The At-Home Agent Advantage

The contact center industry is known to be pretty conservative. It's often been said that contact centers are usually several years behind the enterprise when it comes to adopting new technology. After all, the automatic call distributor has been around for more than 40 years, and is still widely deployed as a core technology.

But a number of forces in the industry are causing dramatic and rapid changes in the way contact centers utilize technology and structure their operations. Two of these are interrelated: the adoption of cloud contact centers and the shift to hiring at-home agents.

As more companies move their contact centers to the cloud, they find that the technology greatly simplifies setting up at-home agents; all that's required to start taking calls is a computer, a headset, and an Internet connection. This is leading to an explosion in work-at-home agents.

According to the National Association of Call Centers, more than half of the contact centers in the United States today (53 percent) have some percentage of their agent population functioning from a home office. Seventy percent of those currently supporting at-home agents plan on increasing the number in 2013.

Why the rapid growth in at-home agents? Most companies are finding that developing a program that allows agents to work at home is an incredibly effective way to reduce operating costs, while improving service levels as well. Among the benefits are huge cost savings, greater flexibility, a larger pool of qualified agents, reduced staff churn and absenteeism, enhanced agent and customer satisfaction, and greater productivity.

When agents work at home, companies no longer need to provide brick-and-mortar offices, equipment, and telephony. In addition, companies can save on salary rates, benefits, and disaster recovery planning by drawing from a larger geographic hiring pool. Many companies find that they can get better-qualified people for much less when they aren't restricted to one small geographic area. A number of agents prefer the flexibility of working at home, and will take a little less money as a trade-off for having to make a daily commute.

At the same time, because at-home agents may be happier and more qualified, businesses should expect to see improved service quality, customer satisfaction, and reduced agent turnover.

Of course, having remote agents creates a whole new set of management challenges that need to be addressed. In order to run a successful program, it is necessary to apply a set of contact center management best practices to the unique needs of at-home agents. Here are several best practices, along with some tips and tricks clients have found to be useful in maximizing positive contact center results:

1. Hire qualified, motivated agents. When you interview, don't do it face-to-face initially, and weight the remote interview more heavily. Your customers will never see the agent, so don't be influenced by the person's appearance or body language. Always conduct reference and background checks. When you employ home agents, you're removing the 25-mile travel limitation that applies to brick-and-mortar offices, so don't settle for anything less than the best. Build a profile of your most successful agents and hunt for others with similar backgrounds and personalities.

2. Focus on certification and skills. Make sure candidates have comprehensive product training, both from the start and on an ongoing basis. Tie incentives and promotions to certifications and skills.

3. Provide proper coaching and communication. Supervisors should be scheduled to be available through initial calls and to assist with that first round of questions. Consider collaboration tools such as chat for agents and supervisors and use coaching tools such as whisper coaching or other mentoring tools. Schedule regular one-on-one meetings with remote agents to discuss their needs; if you have a brick-and-mortar contact center, don't forget to include them in any staff meetings.

4. Create clear expectations. Establish clear metrics and expectations, identify performance issues early, and take action immediately. Excellent reporting and management tools are critical to being able to track your agents' performance. Monitor performance in real time and compare historical statistics whenever possible.

5. Design proper incentives. Think about implementing a pay-for-performance system. Agents who have direct rewards to work toward tend to be more productive. Give agents tools to see at a glance how they are doing and view the progress they've made.

6. Record 100 percent of your calls. Just knowing that every call is being recorded will increase agent awareness, which will improve quality. Recording calls is great for training and coaching, while maintaining security and compliance.

7. Choose a solid technical foundation. A strong foundation can make all the difference. Include agent chat for collaboration along with quality monitoring for supervisors. Reporting tools must be flexible and comprehensive. Look for productivity-enhancing tools such as queue callback and the ability to easily blend inbound and outbound calls. Make certain the platform can be rapidly deployed and will scale up and down easily.

Liz Osborn is the vice president of product and solutions marketing for cloud contact center software firm Five9. Prior to Five9, she was the senior director of product marketing at Genesys, where she helped guide product direction and led solution-marketing efforts. She has also held product and marketing leadership roles at Adobe and Lucent.

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