Home Agents: How the Remote Model Reduces Expenses

By Drew Judkins

When you think of cost savings for locating call center agents at home, certain factors come to mind, including office space, parking space, furniture, and utilities. These hard costs can equal at least $2,000 per year in savings per agent. But what if the actual cost savings were four or five times that amount?

While the contact center market is trending more in the direction of at-home agents and more companies are embracing this for the inherent cost savings, how can we be sure that a remote workforce will reduce business expenses? This introduces a compelling reason to explore at-home agents further. While cost savings is valid in and of itself, there are other significant factors to consider:

Workforce Flexibility: You might be asking the question, “How could a flexible workforce benefit my call center?”  The short answer is schedule optimization. Call centers experience peaks and valleys in call volume throughout the day. This rush-hour traffic requires more “lanes” or agents during the peak but less during the valleys. Facility-based call centers are stuck in the mold of overstaffing valleys and understaffing peaks because it’s not fair to ask an agent to commute to work for a ninety-minute shift.

Sporadic, peak-time shifts and varied schedules are more feasible if the agent is working from home. The strategy also frees up agents to work a broader selection of shifts, addressing the supply and demand issue. In manufacturing, for example, this flexible staffing model would be considered just-in-time (JIT). Just as the demand for agents increases, the supply of agents increases, and vice versa.

The next question is, “How much money can be saved by moving to flexible scheduling?”  It depends on how much variability you have in contacts offered to the queues, your hours of operation, and your total call volume. On average, it is generally a 10 to 30 percent cost savings on your employee expense (employee expense is usually around 75 percent of your total call center expense).

While some might be skeptical, there is a simple way to see how your call center measures up. Look at your call center performance for the last week and record the following in a spreadsheet:

  • Your average speed of answer (ASA) by half-hour increments. (Adjust the following targets to match your call center’s goals.)  Assuming you receive at least fifty contacts per half hour and your ASA goal is twenty seconds, highlight any ASA value less than twelve seconds (you were overstaffed during this half hour). Then, highlight any ASA greater than twenty-eight seconds (you were understaffed during this half hour).
  • In the next column, add your agent occupancy by half hour increments, with occupancy being the percentage of time your agents were handling a contact. Assuming you receive at least fifty contacts per half hour, highlight any cells that drop below 70 percent or exceed 90 percent. These are periods of time when your agents are not busy enough (getting bored) or are too busy (risking burn out).

Flexible schedules help you balance occupancy with ASA. If you cannot consistently hit your goals for ASA and occupancy for each half hour of the day, then consider flexible schedules. If you highlighted a lot in the above exercise, your cost savings for implementing at-home agents with flexible schedules should be significant.

Happy Agents: Improved productivity is the key benefit of happy agents. Happy agents are the most influential factors in generating happy caller interactions and improved client retention. The correlation between happy agents and improved productivity has both an objective and subjective reasoning. First, the objective element. Since we measure almost everything in call centers, it is not hard to compare the performance of at-home agents to facility-based agents working in the same call center. The at-home agent productivity gains generally range from 10 to 30 percent. The highest percent value increase is from agents who were hired to work at home, and the lower productivity increase is from facility-based agents who are given the opportunity to work from home.

Secondly, consider the subjective element. Home-based agents claim to be happier with their work than facility-based agents. Call centers that move from an on-site model to an at-home model report lower turnover and significantly lower absenteeism.

For many employees, it doesn’t get any better than having the job flexibility to work at home. If you recruit agents who want to work from home, you will not only find a larger pool of candidates, you will also find more qualified candidates. These candidates are typically better educated, more mature, and have more experience. They are better prepared for the rigors of working in a call center (i.e., high-stress, direct customer interaction). These agents are keenly aware of the time and money they save by working at home.

Successful At-Home Implementation: Call centers that have successfully implemented an at-home agent program report impressive reduction in expenses and increased customer and agent satisfaction. The three most common concerns about implementing an at-home workforce are:

1) Productivity: “Without being able to see my agents, how can I know they are performing all of their tasks?”

2) Quality: “How do I continue to train, mentor, and coach agents outside of the office?”

3) Security: “How can I assure my clients that my home-based agents are accountable to the same policies and procedures as those on-site?”

These are legitimate concerns that can be difficult for call centers to reconcile, particularly if they are used to being a facility-based center. Brick-and-mortar call centers have invested in technologies that may not lend themselves well to off-site locations. Moreover, they have also established practices around hiring, training, and managing that are tough to change.

However, the benefits of using at-home agents are so compelling that the effort involved in finding solutions to make implementation a reality far outweigh the roadblocks to achieving it. Technologies in the market break down each of these at-home concerns and obstacles. An integrated, all-in-one platform enables call center managers to closely monitor agents anywhere through call recording, reporting, and CRM tools. Ultimately, the concern over productivity has actually been shown to be a benefit.

Conclusion: Call centers are beginning to realize that if they are not offering at-home options, they may find themselves competing for quality agents from companies that do. Jodi Smith, who runs a successful call center practice with at-home agents for eCallogy recently stated, “With so many companies offering a ‘work from home’ solution, traditional contact centers are competing and will soon be out of resources for quality contact center professionals. I feel that, given the option, most call center employees are likely to opt to work from home, saving them time and money.”

Not only do at-home agents reduce costs, but they also increase caller satisfaction and reduce employee attrition. The cost savings alone for implementing an at-home workforce present a compelling reason to at least explore the option. As the competitive trend continues, the at-home model will certainly produce future growth.

Drew Judkins is vice president for Market Strategy at inContact. Drew has worked in the contact center industry for the past twenty years, focusing on new technologies to improve customer and agent experiences. For more information on the benefits of locating agents at-home, including more about cost savings, consult these websites: Telcoa.org, MovingBeyondTheBricks.com,and inContact.com.

[From Connection Magazine October 2009]