• March 1, 2018
  • By Leonard Klie, Editor, CRM magazine and SmartCustomerService.com

Contact Center Staffing Can Be Found in Surprising Places

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When calling customer service, U.S. consumers generally prefer to speak with friendly, articulate, and helpful live agents who work directly for the companies they’re calling rather than to automated systems—like interactive voice response systems, virtual agents, or voicemail—or to outsourced services, B2B ratings and reviews firm Clutch found recently, as noted in the article “Customers Prefer Agents to Automation.” 

“Customers want a live representative above all other things,” Clutch’s Elizabeth Ballou states in the article, “and they’re really not going to be satisfied by anything else.”

But not just any live body will do. Consumers have repeatedly expressed a disdain for outsourced contact centers, particularly those overseas. The common stereotypes are that foreign agents lack the specialized skills to answer complex questions, can’t speak fluent English or speak with heavy accents, and lack the expected social graces, according to the research. If callers suspect they are speaking with a voice services company, that could get in the way of good interactions.

Still, many U.S. companies have turned to outsourced contact centers simply because the perceived economic benefits are just too good to ignore: Employees willing to work for low wages aren’t as easy to find in the United States as they are in places like the Philippines, Mexico, Egypt, or South Africa.

The economic and political climate around the world, though, is pushing U.S. companies to bring their contact centers back onshore. For many, that is a real challenge, but it doesn’t have to be. While initial thoughts are that agents might be in short supply domestically, some innovative companies are going outside the normal job markets to find talent to staff their contact centers. This month’s cover story, “Running a Contact Center from the Inside Out,” highlights just one such company. 

Televerde operates a number of contact centers in women’s prisons, giving inmates marketable skills that prepare them for life after they complete their sentences. The company has been doing this for the past 23 years, and the number of problems it has encountered “can be counted on one hand,” according to Vince Barsolo, its senior vice president of operations. 

The benefits extend after the women leave prison, too; many continue working for Televerde and completely turn their lives around. Less than 8 percent of program participants return to prison, while the national recidivism rate for other female prisoners is well above 50 percent.

The inmates aren’t the only ones to benefit from the program. Televerde benefits, the prisons benefit, and the companies that contract with Televerde to run their contact centers benefit. It’s a “win to the power of 4,” Barsolo told me during the interview.

Still other companies are finding a talented pool of potential agents from among the country’s blind and visually impaired, who number about 10 million. The unemployment rate for this group hovers between 60 percent and 70 percent nationally, but advances in adaptive technology, such as screen magnifiers and screen readers, have recently leveled the playing field, especially in the contact center realm. 

Organizations like Mississippi Industries for the Blind are providing expert outsourced call center help by hiring and training the blind, and the benefits of doing so are just as profound, as the story “The Visually Impaired Can Also Be a Valuable Call Center Resource,” points out.

And though not covered in this issue, another way to expand the contact center talent pool is to look to America’s veterans, who have already demonstrated the dedication, commitment, work ethic, leadership skills, and experience dealing with high-stress situations that can make them highly qualified customer service employees when their military careers end. 

A number of organizations are helping veterans make that transition. They include 7 Eagle Group (www.7Eagle.com), Veterans2Work (Veterans2Work.org), and SourceAmerica (sourceamerica.org).

In the end, though, the bottom line is that whoever you hire to answer customer calls should “sound like they really care, want to help you, and can answer your questions,” Ballou says.” 

If they happen to come from groups who could use some assistance themselves, even better.

Leonard Klie is the editor of CRM magazine. He can be reached at lklie@infotoday.com.

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