The 2022 Ventana Research Value Index for agent management software is published, offering interesting observations about how the market is advancing to provide more sophistication to agents and the management of them. The market is now characterized by applications integrated into multifunction suites, a significant change accelerated by the pandemic in the short term and vendor consolidation over a longer period. The core applications — workforce management scheduling, call recording and evaluations, and performance management — are largely commoditized. This has opened the door to systems for ensuring agent access to real-time knowledge, peer collaboration and other, more advanced systems.
The pandemic created the circumstances for a complete reassessment of the applications and processes used in contact centers to manage agents and for them to operate and be effective. In short order, an entire industry’s fundamental assumptions about technology and best practices were called into question by the need to remove workers from crowded centers into home environments. The vendor community responded quickly with a variety of new, or newly emphasized, ideas for how organizations should react. As a result, there has been a fundamental change in the set of applications now associated with agent management. And although some of the changes are directly attributable to the urgency of the pandemic, the underlying trends propelling them were already discernable before Covid.
Agent management is a broad area that contains multiple software applications with separate but related purposes. There are multiple terms used to describe it in the industry: agent performance optimization, workforce optimization and workforce engagement management. These are all descriptors of the components but not the entirety of agent management. Ventana Research believes that recent social and technological advances have radically changed the contents of the agent management software portfolio, and that some vendors are moving faster than others to recognize and implement the shift.
Agent management is critical for two reasons. First, agents represent the single largest ongoing cost for contact centers, which have been plagued by high turnover for so long that it is generally considered an unsolvable cost of doing business. Second, agents are the direct point of contact with customers, meaning that poor performance directly affects customer satisfaction, loyalty and ultimately revenue. Better trained and equipped agents provide faster and more accurate interactions.
Traditional workforce optimization applications had two dominant components: workforce management software, which is focused on forecasting interaction volumes and scheduling the proper number of agents to meet that volume, and quality management, focusing on recording or capturing interactions and evaluating agent performance and adherence to key performance indicators. Those buckets contain multiple applications which, in the distant past, were often sold as separate applications. For most of the past decade, the software has been folded into suites that incorporate the entire spectrum of forecasting, scheduling, monitoring, evaluating and follow-on coaching and training.
There is a shift underway from traditional tools towards a more modern portfolio of agent management applications that expand the potential for organizations: intelligent virtual assistants, agent-assistance or guidance driven by artificial intelligence, and automation via workflows that streamline processes and provide connections to back-office functions. Then, there are applications that are further outside the standard definition but that affect agents and supervisors just the same: knowledge management, desktop integrations, gamification, and customer collaboration tools like co-browsing and bot-assisted chat.
With the agent pool dispersed from the main location, centers need to provide them with different kinds of collaboration and communication tools so they can work in teams and be adequately coached by supervisors. They need things like video for internal meetings and training. The organizations themselves need process automation systems to ensure that out-of-sight agents follow set procedures and don’t become disconnected from the overall strategy.
The pandemic was a dramatic accelerant for trends that were already in play. Chief among them has been the development of AI and machine learning systems. The impact of AI/ML on contact center technology cannot be overstated. It plays a role at every stage of the customer’s journey and touches agents at every phase of their job. It produces better schedules for handling combined voice and digital interactions, provides more accurate answers to customer questions, supplies insights on sales opportunities that agents might overlook, and enables fully automated evaluation of an agent’s entire call history, rather than just a random sample.
The other external technology advancement, deeply tied to AI, has been the proliferation of systems for automating processes and workflows behind the scenes. By better tying contact center actions into long-term processes that span multiple departments like sales, marketing and back offices, organizations can base plans on the whole of the customer experience across a lifetime rather than simply focusing on one interaction at a time.
When you add applications to a standard toolkit, as is currently happening, vendors and buyers both move at different speeds to upgrade and adopt the new elements. This has created some market confusion about what agent management actually consists of. The modern, extended toolkit includes the core functions — workforce management, quality and interaction recording, and performance management — but extends to knowledge management, collaboration, gamification, process automation and intelligent virtual agents or real-time guidance tools.
Vendors have moved in these directions at different rates, as have buyers. No one tries to operate a contact center without the core functions noted above, so nearly all vendors have those capabilities. Some vendors that are new in the market have incomplete offerings at the core, and are racing to implement the basics through partnership, acquisition or rapid development.
The immediate need for collaboration favors vendors that combine contact center and unified communications platforms on the theory that UC capabilities — video chat, messaging, ad-hoc team creation — could smooth over the disconnect from working at home. Some vendors that are primarily UC-driven license some or all of their contact center offerings, including the agent management components. In fact, agent management in its original form was considered a specialty of its own, with its own dedicated vendors that contact center infrastructure suppliers would partner with or acquire to obtain those capabilities. Now, there are few independent agent management vendors left, and the functionality of agent management is much more closely tied to the innovations being developed at the platform level of the technology stack, such as AI, data management and workflow design.
In our evaluation of vendors that provide agent management, we looked beyond the core, on the theory that basic functionality was both table stakes and solidly mature. No one needs to reinvent call recording or basic scheduling, and the differences between vendor offerings in the core are miniscule. In fact, due to cross-vendor OEMing, many of the core offerings are literally almost the same.
For that reason, we examined how agent management technology has changed, and the vendors’ ability and willingness to expand the functionality broadly. We considered how vendors are integrating their agent tools into a deeper web of applications across the enterprise. Also in the mix was how clear each vendor is on its roadmap and technology strategy: where does AI fit, how much investment is going into agent tools and towards which ones, what is the role of analytics and data in evaluating agent and center performance, and in what ways? We examined the way vendors develop agent user experiences, including things like the agent desktop and how agents engage with their work and their organizations.
The results of our analysis are reported in our 2022 Ventana Research Value Index for Agent Management. We encourage you to review the results and consider how each of these vendors can support the needs of your organization.