This article originally appeared in the Sept. 2011 issue of Customer Interaction Solutions
The key to having hands shook on any deal is conclusively answering the objections by those whose buy-in is sought. This is especially critical when the agreement involves radical changes by the prospective customers in how they do business – to overcome their built-in inertia.
These conditions most apply for contact centers in deciding whether or not to go with home-based agents. This is one of the most literally visible (or rather invisible) and revolutionary moves most organizations can make, requiring a different way in organizing operations and in training and managing staff.
Home Agent Benefits
The going-home, also called telework, benefits are there. Home/telework can generate cost savings and productivity gains of over $10,000 per employee/year reports the Telework Research Network (TRN). Contact centers gain increased flexibility, higher quality staff, can shrink churn–and resulting training and supervision costs – and improve business continuity while cutting facilities expenses.
Home-based staff deliver stronger performances than their brick-and-mortar counterparts. TRN points to BPO firm Alpine Access, whose home agents closed 30 percent more sales than brick-and-mortar agents the year before, while customer complaints decreased by 90 percent and turnover dropped by 88 percent.
Making the home agent handshake possible are methods and technologies that have been developed and proved out. These include screening and hiring for mature self-starter agents and deploying cloud/hosted platforms, desktop dashboards, performance management/quality monitoring (PM/QM) solutions, secure desktops, softphones, VoIP and VPNs.
Alternatively, firms can “go home” via BPOs. This is proving to be a popular option because these companies have already done, Frost & Sullivan (News - Alert) principal analyst Michael DeSalles points out, “the heavy lifting” on home agent program setup and management. Even so there are many outsourced programs that continue to be handled in conventional contact centers.
So why are companies reluctant to shake on the home agent deal? DeSalles alludes to too few case studies for in-house programs that demonstrate ROI; companies do not generally publicize them. The benefits of sending work home either in-house or BPO are not yet powerful enough overall to overcome corporate inertia.
“The question faced by firms is ‘how do we do this right and smart so that we only do this once?’ but there are few examples for them to follow,” explains DeSalles. “And right now for organizations, there is no perceived compelling reason or urgency, no pandemic or other disasters that are sufficiently powerful to send agents home.”
IDing the Objections
Here are the key home agent objections gathered from contact center experts and suppliers:
1. Hiring and training
Home agents, by definition, require firms to move away from in-person screening and training. The emerging best practices are for home-based staff to be recruited separately from their brick-and-mortar counterparts with distinct profiles for each and not have them travel in for training, which means they can be hired from outside of commute/travel distance to the nearest center, broadening the labor pools. Many contact centers have found that agents recruited for traditional office environments typically do not perform well at home.
The technology is not the issue here – PM/QM, call/screen recording and analytics and workforce management (WFM) tools are location/environment-agnostic. Instead it is the people side, how agents are supervised that is the biggest stumbling block.
Patrick Botz, vice president of workforce optimization at VPI points out that many contact center supervisors still sit with agents to monitor performance. Agents are pulled routinely from their desks for classroom training and updated by regular glances at the centers’ wall boards.
“The transition from a traditional contact center setting to a home-based agent scenario is clearly a huge undertaking for many organizations,” says Botz.
Moreover, many supervisors do not know how to manage employees who are sight unseen. They look at bodies rather than at what matters, which is how their staff are performing.
“Most in-house firms are not prepared to manage home-based agents; brick-and-mortar center supervisors don’t necessary make great home agent supervisors,” DeSalles points out.
The worry is that there could be more security breaches with home agents than with their brick-and-mortar counterparts. One example is a friend, a family member or roommate looking over a home worker’s shoulder.
How can supervisors effectively impart messaging such as adherence levels, calls in queue, first call resolution rates and sales figures to agents outside of the contact center?
“Contact center supervisors are challenged to keep home-based agents aware of what’s happening in the brick-and-mortar center,” reports Pete Sisti, CEO of Inova (News - Alert) Solutions. “How are they supposed to know to adjust talk times and make other necessary changes in real-time, to accommodate changing business conditions?”
How do you foster a sense of community with agents who work remotely? There is a risk that these employees will not subscribe to their companies’ culture as effectively as their brick-and-mortar counterparts.
It can cost $200-$1,000 per employee to set up home-based agents reports Michele Rowan, president of At Home Customer Contacts. Different equipment needs, such as modifying ACDs, shipping computers or deploying locked-down applications on agents’ personal machines and hard versus softphones, plus remote/virtual training expenses, account for the variation.
7. Senior Management Buy-in
This is the killer “yes” or “no” and it is often based on perceptions by C-suite and midlevel executives that employees will not work as expected (or as hard) if out of eyesight.
Answering the Concerns
Methods and tools have been developed that can answer many of these concerns about home agents. Here they are:
1. Specific home agent hiring profiles and virtualized training
For hiring, the emerging set of best practices is recruiting experienced agents and screening them for resourcefulness and self-discipline. Applicants should also have basic technical skills to solve IT issues at their end; there are no help desk on their doorsteps.
For training, TeleTech (News - Alert), which has an extensive home agent program, recommends virtual training programs. They incorporate blended learning with advanced tools and operational environment simulations, backed by ongoing collaborative training.
“Virtual training is not impeded by the constraints of scheduling or class size, often rendering it faster and more effective than in-person training,” explains P.J. Weyforth, senior vice president of TeleTech@Home. “Ongoing collaborative training efficiently serves associates [contact center agents] in an ever-changing, customer-driven environment.”
2. Resolving supervision issues requires a multifaceted approach:
(a) Firms should document the home/remote job responsibilities, requirements (such as no background noise), procedures, policies and time frames, recommends Frost and Sullivan.
