Tag Archives: Hiring Call Center Agents

Jobs4America: How Intrepid Leaders Are Jump-Starting Job Growth in America

By Jim Kohlenberger

As Americans, perhaps the single biggest challenge facing us today is generating new jobs here in our own country. In times of great challenge, America has always turned to innovation for creating new jobs, new industries, and new opportunities for the future.

Having served in two administrations, most recently as chief of staff of the White House Office of Science and Technology, I’ve long understood the critical link between innovation, a smart broadband infrastructure, and the jobs and prosperity it can enable. Broadband today is to job growth what electricity and the telephone were to earlier generations – a breakthrough technology that can fuel entire new industries.

That is why – with millions of Americans looking for work and new broadband-enabled technologies sweeping across the country, transforming the way contact centers operate – a group of forward-looking business leaders have launched a strategic new effort to create jobs in America.

This new coalition, called Jobs4America (which I am privileged to lead), is comprised of contact centers working to create a combined 100,000 U.S. contact center jobs over the next two years. Members of our new coalition are setting meaningful goals for creating a specific number of jobs here in America, and we are challenging companies big and small to join in this campaign to help invest in America and create more American jobs.

Broadband innovation isn’t just a vital spark that improves our lives and transforms the way we work and live, it’s an economic driver that can create the new jobs and industries that are essential for winning the future. Over the past fifteen years, the Internet has generated as much growth as the Industrial Revolution generated in fifty years.

At a time when our economy is struggling to pick up steam, Jobs4America is demonstrating the power of broadband and the importance of contact centers by helping put Americans back to work.

The response has been amazing. New contact centers are signing up to join the effort in droves, Washington is taking notice, and new opportunities are on the way. This industry is now creating more than 4,000 new contact center jobs each month, and with more than 30,000 jobs created since the beginning of 2011, the contact center has a proven record of fueling positive economic growth.

And it’s having an impact. It’s helping to revive some communities hardest hit by the economic downturn. You see it across the country, in Michigan and Florida, California and New York. You see it in homes across the country, where broadband is creating new employment opportunities for homebound people with disabilities, veterans, seniors, and stay-at-home parents, for example.

This effort wouldn’t have been possible without the leadership of FCC chairman Julius Genachowski, who, together with Carl Grivner, the former CEO of XO Communications, first came up with the idea for the effort. Broadband deployment and adoption has been a central focus of the Genachowski FCC. Working with the private and public sectors, millions of Americans are now experiencing the newfound benefits of broadband. As he said when he joined us at the coalition’s launch, “This initiative involves meaningful job creation that will have a meaningful impact across America…. I applaud your strong efforts, and I applaud all the businesses that are part of the Jobs4America coalition.”

When Americans call, it’s often to a contact center looking for answers. Today, Washington is calling. They are calling for more jobs. I’m proud to be working with forward-thinking companies who are once again ready with the answers.

This is your moment – your opportunity to shine and to demonstrate the vital role that contact centers play in our economy and for our job future. Be a part of something big – visit Jobs4America.net today.

Jim Kohlenberger is the executive director of Jobs4America.

[From Connection Magazine November 2011]

Filling Your Call Center with Proactive, Self-Reliant Agents

By Luis Echevarria

Direct response is a scripted environment, but every client would love to know they have an army of agents who think for themselves in the call center selling their product and managing customer needs and expectations. These agents would have been trained to put themselves in the caller’s shoes and, as a result, know how to close the deal, save the sale, or solve a difficult customer service issue.

This confident, high standard of performance is a team effort, however, and not up to the agent alone.  While call center management should take care in picking agents who already have sales competency or call center experience and who approach the position positively, there are key ways in which you can boost any agent’s level of confidence and responsiveness on the phone and thus increase their sales. During my time managing call centers, I have discovered three components that are an absolute necessity in creating thriving, self-reliant agents:

A Proactive, Considerate, Sensible Outlook: Although upbeat, optimistic attitudes are important and encouraged, what is integral to being a top-performing, thoughtful agent is the ability to be proactive.

First, an agent must be confident enough to be proactive with management whenever they see room for improvement. They should be assertive enough to make suggestions on offers, scripts, or whatever may be on their mind.  Similarly, an agent must be self-assured enough to work smoothly with a customer on the phone, especially on up-sells and cross-sells.  In both of these situations, agent thoughtfulness and consideration should be encouraged. This is advantageous when dealing with cultural nuances, and this empathy is especially important when agents are easing the customer into a sales conversation and evaluating the best path to a successful outcome.

It is vital to employ agents who embody this empathetic, vibrant, sophisticated personality and who can think on their feet and solve problems quickly when the need arises.

Providing the Best with the Best: The equation is simple: call center agents can perform at their best when they are working with the best possible technology available.  Even the best agents are not necessarily going to be able to pick up every call that comes in.  Advanced software allows outbound callbacks to be automatically queued when call volumes are high, calls are not answered quickly, or customers abandon their call. This allows agents the time it takes to carefully handle each call and finish the sale, and it affords them the peace of mind to know they can simply dial back the calls they missed in the interim.

If you are careful, do your research well, and take the time to implement, leading technologies such as this will allow your agents to perform at maximum levels. You will not only be raising the confidence and ease that agents feel in every one of their interactions, but in turn you will gain a substantial return-on-investment.

Reward for a Job Well Done: Every call center should have a compensation plan in place that rewards performance and positive behavior, and every marketer should opt for a call center that does.  Why?  Because performance rewards empower agents to achieve outstanding results and ensures that everyone in the call center will do the best job possible.  HR will focus on hiring the right kind of employees – those who stick around and perform above the norm. The training department will produce agents who are ready to perform as they leave the classroom. Operations will be motivated, from manager to supervisor to agent, to make sure that goals are met. Even the IT staff will keep operations functioning at the highest level.  This happens best when each individual in the organization has income at risk.

