There's No Place Like Home

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For nearly 10 years, Tangela Hamilton, a 33-year-old Dallas resident, had worked in traditional contact centers. Her life, however, took a monumental shift when she took in her niece, citing a difficult family situation. “My whole life has changed since she’s come in,” Hamilton says, adding that she had never raised a child before. “I have to make sure she’s at school every morning. Working in a brick-and-mortar contact center, I either had to get her there super-duper early or make arrangements.”

Consequently, in January 2007, Hamilton started to look seriously at options to become a work-at-home agent (WAHA). It wasn’t until November, after months of searching on the Web, that she landed a position with Working Solutions, a virtual contact center provider in nearby Plano, Texas. Eleven months later, she’s a supervisor in charge of 350 agents—from the comfort of her own home office. She says she wouldn’t have it any other way. “My piece of mind is priceless,” she admits. “My ability to be able to take care of the things I need to, including being home when my kid gets out of school…[it’s] priceless.”

She’s not alone. In fact, with IDC predicting that we’ll have 300,000 work-at-home agents by 2012, Hamilton is part of an exploding market with tremendous potential. (“Exploding” may be an understatement: Independent research firm Datamonitor predicts a 36.4 percent compound annual growth rate for the WAHA field through 2012.) “This [homesourcing] model just continues to grow in popularity,” says Frost & Sullivan Strategic Analyst Michael DeSalles.

Like any new market or industry segment, though, WAHAs have to be seen as a viable, high-quality option—and they’re beginning to be. But what makes people want to be part of the customer service ranks from their living rooms, and how is the service they provide different than that found in traditional contact centers? As with the customer service industry itself, the answers are more complicated than they seem.

Tim Houlne, chief executive officer at Working Solutions, says his company did an internal survey of its agents to find out why people were really working from home. “We originally thought it was to earn extra or additional income,” he recalls. “However…it was the flexibility as to projects and hours they could work.”

That flexibility primarily revolves around family. Joell King, a 53-year-old resident of Blairsville, Ga., is an agent for Santa Clara, Calif.–based virtual contact center firm LiveOps. King worked as an assistant manager and trainer in a brick-and-mortar contact center facility on a seasonal basis for two years, and wanted a change. “My mother doesn’t live in the same state as [me],” she explains. “I just enjoy being able to go down and see her and help her out when I need or want to.”

Christine Meade, a 47-year-old resident of Ocala, Fla., also wanted to stay at home so she could take care of family. Now, she’s a home agent for West at Home, a division of Omaha, Neb.–based outsourcing and consulting firm West Corp. “I knew it would just work for me better if I could find something that I could do from home on a regular basis,” Meade says. “That way, I could meet my family’s needs and take care of the kids because I have a handicapped child.”

Juggling family priorities drove two more Working Solutions agents, Mary Lenci and Michelle Roy, to become WAHAs. Lenci, a 41-year-old Congers, N.Y., resident, has three boys extremely active in school, sports, and work. “The kids were older and I felt it was time to get back in the swing of things,” she recalls. “I tried to figure out what type of position would accommodate my responsibilities as a wife and mother.” After talking to one of her friends, who had also been working from home, she decided to give it a shot. Three years later, after a stint at West at Home and now a gig with Working Solutions, she’s convinced she made the right choice. “I cannot say enough about the flexibility,” she says. “Setting your own hours and days is fantastic—especially when you have children!”

Roy, who is 39 years old, lives with her husband and their three children—aged 19, 8, and 6—in Madawaska, Maine. When the third child was born, she says, both she and her husband knew they needed a second income, but that meant finding daycare—and they couldn’t afford to pay for that on the typical Madawaska salary. “We live in a very rural area, where minimum wage—or close to it—is the norm,” she explains.

Starting as an agent for Working Solutions in March 2005, Roy says she’s amazed how quickly the time has passed. “I get to see my kids before school, after school, [attend] all their activities, and bring them to appointments, which is by far the most important benefit,” she says.

The environmentally friendly revolution of the last few years is making itself felt in the contact center, too. “My big topic right now is green support,” explains John Ragsdale, vice president of research for the Service and Support Professionals Association. LiveOps Vice President of Community Operations Tim Whipple says that many people are rethinking their long commutes—whether driving or using mass transit—and as a result looking into becoming a WAHA. Roy, one of the Working Solutions home agents, agrees that the set-up “definitely saves on the money and wear-and-tear of commuting,” especially with gas prices at their current levels.