Yes, some agents who work from home will have household-related tasks they need to have handled, Lister points out. Yet that does not mean they need to do it at the same time they are working. Scheduled breaks, lunch breaks and time between split shifts provide a great opportunity for agents to handle household tasks that would never be possible if they had commuted to an office.
“Setting clear, up-front expectations and having appropriate work guidelines supported by well-designed quality assurance processes can solve this concern,” says Lister(b) Home agents would be overseen by supervisors trained to manage-by-performance backed with 100 percent contact (call and screen) recording and with team tools such as collaboration and desktop dashboards as well as wallboard electronic displays.
“The same advanced contact-center management tools and resources that are available to traditional contact-center agents should also be provided to remote agents,” says DeSalles. “After all, the goal is to coach in order to accelerate performance and drive higher levels of customer satisfaction.”
(c) Extending QM and recording tools to home agents, thereby ensuring productivity and compliance
VPI’s VPI QUALITY enables managers to objectively evaluate home-based agent behaviors, provide timely feedback and support and boost service quality and cultivate customer experience and loyalty. This system is highly effective, says Botz, in both traditional contact centers and with home-based agents.
Mariann McDonagh, chief marketing officer of inContact CMO points out that contact centers can and do use voice of customer surveys as well as QM solutions for their home agents. Her firm has talked to contact center managers who compare timecards against system logins and calls handled to make sure that the agents were on the phone and actively taking calls at the scheduled time.
“If you have a large brick-and-mortar call center, you can’t watch over every agent’s shoulder, all day, every day,” McDonagh points out. “You have to rely on key performance indicators and recording and monitoring tools to ensure that agents are performing to the level expected by your organization. At-home agents are much the same. You can utilize technology to ensure that agents are working and performing well.”
GMT has added several features to its WFM solution that help effectively manage an at-home workforce. One of them is availability templates that allow at-home agents to define their own scheduling templates, significantly reducing the amount of administrative work for both the agent and the scheduling team. Also the “Extra Hours” functionality allows managers to quickly post additional shifts to the web portal. Remote agents see the new shifts when they log in and can easily sign up for them.
(d) Productivity-enhancing tools. One example is Knowlagent’s RightTime, which aggregates agent idle time into larger, usable segments and in doing so creates active wait time with off-phone activities such as training, daily tips, updates and supervisor-to-agent chats. This solution improves home agent productivity and performance while keeping these employees as informed, on top of best practices and connected as those physically located in the contact center, says CEO Matt McConnell.
3. Security concerns can and are being answered through a variety of tools
BPO firms present best practices on home agent security, especially going the extra mile to assure clients. DeSalles is seeing BPO firms deploy two-to-three-factor authentication for home agent logins. These include biometrics, mainly fingerprint but increasingly keystroke ID (keystroke patterns are almost as unique as fingerprints) and iris scans in high-security applications in addition to passwords and challenge questions. Shipping a ‘locked down’ computer to an agent, locking down an agent’s existing computer and remote administration, monitoring and other security measures can ensure their desktops remain uncompromised and malware-free.
TeleTech employs locked down workstations in which associates/agents cannot print, copy, or paste documentation except within their work application. This is in addition to employing advanced security protocols to comply with industry and regulatory requirements.
“Technology makes home offices run as if an employee were sitting in a corporate location, complete with highly secure Internet connections and, secure workstation technology,” says Weyforth.
Yet how big is security an issue? At Home Customer Contacts conducted a survey earlier this year involving over 90 companies that use home agents who were asked to compare fraud incident levels at home versus in-house. 95 percent of companies reported that these were the same or less at home.
“As companies confirm no increase in fraud – driven primarily by thoughtful hiring practices – leadership teams sleep better, followed by material expansions of the home agent model,” says Rowan.
4. Virtual desktop wallboards can communicate to home-based agents the same information received by their premise-based colleagues.
One example of virtual wallboards is Inova Solutions’ Inova Marquee. It mirrors the content of a physical LED wallboard – including font effects, graphics and animations.
5. Community can be fostered through chat, team meetings and more recently by social media
“Chat ends up replacing the ‘head popping over the cubicle’ effect,” reports McDonagh. “I’ve spoken with call center managers that employ at-home agents who consider their chat tool to be a mission-critical offering, because it enables so much employee engagement, particularly with escalations. Additionally, with the prevalence of social media channels, many agents engage with one another in their off time via social media, which gives a sense of community and engagement that transcends the ‘walls’ of the contact center.”
Before using the available tools, firms must clearly define their culture and values.
“I have found that this community loss risk is larger with organizations who have not well-defined their company culture and who then rely on face-to-face interactions to propel a murky message,” says Rowan. “When culture and values are well-defined, the question then becomes how we convey and connect in a predominantly remote community.”
6. Investment costs can be significantly reduced by going to the cloud/hosting
Hosted switching, routing and other solutions are location-agnostic and it minimizes administration and IT support costs including upgrades and bug fixes. It can supplement or supplant premise-licensed hardware and/or software.
7. Management buy-in through by soft sell
When the obstacles are in the C-suite, Rowan recommends feeding information and education to them about the home/remote agent model but pause on the hard-sell. Sooner or later, when posed with the question “justify why contact center employees need to occupy this expensive office space”, the light will go off, she says and they will come around on their own.
For skeptical mid-level managers she recommends asking them to “try it/like it” for at least part of the week.
“When we find mid-level management that believe employees won’t work as expected (or will work less) at home, alarm bells should ring,” says Rowan. “You have managers with trust issues, and you need to address them before you can optimize a distributed home work environment.”
The following companies participated in the preparation of this article:
At Home Customer Contacts
Frost and Sullivan
Telework Research Network
Edited by Stefania Viscusi