Home Is Where the Rep Is

You’ve heard time and again how consumers have more choices now than ever and have access to more information than ever. Technologies such as the Internet have empowered customers, giving them instant access to alternative sales channels and competitors. And as consumers gain more control, they’re leveraging it to customize and dictate terms. They now have higher service expectations and demand interaction with experts who can quickly resolve issues in their favor.

This evolution poses unique challenges to contact centers. Like other operational units, contact centers are being stretched to do more with less. Centers are expected to contain costs while maximizing revenue. They must maintain efficiency and flexibility despite receiving fewer resources. And within these constraints, management must recruit, train, motivate, and retain a higher-caliber agent. Keeping skilled contact center agents happy means that they can help keep your customers happy.

To attract and retain these agents in order to heighten customer experience and accommodate savvy consumers, many companies are turning to home-based agents.

This home-agent model, which businesses such as American Airlines, Dell, JetBlue, and Sears have already implemented, employs work-from-home staffers to assist customers. These agents can serve as stand-alone units or supplement existing teams. They require just a phone and an Internet connection and can easily be integrated into an existing infrastructure.

A home-agent setup appeals to job candidates seeking a better work-life balance. Agents can determine their own hours, which frees them to meet family and community obligations. They face fewer distractions at home and avoid long and costly commutes.

The benefits to the potential employee are obvious. But the home-agent model also provides to your business in a number of areas:

  • hiring

    Being able to offer job candidates the ability to work from home is of course a powerful recruiting and retention tool. But using home agents also allows you to recruit nationwide, resulting in fewer labor and skill shortages. You can tap into a deep reservoir of talent, including seasoned professionals who have given up careers to return home. This labor surplus affords you the luxury of hiring only the best candidates.

  • skill sets

    Because home agents often possess above-average skills as well as specialized industry experience and credentials to handle complicated transactions, you can invest less time training them and reap greater productivity.

  • scaling

    The model makes it easier to grow your team without incurring additional costs such as office space or equipment. Moreover, home agents enable you to quickly staff for seasonal surges or promotional spikes.

  • turnover

    On average, home agent turnover is less than 10%. And long-term agents help you retain that undocumented know-how that is critical to holding an operation together.

  • disaster recovery

    A home-based model is not geographically concentrated. If a natural disaster or mass outage strikes, calls can simply be rerouted to agents in unaffected areas to prevent downtime and lost revenue.

  • results

    Higher skill sets, broader industry experience, and satisfied employees equate to better performance. With home agents, you can expect higher conversion rates, larger order sizes, more first-call resolutions, and improved customer satisfaction.

Tips for teaching at a distance

In any competitive marketplace, it is imperative to create added value. With home agents, service is the differentiator. The model frees you to mine a different workforce: mature and motivated self-starters who possess industry experience and are technically astute.

The home-agent model may require you to reengineer your operation, however. For example, the model works only with agents who are independent, conscientious, and focused. Similarly, home agents can feel isolated unless you have created an interactive culture that emphasizes team-building and collaboration.

To successfully cultivate a home-based team, you must address five areas: recruiting, training, quality control, support, and motivation.

  • Recruiting: The home-agent model is fueled by recruiting the right people for the right roles. As a result, you should clearly demarcate your objectives before formulating an agent profile. Ask yourself, What are our customers’ expectations? What range of issues and opportunities will these calls present? What specific backgrounds are necessary for agents to successfully execute these calls?

    Similarly, you want recruits who will act as true extensions of your brand. Therefore, screen for specific traits, to ensure that candidates are compatible with your corporate values. You can further pinpoint prospects by investigating their experiences with your brand — and how strongly they advocate it.

  • After establishing expectations, you can start recruiting. Minimal advertising is needed to draw candidates; there are many people chasing at-home work, so you should be able to attract candidates who truly want to work for you.

    The process typically starts with candidates completing an online application. You may also want to administer a written test to evaluate writing and thinking skills, computer proficiency, and the ability to follow directions. Candidates sometimes complete an online voice test as well, so that you can assess their demeanor and personal warmth.

    After narrowing the field, conduct a phone interview. Clearly explain the position and expectations. More important, screen for behaviors. Look at candidates’ decision-making skills by posing real-life scenarios. Examine how well they keep composure and handle the unexpected. Have candidates sell your products so that you can gauge their preparation and evaluate their performance.