In my experience, the system that works best is one in which more than half of the agent’s wage is based upon performance and incentives.  The agent is not only encouraged to do their best for the sake of their own paycheck, but is then rewarded in some way when they do exceptionally well.  This is ideal for both the employee and the company. Additionally, the culture of the company as a whole will be geared toward the success of the clients.

When you provide agents and support staff with the best possible tools to do their job, the outcome will be simple: the best possible product for your call center and your clients.  While everyone wants agents who think for themselves, the truth is that employees are only self-propelled and self-assured enough to get the job done right when they know they have the tools and motivation necessary to do so.

When you take these steps, you will see results – and you’ll be glad you did.

Luis Echevarria is CEO and cofounder of Vixicom in the Dominican Republic.

[From Connection Magazine Jul/Aug 2011]

Are We There Yet?

By Tori J. Miller

Those who run a call center in today’s economic times have a low turnover rate. They also enjoy large pools of diverse applicants that cross several generations, including baby boomers, generation X, and generation Y.  As a result, new employee class sizes have been small, while longevity in the workforce has enabled supervisors and managers to build better relationships with agents. Productivity and efficiency increases have resulted less need to add staff.

Running call centers these days is not like it was ten – or even five – years ago.  Today, technology can record every call, enabling call centers to mine call data to determine how many times during a call a certain word was said. This provides an understanding of what callers are saying without having to rely on asking the agents. Additionally, call centers can trend why customers are calling by looking at the steps that are performed on an agent’s desktop.

Companies have spent millions of dollars making sure that they have the best technology to assist their customers in order to remain competitive in their industry. Have companies given this same focus to understanding the new generation of workers that are using this new technology in the call centers?  Are we preparing for an economic turnaround and lower unemployment rates? Are we educating our supervisors and managers about who our new workforce is so we can recruit them and retain them? Do companies know if their culture and benefits are attractive to the newest members of that workforce, generation Y?

The Generation Y Profile: Gen Y (also called “nexters” or “millennials”) consists of individuals born between 1977 and 1994 (the date range is sometimes reported as 1980 to 2000). This generation of workers has been taught to question authority; they have been taught to expect constant feedback; they are the generation most wanted by their parents; and they have a strong need to feel valued. Gen Y employees work well in a team environment. They have grown up with computers, they love technology, and they use it for social networking, which is an important part of their daily lives.

Gen Y workers are results-oriented, and they typically do not focus or care about the method used to achieve those results. This generation is open to any new technology as long as they perceive there is a real value or benefit to them. Gen Y employees contribute to their 401ks at the same rate as boomers do today. Because this is the result of seeing their parents lose their retirement, there is a strong need for long-term fiscal planning.

Communication with gen Y focuses on the easiest and most efficient way of communicating. If they can instant message someone a quick question and get a quick reply while multitasking, why should they be forced to call into a queue for help, only to wait on hold?

When it comes to questioning a process, procedure, or policy, they will not hesitate to go straight to the CEO with their question. Following a chain of command is not something that gen Y has been taught to do. They don’t understand the need to do this and will question why.

Gen Y wants to learn from and be inspired by their leaders. They want to know that their leaders are continuing to learn so that these executives can turn around and teach them. If their supervisor does not have the necessary technical knowledge and does not have the coaching skills to help change behavior, the gen Y employee is lost.

Socializing and being able to network while at work is expected by gen Y. This group of workers is not loyal to the company; they are loyal to the people they work with. By providing activities that allow coworkers to get to know each other, a natural network is created. These networks can be powerful tools to attract and retain good gen Y employees.

Flexible schedules are also important to this group of workers. Call centers are especially challenged with this gen Y need since they are staffed according to when customers need to reach their clients. How does your call center measure up? Here are some key questions call center directors should ask themselves:

Socialization: Does your company allow employees to surf the Web during downtime? If the answer is no, how will the gen Y employee be able to stay connected with their friends, whom they consider their families? Is there any harm if they are not on a call with a customer? Gen Y sees this no differently that the person reading a book or knitting at their desk between calls.

Schedule Flexibility: Does your company encourage flexible scheduling so that employees can take time off without using vacation or personal time? If not, how will the gen Y employee be able to fulfill their need to spend time with family and friends who are their number one priority? Do you allow agents to swap schedules? Do you encourage schedule swaps with other employees? When your call center is overstaffed, do you allow agents to leave early or come in late without pay?

Earn More, Work Less: Do you have the opportunity to increase sales in a technical environment? Can you pay commissions and show how these commissions can add to their income? This extra money can compensate for the time they take off without pay.

Benefits: Gen Y workers don’t plan to stay at their jobs for a long time, so providing agents with sick time and expecting them to save it up for a rainy day is boomer thinking. What is your call centers’ average accumulated sick time? Gen Y employees feel that sick time is a benefit owed to them. They will use it instead of losing it when they leave. Give it to them, plan for it, and let them schedule it.

Feeling Valued: Are your supervisors trained to understand who the gen Y worker is? Do they understand the importance of showing them how their work brings value? Do they understand the need for constant feedback? Do they know how to be teachers and coaches? Do they understand how to take feedback, present it to higher levels, and recommend process changes?  Listening to feedback is important because it tells you what your employees think and what needs to change to stay in sync with gen Y.

So – are we there yet? This is a question to continually ask ourselves. Personally, my answer is not yet, but we have a good start. We need to take this a step further and look at company policies and benefits to see what can be changed to attract and retain this new generation of worker. It’s not just about what happens in the call center, it’s about the overall company benefits and culture. At 71 million strong, gen Y are the future leaders of our companies, and we need to figure out how to change the work environment in order to keep a competitive advantage.

Tori J. Miller is a senior director of customer care, operating a 250-seat call center for Bright House Networks, as well as a master’s student at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida.

