9 Questions for Choosing the Right Home-Agent Provider, Part One

May 23, 2007 7:30 PM  By

Have you ever wished you didn’t have to commute to work? Have you ever craved a quiet workspace with minimal distractions? How about the flexibility to work the hours you choose?

Imagine how productive and inspired you’d be in this environment. Imagine the time, money, and hassle you’d save.

This dream is now a reality in contact centers. The remote model, where agents handle calls, e-mails, and chat from their home offices, has emerged as one of the industry’s hottest initiatives. Using home agents, you can hire the highest-quality people, reduce overhead and turnover, enhance operational flexibility, and increase customer satisfaction rates.

In evaluating providers of home-based agents, many organizations make the mistake of focusing on tangibles such as skill-based routing, digital recording, real-time reporting, e-mail and chat capabilities, and redundant system configurations. Generally, most providers have equivalent capabilities in these areas. However, it is intangibles such as process, knowledge integration, partner relationship, and culture that can determine the success of a partnership. As a result, it is imperative to ask questions targeted to this end when choosing a home-agent provider to handle or supplement your customer service or sales operations.

Here are some questions to consider:

1) How many available agents have the skill sets I seek?

It is critical to have an internal consensus on agent backgrounds. When evaluating providers, identify the number of agents on hand who possess your requisite industry experience and credentials. In particular, address the following questions with prospective partners:

· How many available agents do you have who fit my profile? How many will you need to recruit? Do you have prospective agents cataloged who meet my specifications?

· How do you keep track of your agents’ education, experience, and professional credentials? How is this information integrated with agents’ work histories at your company (performance evaluations, previous projects handled)? How do your recruiters leverage this information to find candidates who fit my ideal agent profile?

· Let’s say my business model changes. How quickly could your team adapt to this change? How would you do it?

In short, it is critical to align the right people with the right work – to identify candidates with the right skills and experience to align with your long-term mission.

2) What criteria do you seek in hiring employees?
The attributes of successful home agents are much different than those of “brick and mortar” agents. Home agents require far more than a phone, an Internet connection, and quiet space. To last, home agents must be mature, motivated, disciplined self-starters who can work in a less structured environment.

The media sometimes depict home agents as loners who work out of their homes in bunny slippers. That’s not typically the case. Like entrepreneurs, home agents tend to be highly educated and technically savvy professionals who value their time and personal freedom. They work on specific programs due to their specialized expertise and zeal. These are individuals who view their role as a long-term position instead of another McJob.

Consequently, you need a clear grasp of your corporate culture. What image do you want to project? What traits should agents possess to mirror your brand? Is it enthusiasm? Personal warmth? Proactive problem-solving? Content knowledge?

Agents are evaluated on traits like these in their quality-assurance evaluations. After your prospective partner has compiled a team based on skill sets and experience, further winnow your team based on agent personality.

3) How quickly can you adjust your staffing for call volume?
A standard brick-and-mortar operation requires agents to work in four- to eight-hour shifts. Depending on call volume, a center can either operate too “fat” (too many agents for too few calls) or “thin” (too few agents for too many calls). The former results in higher operating costs. The latter produces higher hold times and dropped calls, which translate into lost sales and service opportunities.

By outsourcing to a home-agent model, you can easily expand contact center capacity without incurring infrastructure costs such as additional office space, employees, and equipment. Agents can be scheduled in increments as short as 30 minutes, and staffing can be expanded or contracted in even less time. As a result, you can better staff for volume surges or dead times.

In your evaluation, examine how quickly a prospective partner can scale up and down. Evaluate how their tools inform their process. Similarly, make sure you are clear on how much advance notice is necessary in scheduling projected volume.

4) How can I be sure my data are secure?
From credit-card fraud to identity theft, crime is a paramount concern to your customers. Any transgression risks an angry customer at best and a media firestorm at worst. Your brand is at risk if you haven’t cushioned every exposure point in your systems’ infrastructure and business processes.

At first glance, a decentralized home-agent model might make it more susceptible to crime. However, the access and use of sensitive data can be monitored as easily in a remote environment as in a brick-and-mortar center. It is security measures already in place that will dictate whether you’ll be exposed to malfeasance.

As you evaluate potential partners, closely examine the following:

· Authentication: How do they identify user and operating system?

· Restriction: How does their infrastructure prohibit agents from accessing private information without specific prompts?

· Recording: How do they log who accesses what information and when? Do they have the ability to track all actions and all times? Do certain activities produce red flags that are escalated to appropriate individuals for immediate response?

· Security: What measures (firewalls, etc.) do they use to guard against threats such as viruses and hackers when agents log into your system or data are transmitted?

· Education: Are agents educated on the importance of confidentiality? Are they aware of various security measures to ward off any potential temptation?

· Other: How do they restrict the printing, copying, and downloading of confidential or proprietary information? How do they stop agents from moving between screens to access sensitive data? What types of background checks do agents undergo? Does the agency have credentials such as PCI compliance?

In addition, be sure to closely review partner contracts in relation to security responsibilities and organizational liability.

5) How have they serviced clients with similar challenges?
It isn’t always what your partner does but how it does it that determines the success of a business relationship. Selecting a home-agent partner is no different from a job interview: You are identifying how well another team will work with your own.

As with any other interview, you need to step beyond the resume and focus on real-world nuts and bolts. Here are some ideas for flushing out how your prospective partners service other clients:

  • Case studies: Get a step-by-step account of how they apply their principles to their practices.
  • Empirical data: Examine samples of client reports, mystery-shopper evaluations, and client testimonials to validate claims. Use this information to verify that they can deliver ROI and meet your service metrics.
  • Technical specs: Outline the process of integrating your respective networks and applications, including timelines, milestones and labor. Identify early how difficult your program will be to implement and how open your partner is to working with you.
  • Leadership: How long has their management worked in their organization? What about the industry in general? What have they accomplished? How closely does their upper management follow day-to-day operations? How often are they in touch with clients? What types of new ideas and solutions have they shared with existing clients to boost results and efficiency? What is the longevity of their largest clients?

Next month, we’ll explore the questions you need to ask regarding training, quality control, and team building.

Jeff Schmitt served as the marketing and compliance manager for Working Solutions, a provider of remote agents to Fortune 1000 companies.

Questions for Choosing the Right Home-Agent Provider, Part Two