Virtual Agents: Home-Based CSRs Deliver New Benefits to the Contact Center

By Paula Bernier, Executive Editor, TMC  |  November 01, 2011

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 2011 issue of Customer Interaction Solutions

Anybody talking to me about the benefits – both to employer and employee – of working at home is preaching to the converted. I have happily, and very productively, I think, done my jobs from living quarters for most of the past two decades. And because my employers have granted me the awesome benefit of telecommuting, I always try to go the extra mile for them.

Clearly, I’m not alone.

Residential dwellings also have become important outposts for many contact center operations. And the trend toward virtual agents, as these home-based workers are often called, is only expected to grow.

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.

Realizing New Savings

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, 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.

Expanding the Agent Pool

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.

InfoCision (News - Alert) Management Corp., meanwhile, has had a good experience finding quality virtual agents via neighborhood recruiting. Sometimes InfoCision does a press conference in a community, inviting the mayor and other officials, and uses that gathering as a launch pad to develop a work-at-home program in that area.

“The home environment is absolutely perfect for anyone who has any physical limitations,” says Steve Brubaker (News - Alert), chief of staff at InfoCision, at which less than 10 percent of CSRs are virtual agents.

In Ohio, InfoCision employs some blind reps, who are very good communicators, but who want to work at home, says Brubaker. He adds that stay-at-home moms also have been a good match for the company, noting that many moms have personal connections with the charity organizations using solutions from InfoCision.

The virtual agent model also expands the contact center to retirees and others with expertise in certain areas such as computers, health care, insurance, or what have you. Those backgrounds sometimes dovetail nicely with the interests of the call center operation, or its customers, which can result in higher levels of customer service.

Improving the Customer Experience

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.

About 70 percent of Alpine Access business in the last year involved companies that decided to bring their call centers back from overseas in an effort to increase customer service and at the same time support the U.S. economy.

“At the end of the day the question to the companies is: How valuable are your customers?” she says, adding that it is far better to keep a customer than to lose one and have to go get a new one. “As a consumer myself, sometimes the only interaction I have [with a company] is through their call center, so the call rep I talk to at a company is my only perception point about that company.”

Elizabeth Herrell (News - Alert), founder and president of communication initiatives at Constellation Research, in her September blog writes about the importance of the customer experience relative to contact center interactions.

“After many years of moving contact center operations offshore, either directly or through outsourcers, several companies have changed direction and are repatriating agents to onshore locations,” Herrell wrote. “Lower salaries and improved profit margins drove companies to offshore locations, such as India and the Philippines, but now a growing number of companies are reconsidering their decision. Bringing agents back onshore is not based on any new spirit of nationalism but on the fact that many customers complain about the quality of services received from offshore agents.”

In a recent interview with CIS magazine, Kevin Childs (News - Alert), practice leader, contact center lead at Manpower, pointed out that Consumer Reports in July reported that consumer satisfaction is at an all-time low. Childs says using U.S.-based call center reps – at least for high-value customers – could help turn that around.

Ensuring Control & Privacy

Of course, the virtual agent model poses its own challenges, both real and perceived.

For example, how does the presence of remote employees impact training and management? And how can a contact center ensure the privacy of customer data in this scenario?

InfoCision’s Brubaker says the training part is easy.

“We give our agents a CD ROM, and they pop it into their system and they’re up and running,” he says. “It’s that simple.”

Remote agents for InfoCision need their own PCs, hard-line phones, and broadband connections, he says, adding that the company runs a check on all their gear and connections to make sure it all works. Rarely do virtual agents come in to the InfoCision location. Instead, Brubaker says, InfoCision brings training to areas close to the agents.

To address security concerns, he adds, InfoCision doesn’t have remote agents take financial information from customers.

Security and control is extremely important, notes Brad Forsythe, technical sales consultant at Interactive Intelligence, who was on the panel “Remote Agents: The Big Game Changer for Contact Centers” at September’s ITEXPO (News - Alert) West in Austin, Texas, along with Brubaker, Jacoboni and Rowan. The Citrix product, he says, offers pretty granular control of what kind of access agents get, and each agent can have a unique level of access.

“Everything we do is on demand in the cloud, so nothing sits on our reps’ desktop, nothing,” says Jacoboni of the Contact Centers of America infrastructure. “It’s all in the cloud.”

Adds Jacoboni: “The webcam [also] is a beautiful tool. It’s just like being there.”

Tapping into the Larger Organization

Carefully selecting virtual agents, however, goes a long way toward mitigating such control and privacy concerns, notes Rowan.

Jacoboni agrees, noting it’s important to hire people with the desire to do the job and to keep them engaged by including them in regular meetings and other communications.

Organizations also should consider other ways they might bring remote workers into the loop. For example, if management has an open door policy, it could invite virtual agents to e-mail management with any questions or concerns. A business could build social meeting rooms in which virtual agents can congregate and visit for work or leisure time activities. Virtual agents can be invited to come in for holiday parties or other big events. And, importantly, organizations should recognize remote workers with online kudos or other rewards.

“You have to have a culture of excellence, and they have to feel they are part of that culture,” says Jacoboni.

InfoCision’s Brubaker agrees, noting that one way his company does that is by offering remote workers the same experience – in terms of benefits, environment, pay and status – that in-office reps receive.

“We haven’t changed the model,” Brubaker says, noting that 250 of InfoCision’s 4,300 employees work from home. “We’ve just extended the environment.

“I think it’s a great program, and perhaps more of our clients will be open to it in the future,” Brubaker adds.

And with that comment Brubaker gets to what may be the primary gating factor of the virtual agent model: customer acceptance.

The ITEXPO panelists noted above indicate that all the procedural and technical tools are in place to enable contact centers and their customers to embrace the virtual agent model with confidence that will it deliver a cost-efficient, high quality and secure experience for them and their end users. Nonetheless, some customers are not quite ready to hop aboard.

“It’s all a perception issue,” says Jacoboni.

As the contact center industry continues to educate current and potential customers about the benefits and reliability of using virtual agents, perhaps more organizations will join this growing movement.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi