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  • Writer's pictureDoug Casterton

4 Workforce Management best practices during an economic downturn

It appears that the pandemic economic recovery has hit a tipping point. High inflation and fast-rising interest rates could and, in some cases, have already resulted in an economic slowdown, a long and painful period of stagflation, or a recession – and the judgment is still out on which of these possibilities will occur going forwards.

Wise businesses during this time understand the need to be proactive. This begins with reassessing your Workforce Management plan and goals. After all, recessions can result in layoffs and other staff reductions in the worst-case scenario. However, if not adequately planned (or avoided entirely), layoffs can have a negative impact on your capacity to fulfill business objectives, lower employee morale, and endanger your company's culture and productivity as a whole.

So, how can you utilize Workforce Management to recession-proof your business while maintaining your staff operating at peak efficiency? We offer four best practices for Workforce Management to assist you.

1 - Labor demand scenario planning

During any crisis, whether economically driven or otherwise, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, there will be a "new normal” and your present demand forecast will likely need to be substantially adapted to adjust for changes in customer demand and employee productivity.

Furthermore, winning organizations display agility and adaptability by simulating various operational and workforce scenarios that reflect the downturn's impact on their business, adapting swiftly, and exploring their choices. The idea is to be prepared for the worst- or best-case scenarios.

While all planning inputs should be evaluated for potential impact, how this downturn may affect your customer demand is a smart place to start. A great best practice is to assess and produce multiple forecasts that vary in impact for both severity and duration. After all, while a 50% loss in sales would undoubtedly impact the business, the workforce decisions you should make (particularly regarding workforce redundancies) will vary greatly depending on whether this is a temporary blip in business conditions or a permanent adjustment.

In a scenario where a reduction in business demand is permanent or at least likely to impact over the long term, having a clear view of what options are available that allow you to do more with less, measuring the impact of hiring freezes, and how natural employee turnover can realign supply to demand is critical before moving on to more impactful options such as layoffs. Additionally, there are many direct and indirect costs to consider before layoffs should be considered, three of which a Workforce Management plan can & should directly measure via scenario planning.

​*Recruiting, training, and time to competency costs of new hires for when the business recovers

Decreased productivity among survivors

​**Increased Voluntary turnover of those who remain.

* This should include new hire training and the time it will take for a new employee to reach the competency levels of a tenured employee.

**The transition from a non-downsizing to a downsizing organization is a primary reason why rates of voluntary turnover rise among surviving workers.

In addition, before permanent layoffs are pushed, alternatives should also be explored. Some example alternatives to Employment Downsizing could be:

​Employees being retrained and deployed to different activities

​Reduced Service Operating Hours

Cut Temporary Staff

Reduce employee working hours

Employee work sharing

Use Temporary Layoffs (criteria for when this can be used is dependant on the countries laws)

Robust scenario planning enables you to understand the present better, assess what might happen in the future, and analyze the business ramifications of any changes. It allows you to envisage various possible scenarios and examine how to position your business correctly. The scenario planning process raises awareness of potential risks while also supporting the company in recognizing opportunities. Long-term forecasting that is accurate and complete, coupled with financial predictions and impact analysis, enables a business to discover emerging opportunities early and be ready to act.

2 - Take Care Of Your Employees

Contact center representatives have demanding jobs. Employees frequently face unpredictable hours and stress, and the internet is littered with reviews claiming that these are the worst jobs in the world. The first step in any strategy for navigating a difficult economy is to take care of your good employees. Representatives may bear the brunt of dissatisfied customers while feeling as if their work is unimportant, so anything you can do in this area will likely go a long way toward building a committed workforce and, as a result, a more productive workforce through reduced sickness and better in-office productivity.

The first step in any WFM employee engagement play is to introduce fairness and transparency. Transparency and openness foster a sense of fairness that appeals to employees while satisfying organizations with a strong union or works council presence. Employees take turns working the less popular shifts and plan vacation time equitably, while employees have complete visibility of each other's schedules and time off via self-service.

Aside from creating a WFM process that is fair and transparent, the most direct way that Workforce Management can impact employee engagement is via reviewing employees' schedules. Involving people in the scheduling process is critical to keeping people engaged and happy at work. People are prone to burnout. Long shifts with no breaks, the emotional toll of dealing with dissatisfied customers, and inflexible work hours can all push people over the edge. However, by incorporating employee feedback and employing workforce engagement management techniques, you can tailor your schedules to meet the needs of both your customers and your people.

Three features of Workforce Management technology that can be an enabler in this space are Automated Shift swapping, Automated Leave Approval, and Workforce Availability. Automated shift swapping will enable employees to swap shifts with coworkers, and with workforce availability capture; employees can specify when and to what extent they are available for work. These preferences can then be taken into account automatically when scheduling.

3 - Identify, Target & Measure the benefits of Customer Service Automation

In times when businesses are trying to save money, technology automation can be used to improve the customer experience. The result? Companies are spending less money on improving customer service.

