• July 1, 2005
  • By Colin Beasty, (former) Associate Editor, CRM Magazine

Lending a Helping Hand

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Of the roughly 35 million people who are severely disabled in the United States, only 30 percent are employed. Every year the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP), a government agency created in 2001 within the Department of Labor, attempts to up that percentage by influencing government policy that supports disabled Americans. ODEP awards grants to nonprofit organizations, state and local governments, and academic institutions to increase employment opportunities for the disabled. Case in point, the agency required in April 2003 that Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), provider of healthcare insurance for about one of every four Americans, offer home-based employment opportunities for disabled Americans. So, CMS turned to Pearson Government Solutions, a government outsourcing provider, for assistance with launching a virtual call center for CMS's 1-800 MEDICARE Help Line. Pearson connected with the National Telecommuting Institute (NTI) to recruit, hire, and employ up to eight disabled Tier 1 or first level CSRs, qualified by Javits Wagner-O'Day (JWOD), in the Phoenix area. JWOD is a federally mandated program that provides opportunities to those who are blind or severely disabled. In nearly all cases JWOD employees having life-altering disabilities that prevent them from commuting to and from work. Pearson would have to enable the eight CSRs to work solely from their homes, receiving support and direction through one of Pearson's Phoenix contact centers. Make It Transparent As the operations manager of the home-based CSR project, Stephen Kertesz had the task of setting up and running a group of home-based CSR environments identical in functionality and operation to that of Pearson's in-house call center environment. "We faced a number of challenges with this project. Everything had to be transparent," Kertesz says. "Callers had to be unaware that the CSRs were working from home, while meeting the same quality standards and job performance as on-site CSRs." Working with CMS Pearson established a secure communication line between the home-based CSRs, their call center counterparts, and management. Pearson needed the home-based CSRs to participate in quality-based improvements just as if they were on site, to keep them informed of and involved in improvements in CRM strategies; and to provide a way for them to communicate with other CSRs as in an on-site environment. eQuality Assurance
With the goals of the implementation aligned, Pearson needed an application that could monitor CSRs to ensure service levels were being met. Pearson selected Witness Systems' eQuality customer interaction recording software. "We use eQuality to evaluate our customer interactions. The system enables us to capture agent/customer conversations along with any corresponding CSR desktop activity, such as screen activity, to gauge how interactions unfold for quality assurance, assessments, and training," Kertesz says. "It also enables real-time monitoring, so CRM personnel can randomly access calls at any time." Further, eQuality supports quality assurance efforts with home-based and in-house agents. Supervisors can log in to the home-based server and view journals of files recorded within the past 72 hours. Managers can sort the files to find their employees' calls, listen to them, and score performance according to CMS scorecards. Call center supervisors monitor four calls per CSR, per month. Additionally, Pearson has partnered with a third party to provide an additional monitoring of 1,200 random calls per month. This independent quality assurance partner randomly audits calls to ensure government regulations involving quality assurance and privacy are being upheld. Oscar Alban, principal global marketing consultant for Witness, compares it to instant replay--"It's game film. Equality is very passive, it's designed to sit behind the scenes and manage everything. The agents don't even know it's working. More important, Medicare and Medicaid can also use the recorded calls to go back and identify customer trends, enabling them to better meet the demands of their callers." What's more, eQuality's peer-to-peer monitoring was instantly embraced by the CSRs as a way to stay current with best practices and stay connected with their on-site peers. They're able to critique one another and communicate openly as in a cubical environment, a feature that David Steinmetz, a Pearson home-based CSR, says makes the job more enjoyable. "It's good to hear how other CSRs are handling calls and making recommendations that might not be as threatening coming from a peer as it would be from a supervisor." Peer-to-peer monitoring and communication has also increased employee morale. Using eQuality in conjunction with the online and audio training tools helped the CSRs go live while mitigating their feelings of isolation once operations began. "The peer-to-peer monitoring, as well as the refresher training/group meetings, is great," says Alietha Balo, a Pearson home-based CSR. "It helps me keep things in perspective and feel more aware of my coworkers and supervisors. It instills a feeling of confidence for the big picture instead of feeling like a lost, small cog in the huge, unfathomable process." Kertesz has found the performance of the eight home-based CSRs to be at least equal to their on-site counterparts, often scoring higher than their in-house peers. Plus, average call and hold times are frequently lower. Perhaps most important, more concise customer interactions have translated into direct ROI, because more CSRs are able to process more calls per shift, saving CMS money and contributing to a more efficient service. Also, eQuality is used to automatically schedule the home-based agents' shifts. The advantage lies in their flexibility of scheduling. Instead of eight-hour day or night shifts, home-based CSRs can break their shifts into three- or four-hour blocks, enabling Pearson to staff up only when needed. "It's a big advantage for call centers," Alban says. "A strictly on-site call center would have to hire two separate shifts of part-time people. In Pearson's example, one group is able to cover two shifts. It becomes more cost effective. Plus, home-based representatives are on average $11 an hour less in operating costs when working out of their home than out of a call center." Servicing the Technical Challenges These rewards did not, however, come without challenges. Setting up home offices was new to both Pearson and CMS so there were some technical hurdles to leap. Because CSRs need to function similarly to their on-site peers, sending large amounts of data to the call center and running applications from their homes required large amounts of bandwidth to allow the eQuality call recording files to be shared. Also, to capture the recorded files, there could be no time lag between audio capture and screen capture, and setting up a T1 connection would be cost-prohibitive. So Pearson settled on cable modems for the home-based CSRs; to alleviate bandwidth problems an exclusive home-based server was added to the Phoenix call centers to run the voice capture. This, in turn, was connected to the eQuality server. By implementing eQuality on a server, as well as email and other functions, Pearson removed the need for large amounts of bandwidth since the data would be running from one server to another. Security proved to be the most challenging issue. To protect callers' privacy and ensure the security of their data, Kertesz and his project team needed to find a way to lock down data that was in transit. Pearson's answer: By centralizing the home-based CSRs' application configurations on a server located on-site (minimizing the hardware functionality and running the software off the server), the project team was able to fully comply with CMS's security requirements. Software installed on the server is used to encrypt the data sent by the home-based CSRs, and since the eQuality application is run from an on-site server, Pearson doesn't worry about data being transmitted over the Internet. Controlling each home-based agent's PC configuration was the final challenge. Call center supervisors need to lock down the software configurations on the agents' PCs. In addition, Pearson needs to minimize costly off-site support. Once again, Pearson looked to the server connections. The project team partitioned the server for each home-based CSR and ran all applications off of it. Running each application off the server rather than from each CSR's PC allows Pearson to control the types and versions of software the CSRs run, apply stricter security measures around the CSRs' software, and decrease the number of support visits by upgrading or adding software to the remote users' configurations as necessary. The ability to upgrade and add software proved particularly useful, as special accommodations were required for handicap considerations, such as specially designed user functionality and program shortcuts to save effort and time. "The home-based CSR project was a huge success, despite the technical challenges we faced. The JWOD home-based CSRs are able to provide the same high quality answers to Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries as their on-site peers," Kertesz says. "These results are truly amazing and exciting for the future growth of home-based contact centers. More important, with the help of eQuality and a first-class project team those with barriers to employment were afforded opportunities for meaningful work." Contact Editorial Assistant Colin Beasty at cbeasty@destinationCRM.com
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