[From Connection Magazine Jan/Feb 2011]

The Effects of High Unemployment

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

With the unemployment rate running so high, businesses needing to hire find themselves in a “buyer’s market.” There are plenty of people looking for work. This results in more applicants to pick from for each opening. High unemployment has also served to limit employment options, thereby reducing worker mobility. The result is that employee churn rates are – or at least should be – decreasing. Having more applicants to pick from and fewer staff leaving by choice should be indicative of stable workforces. Unfortunately, this may not be the case and even if it is, it affords a false security.

Consider the following employees. Although their names have been changed and some details obscured, all describe the true plights of real people:

Chuck worked in a small satellite office of a large organization. The staff in his office were close and worked together well. They cared for each other and were like family. They helped each other to complete their work and serve clients, regardless of job description and title. Sadly, this idyllic reality ended when corporate closed Chuck’s office to save money. Some people were let go, but Chuck was told that he could work remotely from home. Then Chuck got a new boss, who rescinded that promise. Chuck now commutes 120 miles each day to work. The corporate office is nothing like his old office. Teamwork has been replaced by finger-pointing and blindly following job descriptions; no one cares about the clients – or about each other. One by one, Chuck’s coworkers have quit or are being let go. He fears he is next and is frantically looking for comparable work closer to home.

Carly is a college graduate whose chosen profession currently has a 40 percent unemployment rate. Unable to find work, she went to grad school. Her summer employment offered her a full-time position when she graduated but has been frustratingly vague on the details (right now she is relegated to computer work no one else wants to do). Unfortunately, this job is not in her field of study, nor does it interest her. However, out of necessity, she may be forced to take this job. Even if she does, she doesn’t expect to remain long.

Danielle also recently graduated from college. Her college internship continued after graduation, with the promise of a promotion when the economy turned around. She is now doing the work she was trained for – but without the title, recognition, or pay. This has been going on for a year. Although she is now working full-time, it is at her part-time hourly internship rate – or 40 percent of what is typical. She has polished her resume and is looking for better paying alternatives.

Karl has a full-time job in his chosen profession. At first, he liked his company and earned stellar reviews. However, in his latest review, he scored the lowest in each category. Last year, after their busy season, a coworker was abruptly fired. Karl fears that this year he will get the axe as soon as the seasonal peak is over. He is salaried and was initially told to expect working an additional twenty-five hours a week during the busy season. However, his employers recently tacked on an additional ten hours. He desperately wants to find a new job but has no time to pursue it. As soon as things slow down, he will begin his job hunt in earnest.

Larry greatly enjoyed working in his chosen career, finding it rewarding and fulfilling. However, after a planned move out-of-state, he was unable to find work at his level of experience and education. He eventually acquiesced to a much lower position at less than half the pay. The company promotes from within, so he hoped that he would eventually move into a position matching his skills and have his compensation level restored. Unfortunately, because he was performing a low-level position, he was looked down upon and demeaned by those who should have been his peers, in spite of the fact that he had more experience than some of them. The circumstances became so dreadful that he left, taking an even further pay cut in the hopes of finding a nicer place to work. Once again, he has the expectation to be promoted and, although feedback on his performance is very favorable, there are no current openings, so he could find himself repeating the process.

These people share two common characteristics. First, they do not like their employers or their jobs. Some have been lied to, others have been treated badly, two are significantly underpaid, and all are unhappy. The other commonality is that each of them desperately wants a different job and is working to make it happen. Since they have stellar qualifications and employable skills, their job expectations are not unreasonable. When the economy turns around, they are sure to find better work.

From this we can interpolate that:

  • Employees are unhappy, but they continue to endure difficult work situations – for now.
  • Many people are underemployed; they will correct that as soon as companies start hiring again.
  • Some people are working outside their fields of expertise. For many, this is not a choice but a short-term necessity.
  • When an entry-level employee sticks around after graduation, it may not mean that they like the company, but that there aren’t any other options.

What does all this mean?

  • When the economy turns around, many employees will immediately seek to improve their work situations. Some reports indicate that one third of the workforce is waiting to change jobs.
  • The most employable people (likely the best workers) will be the first to switch; those who lack skills or drive will stay.
  • There is pent-up worker frustration, which employers will be confronted with when alternative employment options emerge.

What can employers do?

  • Begin thinking and behaving as though unemployment is low and it’s a “seller’s market.” Treating employees better now, when you don’t have to, will keep them working for you later, when they don’t have to.
  • Recognize that with downsizing, layoffs, hiring freezes, and consolidations, employees have been stretched and pushed to a near breaking point. Look for ways now to relieve stress and reduce their pressure now.
  • Talk to employees and really listen. Perhaps there are slights that can be amended, injustices that can be corrected, and oversights that can be righted.

You can take steps now to keep the employees you have, or you can wait for economic recovery and take steps then to find and train their replacements.

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine. He’s a passionate wordsmith whose goal is to change the world one word at a time.

[From Connection Magazine April 2010]

Seniors Helping Seniors Is Proving to Be Effective

By Claudia Timbo

Typically, the best person to go to when seeking help is someone who has been there before.  At Corporate Call Center (CCC), we have applied this notion to our hiring practices. Our business model includes hiring and training retired executives and senior citizens to guide other seniors through today’s increasingly complex health insurance landscape. This “seniors helping seniors” strategy has generated extraordinary success.

The model is resonating with a growing number of companies requiring our services. In today’s market, companies are shifting from in-house customer service operations to outsourced providers in order to improve customer support, reduce costs, leverage advanced technologies, and connect with customers across a variety of mediums.

