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Enabling the Disabled
An emerging trend in outsourcing brings the workplace to disabled Americans.
Posted Nov 1, 2005
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It's no secret that successful American corporations are outsourcing their call center workforces. Less well known is that an increasing number of them are not turning to foreign countries or even traditional U.S.-based brick-and-mortar teleservices call centers for agents. Rather, they are homesourcing their agents; they are using responsible, productive Americans working from home to answer calls to their centers. A recent survey by BenchmarkPortal and Purdue's Center for Customer-Driven Quality revealed an even more exciting practice that is emerging within this space: Organizations are outsourcing disabled Americans to take on call center work from home. The idea is for call centers to employ responsible, productive people who typically have difficulty traveling to an office. When set up as employees within their homes, these disabled Americans can often contribute a full day's work. NTI: A pioneer in homesourced call center work One group, the National Telecommuting Institute Inc. (NTI), has capitalized on the idea of disabled Americans working as call center agents from home, creating not only a successful business plan, but serving society as well. NTI is a nonprofit organization funded primarily by the government to place disabled Americans as home-based call center agents. This year, the group partnered with the IRS to employ 290 disabled home-based call agents from 42 states, including 108 year-round and 182 seasonal part-time jobs. The project was part of a five-year contract awarded by the IRS that called for the toll-free "Forms and Publications Order Line" work to be outsourced to NTI. Alpine Access, a Colorado-based commercial virtual call center, served as NTI's technical partner for the project. State Vocational Rehabilitation agencies assisted in identifying suitable home-based candidates and equipped them with a computer headset, second phone line, and high speed Internet access. The partnership resulted in wins for everyone involved. The IRS met requirements under the Javits-Wagner O'Day (JWOD) Act, which requires federal agencies to offer work that can be performed by people with disabilities to do so. And the disabled individuals hired by NTI were provided with economic and psychosocial benefits that cannot be understated.
The NTI workforce answered more than 1.5 million calls by the end of peak tax season, according to M.J. Willard, founder of NTI. And an impressive 89 percent of the home-based call agents remained in good standing at the end of the tax season. Willard points to NTI's skilled, motivated workers for the organization's success. Ready or not Homesourced workers, including NTI's disabled workers, who are typically more highly qualified than other call center agents, earn more money than an average in-house call center agent or offshore worker. However, call centers still save cash over their traditional business plan through dramatically reduced agent turnover, increased productivity, and caller satisfaction. And as technology required for telecommuting, like high speed Internet access, becomes increasingly available, the plan becomes even more viable and affordable to implement. Indeed, the timing seems to be right for an at-home call center workforce to successfully evolve, according to industry analysts. "The home-shoring phenomenon comes in part as a result of the significant challenges faced in the customer relationship management (CRM) and customer care space over the last four years," said Stephen Loynd of IDC. In fact, more than 60 percent of companies responding to BenchmarkPortal's recent survey indicated that they plan to "possibly" or definitely employ home-based call center agents within the next 18 months. The BenchmarkPortal survey cited multiple potential benefits for call centers hiring an at-home workforce, many of which were reflected in NTI's work with the IRS. The top three benefits anticipated by BenchmarkPortal survey respondents who plan to implement an at-home workforce were: 1. improved agent morale and job satisfaction; 2. better peak demand responsiveness; and 3. reduced agent turnover. Other benefits cited included reduced costs, increased staff utilization, improved customer service, and improved agent effectiveness. The bottom line Call centers are under pressure to deliver stronger customer relationship management while keeping costs under control. Additionally, corporations are seeking to reinvest their capital in American workers. These needs, coupled with the extraordinary social ramifications possible for a business partnering with a group like NTI, make homesourcing trends appear ready to revolutionize the industry. About the Author Jon Anton, Ph.D., is the director of benchmark research at Purdue University's Center for Customer-Driven Quality. He has published 24 books and 117 papers. He holds a Ph.D. and an MS from Harvard University, an MS from the University of Connecticut, and a BS from the University of Notre Dame. He can be reached at DrJon@BenchmarkPortal.com
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