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Airborne Freight's Call Centre Management SystemVital Statistics:Organisation: Airborne Freight Corp., Seattle Application: Call centre management Technologies: Blue Pumpkin Software Inc.'s PrimeTime workforce management software running on Pentium-based PCs Scope: About 30 managers, trainers and technical analysts and 1,350 customer service representatives at 15 call centres Sponsor: Gary Reynolds, vice president of customer service Objective: To provide more consistent service, boost customer satisfaction and free supervisors to work with staff Payoff: Improved service and strengthened planning capabilities without increasing staff At Airborne Freight Corp., commonly known as Airborne Express, business success depends on speed. After all, businesses and individuals turn to companies like Airborne Express for fast and efficient air delivery. And with nearly 200,000 calls rolling into its call centres daily, the company must ensure that customers aren't kept waiting.

At the same time, the Seattle-based company operates in a highly competitive environment in which Federal Express, UPS and the U.S. Postal Service are readily available to potential customers. It's easy to see why running the call centres efficiently while controlling costs is critical. And because personnel accounts for about 70 per cent of each call centre's costs (the rest goes to rent, phone bills, and computer and telephone equipment), it's imperative that the company predict call volume accurately so that the right number of people are scheduled.

In the past, scheduling call centre staff was a complicated process that consumed between 8 and 12 hours of a supervisor's time each week. The supervisor would examine historical data from the phone system for the same period during a previous year (for example, the day before Christmas) and use a basic software program based on queuing theories to project staffing needs. The supervisor would then write the schedule manually.

To control costs and serve customers better, in 1991 Airborne Express began consolidating its original 60 call centres into its present 15 regional centres. Managing staff schedules at each centre soon became even more difficult. "We noticed that our service levels were not consistent throughout the day," says Gary Reynolds, vice president of customer service. "We needed to maximise our staffing with existing resources so that we could increase our consistency and customer satisfaction as well as free up managers to work more with customer service representatives on individual calls." In September 1994 Reynolds' staff began evaluating workforce management software. They chose PrimeTime from Blue Pumpkin Software Inc. in Mountain View, Calif. Following a four-month pilot study at its call centre in Tampa, Fla., Airborne Express began training supervisors at centres across the United States. Initially rolled out to five call centres, the software is now used companywide.

Once the historical phone call data is integrated into PrimeTime's database, call centre supervisors enter parameters such as the desired service level and the average amount of time spent on each call. PrimeTime then calculates staffing requirements and employee availability and creates work schedules within a few seconds. Call centre supervisors now run staffing and scheduling models daily to compare projected conditions with actual conditions, making any necessary adjustments quickly. They also use PrimeTime to predict staffing needs to determine how performance will be affected if, for example, seven employees call in sick the following Tuesday. "Our supervisors are ecstatic to have a system that now automatically does 'what-if' scenarios and plans schedules with a minimum of effort and time," says Reynolds. PrimeTime now runs on Pentium-based PCs, but the company will move to a LAN version later this year.

Since rolling out PrimeTime in November 1998, the company has seen an average daily improvement in service levels of between 4 per cent and 8 per cent and has moved closer to reaching its goal of answering 85 per cent of calls within 30 seconds. Service levels during "spike" periods, when call volume suddenly soars, have smoothed out because supervisors can more accurately predict call volume. Supervisors now have more time to work with employees to ensure happy customers. And the company has achieved all of this without increasing staffing.

Reynolds says Airborne Express is working with Blue Pumpkin on its next release of the PrimeTime software, which will be able to handle additional factors, such as work rules specified by union contracts. Eventually Airborne Express hopes to create one virtual call centre that manages all its daily calls.

Louise Fickel, a freelance writer based in Yellow Springs, Ohio, can be reached at RiceKid@ix.netcom.com. Send Working Smart ideas to Features Editor Meg Mitchell at mmitchell@cio.com.

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