Homebodies: The New Contact Center Agents

By Jim Mitchell

Imagine a contact center where agents can answer customer calls from the comfort of their own home and can be flexible with their schedules in order to be readily available at various times of the day. Many companies are evaluating the benefits and technologies associated with an at-home agent contact center, but is it the right choice for everyone?

Companies are going virtual in their contact centers with at-home agents because of the variety of benefits it potentially provides. The biggest factor influencing a company’s decision to move to a virtual contact center operation is that it offers a cost-effective way to provide around-the-clock customer care. Moreover, it’s generally more feasible for companies to leverage agents that are open to shorter and more flexible work hours. As an added bonus, since many employees prefer working at home, this work environment can create a happier and more productive staff, resulting in positive customer interactions. Although going virtual raises some concerns, including technology implications and security issues, the benefits typically outweigh the challenges.

Compelling Reasons for Making the Switch: An at-home agent arrangement can bring both the agent and the contact center numerous benefits, including cost savings, lower attrition rates, and increased productivity. The primary benefit of at-home agents, however, is access to a far broader resource pool. Call centers can literally utilize at-home agents located around the world. This offers a number of unique advantages, especially when operating a 24/7, 365-support environment.

This larger agent pool is also more skilled. Home-based agents are more likely to have college degrees when compared with workers in typical call centers. Most are in their 30s or 40s, older than the average call center employee, and many have management experience, often in outsourcing firms.

Another compelling benefit is schedule flexibility. Having at-home agents allows contact centers to pull in resources when they’re most needed, such as during peak call volume times of the day or year, or in the event of an outage at another location. Agents can also fit work hours to their own needs. This leads to happier agents and has a positive effect on morale. As a result, at-home agents are usually more productive on a number of measures, including quality and timeliness.

Technology in the At-home Model: Technology plays an important role in any contact center, and in a virtual contact center, some might argue, it plays an even larger role. At-home or remote agents need all the same tools as agents deployed within the walls of the contact center. Contact centers will need to be able to schedule, manage, and measure them as fully as any local agent.

In addition to the basic connectivity tools, such as a computer, a virtual private network (VPN) router, and digital subscriber line (DSL) or cable modem, the agents will also require the applications for managing the calls.

Optimizing performance and tracking productivity can be challenging with the at-home agent setup, so contact centers should consider implementing workforce management applications and quality management tools to ensure that the agents’ performance is aligned with business goals. Workforce management is a useful tool for scheduling and ensuring that at-home agents are adhering to their shifts, breaks, and vacation time. Advanced workforce management solutions empower agents to have greater control over their scheduling.

The contact center also has to consider how its IT department will support those remote applications. Best practices require providing every at-home agent with the exact same technology setup so that IT has a complete understanding of the tools and applications in use.

In most instances, it makes sense for IT to build a sample work-at-home station in the call center, using a cable modem or DSL service. That makes it easier for IT to troubleshoot at-home agent technology and connectivity issues. As part of the training process for the agents using the contact center applications, it is advisable to provide them with some basic IT troubleshooting skills so they can help manage any technology issues they may encounter. In addition, if there is a partial or complete outage at the agent’s home or location, the contact center needs to have a plan in place as to how the agent should respond and how the central contact center will manage calls that would normally have been routed to that remote agent or location.

Getting Started and Other Key Factors to Consider: Companies switching from traditional contact centers to the at-home agent option should try it out first as a pilot program to see what works and what doesn’t. Companies may want to start by testing the deployment scenarios using several seasoned agents. Lessons learned from these initial exercises will help management refine the deployment processes and training on the various applications. During this period, it is important to build time into the agent’s schedules to document their experience and provide feedback. This has the dual benefit of allowing them to feel engaged in the process while providing good data on technology and the experience of being an at-home agent. Also, it is key to allot time for the IT support team to handle any problems that arise, as well as conduct any supplemental system performance monitoring and diagnosis.

After the successful implementation of the pilot program, management needs to decide who will make up the at-home agent staff. Since the work environment is different, the traits employers look for in home-based agents are also different from those of in-house contact center employees. Rather than looking for outgoing, ambitious people that might need to work closely with coworkers, employers should look for candidates who are comfortable being alone, are well-disciplined, will not require constant direction from their managers, and are content having a job with little face-to-face interaction.

Contact centers making this transition need to address legal considerations, ensuring that the company and employee are complying with local, state, and federal labor laws, addressing safety issues, and protecting company property. In addition, call centers need to consider security and protection of caller data and client information.

The contact center needs to come up with a standard “right-to-use” policy for their equipment so the agents understand what is and what isn’t allowed on corporate provided equipment. Security and privacy issues are a major consideration, particularly depending which type of business processes that the agent handles. Caller data, such as credit card transactions or social security numbers, needs to be secured. This is not just limited to ensuring the agent isn’t stealing valuable customer data, but also making sure that the agent’s family or friends can’t breach the database.

Next, companies need to make sure that agents only have access to the customer information they absolutely need. For example, for a sales transaction, an at-home agent may be able to complete the majority of the sale, but when it gets to the point where credit card information is collected, the call is transferred to a different agent where the data can be secured much more easily.

The companies that take all of these factors into consideration before implementing an at-home agent contact center environment will be taking significant steps toward ensuring a successful deployment. In the future, more call centers will use at-home agents. These companies will benefit from a more diverse, better skilled, and happier staff. Contact centers considering switching to the at-home model of a virtual contact center should consider technological and legal implications, and they should try a pilot program before implementation. At-home agents can make a huge difference to the bottom line for call centers that follow the right steps to implement this growing trend.

Jim Mitchell is senior vice president at Aspect Software, a provider of contact center products and services.

[From Connection Magazine October 2007]