However, not only is money saved, but carbon footprints are greatly reduced, as well. According to statistics from IDC, in 2007 alone WAHAs saved $175 million by using 58 million less gallons of gas. Additionally, WAHAs reduced air pollution by 473,013 metric tons and are projected to save 1,267,000 metric tons in the year 2010. (See sidebar, “Green Fields,” below.)

Bearing this in mind, Dulles, Va.–based NEW Customer Service Companies, a third-party administrator of extended service plans and a customer of workforce optimization provider Verint Systems, incorporated home agents into its brick-and-mortar facilities in 2005 with a pilot program. (The official program started in 2006, according to NEW.) “At the time when we were starting to look at home-based agents, we had eight brick-and-mortar [customer service facilities],” recalls Barry Danoff, NEW’s senior vice president of information systems and technology group leader. “We were looking at how to strategically grow our contact centers, and one of the things we were looking at was really the [WAHA] workforce in order to neutralize some of the environmental impact from people coming to work.”

Starting with a pilot of 20 WAHAs, Danoff says NEW has expanded to 650 agents across 26 states. “The home-based model is not just a great way for us to get a great labor force and great representatives,” he says. “It’s also great when our clients look at what we’re doing for the environment; how we can do things better…and make a difference.” By Danoff’s estimate, NEW’s home agents have saved 169,000 gallons of gas, $600,000 in annual fuel costs, and 1.6 million pounds of greenhouse gases that were not generated.

Due to the perfect storm of high gas prices and flexible hours, many WAHA vendors report an increase in applications this year. LiveOps, for example, has seen a 20 percent increase in applications, according to Whipple. Cincinnati-based customer care and billing services provider Convergys has seen an increase of between 20 percent and 30 percent both in visits to the company’s Web site and in applications, according to Brad Krinhop, its vice president of home agent operations.

When asked if the boost in applications would make it harder to find the cream of the crop, Houlne says that his company already has a stringent process to ensure only legitimate WAHAs make the cut. Working Solutions has 750,000 registered agents, but only 76,000 make the first cut. Of those, between 8,000 and 9,000 are background checked, formally interviewed, tested, and ready to go when notified. “The myth is, ‘I have [a personal computer] so I can work from home myself now,’” he says. “Not everybody can work from home whether you think so or not; it takes a different type of skill set.”

Krinhop identifies some traits he looks for: self-motivation, prior experience working virtually, and a passion for customer service displayed throughout the interview process. For example, if the interviewee mentions saving on gas only in passing (as opposed to citing it as a central reason), Krinhop says he has a winner. Whipple says another way to weed out the pretenders from the contenders is by level of commitment. “Our agent candidates actually have to submit to and pay for their own background checks, have a dedicated landline, and the right computer [specifications],” he says. “That helps to keep serious people about this applying rather than [those saying] ‘let’s see’ on a whim.”

This isn’t to say it’s solely the vendors’ burden to weed out potential agents. While some would-be WAHAs can find guidance from a friend already in the fold, the Internet has a plethora of Web sites out there for those who seek to work from home. A simple Google search with the phrase “work at home” yields slightly more than 30 million results, while narrowing it down to “work at home contact center agent” results in 19.2 million hits. “You had to figure out what’s really a true work-at-home position as opposed to some type of sales or something other than what you’re really wanting,” Hamilton recalls of her search. “I had to go through a lot of that.”

For those not entirely committed to a particular work-at-home vendor quite yet, there are options besides applying through each company’s Web site. Roy came across two she feels are required reading before applying for any work-at-home contact center position: WAHM.com, “The Online Magazine for Work at Home Moms,” and workplacelikehome.com, a Web site with message boards, news posts, and other related information regarding the WAHA space.

WAHAs operate using landlines, computers, workforce management solutions, high-speed Internet, and headsets, much like their brick-and-mortar counterparts. “There’s really not much to it,” Lenci says. “I close the door to my sewing room—that’s where I set up my workspace—log into the system and wait for a call. It’s really very simple and easy.”

Roy gets an early start on her day, normally logging in at 4 a.m. and working until 7 a.m. when her two youngest children wake up. After taking care of their needs, she logs in to her second client at approximately 8 a.m. or 9 a.m., works for a few hours until taking a break. Then she’s back on the clock until 3 p.m.

Others, including Hamilton, King, and Meade, work standard hours between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. For Meade, who says her current project has her “taking calls constantly,” she’s thankful for the online support she receives from West at Home in the form of knowledge bases and technical support. For her, the only potential issue is family distraction. “My family is pretty well knowledgeable now to know that when I’m working, I’m working,” she says. “If they need something or there’s some sort of emergency that pops up, they’ll write it on a note and hand it to me. So we have that down to quite an art form.”

