Managing Labor in a Virtual Call Center

By Sharon Grossman

Tired of juggling long commutes and a family life, Will Burkhamer used to take nearly two hours to get from his home in Baltimore to the Laurel, MD., call center where he used to work as a customer service agent. First, there was the hour-long bus ride, then another 45 minutes in a car pool.

Now he rolls out of bed and is on the job a half-hour later – in his home office. Forget the commute; prep time is minimal. “It’s just as easy to work down the hall as down the road because you can move a lot of information quickly,” says Will. “And worrying about snow storms like the blizzard last year is a thing of the past.”

There are indications that an increasing number of employees nationwide are also trying to do their jobs from home. A study done by Deiringer Research Group Inc. of Milwaukee found that 9.2 million full-time employees worked from home in 2001. That number jumped to 16.5 million employees in 2004.

Industry experts said Burkhamer is part of a trend. Increasingly, call centers are going “virtual” in an effort to keep agents from jumping ship along with curtailing the exorbitant equipment and real estate costs necessary to run a brick and mortar business. But how do you manage someone you can’t see?

People involved in managing call center staff would agree that they are faced with many challenges – changing technology, new sales, and marketing programs and customer relations programs. Perhaps their greatest challenge, though, is managing the workforce. Making sure that calls are processed efficiently by well-trained agents, who are skilled and professional is a goal that requires good planning and skilled execution in all types of services.

Managing a virtual call center requires a shift in traditional thinking about how managers communicate with employees and how they control the quality of the organization’s services. A number of teleservice companies support remote agents so managers may face the difficult task of seamlessly integrating both on and offsite agents so that they work and perform as one entity. However, the challenges in managing a virtual workforce require some new techniques and creative uses of technology.

Communication: The first and most obvious challenge in managing a virtual workforce is communication. In a traditional call center, managers have the luxury of speaking directly to agents. They can see them and observe how they are working; they can call agents into a meeting room or tap them on the shoulder when they want to share information or just have a conversation. In a virtual contact center, managers must create a virtual workplace and find ways to communicate without being in the same physical location.

Perhaps the most important decision to be made when establishing a virtual workforce is choosing the right technology provider. To effectively communicate with virtual agents, it is important to choose a virtual ACD provider that offers:

  • Live monitoring
  • Broadcast messaging
  • Agent performance reporting
  • Agent-to-agent “instant messaging”
  • Audio recording of calls for quality control
  • A supervisor portal that shows real-time information, enabling supervisors and managers to visually see the workplace and understand how each employee is involved in current activities

By using these tools, managers can see their workforce in a very detailed way. Remote agents are able to communicate with each other to ask questions or offer support. Agents can be monitored and coached without being heard by the caller. A properly structured and utilized virtual ACD system offers no opportunity for an agent to under-perform without being detected. Best of all, these same tools work effectively with both a virtual and a traditional workforce.

Agents in the virtual environment can reach out for help using a text message and can receive help from the best available source. Sometimes the best help comes from another agent who is available and can offer support. This type of text communication is highly effective. An added benefit that managers can realize with virtual agents is that because they don’t sit in the same break room or chat between calls, there seems to be less conflict in virtual workplaces.

Two ways to help foster communication and assistance between in-office agents and the virtual agents is to add a personal touch by encouraging agents to choose an icon that represents their personality for instant messaging, and to create a website where agent photographs and personal information can be posted so that they can “see” and get to know each other on a more human level.

Scheduling: Scheduling is a challenge that can be made easier in both the traditional and virtual center by using a labor management tool, which can be accessed on the Internet by agents to view and print their schedule, as well as clock in and out. At payroll time, the labor management tool can load data directly into the payroll system. To optimize agent utilization, information about call traffic that is generated by the virtual ACD provider can be merged with schedule information. The reports generated by the ACD also help to establish call patterns and trends that will affect staffing. Having this ability is important since contact centers in any environment are only as good as their ability to forecast and plan.

