Performance optimization holds complex appeal

SAN FRANCISCO (10/03/2003) - A unique trend in the call center industry called performance optimization now looks like it's gaining momentum in other industries. But it just might prove to be a Pandora's box.

Performance optimization solutions plug in to call center systems, pull out performance numbers, and turn them into useable metrics that are presented to the desktop as a dashboard. Employees can then see the information in amounts deemed appropriate as their need to know.

Previously, performance optimization solutions were offered only by smaller call center software vendors and startups. This week, however, one of the industry's big guns, Aspect Communications Corp. launched its Performance Optimization for e-Work Management.

Performance optimization is a natural fit in call centers, which are designed to generate massive amounts of data and reports. They live and die by metrics, such as average handling time, wait time, and wrap-up time (how long it takes to finish and file the notes once a call is complete).

Perhaps because companies view their call centers as cost centers and minimizing costs is always a top priority, call centers come as close to white-collar sweat shops as you can get. That tough assessment comes from chief analyst Paul Stockford at Saddletree Research Inc.

Without performance optimization, the icing on the cake comes when the CSR (customer service representative) is called into the manager's office two weeks after the quarter closes and is told that the time he spent on the phone with customers was above average and therefore he gets no bonus.

But performance optimization changes that. It gives CSRs control over performance, knowledge of where they stand, and perhaps, Stockford says, "a little more dignity in terms of taking responsibility for their own performance."

Using business intelligence as the backbone, performance optimization might reveal that a CSR spends an average of one minute more on the phone than the other agents. No bonus, right? But what if the system was also keyed into the financial applications which show that that agent is generating twice as much revenue?

Sounds great, and at the local level, it is. But there is more to this than meets the eye.

What if the kinds of revenue the agent generates also generates overtime in the warehouse and additional time at the loading dock? Perhaps the company would make more money by not taking the order.

Performance optimization is part of what some call the science of complexity. The question now becomes, how do you balance all the data?

John Jordan, a principal in the chief technologist's office at Cap Gemini Ernst & Young says, "The sum of local optima is rarely a global optima." In other words, what might look beneficial from the local point of view -- in a call center -- may not be so attractive from the global view.

Beyond call centers, performance optimization is now an important discussion point between the plant manager who owns the shop floor system and the CIO who typically owns the systems that account for the business's revenue and spending.

In the future, Jordan tells me, the shop floor systems will have to talk to the accounting and financial systems.

I suppose complexity science challenges the old adage, a penny saved is a penny earned.

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