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 [email protected] 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
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
' West's processes take advantage of years of operational experience
' the platform is currently available and processing calls with full
' 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
' 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
' 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
' 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
' 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
' Through West's PALs (Performance Assessment Liaisons) system, home
agents receive the same support and guidance as they would in a call
' 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
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
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