Hamilton, who acts in a supervisory role for 350 of Working Solutions’ WAHAs, has a slightly different modus operandi when she starts her working day at 8 a.m.—although it does not vary greatly from her brick-and-mortar supervisor counterparts. “The first thing I’m doing is going through emails…and checking voicemails for urgent situations that need to be handled immediately,” she says. “Then, I make sure any reporting that needs to be done is handled.” Once that’s complete, she moves on to less time-sensitive issues, all the while making sure she’s connected with her agents in case they need her help in real time. “Because it’s a 24-hour operation…sometimes even when I’m not ‘working’ I’ll still have my [instant messenger] up,” she points out. “I also have messages go to my mobile phone specifically for work.”

Throughout the course of the day and myriad calls, one thing many WAHAs notice is the absence of human interaction with fellow agents. “The only thing I really miss is the socialization with coworkers,” West at Home’s Meade admits. Working Solutions’ Lenci agrees, but says there is a “virtual water cooler” among her fellow WAHAs. “I’ve made friends and talk to other agents, just like I would in a building,” she says. “We help [and look after] each other, especially in times of need. It’s like having an extended family that you like.” Houlne says this is vital in the WAHA space. “We really believe this virtual-agent community is about empowerment,” he says. “We need to really create this virtual water cooler so we have a social aspect to our community as well.”

While the equipment is similar to those utilized by brick-and-mortar agents, the business model can vary greatly. Frost & Sullivan’s DeSalles explains there are two approaches that vendors can offer: a contractor model and an employee model.

In the contractor model, WAHAs act as independent contractors who can work for multiple clients, purchase their own equipment, and are responsible for taking care of their own health insurance and other typical benefits commonly offered to full-time employees. Houlne says that this allows his company to rightfully pay workers for performance as opposed to blind seniority. Roy, the WAHA from Maine, says that she has been able to deduct the cost of her equipment from her taxes—something those working in an employee model cannot. “The equipment is supplied by me…but the upside is we’re self-employed, so everything is tax-deductible,” she says. Lenci agrees, but states have differing tax regulations concerning deductions for working at home. Due to New York State laws, Lenci says her accountant advises her not to write off her actual home office. “Because I own my home, I didn’t take the break for my home office,” she says.

Alternatively, in the employee model, WAHAs are fully vested in the company. Convergys’s Krinhop says this means his WAHAs are eligible for 401(k), paid time off, health and medical insurance—“a big added benefit versus the contractor model.” West, one of the more well-known WAHA providers, decided to switch from a contractor to an employee model in September 2007 largely because of what its customers and partners were requesting. “It really is monitoring, measuring, and managing,” says Mark Frei, senior vice president of sales for West at Home. He maintains that his company can now utilize direct management capabilities and the full extent of its quality monitoring tools to provide feedback and direction to its WAHAs that cannot be done in the contractor model.

Meade says she felt like part of the West family under the employee model from the moment she applied. “[The company] made the application and interviewing process very easy and friendly,” she recalls. “Everything was just seamless.” Part of the joy, she says, is that the process created expectations of what would happen next—and the reality never deviated.

Frei adds that West customers in verticals such as financial services, healthcare, retail, and telecommunications were leery of independent contractors acting as their customer service representatives. “Some verticals flat out said [they would] never move into an at-home model with contractors,” he recalls. DeSalles says this is a common fear. “The truth is that most companies…have some mistrust around the contractor piece because [agents] can work for a different company,” he says. “Businesses can’t control that.”

Ultimately, though, the decision of whether to operate as an independent contractor or as an employee rests in the hands of the WAHAs themselves. “It literally becomes a matter of which one an agent wants to choose,” DeSalles says.

“Now the big question is, ‘What’s the next work product?’ ” Houlne posits, pondering the future of contact center–specific WAHAs, and what they’ll be able to handle going forward. “Will we be able to support accounts-payable and -receivable functions, support claims, or different types of back-office processes that normally have been in a facility?” He believes homeshoring has the potential and opportunity to expand far beyond handling inbound and outbound calls. Field-service organizations can particularly stand to benefit, he says. “They’re normally out in the field, but now not only can they be a centralized call center, but a home-based [one] that can still be geographically dispersed,” he says. “That’s powerful.”

