This article originally appeared in the April 2011 issue of Customer Interaction Solutions
More contact centers appear to be going home: to agents’ homes. Michele Rowan, president and CEO of Customer Contact Strategies has seen analysts’ estimates that the number of organizations deploying home-based agents will grow to 80 percent by 2013 from 30 percent today.
Chad Lyne, director of corporate strategy at Alpine Access echoes this, based on his firm’s experience and on anecdotal evidence from Fortune 500 companies. He points to research by Datamonitor that estimates home agent growth at over 20 percent annually, while his firm grew over 90 percent in the fourth quarter 2010 alone.
“Based on published financials from publicly-traded call center providers, outsourced premise-based employment in the U.S. has declined for the past two years, as economic conditions have caused a protracted contraction in call volumes for most industries,” says Lyne. “In sharp contrast, the home-based industry has experienced sustained rapid growth, both from in-house and outsourced operations.”
Driving work home
One of the biggest drivers to home agents is cost savings and efficiency gains. The Telework Research Network’s model shows that contact centers could save as much as $18,000 per full-time home agent per year. This is achieved by avoiding facilities costs, reducing absenteeism and turnover and increasing productivity; workers prefer to work from home.
Home agent programs also offer greater scheduling flexibility than at employer-premises centers. They lower healthcare costs through avoiding disease spread at workplaces and minimizing accidents incurred during commuting.
Agent quality is higher with home-based programs, especially as they migrate from satellite (agents working within travel distance to centers) to constellation (independent of centers) deployments that widen labor pools. And as the economy starts to pick up, the number of potential employees who are willing to work in contact centers shrinks.
“The quality of the agent is much better at home versus in a central contact center,” reports Addison Hatch, senior vice president of service delivery at VIPdesk (News - Alert) “You can recruit nationwide for the ideal person to represent your brand versus recruiting in a radius limited to 30 miles from the center. There are many people who are great contact center agents who wouldn't want to work in the contact center environment for approximately $10/hour but do very well working remotely.”
The home agent cost and quality advantage is bring contact center work back onshore from offshore, especially India, reports Alpine Access’s Lyne. That and a migration from employer-premises centers are together driving agents home.
Enabling more agents to work from home is also arguably better for the home countries. The Telework Research Network calculated that if the 41 million Americans with telework-compatible jobs did so just one day during National Telework Week February 14-18, the nation would save $772 million in commuting costs, use less oil and be in fewer accidents. The environment would be spared 423,000 tons of greenhouse gases, equal to the equivalent of taking 77,000 cars off the road for a year.
“If you add the many employer, employee and community benefits, once-weekly telework could save the nation $350 billion a year and potentially eliminate our oil imports from both Libya and Kuwait,” says Kate Lister, principal researcher at the Telework Research Network.
Making the steps
Going home is a big step for organizations, like contact centers, that are accustomed to traditional “line of sight” operation. Customer Interaction Solutions interviewed several home agent experts and practitioners to get their insights on the best ways to make agents’ homes into homes for contact centers. We asked them questions on:
* Differences in the work handled by home and by employer-premise agents
* How firms are implementing home programs including satellite versus constellation
* Methods, practices and technologies that are enabling more agents to work from home
* Home agent program obstacles and how to overcome them
* Will there still be a need for employer-premise-based agents?
Chad Lyne, director of corporate strategy
This shift to the constellation model is a definite trend that we have witnessed. While many of the outsourced contact centers with brick-and-mortar assets continue to use a satellite model, both pure-play at-home providers and internal at-home programs predominantly rely on a geography-neutral constellation model. This allows them to tap into the true power of the at-home model, which is accessing the best and most qualified talent, without regard to where they live.
There are a number of factors that are further enabling the deployment of home-based agents. The first is the increased desire by employees to have work/life balance, resulting in more people seeking legitimate work-from-home opportunities. Second is the increased penetration of broadband access across the country, including into many rural areas where job opportunities are limited. Lastly, technological developments–cloud computing, security technologies and biometrics and workforce management continuing to further promote the adoption of the model.
The biggest obstacles to more rapid adoption stem from misconceptions and perceptions of the industry and its value proposition. A minority of companies continue to view an at-home workforce as a solution for the peaks and valleys of highly variable call volumes. While the home-based model solves this, it has also been proven as a viable replacement for any call volumes that are currently premise-based. In the past two years, most other obstacles such as perceived security concerns, perceived lack of management and oversight have largely been overcome, as evidenced by the rapid growth and adoption of the at-home solution.
The reality is that some companies will never fully migrate to a 100-percent home-based solution. Some very successful examples (i.e. JetBlue) do use a 100 percent at-home solution and we believe more companies will do so in the future, due to the proven ROI of the virtual model.