Training: Just as universities are using Internet-based distance learning software to offer their courses around the world, we have found that telephone answering services can also benefit by using a distance learning software package to train agents around the country. This software can allow organizations to create a self-launching course that can be provided to each agent with the appropriate password.

The courses can include basic call processing training, as well as specialized training for new applications. The agent simply navigates to the specified website and enters their user name and password to take the course. At the end of the course, a test is given and automatically scored then forwarded to the trainer or supervisor. The trainer can then set up a meeting with the agent to address concerns and review any questions that were answered incorrectly. In addition to this kind of online training, organizations can have agents attend coaching sessions using a conference bridge and Internet presentation software such as WebEx.

Additionally, to build camaraderie and obtain valuable mentoring with the virtual workforce, contact centers can assign new agents to teams with team leaders acting as “virtual mentors” who communicate with agents about their special needs and help them to become a part of the larger team. Even though team leaders do not personally meet all of their team members, these relationships help leaders and agents form bonds that provide agents with a sense of connection to the team and the company.

Quality Control: When a company makes the transition to a virtual workforce, the concern about managing quality centers around the effects that background noise and distractions can have on virtual agents. One way to overcome this challenge is to establish a formal agreement for telecommuters where they guarantee to provide a professional environment in their home office: barking dogs, crying children, and television sounds are not acceptable. Let each agent know that their access to the system will be immediately terminated if there are any inappropriate background noises.

In this agreement, organizations can also have the telecommuter guarantee to provide their own computer in working order and their own Internet connection. One way to look at it is to think of the Internet connection as being similar to the agent’s car. It is the vehicle that gets them to work and they are responsible to maintain it in good working order.

Another tool that contact centers should utilize is a quality control monitor that listens to random recordings of each agent every week. Companies can use traditional quality control methods for monitoring both site-based agents and telecommuters very effectively. In addition to listening to calls, organizations can combine this with monitoring statistics provided by their ACD provider to better evaluate each agent’s performance.

While operating in the virtual environment offers some special challenges, it also provides companies with important benefits:

  • Significantly reduced overhead costs. Agents provide their own space, furniture, computers, and Internet connections.
  • Fewer barriers to growth. The ACD system can be hosted by an on-demand contact center provider. By employing a hosted solution, the company doesn’t need to worry about adding cards, boards, cabinets, or other equipment for a site-based switch as growth occurs. They also don’t have to expand the size of the call center to accommodate new business, they can simply expand their telecommuting network by hiring new agents.
  • Much of the expense associated with growth is borne by the new telecommuting agents who happily provide their own equipment and space for the privilege of working from a home office. An ACD provider utilizes VoIP to distribute calls, which helps to control telecommunication costs.
  • Turnover is much lower among telecommuters.
  • With a virtual workforce that provides a good balance between work and home life, much recruiting for telecommuters can be based on referrals from other employees or from the website. Organizations can actually end up with a waiting list of applicants. Plus, the high cost of gasoline and parking makes working from home a very attractive option, especially since many qualified agents live in areas where they would face a lengthy commute.
  • It is easier to schedule telecommuters for short shifts or split shifts. A telecommuter will often sign in to work for 30 minutes when needed. It is tough to get site-based agents to come to work for less than four hours.
  • Reduction in operating expense can enable a company to be more competitive in pricing. This is especially important in competing with offshore providers.
  • The virtual network enables businesses to expand the workforce in any geographic area that supports a stable Internet connection. Call centers can recruit bilingual agents in the areas where they live.
  • By going virtual, stress in the workplace has all but been eliminated. The top three short-term effects of stress are increased irritability, undermining of work performance, and an increase in mistakes.

Burkhamer, who now supervises about 30 virtual agents from his home, said it’s easy to go the extra mile for the company when the company has gone the extra mile for you. The bottom line is that the greatest benefit of transitioning to the virtual workforce model is the bottom line.

[From Connection Magazine May 2006]

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