Another big factor driving demand is the rapidly growing senior population, which according to the U.S. Census Bureau will double to 70 million over the next twenty years. Baby boomers, representing 28 percent of the U.S. population, are entering retirement age. These numbers are spurring exceptionally high demand for services directed at helping seniors. For instance, an increasingly higher number of seniors will be enrolling in and trying to grasp the ever more complicated Medicare Part D prescription drug benefits and Medicare Advantage plans. Assisting seniors with these tasks requires highly skilled and specialized customer service representatives. On this front, our older professional staff is unmatched.

Many of our senior employees are from high-level positions in the insurance, healthcare, and financial industries. Their experiences and our ongoing training program enable them to effectively communicate and address the needs of senior callers.

In addition to their experiences and professional expertise, older professionals are capable of connecting with senior callers on a more personal level. Inherently aware of problems facing seniors, they are able to engage in more positive and successful communications. Callers are naturally more comfortable speaking with representatives they know have backgrounds and experiences similar to their own. They can sense that they are speaking to peers who empathize with them and feel passionate about helping them.

For older professionals, working in our call center is a positive experience both personally and economically. Seniors often become disappointed with retired life. Their jobs with us are rewarding and provide them with a sense of purpose while helping others. This also enables them to earn extra money – an opportunity that holds extra appeal during a downturn in the economy.

Furthermore, our flexible scheduling appeals to older professionals who do not necessarily want to work forty hours a week or more than twenty-six weeks a year. Since we are open from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. seven days a week, employees can choose from a variety of shifts. They have time to partake in hobbies and interests, and many like to travel in the off-months.

We currently employ over 500 seniors during the open enrollment season from September 1 – March 31. At any given time, seniors account for over 60 percent of our staff.

Hiring older professionals means enlisting employees who are excited to learn and bring positive attitudes to their work. Our extremely low turnover rate is proof of their reliability and dedication. Seniors also bring a wealth of professional and life experiences, which significantly increases the quality and efficiency of their services.

Our unique approach to customer service creates a winning scenario for all involved. The senior staff’s ability to provide superior service satisfies callers and clients alike and has played a significant role in our success. In turn, we provide meaningful employment to hundreds of seniors who eagerly use their skills and knowledge to assist their peers, who are then better able to make critical decisions that may affect their health and financial well-being.

Claudia Timbo is founder and CEO of Corporate Call Center, a teleservices and call center company specializing in providing highly trained, licensed, and credentialed customer service representatives for the insurance and healthcare markets.

[From Connection Magazine March 2009]

Assessment Tools: What They Do and Why You Should Be Harnessing Their Power

By David Ostberg, PhD

Just as frontline call center agents are highly influential in forming lasting, positive impressions, high agent turnover rates significantly damage a call center’s ability to maintain service levels and create a positive caller experience. When the exorbitant costs of hiring, training, and lost productivity are added to the mix, it is easy to see why reducing agent turnover is a high priority.

In addition to agent turnover, the other dominant problem that hinders a call center’s operation is suboptimal agent productivity. In most cases, the root causes of both these challenges result from a poor job fit or a lack of the skills that are critical success factors for specific agent positions. Selection assessments and screening tools can help address these issues by providing vital information about job applicants that directly relates to employee productivity and retention. A call center’s selection and hiring process should address the root causes of turnover by answering key questions such as: Are the agents a good fit for the job? How well will they perform? How long will they stay?

In general, assessments are designed to capture information which relates to an individual’s likelihood of behaving or performing in certain ways in the future. These tools do so by measuring three different kinds of candidate data:

1) What can they do based on their personality, natural abilities, or aptitudes?

2) What have they done in previous jobs, activities, and educational or training settings?

3) What do they want todo in the future, based on their interests, motivation, and preferences?

What Applicants Can Do: As far as what applicants can do, assessments are designed to measure stable characteristics associated with a job applicant’s personality and natural abilities. For example, some jobs may be more suitable for individuals who are extroverted and less risk-averse, while others may require that an employee be highly detail-oriented and task-focused. However, every human being is unique, with differences landing somewhere along a continuum of each of several personality and ability dimensions. Assessment experts can develop tools to accurately measure where an individual falls on various job-relevant dimensions of personality or ability, creating valid predictions about how a person may behave in various situations. The unique benefit to these types of assessments is that predictions can be made about future behavior in roles in which the applicant has no previous experience. As a result, these “can do” measures are usually the most appropriate type of screening tool for hourly jobs and should comprise a significant part of the assessment solution.

What Applicants Have Done: Concerning what applicants have done, assessments are designed to measure an applicant’s previous experiences, past behavior, education or training, and accomplishments. Examples include resume scoring for education, relevant work history and skills training, behaviorally oriented interview questions that focus on how an applicant handled a specific situation in the past, and job-specific knowledge or skills tests. These types of assessments are based on the principle that future performance is best predicted by past performance. For hourly jobs, the most appropriate “have done” tools include basic qualifications screening questions and behaviorally oriented interviews.

What Applicants Want To Do: Finally, regarding what applicants want to do, assessments are designed to measure differences in an applicant’s motives, aspirations, preferences, and interests. These types of tools are less effective for predicting productivity, but they are well suited to predicting job and culture fit, employee satisfaction, and retention. Realistic job previews fall into this category, as candidates can take a “sneak peek” into the actual organization and job and opt out of the selection process if something looks particularly undesirable or ill-suited to their interests and expectations. Measuring motivation and preferences is valuable for almost any level of job, but again, this primarily relates to employee satisfaction and retention rather than productivity and performance.

An Assessment of Assessments: Some common criticisms of selection assessments are that they don’t work, they’re not fair, and they’re too “fake-able.” However, research indicates that a well-designed set of assessments can predict performance and early retention more accurately and fairly than traditional subjective approaches. Assessments help remove any bias that hiring managers and recruiters unintentionally bring to the process. Further, assessment item formats – such as those utilizing a balance of appealing or “socially desirable” response options – have been developed which truly minimize an applicant’s ability to “game” the assessments or figure out which answer is ideal. In fact, using closed-loop analytics, assessment developers can identify which items are susceptible to faking and can subsequently modify or replace them with content that is more effective. Also, research demonstrates that low levels of faking in any part of the selection process (including face-to-face interviews) do not affect validity in a significant way.

