Agents Working from a Kitchen Table—What Could Go Wrong?



By Michael Frendo

Remote contact center agents who work from home were already a growing trend in our industry before COVID-19, but the pandemic accelerated that trend as social-distancing mandates prevented employees from working in centralized call centers. There are incredible stories about how quickly and deftly contact centers made the transition to work-from-home settings, with organizations redeploying their teams and the IT systems for remote work in a matter of days and even hours. Seemingly overnight (and often literally overnight), organizations went from having some remote agents or no remote agents to a 100 percent remote contact center workforce.

Accelerating toward a New Normal

This is a pivotal moment in the industry because COVID-19 fast-tracked a shift that was already growing. The industry will never fully go back to the centralized model that dominated before. There are simply too many factors that make a work-from-home model a sensible one for a far greater percentage of contact center workers than in the pre-COVID-19 era. 

When a remote contact center worker steps away from their laptop, who else can see the screen and view confidential customer or patient data? Click To Tweet

One factor is simply the excessive cost of building out and operating contact center space. These are high-cost environments, and each seat comes with a price tag that every call center manager knows all too well. The cost model for remote workers is dramatically lower. Organizations looking to reduce costs will be hard-pressed to ignore that difference. 

Another major factor that means the work-from-home model is here to stay is the accelerating use of gig workers for contact center work. Gig workers supply a flexible workforce: they are purely remote workers who never set foot in a contact center setting. This trend alone is shifting the balance of the industry’s workforce away from a centralized environment.

Work from Home Concerns

For these reasons, a significant percentage of the industry’s workforce will continue to work from home, and that percentage will continue to grow over time. It makes too much economic and operational sense, but there is a catch. There are thorny security and confidentiality issues with this model, particularly for industries that must follow regulations such as HIPAA, PCI, and other mandates. 

When a remote contact center worker steps away from their laptop, who else can see the screen and view confidential customer or patient data? Who else has access to that system? Is the remote worker following best practices to protect that information? Even in the controlled environment of a centralized contact center, protecting that data is a challenge. The dangers only multiply in a remote setting.

The industry has done its best to mitigate these risks with processes and point solutions that bolster security and confidentiality. These, however, are superficial fixes that don’t truly solve the problem. They also happen to annoy customers and make agents far less productive. 

An Identity Crisis

The problem is that our industry has been treating the symptoms rather than the underlying issue. This fundamental concern is a lack of trust in the identity of customers. In an electronic world, how can you verify that the person you are about to give contact support to is truly who they claim to be? This identity problem affects every aspect of data center operations. It drives the need for complex security processes that make customer interactions longer and more costly. 

This provides a poor caller experience. It makes deploying remote workers chancy and adds risk to the investments companies make to try to shore up the remote work scenarios. This creates an unacceptable amount of customer friction, which call centers try to counteract by accepting far more fraud than they otherwise would. It is not just an identity problem. Given how much it costs our industry, it is a full-blown identity crisis.

A series of technology advancements are converging at the same time to finally make it possible to address the underlying identity issue. Collectively, these technologies take the burden of identity verification off of contact center agents by shifting that responsibility to an integrated combination of biometrics, voice recognition systems, zero knowledge networks, and other technologies that authenticate identity in ways that are far more accurate than social security numbers and mothers’ maiden names. 

Combining Technologies

Each of these technologies is reaching maturity at an opportune time for this shift in the contact center industry. You may know about many of these technologies individually—or even taken part in pilot projects to deploy them—but the real impact comes in combining them. They are greater than the sum of their parts, and they solve in a fundamental way the identity crisis by providing instantaneous verification of a customer’s identity without the need for agents to actually see any private information about the customer.

This combination of technologies gives the agent an assurance that customer is who he or she claims to be, and it frees the agent to focus on providing customer support without the need for any of the traditional security questions. This is a major leap forward in security and confidentiality for workers in a call center setting, but it is a true game changer for remote agents.

 Companies using remote agents would no longer need to worry about that confidential information appearing on a remote worker’s screen. Solving the identity problem eliminates all these privacy and confidentiality risks of remote work scenarios.

Outcomes

It’s important to note that there are significant benefits to this beyond just making remote work settings more secure. With trusted identity, contact centers can solve the no-win trade-off they have been making for decades between fraud prevention and serving customers without irritating them. 

Customer interactions are secure and confidential without elaborate and annoying security processes. This allows for faster resolution to customer inquiries, which is critical in a business where time is money. 

In one large contact center, every second saved on a customer service interaction reduced the need for forty agents across their contact centers. That means every minute they shaved from interactions reduced the need for 2,400 agents. That’s a tremendous cost savings. Better identity verification also has the benefit of reducing the amount of fraud, which businesses reluctantly accept to keep customer friction at a tolerable level for customers.

Summary

The industry has been treating the symptoms of ineffective identity verification for far too long. Our industry is finally at a place where technologies are giving us a way to truly solve the underlying issue, and it is coming at a time when the shift to remote work makes this more important than ever.

Michael Frendo is the CTO of Journey, whose trusted identity platform solves digital identity issues from the network up throughout the complete user journey. He founded the influential VoIP Forum. Michael earned a PhD in electrical engineering from McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada.