Software Helps Plow & Hearth Improve Scheduling

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Country products cataloger Plow & Hearth, Madison, VA, has installed new scheduling software at its call center that is helping it manage its fluctuating work load and make it easier to create the weekly agent schedule. The catalog company also expects that the automated scheduling program will reduce its labor costs and improve service by helping maintain an optimal level of staffing.


The move comes as the company is expanding the capacity of the phone center at its headquarters as part of a growth initiative that includes additions to its warehouse facility and its office space.


The company's 150-seat phone center takes orders for its Plow & Hearth and American Country Home catalogs, and also handles calls for 1-800 Flowers.com, Westbury, NY, which acquired Plow & Hearth last year.


The new scheduling technology, Prime Time work force management software from Blue Pumpkin, Mountain View, CA, uses historical call-metric data and current forecasts to predict the center's staffing needs in 15-minute or 30-minute increments. It then fills those needs by slotting agents into the schedule according to their preferences and availabilities, which have been input manually by a manager. The system staffs agents to meet criteria for service levels that have been set by management.


For example, if the center determines that a 30-second hold time is an acceptable level of service, then the software will fill the schedule with what it calculates will be enough agents to keep hold times down to 30 seconds.


Paula Atkinson, telecommunications supervisor at Plow & Hearth, said the center's goal is to answer 90 percent of calls within 30 seconds. She uses an average call time of four minutes to calculate the schedule.


The new software also is able to analyze data in real time to determine whether its service goals are being met.


"With the new system, I can get real-time information so that I can proactively look at the call center to see how it's doing, instead of having to react to everything," said Atkinson.


The software is connected to the call center's ACD switch, so that it obtains its data on call volumes directly. That data is then supplemented with data that the call center management obtains from the catalog's marketing department concerning the number of catalogs that were shipped and when consumers should receive them.


Plow & Hearth mails four times a year, with most business done in November and December. The volume at the center ranges from about 2,000 to 3,000 calls per day up to about 20,000 calls per day during the holiday season. The center employs about 50 agents during the slow times and up to about 200 during peak periods.


For Atkinson, one of the main benefits of the new software is that it now only takes about three days to draw up each weekly schedule instead of five.


"We knew there had to be a more efficient way to schedule and increase the call center's productivity," she said.


The software, which can run on any personal computer using a Windows NT or Windows 95 operating system, replaces a largely manual method in which the schedule was crafted using a simple computer spreadsheet to track agents' shift preferences.


"I'm still inputting preferences for new associates and things, but that just takes a few minutes," said Atkinson. "I just key in what their availabilities are and let the system do the rest."


Atkinson said agents also benefit from the new software because they see the schedule sooner and therefore better plan their personal lives. During slow periods, Atkinson said she tries to have the schedule posted about three weeks in advance, but during busy periods, it is generally posted only one to two weeks in advance.


The software has been in place for only a month, so the center has not yet been able to measure any of the results. However, by optimizing the staffing levels, the software is expected to prevent overstaffing during slow periods and understaffing during busy times to maximize the center's efficiency.


This month the center is expected to expand as part of an overall expansion of the company's office and warehouse facility. In addition to adding about 115,000 square feet to the warehouse and distribution center, Plow & Hearth also is adding about 12,000 square feet in office space. About half of that is scheduled to be part of the phone center, according to Buzz VanSantvoord, vice president of operations.


The center also now handles calls for parent 1-800 Flowers.com as part of the flower-delivery company's national network of call centers.


Although scheduling for the agents who work on the catalogs will be managed by Blue Pumpkin, VanSantvoord said the agents who work for 1-800 Flowers will be scheduled through that company's call center administration in Westbury, where the main call center for 1-800 Flowers is housed.
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