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

May 29, 2007 8:21 PM  By

This is the second in a two-part series on how to choose a home agent provider. To read the first part, click here.

The remote contact center model is predicated on furnishing highly skilled phone talent less expensively than staffing a brick-and-mortar contact center. In the first part of this two-part series, we looked at questions that companies selecting a home-agent provider must ask regarding recruiting, staffing, and data security. Here are additional questions to ask before selecting your outsourcing partner:

6) Describe your agent quality control and evaluation practices. Contact center operations are made or broken by whether agents consistently perform at a high level. As a result, it is imperative to select a partner with strong monitoring and agent-development programs. When evaluating partners in these areas, consider the following:

  • What types of action plans have they developed to help individual agents reach their potential? What strategies have they employed to raise the group’s collective performance?
  • How do their quality rubrics align with your internal measurement criteria? Are they flexible enough to accommodate your mission-critical items?
  • How often do these companies monitor? Do their monitoring forms document personal growth over time? Can the results be tabulated and tracked throughout an agent’s career?
  • How involved are agents in setting their own goals? Are they actively engaged in a two-way evaluation process?

In particular, focus on the flexibility of prospective partners. Instead of adhering to their internal protocols, can they customize their approach to fit your program’s unique objectives and variables? Can they adopt your reporting structure and scoring so that you have an accurate measurement of their performance against your internal team or past partners?

Look at the strategies your prospective partners employ. What tactics (role playing, listening to recorded calls, etc.) do they use to boost agent performance? Similarly, immediate feedback is critical to fostering the right phone habits. What is the time lapse between the monitoring and the evaluation? Are agents receiving feedback in real time – or immediately afterward – so that they can better recognize good and bad practices in context?

Also, look at your prospective partners’ underlying philosophy on quality and personnel development. What tone do the quality-control agents set? Are they focused on praising and motivating, or do they devote more time to correcting? How is most coaching done: phone, e-mail, online, instant messenger? Is the feedback interactive, where the agent can ask questions?

Finally, evaluate the role of the quality-control team. To be effective, these individuals should be versed in all facets of a program. Will team members take calls for your program? Participate in your trainings? Be actively involved in program development and maintenance meetings?

7) How do you train your staff? In the work-from-home model, training presents unique opportunities and challenges. On one hand, organizations can deploy agents faster by recruiting individuals with established industry knowledge and skills. Using this practice, organizations can dodge time-consuming training involving sales and customer service skills and focus exclusively on product, application, and procedural training.

But how can you be sure your agents are picking up content when you can’t see their faces or interpret their body language? To compensate for distance, home-agent providers must employ solid distance-learning foundations and tools that address the following questions:

  • What is your course design and curriculum? How is it grounded on proven educational pedagogy?
  • What types of tools do you use to transmit knowledge? Downloadable training modules? PowerPoint? WebX? How easy are these tools to access?
  • What types of teaching methodologies do you employ? How does your approach accommodate the unique learning styles and pace of agents? How much of the training is self-run by the agents?
  • How large are your training sessions? How can you be sure agents get individualized attention? How much interaction is there with the instructor?
  • How do you evaluate what has been learned? Is there follow-up and refresher training throughout the program? • Are agents paid for training? Who pays?
  • Are you willing to customize your training curriculum to accommodate our own? Based on our specs, how fast can you roll out training for this program?
  • What types of ongoing training does your management team undergo? Do they attend events such as conferences and Webinars to expose them to best practices and emerging trends?

8) How do you forge a sense of community among your agents? Skeptics point out that the remote-agent model breeds isolation. In their view, working from home makes it more difficult for agents to forge camaraderie with peers.

They have a point. A home-agent model is no different than any other business model. When implemented haphazardly, the home-agent model undermines the informal networks that are often critical to reinforcing company knowledge, expectations and culture.

Of course, bricks-and-mortar centers can just as easily engender disconnect when management practices fail to meet individual expectations. This brings up a critical question: In an environment where thousands of agents have no face-to-face contact with their peers and managers, how can you foster a sense of team?

The answer is no different than in any bricks-and-mortar center: You have to be constantly work at it. How hard do your prospective home-agent providers focus on building community? How would they answer the following questions:

  • How do you reward performance in areas such as attendance, first-call resolution, high quality scores, and meeting revenue goals? How do you show your appreciation for their day-to-day efforts? How do you transmit individual and group recognition across the enterprise?
  • How do you motivate your agents? How do you make the workday fun? What types of surprises, such as games, drawings, and unexpected gifts, do you use to spice up the day?
  • What types of tools do you use to facilitate communication among agents? What tools do you use to facilitate ongoing corporate communication and client expectations across the board?
  • How do you make agents feel comfortable? What types of support networks are available to them?
  • How are agents involved in program improvement? Are they able to share their ideas and solutions with other stakeholders in the organization? Are these ideas valued and escalated? Are agents kept abreast of what happens to their ideas?

Agent support is particularly important in fostering a team environment. To provide this support, some home-agent providers use virtual mentors. These are experienced agents who can pair up with new hires to transmit applicable content and expectations. In other cases, providers use team leaders, recognized agent experts who can immediately provide support and feedback when contacted. Another alternative is technical support, where agents receive assistance on computer- and phone-related issues.

Along with personal support, providers use tools such as an online message board, where agents can pass along ideas and best practices to each other. Similarly, agents can log into a company intranet, which allows them to access all important content in one spot.

9) What are my real goals? In reality, this is probably the first question you should ask—and you should be asking it of yourself and your company, not of prospective providers. Before you amass your agent profile or start your evaluation process, ask yourself these questions:

  • What is my true objective? Is it to cut costs? Improve customer interactions? Reduce stress on other areas of the operation? Increase revenue?
  • What do I truly value in a business relationship? What makes me comfortable with my other partners? What values do I want my service agency to share?
  • •What is the most important variable in making this program successful? Is it fluency in my vertical? Problem-solving? Sales skills? Building relationships?
  • How involved do I want to be in management? How much control am I willing to surrender to my prospective partner?

In a home-agent environment, your success is based on integrating your processes, people, and technology. A home-agent model, when done right, is a sure-fire way to build brand equity. That’s why it’s so critical to find an experienced partner with the right culture.

Jeff Schmitt served as the marketing and compliance manager for Working Solutions (www.workingsol.com), a provider of remote agents.