trained on the platform. For agent pools, that means routing various methods of customer contact to the right agent. For the universal queue, it means integrating data from all communication modes, and scheduling agents to maximize productivity. 

Conclusion

In a corporate era where specialization is the goal, some contact centers are re-discovering the benefits of universal agents. Team members who can perform multiple tasks and communicate through different channels provide a valuable resource. It requires additional time and investment to train these agents, but ultimately their knowledge and efficiency add value to the contact center. Universal agents drive customer loyalty through the quality service they provide, while lowering costs to the company. 

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