Home, Sweet Home

Anecdotally, it appears that a sort of informal backlash against offshore agents has resulted in lower customer satisfaction ratings for some companies. A recent study by Forrester Research Inc. indicates that help is available in the form of virtual contact centers, which by any other name would be onshore home-agent networks. These home-agent networks offer the promise of reduced infrastructure costs, highly skilled workers, greater customer satisfaction, and increased flexibility in contact center services. Improved IP technology and networked applications make the virtual option more feasible than ever before.

As far as the agents themselves are concerned, home agents hired by study respondents “tend to be older and more experienced,” stay with their jobs longer, are more productive than in-house agents, are less exposed to illness and so have lower absentee rates, and frequently work for rates 5%-15% lower than those in-house agents earn — in fact, some firms are able to use performance-based pay for home agents. In addition, remote agents work on part-time or split shifts, offering employers more flexibility in scheduling and in meeting peak times and night shifts.

Companies running virtual contact centers can also save significant sums on expenses for office space, utilities, and equipment, while retaining the ability to expand rapidly without capital expenditure. The only limitation to where companies can hire virtual agents is the availability of high-speed Internet access. While visual control of employees is impossible, software allows supervisors to observe and monitor agents in real time.

On the side of more negative considerations, technical security, company confidentiality, and maintenance of vital technical support for agents are potential risk factors for any company that chooses to implement a virtual contact center. The Forrester report suggests that some of these risks can be reduced by quality monitoring programs, frequent feedback to agents, and regular training and follow-up training, all of which need to be integral parts of any virtual call center operation. The report cautions, however, that workforce screening is especially important for home agents and should include background checks. For more information, visit www.forrester.com.

Risks for Home Agents
Security risks Remote sites require security protection and effective policies.
Technical support Equivalent technical support is mandatory for home agents.
Training Online or group training must be offered on a regular basis.
Supervision Real-time performance monitoring provides immediate feedback.
Legal liabilities Legal requirements vary and must be included in the plan.
Loss of control What is not monitored and measured may affect results.
Free agents Independent contractor agents often job hop for better positions.
Source: Forrester Research, Inc.

Home Sweet Home

We never really know what the home of our customer truly resembles — is it a home out of House Beautiful or out of Motor Trends? But unless we know what our customer is looking for in a home accent, we will never be able to capture his or her attention in our catalog. ▪ So let’s talk about our customer, the number-one asset of any catalog, for a moment. Assuming our target audience is the upscale female, we know that she is decorating a new home or redecorating her existing home on the average of every three years.

We are also privy to the fact that she wants her home to be bigger than her neighbor’s. Today’s upscale consumer has a media room, an exercise room, a music room, a home office, a so-called great room, a mega-kitchen, a master bedroom, a guest bedroom suite, an ever-growing laundry room, and an extravagant bathroom, which could be even larger than the bedroom, to decorate. And let’s not forget the garage.

Then there are the vacation homes. We also know that the second-home buyer tends to decorate all over again with even more vigor than she did her original home. Whether the vacation home is at a lake, near the beach, or in the mountains, the upscale consumer will take the time to go through all her catalogs so that she can begin the decorating process once again.

We know that she is spending more time than ever in her home. She is entertaining at home, entertaining out in the garden, entertaining for the different seasons. She is spending her time organizing her home as well as “digitalizing” it, and for every spare moment left in the day she must tend to the garden, which has definitely become another “room” in the house. In fact, according to the National Gardening Survey, during the past five years the average annual gardening spending has grown by about 4% each year.

Now that we have determined that our customer indeed loves to decorate, we have to ask whether we want to be inspirational or aspirational in our approach. I think that either method is a valid one. The following home trends, I believe, are inspirational:

  • adventurous: Combining a contemporary feel with a Louis XV day bed, for instance.

  • whimsical: You might have classic velvet upholstered furniture mixed with a checkered throw pillow and a palm-tree sculture.

  • Asian eclectic: Think of paper lanterns, colored glass goblets, and botanical print cushions mixed with an Oriental rug and chairs from India.

  • relaxed modern: A style that uses bold colors and clean lines yet still manages to be warm and comfortable — a beige contemporary sofa alongside a red glass lamp with a floral decorative piece, for example.

The following home trends are more aspirational:

  • flower power: Everything’s coming up roses, or tulips, or daisies, or hydrangeas, but the patterns are larger than life. Adding even more energy, florals and botanicals are mixed with stripes and geometric prints.

  • private retreat: Thanks to this style, the bathroom is starting to look a lot like the living room. Free-standing sinks are the craze these days, vanity guest baths now resemble fine cabinetry, and ornate mirrors and lighting are becoming de rigueur.

  • jewelry for the home: When you want to dress up, you put on your earrings. When you want to dress up your house, you put some intricate beading and braiding on your lampshades or finials.

  • fantasy garden: Love the new faux bois outdoor furniture, which has been finished to simulate the popular rustic concrete furniture that came from Europe in the 1820s. Statuary and fountains are popular as well, as trellises and arbors.

Whether you are inspirational or aspirational, there is plenty of product to choose from I would like to close with a quote from a California decorator, Lynn Von Kersting, that I think applies to catalog merchandising as well as to home decorating: “Choose only what takes your breath away, and don’t worry about matching.” I think this says it perfectly, don’t you?

Kathy Revello is president of Kathy Revello Associates, a catalog merchandising consultancy based in Sunnyvale, CA.