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[Editors' Note: This article is an online-only sidebar to the feature "Serving Up Service Strategies."]
Nicola Collister, customer experience director for United Kingdom–based Shop Direct, insists on the importance of personal service. It's only possible to maximize a sale, she says, if a customer is interacting with a like-minded person.
Just one problem: Shop Direct is a shop-from-home Web site. "It's very difficult, almost in spite of the technology out there at the moment, to have a genuine conversation with the customer without being able to look right at them," she says.
To try and solve this problem, she recognized the need to tap into a larger pool of agents that weren't near its seven brick-and-mortar facilities housing approximately 3,500 customer service representatives. "That's what attracted me to the [work at home agent] model," she says of the decision to work with Arise Virtual Solutions in July 2008. "The huge skill-set range, age profile, and demographics help us better align with our customers."
Starting with a pilot of 75 WAHAs, Collister says that it has been a "fantastic success" so far, and the complete roll-out includes 550 to 600 home workers in the United Kingdom-and also the 3,500 brick-and-mortar reps. "We'll always have a blend of both because I think there is still an attraction for certain people of getting in car or train and coming into work," she says. "It takes a different type of motivation for someone to want to stay and work from home in same place they live."
There is also a different pay model-as Shop Direct is compensating the WAHAs on number of calls answered, rather than a normal hourly wage paid to employees in brick-and-mortar facilities. "Interestingly, we get complaints from home workers that we're not keeping them busy enough, not sending us enough calls," she says. "They're speaking to customers for 92 percent of each hour [on average]. Yet we're looking for ways to make brick-and-mortar agents do more."
It is still a work in progress, and Collister says her company is looking into ways to get the home agents more involved in also handling emails, Web chats, and the more complex calls that involve credit card purchases or arranging a return that currently are tasked more often than not to brick-and-mortar Shop Direct agents. "Going forward, we will route all calls on a first-come-first-serve basis depending on availability," she says.
For others looking to use WAHAs for their own businesses, Collister urges them to stop peering at the edge of the pool and jump in. "The biggest thing for me is that you need to be bold," she insists. "Instead of thinking about all the reasons why this couldn't possibly work, get something underway as quickly as possible. I can't really say ... why it wouldn't work for anybody's type of business."
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