Customer Service Automation can improve your bottom line by impacting a multitude of contact center metrics which an integrated workforce management function is uniquely positioned to identify/target & measure opportunity via a data-driven approach. Identification of opportunities in this space should not just be limited to the implementation of new technologies but also the assessment of existing implemented technologies, i.e., is this technology still providing a return on investment that justifies the cost?

Examples of customer service automation:

​Live website or app chatbots guided by AI

Interactive voice response (IVR) systems

​Self-service facilities such as knowledge bases, frequently asked questions (FAQs) pages, etc.

​Self-service help centers so that customers can self-help

​Internal workflow automation

​Email automation

Depending on the solution type, customer service automation typically can impact both Employee Efficiency (Average Handling Time, Chat Concurrency Rate, Shrinkage, Occupancy, Adherence, & Utilisation) and Contact Efficiency (Abandon Rate, First Contact Resolution, Transfer Rates, Average Contact Waiting & Service Level).

A Workforce Management function typically has all the above metrics either as an input or an output of the WFM plan and thus regularly touches related data sets. This means that Workforce Management is uniquely positioned to measure the projected return on investment for implementing automation technologies and identify opportunities by calling out which of these metrics are performing or not performing.

Automation can drastically reduce the cost to serve. However, it should also be noted that no matter how good the implementation, it will always have some negative impact on customer experience, whether that is through its lack of personality and emotion or because the customer issue is too complex to handle via automation. For example, no matter how well we dress up artificial intelligence systems, conversations tend to feel robotic. Chatbots, for example, lack the empathy required to de-escalate frustrated customers. Customers can be directed to specific solutions by automated systems. Less sophisticated ones direct customers to irrelevant articles, resulting in a perplexing experience. Artificial intelligence will undoubtedly eventually evolve to the point where it can solve most business problems and customer issues, but we're not quite there yet. Many AI-powered customer service platforms address basic customer concerns such as billing dates and how-to questions. Still, they cannot meet the demand for more complex issues that require human intuition. Thus any implementation should consider not only the direct cost to serve but also the impact on customer experience. Providing an automated option only to find it generates additional escalated contacts is self-defeating. Being clear on your channel mix strategy and signposting/guiding customers to the most appropriate channel is where much of this CX downside to automation can be mitigated.

4 - Optimize Your Channel Mix Strategy

With so many communication channels in the mix, your organization can spread itself too thin if you try to cover every option. It is a well-known fact that introducing a new customer contact channel usually also creates incremental customer volume as a result of customers needing to shift between channels depending on the complexity of the interactions and what customer reassurance is desired, i.e., customers seeking heightened reassurance that their inquiry will be dealt with correctly will often switch from Email to Phone so that they are not dealing with the lost context or the stress of waiting for a reply. Additionally, some customer contact channels are inheritably more cost-efficient or customer-friendly than others.

As with the points made regarding Automation, Workforce Management typically has all the data to measure a channel's cost-effectiveness from the two dimensions of Employee & Contact Efficiency. By understanding what, if any, incremental volume is being driven (including what is causing it) and how much each channel is costing per contact, you can combine this with what customer experience (CX) this channel is generating to make an informed decision.

Channel Mix Strategies Examples:

​Remove channels with a high cost to serve and low CX

​Hide Channels with a high cost of service, reserving them for specific contact reasons

​Deflect contacts from the high cost of service channels to low cost to service channels, assuming customer experience on both channels is equal.

In addition, here are some example contact deflection strategies to consider:

  1. Offer customers to escape long hold times through in-queue messaging by switching to digital channels when many people are ahead of them in the queue.

  2. Redirect customers to chat during non-office hours if you don’t open your phone line 24/7.

  3. Monitor the types of questions customers regularly ask and update website FAQs or other self-service channels to respond to them.

  4. Offer call-backs. Rather than waiting on hold, customers leave their phone numbers and hang up to receive a call at a later time. This tidies up the voice channel and improves your many call center metrics.

  5. Deliver proactive outreach communications, for example, a massmail regarding an event likely to generate a lot of customers to contact.

Recessions are unavoidable elements of the business cycle. To survive and even thrive during a recession, a company must be innovative and adaptable enough to develop and implement a new business strategy. Workforce Management functions that plan ahead of time, and help their operation to implement preemptive measures like scaling out automation options, optimizing the channel mix, and detailing how to handle multiple recession scenarios, will be in good shape when a recession hits. For some businesses, a recession can even be a time of growth and investment, leading to better days when the good times return.

For even greater insight into the importance of WFM in a downturn, check out this podcast episode where we speak with Kristyn Emenecker, Chief Product & Strategy Officer at Playvox, about what you need to focus on to be prepared for a downturn, and what role WFM needs to play to be in a strategic decision position.

This blog post has been brought to you by weWFM in collaboration with Playvox.

With Playvox cloud native easy-to-deploy Workforce Management solution, you can increase efficiency, reduce costs while keeping an agile and happy workforce.

Use Playvox to forecast, schedule, and manage your workforce in real-time.

Wanna know more, go to our sponsor page

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