U.S. home-based agents represent a small portion of total customer care reps, but their ranks continue to swell, thanks to macroeconomic trends.
Posted Jan 4, 2006
The number of contact center agents wearing their pajamas as their professional garb is expected to continue to gain traction throughout the decade, according to a new IDC report. "Home-Based Agent 2005-2010 Forecast and Analysis: Converging Economic Forces to Drive the Expansion of Homeshoring in the United States" predicts that the number of U.S. at-home agents will nearly triple, from an estimated 112,000 in 2005 to more than 300,000 by 2010. The report, which explores the growing market for home-based customer care agents, also examines providers that are influencing this market's growth, including Alpine Access, LiveOps, VIPdesk, West, Willow, and Working Solutions.
The trend within the outsourcing industry to tap the nation's work-at-home agents is spurred by a collection of drivers, including organizations' needs for more productive agents and enhanced retention rates. Workers can be "more productive and enthusiastic [working] from home, because they don't have to deal with going into work five days of the week to the call center," says Stephen Loynd, senior analyst for IDC's CRM and Customer Care BPO service. Also, workers' familiarity with American culture and English may make them better suited to field certain types of customer care calls that may demand a higher level of sales skills, compared to someone working in another country.
These points also were highlighted in the research firm's 2004 report "An Alternative to Offshore Outsourcing: The Emergence of the Home-Base Agent." But Loynd notes that its most recent installment examines macroeconomic factors that are contributing to a healthy growth rate for home-based agents, citing technology enhancements, increased oil prices, and increased cost of living.
On the technology front, with VoIP, "basically anybody with an Internet connection [and a phone] at their home can become a knowledge worker," Loynd says. "They could handle what they do at the call center at home." As a result of gas prices, "it might make sense for employers to offer agents a chance to work from their homes either a couple of days a week or full time or part time, so that they don't have to drive into the call center." Intertwined with rising gas prices is the rising cost of living. "In big cities like New York or Boston or San Francisco, it's so expensive to live there that people are forced to live farther and farther from the cities. Therefore their commute times go up," Loynd says. "If gas is more expensive, it becomes even more of a trying experience and at the same time the last couple of years we've had fairly stagnant wages for workers in general in the U.S."
There are some caveats to the home-based model, however. For instance, although it enables companies to extend beyond the restrictions of hiring agents within a certain distance of the contact center, center supervisors and managers must be able to manage and support at-home agents, which requires different strategies than those often used for on-premise reps. Companies also must take into account that agents may get sidetracked while working from home.
"We weren't suggesting that homeshoring was going to replace offshore outsourcing, but that certain service providers could fold it into the mix to have a more enriched offering," Loynd says. "Certain types of calls might be best handled offshore, some might best be handled here. The key is to keep good talent, and if you want to do that, offering them a chance to actually work from home part time or full time could be part of the answer."
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