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The remote agent model continues to gain traction in the contact center as companies are increasingly discovering the economic and operational advantages of home agents. A report from analyst firm Datamonitor predicts the number of home-based agents in the U.S. will increase by 37 percent per year over the next five years, reaching more than 224,000 agents by 2012. This is a conservative estimate. A 2006 report from IDC put the number of home agents in the U.S. at around 115,000, increasing to more than 300,000 by 2010. Other market researchers have estimated the current number of remote call center workers to be as high as 300,000 or 400,000 (of course, it all depends on your definition of “home agent”). While many companies are just now dabbling in remote agents, some embraced the model completely and offer 100 percent remote agent services.

Though the model is better suited to some industries than others, recent advancements in Web technology and contact center solutions (including VoIP and SIP) have made “homeshoring” a feasible and affordable option for businesses of all types and sizes. The combination of faster broadband and hosted software solutions has given rise to the “virtual contact center,” where all end points on the corporate network are equal, regardless of where they are located. As a result, a company can quickly deploy an IP network enabling remote agents to deliver any type of service (inbound, outbound or blended) and handle any type of contact (phone, e-mail, Web chat) just as if they were in the main center. Training can be delivered via e-learning solutions and performance can be monitored just as if the agent was in the main center.

Among its many advantages, the remote agent model means organizations don’t have to invest in the real estate and telecom infrastructure needed for a traditional call center. In addition, the ability to work from home provides greater flexibility in scheduling and responding to sudden spikes in call volume. With the remote agent model, a contact center manager or supervisor facing an unexpected increase in call volume can simply “activate” additional remote agents as needed — a process that can take place rapidly since the agents need only log in to their PCs to start working. Furthermore, research has shown that contact center agents who work from home tend to be more productive and enthusiastic, which in turn decreases expensive turnover. Yet another advantage is that remote agents tend to be older (40 on average) and therefore have more work experience and maturity than the typical 20-something call center agent.

The remote agent model, however, is not without its challenges, some of which are serious enough to threaten the model’s future growth. First, on the employee side, there is the “scam” factor: Sure, the remote agent model lets companies break down geographic barriers and select from a nationwide pool of candidates, but there are so many “work-at-home scams” all over the Web that many people have become leery of even the legitimate offers. In fact, it’s estimated that for every legitimate work-at-home business opportunity, there are 40 bogus offers. Unfortunately, this is scaring away viable candidates who might otherwise make good home-based agents. Many of these people initially had a strong desire to work from home only to fall victim to scammers who took their money. As long as these scams persist, the pool of workers willing to consider home agent work might begin to shrink, putting limitations on the supply of qualified candidates.

On the employer side, there’s the matter of security: not necessarily network security, but the security of confidential customer information: credit card numbers and social security numbers. With the remote agent model, it’s more challenging to ensure that your agents are not copying and selling customer information for fraudulent uses.

Of course, these issues can be addressed. Many organizations are now taking measures to prove their legitimacy to job candidates up front so there’s less doubt on the prospective employee’s part that the offer is real. As far as security, there are several approaches being used, including installing live surveillance cameras at the agent’s remote office and using secure voice recognition systems, or “automated agents,” to handle transactions (without any human-to-human interaction).

Despite these potential pitfalls, companies all over are investigating the remote agent model and are testing it out.

“I think there’s going to be explosive growth,” said Mary Naylor, president and founder of VIPDesk, a provider of outsourced contact center services that uses remote agents exclusively. “I think we’ve touched only the tip of the iceberg. From what we’re hearing from the Fortune 1000 companies, there are all kinds of organizations that are either testing this out themselves or are looking to outsource with someone who is using remote agents. Many of them are sticking their toes in the water — even if they’re only taking 10 or 20 agents off the floor and trying it out.”

Regardless of challenges that lie ahead, it appears the industry is determined to make the remote agent model work, perhaps because, when done properly, the home agent model has such limitless potential, and technological innovation has a way of overcoming obstacles. This will certainly be a model to watch in the future.

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