Home, Sweet Home

Apr 01, 2005 10:30 PM  By

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.