Although a wide body of evidence demonstrates how powerful and accurate well-designed assessments can be, there are, unfortunately, many poorly crafted, inappropriately applied assessments on the market. As a result, and in accordance with the Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures and the Principles for the Validation and Use of Personnel Selection Procedures, organizations need to take the steps necessary to ensure that any assessment strategy they use is valid for their environment and jobs. In addition to reviewing relevant job analysis reports and test validation manuals, test administrators need to confirm that the assessments are effective within their organization by analytically evaluating the impact the selection tools and processes have on their performance outcomes.

Further, because so many unproven, poorly designed assessments and selection “solutions” are available today, it is critical that organizations take the time to investigate how the tests were developed, and who developed them. Although many vendors take a “one-size-fits-all” approach, no assessment is as effective and accurate as one that has been designed and validated by experts for specific positions within specific industries. Because previous experience is less critical in most hourly jobs, a call center selection system should typically focus more on screening for behaviors (“can do”) and motivation levels (“likes to do”) and less on cognitive abilities and technical skills (“has done”), as might be the case with higher-level, salaried jobs.

Conclusion: No single “perfect” solution exists for every selection challenge, but a well-thought out, well-designed process that uses selection science and incorporates multiple components – such as a realistic job preview, qualifications screening, validated assessments, and behaviorally oriented structured interviews – can dramatically improve the quality of hiring decisions. As a result, organizations that choose to invest time and resources into evolving their selection processes will see a significant improvement in the productivity of their agent workforce, while improving retention and reducing the burden on their hiring and training staff.

Taking it one step further, call centers need to evaluate the impact that selection tools are having within their organization by harnessing the power of closed-loop analytics and on-demand reporting and should require that their selection solutions enable them to do so. By improving call center agent selection and hiring, the right pieces can be put in place to drive measurable improvements throughout the organization and get ahead of competition.

David Ostberg, Ph.D., is an Industrial and Organizational Psychologist with 10 years experience designing and evaluating selection systems for companies in service industries. A member of the American Psychological Association and Society for Industrial & Organizational Psychology, Dr. Ostberg is currently the Vice President of Selection Science for Evolv On-Demand.

[From Connection Magazine November 2008]

What Does an Agent Really Cost, and Could You Use an Extra One or Two?

By Doris Primicerio

Although the starting rate for an agent can vary greatly, let’s assume a nominal rate of $8.50 per hour. When the cost of worker’s compensation, unemployment compensation, health insurance, “Errors and Omissions” insurance, FICA, SUTA, retirement contribution, vacation pay, paid breaks, shift differentials, and bonuses are factored in, that amount can easily jump an additional $3.50 per agent hour. This means that an effective agent cost is about $12.00 per hour.

This is the basic agent cost; now what does it cost to train that agent? We run an ad for about $500, which may result in twenty applicants. Maybe four will pass the basic test for hiring, and perhaps two will be hired. For the two that may be hired, we pay a highly paid trainer to train them, along with the trainees’ pay. This makes the training hour cost well over $24 per hour. This is in addition to the costs for running the ad or paying the employee who does the applicant testing, interviews the applicant, and checks the references.

It is amazing how many applicants who are offered good jobs, stay at them for less than three months. The moment that something goes wrong, they simply quit. We spend an enormous amount of money training new applicants, over and over again, and the churn just continues. We try to pay every benefit known to mankind to keep our employees with us, and many in our industry have loyal employees who have been with them for years. However, there are always some who keep churning, which runs up our expenses, puts enormous stress on our managers, and has our loyal agents working much harder and for more hours.

Now that VoIP has become viable, it has allowed us to have agents working remotely, from anywhere in the world. Years ago, call centers started teaming up to handle each other’s overflow. This allowed them to take on accounts that had huge call volumes, and it better utilized their agents.   There is now a new trend: agent outsourcing. Right now, you can contract your agents for much less than what it would cost to hire them yourself. You totally control who your agents are. You have an initial telephone interview with the prospective new agents; they will only be hired for your company upon your approval, and they have to qualify with all testing and training. You grade them on each level of training, and each agent is dedicated to your call center.

Agent outsourcing has so many advantages. It cuts down overtime and takes the stress off the agents having to work extra hours to cover shifts. It cuts the attrition rate because it cuts down on employee churn. It saves your company money because the agent hour cost is less, it cuts down on overtime, and training is at a fraction of the normal cost. You can contract for as many agents as you need.

An agent outsourcing company can charge less for the agent (including training, supervision, and no overtime) because they outsource to other countries. Walk into any hospital today and you’ll notice employees from many different countries. You can walk into any business in the US and find employees from different countries who speak fluent English and sound professional. There is no difference when you outsource an agent in another country. In fact, agents in other counties look at working in a call center as prestigious employment. They go through many years of schooling to become an agent.

There is concern among call centers about staffing, benefits, and what an agent really costs. The problem is not isolated to one geographic area or even one industry; it is a problem for many businesses. All businesses are doing whatever is necessary to find and keep good employees, not those who show up late or don’t show up at all. In call centers, this increases hold times, which upset callers and clients. There are many unemployed people in the United States, but where are they? It is time for a change!

Many companies have been outsourcing for years. Now the time has arrived for our industry. However, there are some questions you need to ask before selecting an agent outsourcing company. What country do they use to outsource? In some countries, people are very difficult to understand on the telephone. In those countries, you’ll want to outsource employees for back office work but not phone work. You also want to ask how the agents are trained. Will the agents be dedicated to your company? What is the supervisor-to-agent ratio? Make sure the agent outsourcing company has all the employee contracts in place that you would use for your own operation. To use an agent outsourcing company, your call center system must be able to accommodate remote agent stations. You will also need broadband and VoIP capabilities.