Customer Contact Strategies
Michele Rowan, president and CEO
Most organizations start by moving some agents home and then once proven on technology and process, start hiring agents for home positions. Home-based agents generally handle the same work as employer-premise-agents but they often do it better, driven from the vast pool of applicants and talents and the delight of being home-based.
Some organizations are starting to look at different work, like social media response and integrated channel response, for home agents. This makes sense as their skillsets are, when organizations hire to successful home agent profiles, incrementally better.
There is a shift from satellite to constellation deployment models. As companies gain more experience with home agents, they generally expand beyond the neighborhood model to long distance hiring, training and deployment.
Regarding methods, practices and technologies, the connectivity and security features can mirror that of in-house, and can actually be enhanced beyond in-house deployments for companies that want to increase security and access. So in terms of cost and ease of deployment, there’s been tremendous progress. That’s why we’re seeing so much interest in home agents, particularly in the financial and health care sectors. Retail, hospitality, tech support and services have been on board.
Managerial resistance to home agents is a reality and like the home agent change initiative, we just have to work through it. Staying connected with home/remote agents is a real opportunity and not one to be taken lightly. Most organizations have the technology (webcasts, e-learning, chat) and the business process (team meetings, recognition and reward, and voluntary social activities). It is a matter of moving all business communications to an online format and enabling voluntary social connectivity in a virtual environment as well, transitioning the process to virtual and leverage existing technology in doing so.
On employer-premises agents, the question three years from now that we will have to answer is, “Justify why you need to have employees in expensive office space”, both within and outside the confines of customer contacts.
Frost and Sullivan
Michael De Salles, principal analyst
Home based agents are best at handling more complex transactions that require problem solving, technical support skills, [demonstrated] empathy towards customers and enhanced sales skills. The general characteristics of a successful home-based agent are an outgoing personality, pleasant voice, a sense of responsibility, a self-starter mentality, resourcefulness, adaptability and to have the abilities to listen attentively, work well alone and to think and make decisions “on the fly”. [They also tend to have] prior contact center experience, hospitality training or background and bilingual skills.
Both the satellite and constellation models continue to proliferate in the market. Companies that are just starting out tend to opt for the satellite or “hub and spoke” model by allowing their best agents to go home. It is often billed as an incentive for high-performing agents.
The on-demand pay-by-the drink hosted contact center solutions model offers ease of implementation that together makes home agents especially attractive. No special hardware is required except a Pentium-class PC and a fast Internet DSL or cable connection. Any phone, any time and any place.
Outsourcing home agents is an attractive option to supporting them in-house. Most providers process 2,000-3,000 applications per week. They can choose the very best talent and generally take only two percent–five percent of qualified candidates.
In our opinion, the challenges for successful home agent deployment have little to do with recruiting, training, security or technology. They are communication between home agents and supervisors, creating a strong sense of “Team” and coaching and development. These are issues that take time and experience to overcome.
Many clients like having the ‘control’ that a brick and mortar center offers. The outsourcing trend, long-term, is to move to a more flexible work-at-home model in the U.S. Outsourcing providers like to offer their clients a ‘blended’ sourcing solution that includes domestic, nearshore, offshore and home agents and automated solutions.
Ian Cruickshank, manager of workforce management
Telus at-home agents (AHAs) are deployed by voluntarily moving existing premises-based agents into the AHA program while maintaining the same role that they had while in the office. There is no difference to their role, compensation, benefits, schedule or IT tools that they utilize. They enjoy a near-seamless transition from office environment to home work environment.
Most of the Telus AHAs are structured in a satellite model where they can live up to 150 kilometers (approximately 100 miles) away from their premises-based Telus offices. We are piloting a small team of AHAs who work 100 percent at home and never return to a Telus office. We are assessing the results of this pilot to determine if it will work well for the overall AHA program.Stable and widespread high speed Internet access, the maturity of virtual private network (VPN) technology and the emergence of thin-client technology are all enabling our AHA program. Contracted AHAs where the contact center employees are independent contractors are emerging.To avoid [program resistance] companies must put the right employees into their AHA programs, have the right technology to enable them and provide the right training, rules and guidelines and expectations to their AHAs. They should have a dedicated project team and measure program results, making adjustments on the way. They must also have alignment across multiple levels of management within the organization with a good communication plan to get a consistent message to all stakeholders. It helps to have a senior-level champion of the concept on board.
[Going home] really depends on the level of comfort of a company. There are some roles that, for security reasons, some companies will want to keep in the offices, such as if agents are working with large sums of money or financial transactions. That said, if a company is comfortable in moving to an AHA-based model, there is no reason why that it couldn't represent 100 percent of agents.
