At-Home Agents: The Promises and Pitfalls

By Cary Fulbright

The advent of on-demand call center technology has changed the way many call centers operate. In addition to enabling companies to save money through reduced telephony charges and reduced capital investments, on-demand call center services allow companies to migrate their business operations away from traditional, centralized call centers. On-demand call center technology enables companies to place agents anywhere there is an Internet connection. As a result, a growing number of call centers are employing at-home agents. A recent survey of 350 U.S. and Canadian call centers by the Yankee Group found that 24% of agents, or 672,000 workers, now work from their homes. The same study forecasted continued growth, with at-home agents increasing at a rate of 24% each year from 2006 through 2010.

Driving demand for home-based agents are businesses’ desire to streamline costly call center operations, increase retention rates, and improve overall customer service. In a recent Five9 study on at-home agents, respondents cited cost savings, agent satisfaction and retention, and access to a wider talent pool as the driving factors behind their decision to employ at-home agents. Call centers are typically challenged to find more productive agents, achieve higher employee retention rates, and discover ways to deal with spikes and lulls in call traffic. Using agents who work from home provides a way to address many of these challenges. Call centers employing at-home agents boast much higher retention rates, lower costs, higher productivity, and a better educated staff. On the last point, a Gartner study found that at-home agents are better educated, with 70% to 80% of at-home agents holding college degrees, compared with 30% to 40% of workers in traditional call centers.

While the industry momentum for employing at-home agents is growing, and the benefits are compelling, the shift presents a number of challenges surrounding the hiring, training, and management of a virtual workforce. This article takes a closer look at these issues and presents methods to help overcome these challenges.

Hiring: Finding the right candidates to work as at-home agents presents its own unique set of challenges beyond those of hiring a traditional call center agent. While there is a large degree of crossover in terms of core skills, in general, an at-home agent needs to be more mature and disciplined in order to thrive in a relatively unstructured work environment. On the positive side, studies have found that once a suitable at-home agent is identified and hired, retention rates far surpass those of a traditional call center.

Call centers that effectively employ at-home agents rely on thorough interviewing and hiring practices and extensive agent monitoring to help ensure that the right agents are hired and that they continue to be productive in an at-home work environment. For example, some call centers are experimenting with programs that enable experienced agents to work at home. Using careful supervision and monitoring, these companies are able to compare performance in both environments, providing valuable statistical information that helps develop the policies and procedures needed to ensure a well-run at-home agent operation. On the hiring front, many call center operations employ aptitude tests to test for suitability for working in a home office environment. Because an at-home agent environment requires extensive agent monitoring and reporting, it is essential that any call center technology provide these capabilities.

Training: Regardless of where the agent works, training is an important issue for every call center. Call center training programs have developed flexibility to meet the needs of 24/7 call center operations. As a result, there are a number of Internet-based call center training technologies that are ideal for training at-home agents. Training courses are often self-run so the agent can do the training at a time that is convenient to them.

Comprehensive testing is used to help ensure that agents complete the training and comprehend the material. Most call centers augment self-directed training with one-on-one phone-based training, giving the agent the opportunity to ask questions and the supervisor the ability to ensure that the agent truly understands the material.

Monitoring and Management: After the training sessions are completed, supervisors use mock calls and call monitoring to assess professionalism and how well agents handle real-life call situations – providing additional training and feedback on the spot. Call monitoring is also an ideal way for call centers to keep on top of work environment issues that are unique to a home office, such as barking dogs, traffic noise, disruptive family members, and so forth. Call monitoring and supervisor-to-agent chats also allow a supervisor to coach a new agent or to escalate or take over a call if necessary.

We’ve all heard the line, “This call may be recorded for quality assurance.” Supervisors should take this seriously by taking advantage of call recording capabilities to sample random calls made by all their agents, including those working at home. On-demand call center solutions make recording easy and transparent, wherever the agent works. Likewise, call center managers should use the same reporting tools to measure the productivity of their at-home agents, including key metrics like average call length, number of calls handled, time logged in, and call dispositions.

Ongoing Communication: The most obvious challenge in managing at-home agents is communication. In the traditional call center environment, managers have the ability to speak with agents at any time and monitor their work. Face-to-face and team meetings can be scheduled on a regular basis and held as necessary to deal with new or urgent situations. Because these forms of communication are not available in the virtual work environment, it is important that companies employ a combination of communications technologies and create clear communications guidelines to ensure that there is effective two-way communication between employers and at-home agents, and so that at-home agent performance can be monitored. Some examples of communications tools include:

  • Broadcast messaging
  • Agent-to-agent instant messaging
  • A supervisor portal that displays real-time call center stats and agent information

Conclusion: While operating a virtual call center with at-home agents can present some management and infrastructure challenges, these challenges can be readily overcome using common-sense management processes supplemented with the latest technology. The reduction in overhead costs, agent turnover, and increased flexibility inherent in an at-home agent workforce can have a significant impact on any company’s bottom line.

Cary Fulbright is VP of marketing and products for Five9, Inc. (www.five9.com), a provider of on-demand telemarketing, customer service, and call center solutions for customer interaction management. He can be contacted at cfulbright@five9.com or 925-201-2215.

[From Connection Magazine Jan/Feb 2007]

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