Just as agent outsourcing is a new trend, a similar thing is happening with equipment. By hosting your system though an equipment vendor, you don’t have to worry about upgrades or deal with equipment problems. You have all the up-to-date services available, and you can do it for less than purchasing a new system.

By outsourcing your services, you can free up the time of valuable employees and dedicate this time to sales, billing, customer service, and running a profitable company. I look forward to the day when we all will be able to walk out our doors and not have to worry about agents answering the phones or the equipment not working. Outsourcing is the key.

Doris Primicerio is president of A Courteous Communications in Orlando, Florida. She has thirty-four years of experience in the telemessaging industry. For more information about agent outsourcing call 800-785-4766.

[From Connection Magazine October 2007]

Benefits of Virtualization for Call Centers

By John Hird

In the 21st century, the ability to enable and increase the productivity of “virtual” workers has been a major focus for IT departments. Nemertes Research reports that in 2007 eighty percent of all companies are “virtual” workplaces where at least some of their employees work away from their supervisors or workgroups. Nemertes also reports that in 2007 seventeen percent of employees work at least some time at home, up from ten percent in 2006. Obviously, virtualization is growing quickly. What does “virtual” worker mean in the call center industry and why is “virtualization” important?

With call centers there are two types of “virtual” workers. The first type of virtual worker is a remote agent. Remote agents work outside of the call center and receive calls routed from the call center via traditional telephone lines or VoIP. The remote agent’s workstation or desktop presents the same information as the workstations located at the call centers. Agents process calls and transactions at his/her remote location while call statistics and messages are managed centrally within the call center.

The advantages for the call centers are that remote agents:

  • Are more cost effective (lower hourly rates)
  • Consume less overhead
  • Can be recruited over a much larger geographic area, enabling call centers to seek more qualified agents
  • Have more flexible hours and are more satisfied with a flexible schedule, thereby providing longer retention
  • Can take advantage of more effective hours due to less travel time and expenses
  • Can be more skilled to process specific types of calls, such as calls related to billing or sales

The ability to support remote agents became available in the 90s. Today, remote agents are supported and utilized by most call centers. VoIP and Internet technologies enable remote agents to process calls and transactions remotely. Additionally, voice recording, workstation screen recording and other Work Force Optimization (WFO) software tools are available so that quality assurance, agent management, and optimization can be maintained for remote agents as well as in-house call center agents.

The second type of virtual worker is an agent that is located in an “alternate call center.” The alternate call center could be a “branch call center,” owned by the same company, or a “partner call center” with different ownership but with certain business arrangements for accepting and handling calls due to overflow, disaster recovery, or certain skill set requirements. In this scenario, the ability to route calls to an alternate call center is readily available and straightforward. Providing the same agent desktop and screens to the alternate agent, especially at a partner call center, is more complicated. The business relationship between the primary call center and the partner call center(s) introduces even more challenges such as the use of confidential data, multiple billings, and restoration of service back to the primary call center. This is where the “virtualization” of the call center becomes critically important.

True virtualization is achieved when the following enablers are employed:

  • Automatic call distribution to primary or any alternate call centers due to overflow, disaster recovery, or business requirements (such as skill set)
  • Automatic database replication between primary call centers and all alternate call centers, making the necessary information available to the alternate call centers. Security of the client information must also be maintained for the primary call center.
  • Automatic agent desktop replication enables agents located at alternate call centers to access the same screens, scripts, workflow, and messaging as the agents located at primary call centers, thus maintaining and offering the same customer experience.
  • Billing, management, and reporting that supports primary and partner call center business arrangements.

In other words, true virtualization of a call center requires not only call routing, but a complete business framework supporting the relationship between the primary call center and the business partner call center. As an example, the business partner must be able to track and bill the calls they handle to the primary call center owner. The primary call center must bill their client for the calls that are processed at both call centers. The callers’ experience should appear transparent, whether the call is handled by the primary call center or a business partner call center. The primary call center maintains the relationship and service response for the client. Activities provided by the partner call center must be transparent to the client. Therefore, the clients’ experience should also be the same regardless of whether calls are handled at a partner call center or by the primary call center provider.

Virtual Application Network (VAN) is a technology-oriented solution and a framework for properly implementing virtualization. VAN is made up of systems of shared resources where applications are distributed and executed over a variety of disparate networks. Virtual application services are services of multiple application instances that are executed over shared resources in a VAN. The call center example where calls are handled by a partner call center but the call pertains to a client of the primary call center is a perfect example of a VAN in operation.

At first glance, it seems straightforward for a partner call center to handle a call for a primary call center. However, for complete and successful outsourcing of call handling to a partner call center, the primary call center must ensure that:

  • Only call types that are supported can be forwarded from the primary call center.
  • All screen data for the partner call center must be the same as the primary call center
  • Calls handled by the partner call center must be tracked and then billed to the primary call center
  • The partner call center must be able to modify client account information as needed
  • Information gathered from callers by the partner call center must be accessed and processed by the primary call center
  • Recordings, caller information, and call details handled by the partner call center must be available in near real time by the primary call center
  • Call information handled by partner call centers must be available on the primary call center’s client Web portal so clients can access all of their call records
  • Quality of the partner agent call handling can be measured and tracked by the primary call center
  • Client relationship data is not accessible to the partner call center (client ownership is maintained by the primary call center)

A fully implemented VAN delivers these functions to primary and partner call centers. Key elements of VAN are a high performance, distributed, real-time database system plus a distributed unified desktop that offers automation, such as intelligent call distribution, call screening, workflow scripting, and messaging.

