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Study: Workplace questions can be costly

New research quantifies how much time employees spend answering questions from co-workers and customers.

If you think all those colleagues pestering you with questions and asking for advice all day long are wasting valuable...

resources, you're right, according to a study released by consultant Collaborative Strategies LLC.

The study, sponsored by ePeople Inc., a knowledge management software company in Mountain View, Calif., found that 32% of the typical workweek is spent helping others resolve questions. The study surveyed 157 sales, marketing and finance employees at companies with more than $50 million in annual revenue.

"We've found that managers spend about one-third of their time answering questions," said David Coleman, managing director of San Francisco-based Collaborative Strategies. "I've heard they spend two-thirds of their time in meetings. If one-third of their time is questions and two-thirds is meetings, when are they working?"

In customer service, the majority of questions and requests for assistance are easily answered, yet a few difficult ones take up the most time, Coleman said.

"Eighty percent of questions are low cost, such as FAQs, e-mails or IMs to a CRM agent," Coleman said. "It's the 20% when there's a tougher question that takes up 80% of the time. It's that 20% [companies] need to focus on."

A few vendors offer technology to fill this need, according to Coleman. For example, ePeople provides a workspace where employees can go to find answers and advice. Users are directed to the co-worker who's best qualified, either because of his specific skills or his experience with a customer, language or problem, said Anthony Lye, ePeople CEO.

"The study suggests that the informal request flow happens a lot, and it's very expensive, because there's no structure, no reuse," Lye said. "It's very annoying for those experts, because they're being interrupted. They may not be best person, meaning the fastest, cheapest, or most available."

The study also found that 54% of the questions in the workplace have not been answered before or documented in a knowledge base.

For companies like OpSource Inc., a Santa Clara, Calif.-based IT outsource service shop, having a knowledge-sharing application provides the perfect opportunity for engineers from different regions to tackle a problem together, without the need to meet in person or on a conference bridge. Plus, the software captures the information they share. OpSource has been using ePeople software for about a year. According to OpSource's vice president of operations and engineering, John Rowell, it has reduced the time spent on tickets by about 20%.

"In our type of service industry, this makes sense for almost any size company if there's heavy focus on customer service and a dependence on multiple teams," Rowell said.

Other vendors, like Kanisa Inc., Cupertino, Calif., make problem-resolution software specifically designed for contact and service center agents.

According to Denis Pombriant, vice president and managing director of CRM at Boston-based Aberdeen Group, these sorts of knowledge management aids are slowly making their way into businesses.

"I think the way the industry is going, those kind of things are being put into [a] general class of employee relationship management, as opposed to CRM," Pombriant said. "It doesn't need to be high-tech technical [software]. It could certainly be of great use in health care [or] insurance, where the primary product is knowledge."


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