April 2009 | Volume 27 / Number 11
Enabling Your Agents To Go Home
By Brendan B. Read
Driving Agents Home
There are strong cost and output drivers that continue to bring contact center agents home. The Telework Coalition, a telework advocacy/education organization, reports net benefits including facilities cost savings and productivity gains as high as $10,000 to $20,000 per agent/year. Productivity also includes a greater ability by home agents to handle spikes for shorter duration, with less notice and with much more scalability than their bricks-and-mortar counterparts.
Michael DeSalles, strategic analyst, Frost and Sullivan reports that by going home organizations have attracted higher quality agents, who in tests proved that they could deliver better service than their bricks-and-mortar counterparts, domestically and offshore. Hiring for home-based positions has cut turnover by 30 percent, which knocked down recruitment and training costs.
Studies have repeatedly shown that the ability to home work consistently ranks as one of the top features prospective employees seek from employers. One key reason is savings of up to $5,000/year in commuting and work apparel costs. Another is avoiding increasingly lengthy and stressful commutes. Home working is also green working. A Telus study estimated that its program has resulted in 1.94 million kilometers (1.2 million miles) not driven 1,250 days of time and 135,000 kg of CO2 not released into the atmosphere since the program began. Helping to making home agents happen is a growing comfort factor in organizations with employees that are working sight unseen. More mid-to senior management are doing just that: occasionally, part-time, and in some cases full-time. Employees are becoming used to interact with colleagues that they do not see. There is more reliance on e-mails and IMs to communicate with staff, even if they are in the same office.
Organizations are also realizing that they can effectively manage at home agents, with the same tools that they already use in contact centers. Call recording solutions from firms such as CyberTech International and workforce management applications like Verint’s Impact 360 Workforce Optimization suite also supports the often variable deployment of home agents.
At the same time firms now have at their disposal new technologies that they can leverage to support the home agent environments. These include highly flexible platforms, recruiting, training, and communications tools, security solutions, and VoIP. Alternatively there is a growing legion of well-equipped teleservices firms that handle programs at agents’ homes. For example Sitel went live with its ‘HomeShore’ program in 2008. These firms are also experiencing expanding demand for this ‘location’. West witnessed an approximately 29 percent increase in home agents from 14,000 to 18,000 over the past year.
“The overall market acceptance of the home agent model is the highest we’ve seen,” reports Mark Frei, West Senior Vice President of Sales. “We no longer have to explain the benefits of home agents or why companies should look at [them]. Companies now understandthe benefits and are embracing the concept. They are looking for the best way to implement a home agent program.”
Home-Agent Friendly Platforms
There is a growing array of home-agent-targeted contact center platforms, many of which are hosted to provide scalability and flexibility to easily permit adding more of these staff. Volt Delta is hosting Transera’s Seratel software on its extensive network. Agents need only a PC, phone, and Internet connectivity. Supervisors and managers have a convenient web-based dashboard for monitoring and managing home agents.
These platforms are becoming easier to manage. inContact has made its hosted platform 100 percent browser based-- it had been a thin client application--which lowers costs and made launching and supporting home agents easier by avoiding installing and managing software. Telus, prompted by clients who were impressed by its home agent program, has parlayed that experience into a home working consulting and hosting service. Telus’s CallCenterAnywhere
platform can host, route, and launch inbound and dialer-initiated outbound calls. It partners with LiveXchange to provide contracted home agents either on CallCenterAnywhere or LiveXchange’s similar platform from Oracle. Telus’s employee agent support program features PSTN voice and DSL broadband connections integrated with CallCenterAnywhere or with the clients’ existing platform, desktops and secure networks, along with consulting services to help clients’ deploy agents in home settings. The carrier places them together in a simple monthly bill. It will also offer to hire and manage the agents at home as its employees and then offer them on temporary outsourced basis to clients.
There are new solutions to permit presence/unified communications links to home agents. Presence is built into the Avaya Home Agent solution that is part of IP Agent/Home Agent platform. That avoids sourcing and installing separate presence/UC software. Toshiba’s Strata ACD, with Net Phone 6.0 offers a presence view that shows real-time status of other users, including phone status, status message and IM chat status i.e. if Net Phone is launched and agent is online to accept chat requests. It also supports whiteboard collaboration.
One of the realities of working from home is that tech support is most often the individuals in the mirrors. There are now tools to help them. SupportSoft’s Dynamic Agent software provides common problem auto remediation and establishes real-time triggers and alerts that enable just-in-time support. It also supplies “1-click fixes” so they can resolve their own issues with user-friendly ‘show me’, ‘tell me’, or ‘just do it for me’ content.