Operational advantages delivered by VAN include the:

  • Ability to handle client campaigns that require greater agent resources than available at the primary call center
  • Ability to reduce (or consolidate) agents during low activity periods
  • Ability to maintain services and availability to clients during disasters or unforeseen circumstances
  • Ability to meet stringent service-level requirements of demanding clients

VAN delivers numerous business benefits, the primary ones being increased productivity, customer satisfaction, and revenues. Moreover, business continuity is secured because services can be maintained even during disruption of the primary call centers due to high call volume, natural disasters, or call center IT down time.

When fully integrated with call center workforce optimization tools and agent desktop unification-automation technologies, VAN offers the most effective and optimized solution to call center challenges such as labor costs, desktop complexity, the need for bundled solutions, virtualization, and small-to-medium size call center requirements.

Virtualization is a top priority in the IT industry. Call center services will greatly benefit from virtualization as VAN functionality and agent automation continue to be deployed.

John Hird is vice president of product management at OnviSource Inc. He has a track record of delivering award-winning solutions to the call handling industry for over twenty years. He can be reached at john.hird@onvisource.com.

[From Connection Magazine October 2007]

Strategies for Hiring in a Virtual Call Center

By Mary Naylor

As more call centers transition to a partially or fully home-based model, the improved capabilities of a virtual workforce are crystallizing. Managers are embracing benefits such as expanded labor pools, advanced language capabilities, targeted skill-sets, enhanced peak coverage, and 24/7 support, all at a lower price point than the conventional call center model.

The allure of hiring individuals in virtually any market, as well as being able to provide unique skills and certifications or specific work experiences can be an enticing prospect for call center managers.  There are, however, several challenges that must be addressed for a company to fully realize these benefits.

Recruiting a remote team of agents is a new concept for many call centers. In these instances, it is not possible to recruit agents in the same manner that operations have grown accustomed to. It can be a daunting task, even for a seasoned professional, to transition entrenched hiring practices from local outreaches to a national campaign.

Here are a few tips to ensure your new home-based agents are screened and recruited just as thoroughly as their traditional bricks-and-mortar counterparts. Many of these strategies utilize resources that most organizations already have at their disposal.

Think Globally, Act Locally: Virtual call centers are intriguing because of potential cost savings, such as reduced overhead (physical expansion, rent, computers) and improved quality (lower attrition, more experienced agents). At the same time, decision-makers might pause when they consider the potential cost of a national recruiting campaign. Many national job boards charge a separate fee for each city where the ad is posted, making the cost of multiple local media ad placements cost-prohibitive for most companies.

By strategically targeting areas that have the greatest return on your dollar and available time, call centers can effectively prescreen cities and regions without spending a dime. A few of the factors to consider include:

  • Areas with preexisting call centers: These areas already have experienced call center agents, many of whom would gladly trade their commute to perform nearly the same job functions from home.
  • Unemployment rate: A city with a low unemployment rate will yield a lower percentage of qualified applicants; likewise, an area that has fallen on difficult times is likely to have a greater pool of applicants from which your organization can select. Also, when a call center downsizes or moves, each agent becomes an experienced potential applicant.
  • Cost of living: Not all wages are created equally – a dollar in Duluth goes farther than a dollar in Manhattan. If cost pressures provide scant financial flexibility, then finding equally qualified agents in areas where key cost indicators, such as real estate prices and compensation for comparable professions, can be used to project greater levels of interest at wages you are comfortable offering.
  • Program requirements: Some clients dictate in which states agents can reside for various reasons, such as tax considerations, or require that agents be located in close proximity to their physical store locations.
  • Demographic profile: You are more likely to find agents with a keen sense of style near major metropolitan and cosmopolitan areas. Likewise, if your agents are avid winter skiers, then you can focus on northern snow hotspots. This might seem like common sense after the fact, but a national ad is wasted on markets where organizations stand little chance soliciting qualified applicants from the onset.

Don’t Put Off Until Tomorrow What You Can Do Today: It is usually impossible to interview each candidate in person, but since your agents will be representing your company and your clients, call centers must still ensure that the candidate has all the requisite hard and soft skills. Also, the larger the recruiting net an organization casts, the greater the number of applicants. This can create challenges sifting through many more resumes than you are accustomed to handling in a short time frame.

To respond to this, many companies underutilize prescreening tools and techniques, relying almost exclusively on resume lines and buzzwords. More complex prescreenings are a perfect tool for home-based customer service operations that require a higher level of computer proficiency. By explicitly stating program requirements upfront (as opposed to just a generic overview), posting automated online tests, and requiring writing or related performance samples, your organization can siphon candidates who have the most useful skills earlier in the process. Also, consider adding more focused questions that will provide insight into the applicant’s abilities and work ethic. Many initial phone screenings tend to be overly generic, focusing on “fit.” Don’t forego these, but use the opportunity to ask more direct questions and incorporate role-plays that more readily identify applicants with transferable skills, not just lines on the resume that repeat the desired qualifications.

Mirror Work Environment: Since your agents will be taking calls from home, organizations must pay close attention to the attributes and aptitudes that define successful home-based agents. Hone in on valuable skill sets as soon as possible. You can request that all phone interviews be conducted in the desired work environment. If the candidate claims to have a quiet, dedicated work environment, but you can hear any external noises, then that is an immediate red flag.

There is no single right way to recruit home-based agents. Many of the same challenges any call center has identifying candidates persist in the virtual model. However, by incorporating some wise up-front planning and using tools and techniques that are already at your disposal, you can identify virtual call center agents with a higher performance potential who can provide outstanding customer service at a lower cost for their clients.

Mary A. Naylor, a twenty-year veteran of the concierge services industry, is founder and CEO of VIPdesk, a provider of premium virtual contact center solutions serving Fortune 1000 clients.

