West at Home Intros Security System for At-Home Agents

There’s no question that the remote, or home-based contact center agent model is poised for future growth: Market research firm IDC predicts there will be more than 300,000 remote agents working in the U.S. by 2010. Rising fuel prices will no doubt help drive adoption. In addition, several major U.S. contact center outsourcing firms, including West at Home, VIPdesk and LiveOps (each of which serves several major retail brands), have seen great success with the remote agent model, which in turn is inspiring other businesses to investigate it.

But the biggest barrier to adoption remains security. Because remote agents are just that – remote – it can be challenging to monitor each and every agent’s activities. There have been problems with remote agents accessing databases that they’re not supposed to, and stealing sensitive customer information such as credit card and social security numbers, without anyone in the main center knowing about it.

Furthermore, it’s difficult to police each remote agent’s desktop to ensure that they aren’t copying and pasting information from their screens — or that they are staying on task and not wasting time surfing the Web, doing online shopping, or updating their personal page on their favorite social networking site.

To address these security concerns, most companies with remote agent programs require each agent to work on a dedicated line that needs to be brought into their home, plus a dedicated computer which either they have to purchase on their own, or the company has to purchase it for them. This upfront investment is a barrier to entry — both for the agent, who might otherwise be qualified to do the job, and for the company, which can’t successfully migrate to the remote agent model unless it purchases, pre-configures and then ships a certain number of dedicated computers.

To help companies jump this hurdle, West at Home, a subsidiary of contact center outsourcing provider West Corp., has introduced a new “remote locked-down desktop” security environment for home-based agents. The patent-pending technology automatically and transparently performs a lock-down service on an agent’s existing computer without impacting network operations.

This new network access control system not only secures customer and company data by limiting agent access to business applications and databases, it also helps solve the problem of having to shell out cash for a dedicated computer: The agent can use the computer they already have, just so as long as it meets the required specifications (for example, it must have, at minimum, a 32-bit processor).

Mark Frei, West at Home’s senior vice president of sales, says in the past 18 to 24 months, West has seen a strong up-tick in the number of companies investigating the remote agent model as an alternative, “but where they remain reluctant is in the area of security.”

“The problem is,” he says, “if you’re sitting at home at your computer, and you switch over to the call center system and start a shift from, say, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., how do we control that desktop? How do I stop you from cutting and pasting, printing, wandering into other websites? Early on we didn’t recognize a way to do that — and that was a huge concern for our clients and prevented some people from moving into this at-home space.”

For the remote agents, using the new system is simple: When the agent is ready to start a shift, they log on using a “start work” button on their desktop. This invokes the contact center’s workforce management software, which confirms that that agent is scheduled to work.

Then the system calls up a whole new desktop which overlays the agent’s original (or default) desktop, with buttons for only the applications and other network resources the agent needs in order to do their job. The system also controls which databases, folders and Websites the agent can access. When the agent is done with their shift, they click the “stop work” button, and their original desktop is restored back to its native state.

Frei says all of this is completely transparent to the agent: “They’re not loading anything – we don’t have to send them any additional software – it just looks like their normal log in [when they’re in the main center].” This is important because remote agents typically don’t like the feeling of being constantly monitored – that “Big Brother” is watching.

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