Home Agent Programs Are a 'Win-Win'

By Paula Bernier, Executive Editor, TMC  |  April 30, 2012

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

InfoCision (News - Alert) Management Corp.’s partnership with the Cleveland Sight Center, through which it employs sight-impaired individuals as part of its call center business, has been such a success that the center’s new facility will house an InfoCision call center.

Steve Brubaker (News - Alert), chief of staff at InfoCision, explains that his company hired on a couple of individuals with vision impairments originally, but once it joined forces with the Cleveland Sight Center in January of 2011 “it has just been a win-win across the board.”

State and federal programs have enabled Cleveland Sight Clinic to supply vision-impaired call center reps with Magic and ZoomText PC screen view enlargement tools and something called Jaws, which reads what’s on a PC screen.

But InfoCision’s home agent program goes beyond its work with the Cleveland Sight Clinic. The company, which operates 39 call centers in three states (Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia), also allows for remote work situations for strong candidates that may be a bit outside its location areas and/or who have limitations that might prevent them from working on site. As of early March, InfoCision had 300 at-home agents.

Brubaker says that overall, its home-based agents are performing at an excellent level, and are some of the most dedicated employees at InfoCision. And while InfoCision doesn’t believe home agents will be a complete replacement for its staff, because not all customers want this kind of solution, sometimes this model is a perfect match.

To ensure remote agents feel invested in the organization, he adds, InfoCision ensures these workers have the same status and the same pay rate as its on-premises agents. InfoCision also provides online forums through which employees can share ideas and otherwise communicate, during work or off hours.

As discussed in the November issue of this magazine, Michele Rowan, president and CEO of At Home Customer Contacts, says that 15 to 20 percent of the total agent population in North America’s 60,000 contact centers work from home. The share of home-based call center agents is forecast to reach 30 percent by the end of 2013.

Such major brands as JetBlue today rely exclusively on home-based call center agents. However, even businesses in verticals like finance and health care, which have stringent privacy requirements, are now embracing the virtual agent model, says Rowan.

They are “signing on to the remote agent model in droves,” she adds.

The acceptance and adoption of the virtual agents model is being driven by several factors, including a desire to lower contact center costs, drive productivity, expand the workforce, allow for more flexibility, and gain expertise.

Embracing the virtual agent model can enable contact centers and their customers to realize savings on a number of fronts.

Rowan notes that it’s cheaper because it doesn’t require the call center to pay – or pay as much – rent and utilities.

Joe Jacoboni, president and CEO of outsourcer Contact Centers of America, says that its work-at-home agents also bring to the table their own computer and phone equipment, and related telecom/data services, eliminating call center costs in the process. And while some businesses hire on virtual agents full time, Contact Centers of America hires them on as independent contractors.

“The interesting thing is it alleviates all the [Social Security taxes and unemployment] taxes for us,” he says.

Using virtual agents and call centers near college campuses just makes sense, Jacoboni adds, because it allows Contact Centers of America to compete better with offshore outfits. Contact Centers of America, which had just a dozen home agents as of September of 2011, also likes the home agent model because it allows the company to support seasonal efforts – such as outbound call center customers during the campaign season – without having to invest in new on-site infrastructure.

Virtual agents often are more productive than their in-office counterparts. The virtual agent model also can help improve customer satisfaction.

Rowan of At Home Customer Contacts says that, in general, customer satisfaction scores are better with home agents, as is employee satisfaction. Allowing reps to work at home also enables call centers to staff on the hour. And attendance tends to be better, she adds, perhaps because if reps are not feeling 100 percent, they still may opt to work because they can do so in the comfort of their own homes.

Because the virtual agent model opens the call center to telecommuters, contact centers also have a much larger potential base of employees at their disposal.

For example, Contact Centers of America has a home agent program that recruits disabled war veterans.

Cynthia Phillips, vice president of marketing of Alpine Access, which uses home-based agents exclusively, says the education and quality of the Alpine Access call center reps is much higher than reps at competitors’ brick-and-mortar call centers because it can recruit from a much broader base of job candidates. She adds that Alpine Access also has older reps (which typically means more work experience) than is the norm in the industry and low employee turnover. Some of company’s employees have been on the job for eight or 10 years. Many of these folks also have industry-specific expertise that Alpine Access matches up with the special requirements of its clients.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi