Hosted Contact Center Featured Article

The Virtual Contact Center

April 26, 2007

By Stefania Viscusi,
Assignment Desk Editor

The virtual contact center is emerging as a key resolution to many of the concerns of the traditional call center.
 
A solution to the need for extended hours, less commuting, improved customer service and disaster recovery, the virtual contact center offers a host of benefits by allowing agents to still connect to callers without needing to be located at one central location.



 
According to industry research from IDC (News - Alert), the number of US at-home agents will triple from an estimated 112,000 in 2005 to 300,000 by 2010.
 
In my latest chat with Randy Saunders, Marketing Director, Cincom Systems Customer Experience Management products, we discussed the growth of hosted and on-demand capabilities and how it's made the virtual contact center a beneficial choice for contact centers of any size.
 
    How is the contact center environment evolving as a result of the proliferation of Hosted/ On-Demand capabilities?

It's causing more advanced call center functionality to be available to small and virtual contact centers. Previously, most call centers were really large and had multiple sites and some kind of an ACD integration across the contact center. That was just out of the reach, both resource and size-wise, for smaller contact centers. Today, with the hosted model, it's just as easy to implement a virtual contact center for both size call centers.

    Do virtual contact centers offer specific benefits over traditional brick and mortar establishments?
 
The main benefits are that it enables agents to work from any location as long as they have a phone system and an internet connection. That greatly simplifies the operation compared to a brick and mortar call center. On a personnel level, it allows companies to expand their hours and address commuting issues and other problems. They are also able to have better access to the kinds of skills and flexible hours they need.  
 
     Does implementing a virtual contact center offer enhancements when it comes to agents and the call center workforce? Can virtual contact centers  improve employee turnover rates?
 
Yes, definitely. A lot of companies may need specific skills whether it’s a language need like multilingual people or a certain education. And when you remove the geographic boundaries, it makes it a lot easier to find the kind of talent you need to work in the contact center. In fact, IDC found that more than 75 percent of home agents have some college education versus only 20 percent in brick and mortar establishments. So you're getting more educated, more experienced people who may have had more job industry experience and who are radically more loyal. It's a much more attractive job to those candidates because of the flexibility and lack of commuting time, so they tend to stay with companies a lot longer.
 
     How does a virtual call center work? Are calls managed differently?
 
Well from the customer perspective you can't tell. They dial the same 800 or series of numbers and customers can't tell if they've called into a number where service reps are sitting side-by-side or are scattered across the country.. It all works the same, so that’s the great thing about the hosted solution. And internally, it's also not any different. You have a queue (ACD) with skills based routing. Based on what the caller needs it just routes them right to the browser of the best available agent. Again it works the same as if agents were all in the same building. And it’s all web based — no special equipment, just sign into the internet and the hosted contact center takes care of routing the screen pop and the call to them on a call-by-call basis.
 
    Is the implementation and maintenance of a virtual call center difficult or costly?
 
No. It's quite simple. With the hosted model you are essentially just set up an account with a hosting provider and based on how many agents you have, you have your data loaded and it's ready to go. So whether it's virtual or if everyone is in a central location, it's pretty much the same work-- you're really just customizing an existing operational system to meet your specific needs. The maintenance is also pretty much automated. The hosting provider is automatically updating the software so there's nothing to update at the actual location and the next time they sign in, they get the newest version.
 
      Are there specific types of companies that can benefit from choosing a virtual contact center solution?
 
Many companies can find benefit. But there are some organizations with situations that gain more from a virtual contact center. Such as:
 
A company that’s outgrown their existing facility and is at a point where they need to make it bigger, or move. With the virtual call center, they can extend the facility with virtual agents and still have their central agents if they want.
 
Another example are companies with a limited budget, as it's less expensive to add home or virtual agents than to add to the central location which costs more.
 
Also, companies that are rapidly expanding because the virtual solution adds more flexible options for where and how resources are added—making it a lot easier to grow.
 
A call center looking to expand geographically will find it easier to add remote agents than opening a new brick and mortar call center.
 
Companies that want to expand their service hours will find it easier to add a remote person in an opposite time zone to save on the cost of having a third shift hours out of the in-house establishment and having to supervise them in a centralized facility.
 
And finally, companies that want to minimize the risk of shortages due to emergency or disasters can turn to the virtual call center because people are in different locations. In the large scale contact centers it’s often one of the reasons why they choose to have multiple facilities, to minimize the risk across locations-- with the virtual contact center, this is automatic.
 
      How does managing the virtual workforce differ?
 
There is a big difference since you obviously can't just walk around and see who showed up for work and who's actually working. So, you need tools that let you monitor and watch what's going on from the call center manger’s desktop. Reporting tools to find out how many calls agents are taking, the length of calls and all of those things you normally could hear or watch are needed in tools to be able to manage the virtual contact center.
 
    What are some of the biggest benefits of utilizing a virtual call center?
 
The biggest benefit is being able to utilize home or remote agents fully. This expands the workforce to a broader pool of skilled agents who are multilingual and removes geographic boundaries.
 
It is also possible to take advantage of lower cost areas and there are even some government incentives for job creation in certain hub zones.
 
The business continuity factors are also of specific benefit to ensure operations.
 
    Can virtual contact centers help improve customer service and enhance the process of engaging with customers?
 
Yes, on a number of fronts. It more easily allows you to have expanded hours. You can also have higher quality agents on the phone whether that be because they're more educated or have more industry specific skills that the customer might need. And because the employer has a more flexible workforce, you are able to provide the right level of staffing for clients like meeting seasonal peaks and being better staffed to improve customer service.
 
 
     How can companies begin the process of implementation?
 
The implementation process can be quite flexible. What we often see is are people starting a new call center in a centralized location, even if it’s only temporary, then after a period they'll start letting their agents work out of their homes or hire new agents out of their homes. So many still have training in central locations before they let workers be remote, that's often how its starts.
 
 
 
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Stefania Viscusi is an established writer and avid reader. To see more of her articles, please visit Stefania Viscusi’s columnist page.