[From Connection Magazine October 2007]

Homebodies: The New Contact Center Agents

By Jim Mitchell

Imagine a contact center where agents can answer customer calls from the comfort of their own home and can be flexible with their schedules in order to be readily available at various times of the day. Many companies are evaluating the benefits and technologies associated with an at-home agent contact center, but is it the right choice for everyone?

Companies are going virtual in their contact centers with at-home agents because of the variety of benefits it potentially provides. The biggest factor influencing a company’s decision to move to a virtual contact center operation is that it offers a cost-effective way to provide around-the-clock customer care. Moreover, it’s generally more feasible for companies to leverage agents that are open to shorter and more flexible work hours. As an added bonus, since many employees prefer working at home, this work environment can create a happier and more productive staff, resulting in positive customer interactions. Although going virtual raises some concerns, including technology implications and security issues, the benefits typically outweigh the challenges.

Compelling Reasons for Making the Switch: An at-home agent arrangement can bring both the agent and the contact center numerous benefits, including cost savings, lower attrition rates, and increased productivity. The primary benefit of at-home agents, however, is access to a far broader resource pool. Call centers can literally utilize at-home agents located around the world. This offers a number of unique advantages, especially when operating a 24/7, 365-support environment.

This larger agent pool is also more skilled. Home-based agents are more likely to have college degrees when compared with workers in typical call centers. Most are in their 30s or 40s, older than the average call center employee, and many have management experience, often in outsourcing firms.

Another compelling benefit is schedule flexibility. Having at-home agents allows contact centers to pull in resources when they’re most needed, such as during peak call volume times of the day or year, or in the event of an outage at another location. Agents can also fit work hours to their own needs. This leads to happier agents and has a positive effect on morale. As a result, at-home agents are usually more productive on a number of measures, including quality and timeliness.

Technology in the At-home Model: Technology plays an important role in any contact center, and in a virtual contact center, some might argue, it plays an even larger role. At-home or remote agents need all the same tools as agents deployed within the walls of the contact center. Contact centers will need to be able to schedule, manage, and measure them as fully as any local agent.

In addition to the basic connectivity tools, such as a computer, a virtual private network (VPN) router, and digital subscriber line (DSL) or cable modem, the agents will also require the applications for managing the calls.

Optimizing performance and tracking productivity can be challenging with the at-home agent setup, so contact centers should consider implementing workforce management applications and quality management tools to ensure that the agents’ performance is aligned with business goals. Workforce management is a useful tool for scheduling and ensuring that at-home agents are adhering to their shifts, breaks, and vacation time. Advanced workforce management solutions empower agents to have greater control over their scheduling.

The contact center also has to consider how its IT department will support those remote applications. Best practices require providing every at-home agent with the exact same technology setup so that IT has a complete understanding of the tools and applications in use.

In most instances, it makes sense for IT to build a sample work-at-home station in the call center, using a cable modem or DSL service. That makes it easier for IT to troubleshoot at-home agent technology and connectivity issues. As part of the training process for the agents using the contact center applications, it is advisable to provide them with some basic IT troubleshooting skills so they can help manage any technology issues they may encounter. In addition, if there is a partial or complete outage at the agent’s home or location, the contact center needs to have a plan in place as to how the agent should respond and how the central contact center will manage calls that would normally have been routed to that remote agent or location.

Getting Started and Other Key Factors to Consider: Companies switching from traditional contact centers to the at-home agent option should try it out first as a pilot program to see what works and what doesn’t. Companies may want to start by testing the deployment scenarios using several seasoned agents. Lessons learned from these initial exercises will help management refine the deployment processes and training on the various applications. During this period, it is important to build time into the agent’s schedules to document their experience and provide feedback. This has the dual benefit of allowing them to feel engaged in the process while providing good data on technology and the experience of being an at-home agent. Also, it is key to allot time for the IT support team to handle any problems that arise, as well as conduct any supplemental system performance monitoring and diagnosis.

After the successful implementation of the pilot program, management needs to decide who will make up the at-home agent staff. Since the work environment is different, the traits employers look for in home-based agents are also different from those of in-house contact center employees. Rather than looking for outgoing, ambitious people that might need to work closely with coworkers, employers should look for candidates who are comfortable being alone, are well-disciplined, will not require constant direction from their managers, and are content having a job with little face-to-face interaction.

Contact centers making this transition need to address legal considerations, ensuring that the company and employee are complying with local, state, and federal labor laws, addressing safety issues, and protecting company property. In addition, call centers need to consider security and protection of caller data and client information.

The contact center needs to come up with a standard “right-to-use” policy for their equipment so the agents understand what is and what isn’t allowed on corporate provided equipment. Security and privacy issues are a major consideration, particularly depending which type of business processes that the agent handles. Caller data, such as credit card transactions or social security numbers, needs to be secured. This is not just limited to ensuring the agent isn’t stealing valuable customer data, but also making sure that the agent’s family or friends can’t breach the database.

Next, companies need to make sure that agents only have access to the customer information they absolutely need. For example, for a sales transaction, an at-home agent may be able to complete the majority of the sale, but when it gets to the point where credit card information is collected, the call is transferred to a different agent where the data can be secured much more easily.

The companies that take all of these factors into consideration before implementing an at-home agent contact center environment will be taking significant steps toward ensuring a successful deployment. In the future, more call centers will use at-home agents. These companies will benefit from a more diverse, better skilled, and happier staff. Contact centers considering switching to the at-home model of a virtual contact center should consider technological and legal implications, and they should try a pilot program before implementation. At-home agents can make a huge difference to the bottom line for call centers that follow the right steps to implement this growing trend.

Jim Mitchell is senior vice president at Aspect Software, a provider of contact center products and services.

[From Connection Magazine October 2007]