Recruiting and Training
There are two key issues with hiring home agents. The first is ensuring that the individuals have what it takes to work from home. These attributes including facilities: quiet and secure office space, reliable broadband connections, and personal qualities and skills: chiefly the ability to work independently. The second issue is volume.
The popularity of home based agents can overwhelm HR staff when word gets out that a firm is looking for them.
There are pre-screening tools that can sift candidates for home agent suitability on top of agent skillsets. FurstPerson’s CC Audition® Home Agent edition is a web-based job simulation tool that allows job candidates to ‘play the part’ as if they worked for you out of their homes. CC Audition can be coupled with FurstPerson’s Hire@Home solution, which features a diagnostic module that evaluates job candidates’ computer environment to see if they meet home agent technical requirements. Hire@Home can then determine how far into the testing process the candidates can go.
inContact offers a hosted browser-based, assessment tool with the capacity to simultaneously assess over 5,000 job candidates. Applicants log into a customized website and are examined for skills, attributes, and abilities, and are then matched against the clients’ custom job models to determine job fit. Evolv has a customizable automated hiring solution specifically for home-based agents with criteria based on detailed job analysis and shadowing, competency modeling, subject matter expert interviews and validation studies. With it you can specify and the solution will screen for you home workplace connectivity and environment requirements such as for computers and broadband availability and potential noise distractions, such as pets or children.
You identify and employ those agents from either internal or external pools that are best-suited for specific programs. Evolv’s solution will inform you where your best-quality applicants come from to reduce or eliminate spending on ineffective job boards. It provides seamless integration to over 800 job boards.
Home agent initial and refresher training is increasingly being delivered by e-learning: the same as for bricks-and-mortar staff, and blended with conferenced: audio/web/video live instruction or virtual training. Telus is now looking at virtual training to save money, avoid having agents travel in, and to expand the home agent universes.
Home agent management
One of the biggest challenges many firms say they have in home working is keeping these staff connected to their companies in culture, brand identity in outsourced projects, product knowledge, and in teamwork. For that reason some firms like Sitel and Thomas L. Cardella & Associates deploy home agents in constellations, and require them to come into the centers. Others set up regular meetings at sites in the middle of home agent clusters to lessen transportation time and costs.
Web chat is a very effective way to stay in touch. This functionality is contained for example in Contactual’s Contactual OnDemand Contact Center Version 6. It can be used to chat with end users, between agents and supervisors, and between agents. A supervisor can use the chat to announce a special promotion to end users or they can alert agents about a specific situation that has arisen that needs attention right away.
Another and promising tool is video. Avaya is releasing a video solution in an upcoming version of Avaya Home Agent, named one-X Agent. It enables them to transmit and receive streaming videos, such as training or to help customers with users, and for other agents and supervisors to see the home-based staff. InfoCision Management Corp. uses a palette of techniques to communicate and stay in touch with its 200 home agents. These include IM, weekly conferencing,
training and meetings at centrally located venues, and, more recently by a new web site and chat room where supervisors and staff virtually converge. The website, launched in December, 2008 contains information ranging from scheduling, program updates, announcements, and results to alert staff to inbound spikes throughout the day and evening. Agents can look up their performance results for the week, which helps them to see if they are on track to bonus. Training materials and knowledge checks are posted there so that the staff can stay refreshed on policies and procedures. “Previously, we would send e-mail updates to everyone, sometimes several a day and then we found that some of the agent were not consistently receiving these updates,” explains Georganne Contos, Manager - Work at Home. “The website solved this problem by providing a convenient, centralized location and a great way to keep them aware of their results
on a daily basis. Knowing how close they are to earning a bonus really helps to keep them motivated and focused on their performance.”
There have been several key advances in ensuring security with home agents that have evolved to the point where customer and corporate data is just as safe if not more so when they handle them compared with bricks-and-mortar staff. That enables their compliance with data protection laws such as HIPAA for healthcare and S-O-X for corporate governance, and with standards such as PCI for payment cards. One of the most important of these methods
is the development of best practices formed from experience. Contact centers who allow agents to work from home usually require them to wire their PCs directly into the Internet connections; home wi-fi networks are typically not allowed and in some cases neither are printers.