[sidebar] BPO Firms Improving Home-Based Programs
Home-based agent programs are moving from the leading edge firms to mainstream organizations. One strong sign is their increasing popularity with global traditional employer-premise-based BPO firms, with double-digit growth in some cases.
To ensure home agent program success these companies are continually making improvements to them. Here are some examples:
The home agent platform of Convergys has been certified PCI (News - Alert)-DSS compliant. The firm also implemented an upgraded agent virtual desktop that provides additional sign-in security measures and management and monitoring. It refined its virtual training by using a performance-based learning methodology that has shown better results than traditional knowledge-based learning.
Convergys (News - Alert) also expanded the capability of its proprietary agent messaging tool. It incorporates SMS that allows supervisors to quickly inform agents of vital information even if they are not online. It also has one-button screen share and chat capability, enabling instant support from supervisors, as well as personal number concealment.
The BPO firm also increased home agent split shifts and part time staff. They improve handling of fluctuating call patterns and provide another level of business continuity for its clients, reports Rick Owens, senior director of home agent operations
* Sitel implemented inContact’s eLearning and eCoaching solutions with its company’s home-based agents. In the first several months the firm increased agent training efficiency, reduced training costs and enhanced agent collaboration with their supervisors
“We are continually innovating our processes from screening, on-boarding and training as well as our operating practices,” says P.J. Weyforth, TeleTech senior vice president of operations
Training and Managing Home-Based Agents
Together two of the most critical elements of enabling home-based agent programs are training and managing them. And for managers accustomed to seeing staff, having employees working remotely requires adapting existing and adopting new ways of supervising and coaching them.
Tim Dewey (News - Alert) is chief operating officer at B Virtual. He teaches the RCCSP Professional Education Alliance’s courses on home/remote agents and virtual support management. Here are his best practices methods:
* Determine the mix of training medium–webinar-based training, eLearning and remote shadowing. Consider that today’s learners are now learning much differently. It is a false assumption to believe traditional learning methods still apply, even in brick and mortar. With distance learning growing at 33 percent a year, there is now a learning formula that states there is diminished value with in-class, instructor-led training only. With that said, create a training program that is consistent across both onsite, as well at home resources
* Do not deploy an at-home model without a performance management plan. It is critical to have KPIs and a plan that includes the qualitative and quantitative requirements. It is important to note that most great service organizations already have this in place, and if so, extending it to at home workers is very easy
* Test, test, test. It is important that all training end with testing to ensure retention. By doing this, managers can validate learning objectives and have the confidence that the learning objectives are being met through the training medium
* Create learning avenues such as with collaborative tools for at home teams. Learning avenues are ways that at home resources can communicate and collaborate to learn informally
Managers need to develop remote employee management skills; the RCCSP Professional Education Alliance’s Virtual Support Manager course teaches this. Among them is expecting higher performance for home-based agents, otherwise some of the key benefits of this model are lost, warns Dewey. Managers should also determine career paths for their employees that can include progression, even working from home. The RCCSP Professional Educational Alliance’s Virtual Support Professional course teaches employees to be more successful working from home than in brick and mortar.
“Working from home is not a phenomenon; it is an evolution of the workforce,” says Dewey. “Managers should have a well laid out plan for at home teams, as well as brick and mortar teams.”
[sidebar] Connecting Home-Based Agents With VoIP
One of the most important reasons behind the growth of home-based agents is the advent of high-quality residential VoIP services, riding on high-bandwith Internet connections. The chief reason is that VoIP markedly reduces the cost of delivering inbound calls to agents, especially those living/working outside of the local calling areas, which makes constellation–out of commuting distance– home agent deployments viable.
There are other benefits with VoIP. Ben Navon, president and CEO of Optimized Business, which provides voice, data and VoIP services to enterprises of all sizes including their contact centers, outlines them:
* Monitoring of calls and recording all or only those calls that meet a specific criteria
* Enabling agents to sign in from anywhere with an Internet connection
* Employees are able to work from home and/or multiple locations, but appears as a united front to customers
* Extensive reporting, including live reports. The reports are on the contact centers’ own servers, rather than being hosted by the phone line providers
There are reported quality issues with VoIP; some contact centers are still reluctant to use it on home-agent lines for that reason.
Yet if the VoIP service is configured correctly, then these calls are clearer than those being placed on regular PSTN/TDM phone lines, Navon points out. He recommends that contact centers ensure that the agents are using a VoIP-quality class, steady spike-free data connection/DSL connection with low latency for excellent call quality and reduced bandwidth fluctuation.
“The instances where call quality are a concern are when the data connections, such as home-DSL fluctuates the bandwidth,” explains Navon.
Brendan B. Read is TMCnet’s Senior Contributing Editor. To read more of Brendan’s articles, please visit his columnist page.
Edited by Stefania Viscusi