Intelligent working

In these multi-channel times, with retailers striving to become customer-centric, mastering the workforce management challenge becomes all the more important, observes Glynn Davis.

Having lots of hourly-paid part-time employees working at the lower end of the pay spectrum in an environment that often operates 24/7, and where quick decisions on changing shift patterns are required as a result of absences, is the reality for most retailers today. In no other sector does such a heady mix of workforce characteristics exist and where such a tough challenge is therefore exacted upon employers. Chris O’Riordan, managing director at Amano UK, which works with numerous retailers including Tesco, says such a complex scenario has led the retail industry to “make the ‘shift’ the thing to focus on rather than the ‘employee’ and so from a management viewpoint it’s about scheduling and dealing with anomalies.”

For most retailers he says this still revolves around having a ‘clock card’ piece of hardware where employees physically indicate their presence at work. The differentiator between retailers is the complexity of the software behind this relatively simple device at the front-end.

For some smaller players there can be very little behind-the-scenes but for bigger operators the software sits atop retailers’ store infrastructure, thereby enabling a high level of reporting - at both individual store and head office levels. The settings on these reports will “be fine tuned so retailers only need to worry about the anomalies.”

Despite the existence of these reports, O’Riordan says the fluidity of the retail sector and the rapid changes needed for the scheduling of people in stores means that “the software has not (in many cases) been able to fully cope until recently.” Many retailers have therefore preferred to use manual methods for employee scheduling - spreadsheets the most popular, but often blunt, tool used.
However, over the past two to three years he suggests advances in software have led to the emergence of ‘optimised scheduling’ that provides a “more intelligent form of planning and scheduling” whereby historical data is used to predict future staffing requirements. Such solutions take a view of previous weeks’ data and also factor in many other parameters such as the time of year and the weather forecast etc.

Barney Quinn, chief executive at WorkPlace Systems, which has worked with retailers including Wickes and Past Times, says this intelligent scheduling is enabling retailers to move workforce management solutions away from being chiefly focused on ‘time and attendance’. “It has previously been all about cost savings and absence management, which wasn’t about customer service,” he says, adding that in focusing on cost-cutting retailers have been susceptible to having too few employees on the shopfloor, or in some cases too many at some stores.

Either is very wasteful and costly. But with the newer optimised solutions retailers are “beginning to understand demand” and therefore improving their scheduling. “It’s about having the right people in the right place at the right time and these new systems are more focused on demand and scheduling the labour. The more efficient retailers are therefore matching labour to real demand,” says Quinn.

Since it is relatively early in the development cycle of such systems, and they require a lot more management resources as well as specific skill-sets to operate, Quinn says there are probably less than 25 per cent of retailers currently using optimised scheduling solutions. However, the emergence of Software as a Service (SaaS) solutions is opening up the market for smaller and mid-tier retailers to enjoy the same benefits as their bigger rivals. “We enable people to use our new system to log-in over the internet and use template scheduling,” he explains.

WorkPlace Systems helps retailers typically create a library of templates that the merchant can call on for each forthcoming week of labour scheduling. They can be developed for the likes of £5,000 turnover weeks, £10,000 turnover weeks and Christmas weeks. There is a significant boost to the bottom line through cost savings from such solutions: “It’s not unusual for our customers to achieve seven to 10 per cent of payroll savings, which could equate to a payback period of as little as four to 10 weeks.”


Another big upside for retailers is that such solutions enables them to become much more customer-centric as it not only schedules the in-store employees more effectively but also frees up the managers’ time to join them on the shopfloor. Typically Quinn says they would have spent as much as one day per week working on staff rosters but, with the SaaS template scheduling solution, this can be reduced to less than 30 minutes.

Such a customer-centric approach can also lead to significant uplifts in non-store sales if labour resources are better utilised in retailers’ contact centres. Keith Pearce, senior marketing director for EMEA at Genesys, suggests that despite the massive increase in multi-channel retailing today, most workforce management solutions do not focus sufficiently on the activities of employees in their contact centres.

He says the scheduling of contact centre employees remains far too wedded to single interactions with customers where the focus is entirely on voice communications. “We are still thinking of the 1990s model where somebody rings a phone and the retailer answers. Retailers need to contemporise the way they do customer service,” says Pearce. Workforce management systems therefore need to handle multiple types of interactions - such as email, SMS, and web chats. “The web is now the front door, not the telephone,” he says.
Resources should be deployed depending on the expertise of the individual contact centre agents - the better writers given more emails to deliver for instance - as well as the value assigned to the individual shopper if they are a returning customer. Pearce believes many retailers already have the infrastructure in place to make this a possibility, but they have failed to integrate ‘customer interaction management’ solutions within their overall workforce management software systems.

What makes the current non-store employee scheduling situation worse is that the metrics for success of most retailers is entirely focused on cost-cutting rather than improving customer service. “Workforce management systems squeeze every ounce out of their contact centre agents’ time. The metrics revolve around the 80/20 rule where you answer 80 per cent of the customer phone calls in 20 seconds,” he suggests.

If managed correctly the contact centre workforce could be regarded as a sales force and used to drive up revenues, believes Pearce: “Retailers should be looking at selling more stuff so interactions shouldn’t be measured on two minutes of talk time. Let them talk all day long if they are selling extra things.”

The contact centre employees should also be tasked with handling “early warning system” activities such as contacting customers that might be about to leave (a service-based retailer) to a rival provider. And since they are often aged under 30 they are ideal to deploy on social media communications engaging with existing and potential customers.

While the deployment of employees on social media activities might be a step too far for many retailers at present, there is every likelihood that the continued optimisation of the scheduling of staffing resources will ultimately encompass contact centres and the social media function in the future.

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