About five years ago, we entered a discussion with a prospective client. They had been outsourcing their customer service to a call center with a predominantly “work-at-home” (WAH) model and one of the first questions they asked us was about work-at-home agents. They’d had a bad experience with that model and were keen to move as far away from any work-at-home solution as possible. We won the business with a solution that was based entirely on using agents located in our center. In those years, we also saw many Requests for Proposals (RFP) for Call Center Services asking questions around WAH with the clear indication that it was not the desired model. The RFPs were basically asking questions to weed out strictly WAH providers. Fast forward a couple of years and the very same client who scrambled to get away from a WAH model was pushing us to move to a hybrid model with work-at-home as an integral part of the mix. We started to see RFPs asking, not if, but how we would incorporate WAH as part of the solution. So what happened? Did WAH move from something to be avoided to something to be embraced over the course of just a few years?
Until recent years, many companies were hesitant to explore the work-at-home model for their outsourced call center agents. Even just five years ago, technology limitations were a barrier to having a remote agent solution that was as secure, robust, and stable as the call center environment. But the technical landscape has been evolving in leaps and bounds, and work-at-home capabilities are being driven by advancements in virtualization and cloud computing.
Once upon a time, we would place our own computers and routers at our WAH agents’ houses. We set up separate networks for computer and telephony, and our tech team would make routine visits to agents’ homes to audit set-ups and to resolve issues. In less than a decade, residential internet speed and stability has evolved to new heights and personal hardware like computers and monitors for home use has kept pace. So there is no longer a need to install our own equipment. We simply provide a USB headset for computer audio and set up the agent with credentials to a remote virtual desktop environment. In some cases, we also provide a USB key that boots their computer into an independent operating system that connects flawlessly to the remote environment.
With cloud and virtualization tools becoming ubiquitous in the business world, the ability to implement and support this technical environment has become significantly easier and more cost-effective. Stay at home agents are up and running without any tech support visits; in-house overhead, including workspace and technology, is significantly reduced; and the remote access model maintains a highly secure environment for any sensitive data and information. In other words, the cloud makes it possible for agents to be using the exact same environment at home as they do in our offices. The cloud has completely transformed reliability, security, and transparency in a WAH model. With this technical transformation, many of the concerns about WAH that clients had in 2012 have been erased. But what about the people concerns? Can a contact center partner really manage a team of agents working remotely as effectively as they can manage someone sitting right beside them?
There’s no denying that there is an enormous amount of trust required with a work-at-home model in your outsourced call center. After all, you’re already trusting your entire brand to an outsourced call center partner. The idea of having outsourced agents represent your company from their own homes may certainly spark some anxiety. Could your contact center partner really effectively supervise their contact handling efficiency? What about quality assurance? How do they get supported and coached? How can your partner guarantee the model won’t devolve into some nightmarish notion of “out of sight, out of mind”? These are valid questions and technology has evolved to assist in performance management in this regard as well. But to begin with, let’s look at some of the best practices for approaching the remote agent scenario.
There are three factors to consider when managing work-at-home call center agents.
First, Who Can Handle Work-at-Home?
Our hiring profile for work-at-home agents has unique distinctions. Not surprisingly, successful work-at-home agents tend to be mature, self-motivated, self-disciplined people who like to take initiative. Typically, these agents are not extroverts who need the group setting to thrive. The typical WAH agent is confident in their own abilities and are natural problem-solvers.
When recruiting people for work-at-home positions, we prefer to hire from within. Agents who have tenure in our physical environment have been immersed in the brand experience of our clients and understand how our culture drives our service. In addition, time working in our physical office means we’ve been able to gauge how that particular agent responds to coaching and what kind of support works best for them. We’ve seen how well they are able to focus on the task at hand and we’ve assessed their efficiency in contact handling. For some WAH agents, our process includes a “test run,” in which candidates work in an isolated office area away from their home team. Essentially, this means working solo within a separate work area to see how well the agent performs working “alone” and if they even enjoy it.
The Virtual Classroom. Is It Enough?
This is a great topic of discussion. The virtual classroom of 2017 is a thing of beauty. In the past, training has been a barrier to some companies in developing their work-at-home team. If someone is working from home due to mobility or transportation issues – a requirement to come to the office to be trained could be a barrier. Today’s online classrooms have pretty much eliminated that barrier. But having said that, for us, training always happens in our own offices. One of the competitive differentiators for Blue Ocean in the crowded global contact center industry is that we have evolved a process and culture that results in our agents truly embodying our clients’ brands. (Our biggest clients tell us regularly that we do the brand immersion experience better than any outsourcers they’ve worked with around the world.) We’ve found that this cultural immersion in our client’s brand and in Blue Ocean’s values happens best in person. For us, this is truly a case of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Basically, we could efficiently manage the “knowledge transfer” process to get an agent effectively trained at home, but we believe the emotional piece of the puzzle still requires an in-person experience.
Coaching and Managing the At-Home Agent
Once they’re in the field, our on-going coaching program operates almost exactly how it does in the office. Again, this is where technology advancements, especially in collaboration, have changed the game. Through the use of SIP technology, communications tools (in our case Cisco’s Jabber) can support rich media, and real-time communication. Our contact center is built on that. The only difference in performance management for WAH agents is that our coaches and WAH agents engage in live coaching sessions via Jabber, with the ability to text, talk, use video, and share live screens and files rather than sitting side-by-side. Measuring the quality and productivity of the work-at-home agent is the same process as in-house; agents are held accountable to the same key performance indicators, and they are frequently asked to self-evaluate their delivery of the customer experience.
Will Their Performance Compare to In-House Agents?
A study reported in the Harvard Business Review claimed that stay at home call center agents answered 13.5% more calls than their in-house counterparts. The cause of this, they reported, was likely the quieter environment, with no “cake in the break room effect,” as well as the lack of commute, shorter breaks and lunch hours, and fewer sick days.
At Blue Ocean, we have seen excellent performance from our work-at-home agents. For non-tenured agents, the only negative we initially see is longer Average Handle Times. This difference becomes negligible over time as they are coached on a continuous basis. One benefit that at-home agents bring to the table is a greater willingness to accept split shifts and on-call work. In many cases, the work-at-home model has improved attendance records while simultaneously allowing agents greater work-life balance and continued employment despite scenarios like relocation or greater family responsibilities.
Another huge benefit to this remote set-up is the extra layer of redundancy for business continuity. When office evacuations occur or treacherous weather conditions make it difficult for agents to get to the office, remote agents are on the job.
The cloud, virtual classrooms, and new coaching approaches and tools have eradicated many of the concerns clients had in the early 2010s about the stability and effectiveness of WAH. We believe there are real benefits to including remote agents in the solution model for our clients. A WAH contingent can bolster your business continuity, scalability, and flexibility especially for programs with frequent unpredictable spikes in volume. Looking to explore outsourced contact center solutions? Let’s chat. We’d love to share our insight and learn more about your needs.