No matter what the future holds for WAHAs, one thing is certain: A vast majority don’t want to leave once they begin. DeSalles says that agent happiness is a factor for many companies looking at this model. His research finds the average attrition rate is close to 50 percent for brick-and-mortar contact center agents—and as low as 10 percent in the homeshoring model.

Hamilton, for one, says she has received multiple offers to go back to brick-and-mortar contact centers—but she says that it would take an offer that knocked her headset off before she’d willingly become an attrition statistic—maybe. “Honestly, unless they’re willing to come to me with $250,000 on salary, I’d still be right here at home.”

SIDEBAR: Home Sweet Home

The most logical clients of home-based agent services, in descending order, as rated by analyst firm Datamonitor:

  • Healthcare;
  • Insurance;
  • Media & Entertainment;
  • Travel & Tourism;
  • Technology; and
  • Public Sector

Source: Datamonitor

SIDEBAR: Untapped Troops

Many potential WAHAs are stay-at-home mothers, while others are looking to supplement their family’s primary income. There’s another group, however, that’s ready to join the soiree—and to provide high-quality work from home.

Enter San Rafael, Calif.–based Veterans2Work (V2W), a company looking to place disabled military personnel back into action stateside, and to provide them the opportunity for gainful employment despite being homebound and unable to commute and work in a brick-and-mortar facility.

According to V2W’s Web site, four basic goals provide the marching orders for the entire organization:

  • create jobs for disabled veterans and their caregivers;
  • demonstrate that disabled veterans working from their homes can deliver superior results;
  • establish a broad base of highly satisfied business clients; and
  • raise public awareness and involvement, consequently affecting policy and legislative change.

This has long been an underutilized workforce, says John Reynolds, V2W’s founder and a Vietnam War veteran, of soldiers coming home after serving their country but unable to work in a standard capacity due to debilitating combat wounds. Study statistics back up this claim. A report last January from the Small Business Administration found that, from 1988 to 2005, 64 percent of the 2.9 million service-disabled United States veterans were unemployed.

“[Disabled veterans] still have that dedication, a can-do attitude,” Reynolds says. “What they need is a little bit of extra TLC and there’s no reason why they couldn’t be just absolutely stellar.” The TLC he’s referring to isn’t much different than that seen by other potential WAHAs: screening and training. Veterans may need text-to-speech or speech-to-text capabilities depending on their specific disability, Reynolds adds. He sees unlimited possibilities, and is already partnering with companies such as Creating Opportunities by Recognizing Abilities, Intervox Group, RainSpark, and the Telework Coalition, to find who has the right stuff.

Paul Stockford, chief analyst at Saddletree Research, says it’s about time companies think about veterans as a complement to their WAHA forces. “I just hope that this helps the industry find a conscience,” he says. “I think we all get swept up in how busy we are and how important we think we are and our jobs are. Sometimes, it helps to stop and really gain a perspective—and maybe realize that there’s a reason call centers are here beyond cross-selling and upselling.”

SIDEBAR: Before You Say "Wa-Hoo!" to WAHA

Companies to contact if you’re interested in shifting to a work-at-home-agent (WAHA) model include:
•    Alpine Access
•    Arise
•    Convergys
•    ICT Group
•    LiveOps
•    Sitel
•    Teleperformance
•    TeleTech@Home
•    VIP Desk
•    West at Home
•    Working Solutions

SIDEBAR: Teaching WAHAs in Their Own Backyards

Many virtual contact center vendors train agents using teleconferencing, the Internet, and other tools to connect with them wherever they are. One company that utilizes home agents, Dulles, Va.–based NEW Customer Service Companies, a third-party administrator of extended service plans, takes a slightly different approach.

Barry Danoff, NEW’s senior vice president of information systems and technology group leader, says that after his company recruits agents to work from home in a particular region—NEW currently employs 650 agents across 26 states—it will send representatives to that area and train agents face-to-face. “We actually lease space in the community and provide training with real trainers, and after a nesting period then we let folks get on the phone,” he says.

Since deciding to go this route, Danoff says results have been better than ever, and agents feel more assured that they can do their jobs. “We’ve had the highest level of graduation from this type of training and better-quality scores from these agents,” he says. “People just feel more prepared this way, instead of just trying to do it all virtually and then just set them free. It’s been a good evolution for us, and it’s a great addition to what we do.”

Contact Editorial Assistant Christopher Musico at cmusico@destinationCRM.com.

Every month, CRM magazine covers the customer relationship management industry and beyond. To subscribe, please visit http://www.destinationcrm.com/subscribe/.

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