Have you dialed customer service recently? It's very possible the person you spoke with about your cellphone plan, for example, was sitting in the house right next door. Home-based agents are really starting to take hold in contact centers, with several key factors driving the movement. These include:
- the economics and cost savings associated with virtual environments;
- technological innovations that enable seamless remote communication;
- advancements in Internet Protocol telephony; and
- an increased corporate focus on environmental sustainability and the work-at-home model.
Ovum, a business and market intelligence analyst firm, predicts rapid growth in this area. In one research report, the firm argues that "between now and 2012 [the analyst firm] expects the number of home-based customer service agents to grow at a compounded annual growth rate of 36.4 percent, one of the strongest expansion levels of any outsourcing market subsegment."
Greening Customer Service
Companies of all sizes are calling for greater levels of environmental sustainability, and are finding that a virtual workforce results in a significantly smaller aggregate carbon footprint. A third-party administrator of service plans based in Virginia did the math. The company saved 169,000 gallons of gasoline, $600,000 in annual fuel costs, and 1.6 million pounds of greenhouse gases by implementing 650 home agents in its contact center and customer support operations.
A 2008 study by Kate Lister and Tom Harnish, authors of Undress4Success: The Naked Truth About Working From Home, revealed that less than four percent of the U.S. workforce currently works from home. Yet, 40 percent have jobs that would allow them to telecommute. According to the research, these new and potential teleworkers could annually save 625 million barrels of oil, reduce greenhouse gas pollution by 107 million tons of carbon dioxide, and save close to $43 billion at the pumps.
Making the Move Toward a Work-at-Home Model
The benefits and opportunities associated with implementing a virtual contact center are numerous. The following outlines key factors to take into consideration before making the leap forward.
Saving on Agent Fees: From a business profit-and-loss perspective, the most immediate cost savings benefit at the individual agent level can be realized by switching from a brick-and-mortar to a home-based model. An agent that reports for duty in a physical work location can cost up to $31 per hour, while at-home agents executing the same job functions cost approximately $21 per hour. With an average savings of $10 per house, this is quite significant¾particularly when a contact centers employ hundreds of agents within a location.
Integrating IP, CRM, and WFO: Advancements in technology have also served as a key facilitator as contact centers integrate at-home agents. Open standards, IP telephony applications and infrastructures are enabling and promoting cross-channel service, an enterprisewide approach to quality and the customer experience, and a workforce that extends far beyond the four walls of traditional customer contact centers. Remote agents also are becoming less of an exception and more mainstream as workforce optimization (WFO) tools — comprising quality monitoring/recording, workforce management, performance management, customer interaction analytics, desktop and process analytics, customer surveys and eLearning/coaching — and IP infrastructures allow companies to seamlessly schedule, forecast and evaluate agent performance and training.
Securing the Remote Workstation: Technology has fundamentally mitigated a couple of key issues that managers have had when considering the home-based agents model, and that's security and adherence. Technology innovations — such as real-time agent desktop activity tracking, remote coaching and e-learning, and advanced scheduling software — have made security and adherence concerns a thing of the past. The use of such solutions as part of an exclusive home agent or hybrid staffing model provides competitive advantages to businesses in the United States and Europe, because IP telephony, wireless and Internet connectively infrastructures are more robust when compared to other regions. As a result, those areas are able to more easily leverage the advantages associated with low home-agent costs.
While economic pressures have devastated many sectors, the customer service industry is moving toward an increased use of home-based agents that could create thousands of "green" jobs over the next several years, while reducing the industry's environmental impact. For a typical organization, moving to a virtual or hybrid home agent/bricks-and-mortar model, can lead to increased productivity and decreased cost — all with significant environmental benefits. Those direct business benefits are leading many organizations to consider employing at-home agents. Over the next several years, this trend will continue to grow and could ultimately lead to what some predict will be primarily a "virtual" customer service environment.
About the Author
Bill Durr (email@example.com) serves as a principal global solutions consultant for Verint Witness Actionable Solutions. With more than 25 years in the market, Bill has held a variety of sales, marketing, and management roles for major contact center vendors and worked as a consultant for centers challenged with meeting their performance objectives.
 Ovum, Home-based Contact Center Agents Rapidly Becoming Mainstream, September 27, 2007
 Undress4Success.com, New Study Quantifies Pollution Reduced by Telecommuters; Confirms Work from Home Jobs Save Money, Reduce Oil & CO2, April 17, 2008
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