Creating a Virtual Contact Center

By Randy Saunders

You may have experienced the following crisis situation, or one similar to it: In the middle of your most critical time of the year, you’re hit with the largest snowstorm in a decade. Not only are the roads impassible for most of your staff, you have lost power in your building several times today. And to your customers, this simply means your contact center is unreachable. What do you do?

Substitute your own critical program and trouble spots as you please for this scenario. When you’re faced with a situation like this, what happens if these communication channels are interrupted?

An increasing number of enterprises are using Software as a Service (SaaS) to create “virtual” or “hosted” contact centers. SaaS is a way of using subscription-based software to allow contact center agents to be located away from a traditional service center. Through SaaS, agents may be in multiple time zones, using multiple communicational lines. They may even speak multiple languages when responding to customers.

Utilizing SaaS, the virtual contact center allows agents to work from home, accessing a common set of tools and appearing joined and available via “regular” support channels. Having this capability pays big dividends – here’s how:

  • Home-based agents may be more productive. Agents who work from home often have more education and are more loyal than those in brick-and-mortar contact centers. They don’t have commuting problems to deal with and may be more flexible regarding extended or off-hour responses.
  • Virtual contact centers can be easier to reach in a disaster. Because of their decentralized nature, virtual contact centers remain open and operational when disaster strikes. They are more reachable because the agents are not in a single location.
  • High-value transactions receive high, skill-based priority. When a high-value customer needs support, every transfer counts. By linking agents in the virtual call center based on skills, rather than on location or pool-priority, the customer may receive an improved level of support. These agents can be part of the larger contact center pool or part of an escalated group of experts.

Good for your company and your customer: According to industry research from IDC, the number of at-home agents in the United States will triple by 2010. This way of working is growing in popularity for many good reasons. The first is cost. For the company implementing a virtual contact center, or adding agents to an existing operation, the cost per agent can be much lower because no additional facilities are required. The company does not have to provide or maintain more power, air conditioning, furniture, communications equipment, or computers for every new agent. Adding agents in an existing virtual center doesn’t require additional IT infrastructure or labor.

From the callers’ perspective, they can’t tell that the center is virtual. Callers use the same 800 number or series of numbers. They don’t know if agents are side by side or all over the country. Callers are still routed with an automatic call distribution (ACD) queue and skills-based routing to put the right agent on the right call.

The beauty of the virtual or hosted service is that the “back end” is transparent to the caller. And for the agent, they only need a computer and Internet access to participate in the virtual center.

Creating a virtual contact center: The cost to set up a virtual call center is often based on the number of agents and services provided. The vendor or provider maintains the infrastructure and the contact center software as part of the service to the call center.

Contact center software updates, patches, and bug fixes are also handled by the vendor, making the contact center even easier to create and maintain. By using different hosted services, contact center performance can be boosted and capabilities added with minimal disruption and investment. And as your call center expands, it’s easy to grow your virtual contact center, using hosted services and virtual agents.

Managing your virtual team: Companies allowing agents to work from home are able to make use of remote management capabilities with the virtual or hosted center. Since on-site supervision is no longer a part of the management perspective, other tools are needed to monitor and manage virtual contact center activity. Call-monitoring software reports the number of calls per agent, the length of each call, and the software access times. These reporting tools are often accessible from a contact center manager’s desk, which may also be off-site.

Flexibility and expandability are significant advantages with the hosted model. When your contact center expands or becomes geographically diverse, it can be accommodated without additional infrastructure. Twenty-four/seven staffing is easier to support with virtual agents who are already awake and accustomed to working in different time zones. Similarly, when you expand into areas requiring multilingual support, you can depend on agents native to the region, who already speak the required languages fluently.

Customer support on a limited budget: For small call centers, or those with limited budgets, adding virtual agents enables them to provide a high level of support without incurring additional infrastructure investment and facility cost. Companies often start with a small, centralized installation, allowing agents to work from home as they become comfortable with the hosted applications. This method allows for a centralized presence initially, which then migrates to a virtual center. Often the second or third shift marks the migration to a virtual center, allowing the additional business to be supported by virtual agents at significant cost savings. Your call center could also benefit from regional hub-zone telecommuting incentives by eliminating commuters and pollution from the area.

Virtual solutions, concrete benefits: Companies that create a virtual contact center experience a plethora of benefits. When you begin to add virtual agents to your call center, you improve productivity and facilitate better caller responses through:

  • Minimal capital costs
  • Low infrastructure and information-technology costs
  • Flexible and easily expandable workforce
  • Readily available multi-shift and multi-language support
  • Lower agent turnover and loyal virtual agents working from home
  • Smaller resource utilization footprints with a lower cost per agent
  • Reduced outages due to emergencies or disasters

The keys to success include finding a vendor you can work with that offers the mix of services, reporting tools, and supportability you want. Start with your existing operation and then begin to add virtual extensions. As you expand, you’ll have the experience and relationships in place to better support your client base as it changes. By making your move into a virtual contact center with the support of a knowledgeable vendor, you’ll ensure success for you, your clients, and their customers.

Randy Saunders is the marketing director for Cincom’s Customer Experience Management products. He can be contacted at rsaunders@cincom.com.

[From Connection Magazine – October 2007]