TMCnet - The World's Largest Communications and Technology Community
ITEXPO begins in:   New Coverage :  Asterisk  |  Fax Software  |  SIP Phones  |  Small Cells

June 2004

Home-Based Agents: A Cost Saving Alternative To Offshoring? An Insightful Q&A With West Corporation

With concerns rising about offshore outsourcing in terms of quality and security, more companies are becoming interested in the cost-saving benefits of using agents who work from their homes. This month, Customer Inter@ction Solutions' spoke with Mark Frei, senior vice president, West Corporation. Our goal was to learn about West at Home, the company's new home-based agent solution. West Corp. (www.west.com) has been an industry leader in the teleservices sector for 18 years, and has produced notable results for many of the nation's Fortune 1,000 companies through custom live agent and automated voice response services.

CIS: Can you give us a general overview of the scope of West's home-based agent program?

Frei: What makes 'West at Home' different from other home-based agent programs is that West offers it as one part of a complementary suite of outsourced customer acquisition and customer care solutions. While West has the ability to offer West at Home as a stand-alone product, most often we implement it as part of a larger, customized solution for our customers.
We have been able to incorporate into our home agent program all the expertise we have acquired in the 18 years we've operated in the outsourced call center industry. We find that for most customers, this makes a difference. They don't want to hand over their customer relationships to a newcomer in the field, or someone who just started working with home-based agents. Customers have been turning to West for years because of our technology, agents and competitive pricing. All of those things still apply when it comes to West at Home.

CIS: Is West instituting this program because of a perceived need in today's changing market for teleservices?

Frei: West actually began routing calls to home-based agents in the early 1990s, well before today's politicized discussion of 'offshoring.' In fact, the pressures on the current outsourced teleservices market actually have the potential to make our home agent product stand out. While offshoring usually does provide a low-cost alternative to traditional domestic call centers, many companies are reluctant to migrate offshore due to quality issues and lack of flexibility. West provides a home agent component that can be seamlessly combined with what we call a 'multi- shore' solution that extends service quality and cuts costs. Right now, we have high levels of interest from both current clients and prospective ones who are looking for the quality of West's processes in a value-added, cost-saving alternative to moving offshore.

In addition to fulfilling the business needs of our clients, the home agent program is also validated by the increasing trend of telecommuting in the U.S. According to a 2003 Dieringer Research Group survey, the number of employees working out of their homes has grown 40 percent since 2001 to approximately 24 million people. These are highly educated, motivated individuals who want increased flexibility in their work schedules without the loss of productivity and expense associated with long commutes. Our model will allow us to take advantage of an educated workforce that has embraced the concept of working from home.

CIS: What benefits do home-based agents bring to teleservices?

Frei: In general, agents working from home provide the following benefits:
' Increased percentage of higher quality, better-educated agents, often resulting in im- proved customer interaction/call resolution;
' Scalability ' the ability to access labor quickly that would not be possible in a traditional 'brick and mortar' call center, which allows quicker response to peaks and valleys that inevitably take place in the call center world;
' Flexibility ' greater scheduling flexibility and no commute increases agents' satisfaction and performance; and
' Reduced attrition rates ' more satisfied employees who will stay with the company longer equates to reduced training and other costs associated with the hiring process.

Specifically, we think that West's home agent program provides the following additional advantages:

' Integration with existing Web applications ' the program has reduced implementation time frames and expenses, and centralized management of the application;
' Integrated IVR/ASR capabilities that enable front-end call routing and access to application data, allowing clients to off-load FAQs and transaction-based calls;
' West's processes take advantage of years of operational experience ' the platform is currently available and processing calls with full redundancy;
' Skills-based routing ' calls are directed to the most qualified agent based on specified criteria (sales, customer service, technical support, etc.), which provides first-call resolution and improves the customer experience;
' One hundred percent call recording ' all calls can be recorded and played back via Web tools to provide immediate agent feedback; and
' Staffing and scheduling ' West's proprietary staffing tool, 'Spectrum,' takes advantage of years of experience and call data, helping allow West to staff accurately by the half-hour. In addition, the tool provides online schedules for agents and staffing models based on historical information.
There are inherent advantages to using home agents in general, and we think there are additional benefits to using the West at Home platform, as it's a comprehensive 'multi-shore' solution combining traditional call centers agents, offshore and nearshore agents, and home agents all linked through central VACD (virtual ACD) technology only available through West.

CIS: What have been the traditional barriers to home-based agents, are they real or imagined, and does West have a plan for getting over these objections that some companies might present?

Frei: The traditional barriers include operational management issues, platform stability, staffing, training and security.
Operational management. Maintaining a high level of operational management for home agents is a big concern for companies wanting to implement this type of program, but we believe this is one of our biggest differentiators. We have incorporated these processes into implementing operational tools that support this platform. These tools include the Performance Assessment Liaisons (PALs), real-time call stats, immediate access to call recordings for quality assurance, client services and our Network Operation Center (NOC).

Platform stability. We provide stability using our interactive voice response platform, which we used to begin driving calls to home agents in the early 1990s, combined with full redundancy (power, data, systems and geographic). Our platform has met the external audit standards of the largest financial institutions and insurance companies in the U.S.

