Is The Call Center Work-at-Home Model at Its Tipping Point?

By Jim Farnsworth and Tadd McAnally

People who talk about emerging trends in the business world often make references to Malcolm Gladwell’s best seller, The Tipping Point, because it provides a common language for identifying and understanding moments of critical mass that can alter the landscape of entire industries. That’s no surprise; it’s a brilliant book. But people often overlook a key part of Gladwell’s thesis at the heart of his theory, even though it’s right there in the subtitle: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. It’s often small, easy-to-overlook events or decisions that signify when a trend is achieving critical mass.

That brings us to the focus of this article, which is about a tipping point we believe has just occurred in the call center industry. A bit of news that came out a few weeks ago without much fanfare is likely to be looked back upon as a major milestone in the industry’s move toward a broader adoption of the Work at Home (WAH) model for call center services.

The milestone we’re talking about is the acquisition of Alpine Access by Sykes. Most everyone knows Sykes, a large outsourcing firm. But for those who are not familiar with Alpine Access, it is a work-at-home call center company that has done really interesting work in creating a compelling platform and model for WAH call center services. Now admittedly, referring to an acquisition as a “little thing” may be stretching the definition a bit, but companies absorb one another seemingly every day in the call center world without registering much of a blip. This one is different, though.

The work-at-home concept is not new, but this acquisition is a clear sign that it’s no longer a matter of “if” but “when” and “how quickly.” As Gladwell describes in The Tipping Point, a shift in thinking can happen quickly in a community of people, and what previously seemed unlikely or on the horizon can quickly build up a remarkable momentum. The acquisition of Alpine is the most visible sign of a change we believe has been percolating under the surface of the industry for the past couple of years. Sykes’ decision to snap up Alpine shows how significant the change has been – but even more importantly, the acquisition is likely to be a catalyst for an accelerated pace of change that will impact:

  • Large business processing outsourcing (BPO) firms
  • Captive call center companies
  • Client companies that buy call center services
  • Firms that offer ancillary call center products
  • Call center managers and employees

What Does It Mean for Outsourcing Companies? The acquisition of Alpine is significant for BPO companies because it represents an opening salvo in what could be a competitive race to meet demand for WAH services. Technological innovations are lowering the barriers to enabling WAH nearly anywhere, while customers are showing an increasing level of comfort with the model. Recent analyst reports back this up, including one by Ovum that estimates the WAH model is growing at 18 percent annually. Notably, the report also points out that even historically hesitant verticals are now adopting the model enthusiastically.

Sykes clearly sees this growth opportunity, and its investment in Alpine is no doubt an effort to seize a lead in this emerging market. The bottom line for BPO companies is that if they are not investing in WAH today, they need to be. Those that already have need to look closely at their offerings and capabilities to ensure they are positioned for the changes that are happening.

This trend also creates growth opportunities for BPO companies. Industry adoption rates place new challenges on WAH service delivery that seasoned outsourcers could meet more nimbly than a captive call center. Enhanced tools from technology and process vendors make continuous improvement of the WAH suite more sensible, and BPO companies are ideally suited for meeting that challenge.

What Does It Mean for Captive Call Centers? The acquisition of Alpine presents both challenges and opportunities to captive call centers as well, and they should see this as a critical time to grow and expand their WAH capabilities. First, customer comfort with the model is strong, especially when those customers experience the kind of quality that a widely dispersed labor model promotes. Adopting WAH enables firms to hire just about anywhere, giving them access to a vastly greater labor supply. It also means that firms can be more selective in choosing their talent, finding specialized skills more readily rather than being limited by geography.

The growth of the WAH model also means that the pool of experienced WAH candidates has grown too. Thus, a larger pool, a strong demographic, and even more comfort working from home are blending together to the advantage of captive call centers.

Additionally, the growth of WAH is a catalyst for greater alternatives from vendors of call center ancillary technologies – such as workforce management and communications tools – and for stronger data and desktop security. A past lack of such tools had contributed to some skeptics’ arguments to avoid or go slow on the model. In 2012, however, those arguments are harder to make as market needs are being met through both technology and technique, without having to rely on secondary services or force companies to outsource if not desired.

What Does It Mean for Client Companies that Buy Outsourced Services? The renewed dynamism about WAH is likely to have a profound effect on the outsourced side of the equation that works in the favor of the buyer. With the Alpine/Sykes merger, the market is shifting to a two-faceted perspective. There are the larger BPO firms that typically offer an employee-based model with alternatives to either have WAH only or to integrate with their physical center structure, possibly on multiple shores. There are the stand-alone WAH providers who are now mostly operating in an independent contractor, or similar, model. This condition more clearly delineates alternatives for buyers of their services, offers a more profound choice, and allows providers to be more competitive than ever.

When a larger player like Sykes makes the investment they have, it puts the gauntlet down for other providers to enhance their services, make them stronger, and it challenges providers of tools and technologies to further strengthen their products. All of these factors enhance the choices that buyers have to support their needs.

What Does It Mean for Providers of Ancillary Call Center Products? WAH call center ancillary product suppliers, such as desktop, technology, WFM, and security tools, have grown rapidly in recent years. With the events described herein continuing to shake up the WAH market, there is continued opportunity to offer services to drive growth, security, effectiveness, and innovation for this model.

Captive call centers have the incentive to expand, but they will do so more readily when they have strong tools specifically meeting WAH needs at their disposal. Outsourcers evaluating their offerings will be looking for tools that can give them an edge, meet the unique requirements inherent in the WAH business environment, and give their clients confidence in the services being sold. The growth rates also support investment in new products and improvements in existing ones, which can be sold to the WAH market more readily than ever before.

What Does It Mean for Call Center Professionals? Call center managers and employees who have experience with the WAH model will be in an ideal position to thrive as this trend continues. BPO companies and captive call centers will be seeking employees that can perform well in a WAH environment or who have the flexibility to adapt to different work environments based on client needs. Call center managers who have experience overseeing a WAH model will also be in special demand, given the unique challenges related to making WAH teams successful. This trend also opens up the opportunity for call center employees to have more work flexibility and work/life balance than previously possible.

Key Takeaways For everyone in the WAH call center space, the market dynamism gives the opportunity to consider one of the most often overlooked benefits of WAH. The factors described above underscore that continued growth of WAH and the tools that support it offer the chance to use virtualization and mobility tools in ways that make your whole call center business more effective, even when the agents stay in the building. By using virtual tools and processes – such as hiring and training – across the entire enterprise, the result is a gain in scale, efficiency, and effectiveness, as well as enhanced returns.

To sum it up:

  • The work-at-home call center market is undergoing new dynamism.
  • Dynamism has challenges and advantages for a variety of constituencies.
  • Now is the time to act.

Jim Farnsworth and Tadd McAnally are co-founders of virtualwirks. Based in Denver, they follow the mobile workforce market intently and have successfully designed, launched, and operated work-at-home call centers around the world .

[From Connection Magazine November 2012]

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