A new report highlights the unique role telecommuting agents play in the rapidly changing call center workforce.
Posted Dec 30, 2004
An increasing number of call center positions are being moved--to the suburbs, rather than overseas, according to a new report from IDC. "An Alternative to Offshore Outsourcing: The Emergence of the Home-Base Agent" examines the implications of the trend led by companies like Willow, Working Solutions, Alpine Access and West Corporation, which outsource groups of home-based agents, and firms like JetBlue and Procter and Gamble, which employ home-based agents directly.
To date most companies have engaged at-home agents as part of an overflow, after-hours, or seasonal capacity strategy, avoiding extra investment in facilities. "You're saving on overhead costs for the call center, and also offering people an opportunity," says Stephen Loynd, senior analyst in IDC's CRM and customer care program. IDC estimates that 100,000 employees do at least some call center work from a home station--a small, but growing percentage of the 4 million people in the domestic call center-agent pool.
IDC has yet to launch a formal study of the "home shoring" industry, but it reports that home-based agents, both as primary employees and as part of an outsourcing organization, churn less often and can save up to 30 percent or more on overhead. It also opens up the employee pool considerably, and cuts transportation time out of the scheduling equation. "Lengthy commute times are starting to affect local economies," Loynd says. "When people have to drive so far to get to work, it could start to effect the desirability to settle" with a particular employer.
Potential downsides to contact center telecommuting include a lack of focus on the job, as people may be distracted by family members or neighborhood events, lower service levels for residential broadband, and a lack of on-site support and spare parts replacement for computers and headsets. Also, many call centers pay only modest wages, trusting that hands-on team building and reinforcement efforts will provide intangible benefits. Bringing a home-based agent into a team structure requires a different approach than a pat on the back or a star on the wall, and management and supervisors will need to learn those techniques to be successful in the long term.
Considering the comparatively high wages required by U.S. workers, don't expect an at-home structure to divert business from overseas providers. Telecommuting gives companies with higher-value onshore contact centers room to grow and expand the flexibility of their operations without significant capital expense. "It is an interesting phenomenon, but we're not necessarily saying it is going to replace offshore outsourcing," Loynd says. "It gives companies more options to put the right people on specific calls."
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