Staffing. We have developed a staffing solution using the Spectrum product and are further developing home agent staffing trends (which differ from traditional call centers) to forecast and manage transaction volume.

Training. Many companies are concerned that a three-week training process cannot be developed and implemented remotely. Yet the e-training tools we have developed have exceeded our partners' expectations in all areas. In fact, because it is self-paced training, progress is no longer dependant on the 'slowest common denominator' as it would be in a traditional classroom session. Each applicant is required to complete and successfully 'test out' of each training module before moving on to the next module. We find that training times are frequently cut in half for those trainees who are highly motivated. Not surprisingly, these trainees usually become our top performers.

Security. This is probably the biggest concern for most companies, especially those in industries with regulatory issues such as financial services and insurance. West maintains a highly secure environment in all of its operations by using SSL encryption in all transactions. We have built multiple firewalls to ensure that agents can never access or manipulate databases that are resident at West or a client location, and we have extended all of these security measures to our home agent system, making these operations as secure as traditional call center operations.

CIS: What are the implications home-based agents will have on monitoring and managing agents?

Frei: Performance Assessment Liaisons (PALs) are the focal point of our agent support. They communicate with home agents via e-mail and instant messaging, and can also be conferenced in to any phone session (just like a supervisor on the floor) to assist an agent with a call. Call monitoring takes place just as it would in the physical call center environment (both voice and data at West). Agents are monitored through QA and coached based on quality goals established with clients.

CIS: Are there some companies or industries for which home-based agents may be more suitable? Are there some industries where using home-based agents may pose a disadvantage?

Frei: Most segments have embraced the service offering, but as mentioned earlier, there were some initial concerns driven by regulatory issues that are slowing growth within certain industries such as financial services and insurance, but gradually these industries are becoming comfortable with the integrity of our systems. Growth areas include traditional segments and those requiring agent specialization, such as medical, accounting and law services. The home agent program can provide clients with the ability to recruit nationally and collectively staff more professionals than we believe would be possible in a single brick-and-mortar call center location.

CIS: Has West made any specific technology changes to support this program?

Frei: We have not made dramatic changes, rather we have taken proven systems and processes and enhanced them to meet the needs of the telecommuting workforce. Our IVR platform of 143,000 ports of capacity is an efficient platform with over 14 years of processing experience, and we enhanced existing training and staffing tools to deliver remote access to agents working from home.

CIS: What does an HR person look for in a home-based agent, as opposed to a more traditional call-center-based agent?

Frei: The hiring process is completely online with interviews taking place on the phone. Applicants take a qualifying test and undergo a thorough background check. In terms of any special qualities, our HR professionals are looking for self-starters who are also good communicators.

HR is also able to put geographic or previous experience focus on hiring that would probably not be possible if locked into a specific site location. This is evidenced by the fact that West has home agents in all 50 states. We've found this to be more effective than a 'switch' based solution, which restricts hiring to a certain physical location in a single city.
Incidentally, our HR costs have been reduced because other than the interviews, our hiring process is fully automated.

CIS: How will West's program differ from that of other companies that offer home-based agents?

Frei: We think West's home agent program is unique in that if offers:
' A geographically distributed workforce (i.e., not restricted to ACD city areas),
' The ability to support multiple, distributed workforces (i.e., West and client through the platform),
' Web-based distance training,
' Flexible scheduling offered through Spectrum,
' Skills and performance-based routing, and
' Full IVR/ASR integration.

CIS: Can you offer an example of a client currently using West's home-based agent program successfully?

Frei: A recent example of West's home agent program involves a national television shopping channel. This customer decided it needed the help of an outsourcer to supplement its own internal call center operations during periods of high volume due to seasonal activity or special programming.
West's staff worked closely with the client to develop a solution within six weeks that combined home agents as well as traditional call center agents. During peak periods, the client's overflow call volume is directed to West's virtual ACD, which enables West to quickly route calls to home-based agents nationwide, or to one of West's traditional call centers.

In addition:
' West is able to leverage its technology platforms to provide high-quality customer service and maximize revenue at a competitive price;
' Spectrum (West's staffing and scheduling program) ensures sufficient agents are available down to half-hour increments, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week;
' One hundred percent of calls are recorded, both to provide verification of purchase decisions as well as adherence to quality standards. The client can access these replays within minutes of call completion;
' Through West's PALs (Performance Assessment Liaisons) system, home agents receive the same support and guidance as they would in a call center environment;
' Remote training programs provide home and call center agents with the necessary skill sets to handle client calls; and
' Using SmartSell, West can track ordering habits of callers and identify up-sell opportunities to generate additional revenues for the client.
As a result of this customized solution, West has consistently met or exceeded the customer's goals both for total call volume and up-sell conversions.

[ Return To The June 2004 Table Of Contents ]

Upcoming Events
ITEXPO West 2012
October 2- 5, 2012
The Austin Convention Center
Austin, Texas
The World's Premier Managed Services and Cloud Computing Event
Click for Dates and Locations
Mobility Tech Conference & Expo
October 3- 5, 2012
The Austin Convention Center
Austin, Texas
Cloud Communications Summit
October 3- 5, 2012
The Austin Convention Center
Austin, Texas

Subscribe FREE to all of TMC's monthly magazines. Click here now.