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   ARTICLE   |   From Scotsman Guide Commercial Edition   |   August 2009

A New Era in Call-Center Planning

New systems look to the long term to help mortgage companies forecast their needs

Many mortgage companies use call centers to handle and track their incoming contacts. These companies probably are aware of their seasonal changes and have developed a plan for their variability. The call-center industry's traditional planning process includes a call-volume-forecasting component that can help brokers and their businesses in such planning.

Today, however, forecasting has become guesswork for many mortgage companies. If you cannot forecast your call volumes accurately, how can you plan to staff your call centers adequately?

Systems such as workforce management, call routing, performance analytics and call recording can have value for a mortgage company. It is important to squeeze out as much value as you can, and these tools certainly help make a broker's call-center operation run more smoothly.

But these tools cannot -- and were not designed to -- address the long-term strategic questions about a call center's overall management. One question mortgage-company owners often have when forecasting their business is: Given my current staff plan, what will my service level be each week in the next 18 months?

The key to answering this question and the other what-if scenarios that follow is to know the relationship between your resource decisions, your operational performance and your financial performance. You must evaluate the service of a call-center network as it performs on an hourly basis, across multiple centers and possibly across multiple contact types (e.g., e-mail, chat and phone). Near-real-time, accurate results are imperative.

In the past 10 years, new analytic and planning approaches have developed as strategic-planning systems. In particular, discrete-event-simulation modeling has enabled mortgage-company call centers to receive a near-real-time, accurate response to almost any strategic question.

Managing a multisite, multichannel, multiskill call-center network with this system often can allow companies to plan in various ways:

  • Forecasting: Most plans start with a new call-volume forecast. During times of uncertainty, however, this forecasting process may break down because history is no longer much of a guide.
  • Developing staffing demand: Once forecasts are developed, call-center planners must convert weekly, long-term forecasts into a gauge of demand for the center's services. This can be difficult, considering call-routing, contact-sharing among groups, behavioral and performance differences across centers, and other factors. During times of variability and with weak forecasts, these requirements may be suspect.
  • Staff planning: When requirements for call-center services are generated, planners must determine where and when a company should hire agents. They must consider myriad constraints such as classroom-size limits, training time, learning curves, propensity to hire in certain locations and call-center capacities.
  • Budget planning: Similar to forecasting volumes and talk times, developing financial-ratio forecasting can help convert the staff plan to a variable labor budget.
  • Variance, sensitivity and scenario analysis: The previous four points raise questions about changes, potential changes and situations. Answering them requires this analysis.

The new strategic-planning systems automate and optimize these steps, thus allowing the process to be performed accurately in minutes.

In uncertain times, it is not enough to put together a particular plan associated with a particular forecast. Instead, planning analysts must evaluate a plan if all goes as forecasted, as well as if all does not go as forecasted.

Strategic-planning systems enable this risk analysis. Matching resource-allocation decisions to possible forecasts is key to analyzing your mortgage call-center operation in times of change.


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