Home-Based Agents: An Alternative to Offshore Outsourcing

By Basil Bennett

When call center decision makers think about outsourcing, the first thing that usually comes to mind is offshore, namely India or the Philippines. American companies have been taking advantage of the low-cost labor in these developing regions for several years now. Many have reported positive cost savings, but contracting an offshore outsourcer to serve valued customers is not an option for every business, so more and more companies are turning to “virtual agents,” or home-based customer service representatives.

Virtual agents operate much like workers in bricks-and-mortar call centers, but without the overhead – calls are routed from the client’s customer contact number to various individuals who take inquiries via standard phone lines. Home-based agents use a broadband connection to stay linked to their clients’ systems and service applications, and many use instant messaging applications for tech support. With virtual agents fully integrated into existing systems, customers on the calling end receive a completely seamless experience.

Several industry analysts have taken a closer look at the growing home-based call center market recently, which has also been dubbed “home-sourcing.” Gartner Group predicted that by 2006, 10 percent of US call centers will use virtual agents; the IDC recently reported that the remote agent industry grew 20 percent to 100,000 workers from 2003 to 2004.

Companies large and small can find some benefit in home-sourcing. Some virtual outsourcers schedule their agents in half-hour increments to increase flexibility, depending on need. For example, if a business requires 500 agents on the phones from 8:00 AM to 10:00 AM, but then only 50 available agents after that.  This spike in service can be easily addressed with home-based agents due to the flexibility inherent in the system. Companies are able to create a customer service program that works best with their particular pattern of customer demand.

While home-sourced agents are not as inexpensive as agents overseas, the cost is much less than maintaining and staffing a full-capacity bricks-and-mortar call center that may be idle at certain times. On average, companies can expect to save about 30 percent in customer service costs by using home-based agents. The virtual agents can be paid by the hour or per call answered, with the latter compensation arrangement providing motivation for higher rates of call resolution.

Some key concerns for call centers considering outsourcing include training and accessing the remote agent workforce. The emergence of “e-learning” applications has virtually eliminated the need for classroom training, though it is always an option. However, with e-learning and phone-based training, clients can train hundreds of agents in a fraction of the time required by traditional methods. This puts more pressure on the agent to ramp up in a shorter amount of time, but since agents are frequently paid by their performance level, motivation is not a problem. To stay connected with remote agents, virtual outsourcers can offer communication tools that enable monitoring and workforce management strategies. Monitoring can be handled much like any typical call center, through direct phone or recording devices.

One of the most important aspects of home-sourcing – and its main difference with offshore outsourcing – is the quality of the agent. Virtual outsourcers have a rigorous screening and application process, which includes aptitude and attitude assessments. The type of person who chooses to work from home is typically someone who has had past management experience, some college education, and is more than likely above the age of 38 – in essence, mature, experienced people that can handle all types of customer service requests.

Making the decision to outsource is a big step in itself, but choosing the type of call center outsourcer that is right for your business will be determined by your customers’ specific demands. Home-sourcing may prove to be an effective way to build a seamless (and virtual) bridge between your business and customer needs.

Basil Bennett is CEO and President of Willow CSN Inc., a pioneer in the virtual call center industry that provides home-based agents and workforce management tools for outsourcing alternatives. For more information, contact Basil at 888-899-5995.

[From Connection Magazine May 2005]

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