Creating and Empowering a Virtual Workforce

By Rob Duncan

According to analyst firm Frost & Sullivan, currently 17 percent of all call center positions (in-house and outsourced) are home-based. Furthermore, 80 percent of U.S. companies plan to use in-home agents in the next few years (Frost & Sullivan, 2009). This growing interest in a geographically dispersed workforce as an alternative to brick-and-mortar staffed centers makes sense, considering the measurable improvements organizations achieve in customer satisfaction, operational efficiencies, and cost savings. More specifically, home-based customer care agents have been proven to deliver higher customer satisfaction scores and faster handle time metrics, while having lower attrition and improved employee work/life balance, all while lowering operational costs.

The compelling benefits of a virtual workforce have prompted thousands of companies to embrace the at-home model. Unfortunately, in their eagerness to see quick bottom-line improvements, many companies are not taking the time to develop the framework or implement the tools necessary to be successful. Creating a productive at-home workforce takes more than simply sending agents home with a laptop. In fact, hiring and effectively managing at-home workers can be a complicated endeavor.

Matching the Right People to the Right Program: pioneered online dating in 1995. Since that time, it has helped millions of singles meet and fall in love by matching specific criteria such as personalities, interests, ethnicities, and appearance. Using intelligent databases, personality profiling, sophisticated algorithms, and a variety of communications technologies, has taken the process of matching people to a completely new level. In much the same way, the ability to effectively mine and match detailed applicant profiles with company requirements is a critical first step in creating a successful virtual workforce.

Companies looking to create high-performing at-home teams must first take the time to define the type of worker they are looking to hire, including specific certifications, work experience, and education. Matching agents to predefined criteria has proven to result in significant cost savings in the form of reduced training time, higher performance levels, increased speed to proficiency, and lower attrition. Examples of matching candidates to specific needs include: Mandarin Chinese-speaking agents for financial services, employees with video gaming experience for a leading gaming console company, and people with medical billing, coding, and insurance processing experience for a global health services company.

Effective Hiring – Part Art, Part Science: Work-from-home positions are in high demand. Forrester Research estimates there are 8.5 million Americans who telecommute or work from home on a full-time, five days-a-week basis, growing to 11.7 million by 2016. More people are seeking legitimate at-home positions due to the stagnant economy, as well as a renewed focus on finding greater work/life balance. For example, our virtual call center received more than 200,000 applications in 2010 for its at-home customer care positions.

Sifting through applicants to find those that best match your company’s ideal at-home agent profile can be time-consuming and challenging. However, you can overcome this obstacle by following the suggested four-step hiring process, which was developed from thirteen years of virtual workforce experience:

1) Define Requirements: A detailed list of desired worker qualifications helps to clearly define the type of agent needed to best serve your customers. Include as much information as possible, such as values, relevant work experience, computer skills, and equipment requirements. Specificity helps candidates filter themselves in or out based on their ability to self-identify with the position’s requirements.

2) Implement Online Application Process: Develop an online application process that automatically stores a person’s skills and experience into a searchable database. In addition to standard elements such as resumes, education, and experience, the online process should also offer real-life simulations and models to evaluate an applicant’s customer service skills, such as:

  • Phone etiquette
  • Ability to follow directions
  • Tone of voice
  • Service experience
  • Multitasking ability

3) Making the Match: Using the searchable applicant database, qualified agents can be identified within minutes. The next step is to conduct one-on-one interviews via phone. Using questions developed from the requirements outlined in step one, it’s possible to handpick individuals that have the identified skill sets. This provides an important blend of the human element with the factual, scientific perspective to ensure there is also the right personality fit for the brand and culture to be represented.

4) Background Checks: While the up-front legwork helps to find top-quality agents, it’s always a good idea to verify your hiring decision via background checks. When appropriate, the results from criminal checks, credit scores, and drug testing can provide peace-of-mind and minimize risk.

Employees or Contractors: The decision on whether to hire agents as employees or independent contractors should be made based on the needs of the industry, the company, and the customers. Overall, both models offer compelling advantages – including cost savings, improved operational efficiencies, and enhanced flexibility – that are not possible with standard brick-and-mortar call centers. However, in general, independent contractors are best suited for straightforward, scripted call types and for businesses with extreme fluctuations in call volumes. On the other hand, hiring agents as employees is the best choice for organizations that handle complex, unscripted call types and seek to have an extremely dedicated, reliable workforce.

Creating a virtual workforce can be a strategic tool for strengthening brands, maintaining a competitive edge, and providing superior quality service. In fact, home-based agents consistently outperform in-house staff with larger than average order sizes and higher satisfaction scores. Yet hiring the right people and matching them to the right program is crucial. While product and company information can be learned, attitude, values and experience cannot.

Rob Duncan is chief operating officer for Alpine Access, Inc., a provider of employee-based virtual contact center solutions and services. Recently named the best contact center and CRM outsourcer for client satisfaction by Datamonitor’s Black Book of Outsourcing, Alpine Access’ clients include ten of the Fortune 100 companies.

[From Connection Magazine October 2011]

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