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Article : Home-Based Agents Don't Degrade Quality

Home-Based Agents Don't Degrade Quality
Contact centers are not quite as "central" as they used to be. The generation-old cliché of a huge room full of reps handling phone calls is starting to come apart, thanks partly to technological developments and to the critical need for new sources of labor. Remote agents and virtual centers are a small but growing component of the industry, especially in the more mature markets, like the U.K. and the U.S.

The underlying platforms in contact centers have moved so quickly to IP that the availability of remote agents has grown faster than the actual adoption of that staffing model. One reason for the delay is the cultural hesitation among contact center managers about assuring the quality of customer interactions, and the ability to actively manage the staff from afar. In practice, it turns out that these fears are largely unfounded: managers see into each transaction and each agent's performance just as well as they could in a traditional brick-and-mortar center. There is not as much tension between maintaining quality and adopting a remote staffing model as many thought there would be.

What We Know About the Telework Movement
To a large degree, remote agents depend on the presence of an IP-ACD infrastructure to connect them to the mother organization. A recent Frost & Sullivan research study pegged the portion of IP-enabled seats in US contact centers in 2008 at just short of 50%, and expected to cross that important threshold in 2009.

Frost & Sullivan research has found at the same time, multi-sourcing, that is creating a mixed environment including multiple outsourcers or a mix of outsourced and in-house agents, will rise as IP adoption makes contact center virtualization easier to accomplish. Such virtualization will drive the growth of remote agents within enterprises, picking up significantly by the end of 2009. The population of remote agents - agents who are part of a call center's infrastructure but don't work inside the walls of the center – is currently between 100 and 150 thousand people.

Clearly, we are looking at a vast pool of potentially remote agents; but it is likely that even by 2012, remote agents will still account for just a small fraction of that overall total.

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Why Telework is So Important
There are three compelling business cases for putting some part of the agent pool off-site, either in small virtual centers or fully remote (i.e., at home).

First and foremost is cost control. Evidence shows that agents stay longer in their jobs, and have higher satisfaction levels, when there is flexibility in how they are deployed. In the U.S., some very large companies have built their entire customer contact workforces out of remote agents because agents who work from home are clearly more vested in maintaining their jobs and their employment status.

And as you reduce turnover, your costs for new-hire training and recruitment go down, and you can retain your most able and motivated staff.

The second business case is continuity. Remote agents aren't affected when your physical center becomes unavailable; this is a benefit that's often discovered after the fact, rather than factored into the initial decision to decentralize the agent pool.

A third benefit, often overlooked, is the quality improvement gained from using a single queue irrespective of the many separate call handling locations. With a virtual model, contact center managers can centrally administer the setup from any location. Customers have a much more consistent interaction than they do when several centers are operating semi-independently under different metrics and management.

The Myth of the Unmanaged Agent
Telework can be a major factor in overcoming turnover and labor cost issues; so, why is it not catching on like wildfire? Why, instead, is it a slow crawl to a dispersed workforce.

The key to that lies in one of the enduring myths of contact center operations: the perception that unless a manager can walk up and stand behind an agent and observe the call directly, the agent is not going to perform properly. The managerial culture believes: out of sight, running amok.

Often, the manager's first response to the idea of telework is that dispersing agents will be a drag on team collaboration and the ongoing exchange of ideas. But again, the evidence shows that this is a cultural issue and not a real issue of deployment.

The underlying technology that drives telework does more than simply route calls to a remote location – it brings with the call the full spectrum of contact center management tools that a supervisor needs to track the progress of the customer interaction and the agent's performance. Every managerial function that occurs in the brickand- mortar center can be replicated seamlessly remotely. That includes screen pop, call and screen recording, real-time monitoring, coaching and feedback, delivery of spot training and eLearning, threshold alerts as volume conditions change – everything except standing behind the agent's chair.

In moving to a home-based model, many companies do underestimate the changes in management practices that accompany this evolution. It is a huge paradigm shift that borders on process re-engineering within the contact center. Someone in the organization must teach managers and executives how to better oversee this new workforce. And the center must redefine even the most basic front-line supervisor model. These team leaders become "virtual" as well, and often have to be re-trained to effectively coach home agents.

On-line subject matter experts must be available 24x7 to assist agents who are ‘nesting’ or who might require supervisor intervention. Secure chat rooms become the communication vehicle of choice and conference calls replace the old-fashioned weekly team meeting.

It is no accident that the largest users of remote agent pools are the most advanced contact center practitioners: the international outsourcers. The "centers" that carry the highest volumes aren't really "centers" at all, they are "de-centers," tightly managed networks of connected agents who just happen to work apart from each other. With current-generation quality monitoring systems and collaboration tools (especially instant messaging and unified communications), managers and supervisors can see the activity of the entire workforce. They can drill down to the agent level, to the call level, from any terminal in any location.

One major outsourcing provider, UCMS, recently cited a host of reasons why a remote agent pool was better than an offshore pool for his clients: "lower pricing, less agent attrition, high rates of agent satisfaction, the ability to appropriately culturally align service and brand and rapid ramp up capacity."

Another interesting application of remote agents is at Manchester Unity, a private health insurer in Australia. Mark Mathieson, the company's chief information officer, says that they have used up to ten remote agents (amounting to 20% of the total agent pool) for the last 18 months.

He says that there are both cultural and managerial barriers to making the remote agent model work, but Manchester Unity learned how to overcome them. "There is strong sense of team membership within each team which can be difficult to reproduce in a remote environment," he says. "This is countered by ensuring that remote agents have full visibility of all central functions including current call stats, agent availability, etc. Team leaders work hard to include remote agents in all team communications and events with daily personal calls, and the use of video conferencing and chat sessions to ensure immediate and on-going contact."

Using HigherGround's call monitoring system, Manchester's remote agents are monitored and recorded in exactly the same way as local agents. Calls are routinely score-carded for quality and all agents and team leaders have Key Performance Indicators on which bonuses and career advancement are based, according to Mathieson.

"Generally, remote agents have provided an excellent alternate resource to our local agents," Mathieson says. "We have learned that it is critical that remote agents feel part of a team – even if it is virtual relationship. The use of call-monitoring/recording and simple video conferencing/chat is key to this, as they provide the management tools to ensure that the technical and business systems are working as expected.

Food for Thought
There is something sneakily wonderful about the slow move to a dispersed workforce. If the delay in mass adoption is due to cultural rather than technological factors, then those that do adopt it will have a longer period of first-mover advantage.

It is becoming clear that putting some portion of the workforce outside the traditional center is a competitive differentiator for a company. It provides cost and continuity benefits. And it allows you to retain your best, most skilled agents in the face of stiffening competition for scarce labor resources.

Enterprising managers who see this trend will be able to exploit the gap in perception that exists. They will be able to lower labor costs while at the same time ensuring the same high level of quality from their interactions that they get from in-house centers.


About HigherGround, Inc.:
Company LogoHigherGround develops data collection, information storage, and interaction analytics solutions that easily transform data into actionable intelligence, enabling operational optimization, enhanced performance, and cost reductions. Our multi-faceted, flexible interaction and call recording programs/software are reliably used for specified data retrieval requirements in mission critical industries for customers worldwide. Our expertise in data customization and analytics is reflected by our track record of winning solutions, first-rate customer service, and communication.
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