Operations and Management

The Case for Remote Agents

By TMCnet Special Guest
Blair Pleasant
  |  January 01, 2012

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 2012 issue of Customer Interaction Solutions

Changing customer expectations require new ways of providing customer service.  Companies are finding that using remote agents allows them to be more flexible, recruit highly-skilled agents, and save money. Technology exists to enable any company, of any size, in any geographic location, to utilize remote agents – it can require as little as a high-speed Internet connection, a computer, a phone, and a quiet environment (the last requirement may be the most challenging).

There are obviously many benefits to companies that utilize remote agents. Why build a new call center facility when you can let agents work out of their homes? Global companies that want to have local agents interact with customers but cannot afford to build or staff contact centers in each region where they operate can use remote agents to serve an international customer base without having to make a huge or unnecessary investment. According to numbers from ITAC, the telework advisory group for WorldatWork, remote agents can save companies $25,000 per teleworking agent when compared to traditional staffing alternatives.

One of the fastest ways to lose a customer is to respond to them with a recorded message saying, “For customer service, please call back between 8 and 5 Eastern time.” Deploying remote agents in various parts of the world and in different time zones can help support an organization’s follow-the-sun strategy, providing customer service and support regardless of time of day or day of week. Many workers are willing to work from home at night and on weekends, so coverage can be expanded without even leaving the time zone.

Business continuity is also ensured. Whether it’s an earthquake in China, a volcanic eruption in Norway, or snowstorms in the U.S., enterprises no longer have to worry that their contact center operations will be endangered if agents can’t get to the office. By having remote agents working from their homes around the country or around the globe, organizations can be assured that operations will continue smoothly.

Perhaps the biggest benefit is the ability for companies to hire the best talent, regardless of location. Agents don’t have to be near a central location, and skilled agents in rural areas and small towns can easily get on board. The agent talent pool can be increased to people who may not otherwise be able to commute to a specific location or work full time, such as parents, students, disabled workers, retirees, and more.

There are obvious benefits for agents who work remotely as well. In today’s hectic society, smart companies are doing what they can to help employees manage their work-life balance. Contact center managers have reported that agents who work at home are generally more satisfied with their jobs and appreciate the flexibility of being able to work remotely, in work shifts that fit in with other responsibilities.

Yet despite all of the benefits, many companies have been reluctant to use remote agents for several reasons, which can be overcome by the use of current technologies. Some managers and executives believe that most agents require in-person supervision, and they may perceive this as a loss of control. While that may have been true in the past, with today’s reporting, monitoring, and workforce optimization tools, supervisors can observe agent performance without having to look over their shoulders. According to Sally Hurley, president of VIPdesk (News - Alert), “Most managers in centralized contact centers don’t physically look around the room to see who is on the phone, they use software to determine agent usage and performance. The same is true for a virtual operation. We rely on technology dashboards to monitor schedule adherence, utilization and overall performance. As such, we are using the same management tools.”

Security is another issue that can be overcome by using the right technology and procedures. In addition to taking necessary network security precautions, companies can lock down a designated computer for company use only, or provide a thin terminal client. Tools to ensure information security and confidentiality are required, guaranteeing that data is not leaked due to malware.

Perhaps not surprisingly, some of the biggest challenges in using remote agents have less to do with the technology and more to do with personal or personnel issues. Again, today’s tools and technologies are coming to the rescue. Social software is great not just for connecting with your old high school buddies, but with work colleagues as well.

Outsourcer VIPdesk uses webcasts and social media tools such as chat rooms that allow its agents to see colleagues’ photos and presence status, helping the remote agents feel engaged and connected. UC tools such as chat and videoconferencing can help remote agents feel connected and less isolated, and allows the supervisors better visibility into how their remote workers are doing.

New ways of accessing remote agent capabilities, such as via hosted solutions, makes it easier for agents to access the technology capabilities they need, regardless of where they are located. Whether it’s a phone call, an e-mail, or a web chat, all customer interactions can be handled by remote agents in any location. Don’t be afraid to expand your workforce to utilizing remote agents – they’ll thank you, and your customers will thank you.

Blair Pleasant (News - Alert) is president and principal analyst of COMMfusion LLC (www.commfusion.com), and co-founder of UCStrategies.com (www.ucstrategies.com).

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Edited by Stefania Viscusi