Some companies, such as Telus, supply their agents’ computers, treating their home offices like mini-satellite locations, which gives the firms complete control over the hardware and software. They can ensure that antivirus tools are up to date, detect and remove malware, and track applications
and files on the system, deleting those that are unauthorized. An increasingly popular alternative method, pioneered on a large scale by West and being adopted by others is secure lockdown. With it agents can use their own computers but when they logon the firm takes over their machines and prohibits them from taking actions that violate corporate policies such as downloading and installing unauthorized software. This technique provides near-robust security without the cost of owning,
shipping, supporting, and receiving company-owned equipment. West uses Citrix’s secure Citrix® gateway to ensure that sensitive customer data never resides on an agent’s computer. LiveOps offers a secure lockdown solution, Secure Desktop, as part of its LiveOps
On-Demand Call Center Platform. Only agent computers meeting LiveOps’ rigorous security standards are allowed to log on; each time they attempt to connect to Secure Desktop, they must complete in-depth antivirus, personal firewall, system integrity, and service pack compliance
checks. Secure Desktop can detect and block key loggers and screen scraper viruses as they execute in real-time. None of these systems truly verifies the individuals’ identities. For firms that require that added security level, such as in financial services and healthcare Frost’s DeSalles is seeing firms consider voice biometrics, log in based on voice patterns and keystroke authentication. Individuals have unique keystroke signatures that can be mapped and verified against when agents login. One such voice biometric tool is Zehu’s Zehu Authenticator ™. It matches users’ voices to a mathematical voice model stored in a database the solution returns a highly accurate authentication within seconds.
Data between contact centers and home agents flows over the public Internet. There are two principal secure means that enable these connections by means of a virtual private network, or VPN, which creates a secure ‘tunnel’ by encrypting the information. One VPN method is IPsec (IP security or IPsec) and the other is SSL (Secure Socket Layer). An IPsec VPN uses client software installed on the agents’ PCs or routers that connects them to the network. An SSL VPN comes with either a similar software client or a website that the agents can connect to using any internet browser.
IPsec VPNs are proven, reliable, and are often familiar to IT staff. They have long been used to connect branch and satellite offices with principal locations. Greg Davis, Vice President-Sales, Enhanced Services, MegaPath prefers SSLs because he says they are more secure. SSLs checks the agents’ home computers for malware each time they log in and can restrict access to specific applications based on who the user is, what type of device they’re using and whether they’re on a wired or wireless connection. In contrast, with IPsec VPNs once the client
software has been installed they can access the networks at any time: including if they have been compromised by malware. SSLs also do not require IT departments to install and manage software on the users’ PCs. Their downsides are that it can be tricky to get some applications to work with it while managing all of the access policies can be challenging.
Nortel’s VPN Tunnel Guard helps prevent PCs from becoming vehicles for viruses or other unwanted intrusions through the VPN tunnels by enabling administrators to define endpoint security policies for end-user PCs connecting to the VPN routers. It then ensures all remote users/devices are inspected for compliance to the security policies before allowing access. VPN Tunnel Guard can enforce endpoint security for PCs connecting directly via either IPSec or SSL VPNs.
Home agents have typically been connected to contact centers via PSTN over premises or network switches as it is very reliable and provides the highest voice quality. Yet voice over IP (VoIP), which uses packets akin to that for e-mail to transmit conversations as opposed to circuits in PSTN, is becoming a competing alternative thanks to lower call transport and installation costs. Ongoing enhancements, aided by the expansion of high-bandwith broadband networks, now enable better quality of service (QoS) with clearer interactions with minimal call dropouts. There are all-IP switches such as CosmoCom’s CosmoCall Universe that are optimized for linking inbound and handling outbound calls for home agents.
There are, however, still enough lingering QoS issues with VoIP to make many but not all contact centers leery about linking home workers with it. While firms like Convergys permits it several teleservices firms such as Arise and Working Solutions prohibit the method; West discourages it.
“The limitation or bottleneck with VoIP is the same as it was eight years ago when it was introduced; the last mile to the agents’ homes is the constraint,” explains John Skrhak, Working Solutions’
Manager of Network Operations and Security Services. “While the technology is getting much better, without QoS control over the public Internet it can still be very unpredictable.”
Popular ‘ridealong’ independent IP-based phone services on cable, DSL, or wireless broadband networks may not offer the quality that agents need because they cannot control the voice quality.
One solution being put forward from many sources are hosted managed networks, relying on cable, wireless 4G LTE or WiMax, and possibly VoDSL to reach into agents’ homes. Managed networks enable improved QoS by being able to prioritize voice packets in the data streams.
Telus has been taking a long, hard look at VoIP and may, based on its research, pilot it this year for its at-home agents in Alberta and British Columbia where it has a rapidly expanding broadband DSL network. The carrier will implement best practices such as designating a portion of bandwidth for the voice channel to avoid QoS degradation.
“The technology wasn’t there when we launched our internal at-home agent program but since then there have been a number of changes that have made VoIP worth taking another look at, “explains Ian Cruicksank, manager, Telus consumer solutions at-home agent program.