    In any interview, reliability is among the toughest traits to forecast. With home agents, you obviously cannot employ candidates who require hand-holding and in-peson oversight. So put responsibility on the candidates as part of the screening process. Assign tasks after their interviews that require follow through. Separate the candidates who can work without supervision and will go that extra mile.

    By taking these steps, you can eliminate unqualified candidates and reduce future turnover while increasing the likelihood of consistent, high-quality performance from the start.

  • Training: Home-agent training has drawbacks and benefits. The degree of difficulty is obviously exacerbated by the physical separation between trainers and trainees. But home agents also possess broader educational backgrounds, skill sets, and industry experience. As a result, trainers can often skip orientation and immediately focus on product, process, and application.

    To compensate for distance, employ a distance-learning pedagogy. Your curriculum should apply course designs, instruction methods, and facilitation techniques that have been proven effective with training remote learners. (See “Tips for teaching at a distance,” page 51.)

  • Quality control: Success often stems from how raw talent is honed and channeled, so audit your quality control (QC) program.

    Start by reflecting on your attitude toward monitoring. You must set a tone where agents are praised, motivated, and heard. You want them to accept criticism, not feel victimized.

    Assess your tactics. QC personnel can transmit feedback using phone, e-mail, Webcam, instant messenger, and online forms. There should be little time between call and evaluation, so that agents can recognize flaws and adopt correct tactics. And even though these agents aren’t physically in your contact center, you can still use standard coaching devices such as role playing and listening to recorded calls.

    Finally, step back and orient your evaluations so that you are tracking performance over time; integrate these evaluations into larger knowledge management applications to avert gaps or silos. Craft action plans to pull your agents out of their comfort zones. Evaluate individual agent performance within the team framework to identify potential deficiencies in your expectations, training, recruiting, or tools. Correlate evaluations to other measurements, such as customer satisfaction scores, to get an even clearer indicator of agent performance.

  • Support: With home agents, it is vital to foster a sense of community and shared mission. But without face-to-face contact, how do you build this elusive camaraderie?

    First, provide individual support. For example, assign a mentor or a team leader to each new hire to smooth the transition. These individuals can serve as sounding boards or information resources. Similarly, keep technical support on hand for immediate response.

    Second, deploy communication tools that link all team members. For example, use an intranet or a message board to share information or spotlight performers. Similarly, provide forums that encourage agents to interact and exchange ideas.

    Finally, empower your agents and give them a vested interest. They are closer to your customers than anyone else; they know the issues and often how to solve them. Allow them to share ideas. Keep them informed. Assign challenges to keep them from growing complacent.

  • Appreciation: Contact center work can become monotonous and draining when agents think they are taken for granted. This is particularly true in settings where agents lack the natural stimulus of people around them. So it’s important to create a culture of appreciation, a fun-filled environment where agents feel their efforts are rewarded. What are you doing to foster a sense of wonder and surprise among your agents?

    What kind of personal touch have you made to make an agent feel special? Have you sent a handwritten note or a surprise gift to convey your gratitude? Similarly, reward your agents by giving them exposure to other roles, such as opportunities to receive exclusive training, conduct presentations, or participate on leadership committees.

Jeff Schmitt served as the Marketing and Compliance Manager for Working Solutions, the leading provider of remote agents to Fortune 1000 companies. Working Solutions can be reached at www.workingsol.com.

Tips for teaching at a distance

Adistance-learning model uses a variety of training tools. You can incorporate applications such as phone conferences, Webinars, streaming video, PowerPoint, and data collaboration tools. Generally distance trainers integrate two or more of these tools to appeal to various learning styles. Here are strategies for implementing a successful distance-learning program:

  • Keep training groups at 10 agents or fewer, to ensure that each agent receives personalized attention, works at a comfortable pace, and doesn’t fall behind.

  • Condense content so that trainees can focus on critical knowledge and everyday scenarios. The details can come after you have established a strong foundation.

  • Test agents on content to ensure fluency with program basics. Similarly, issue tests throughout the program to validate knowledge and reinforce key methodologies.

  • Follow up with agents after training to identify what worked and what requires refinement.

  • Discourage complacency and bad habits by holding refresher trainings. Fuse basic content with fresh practices and solutions. Always view training as a process, not a singular event.

  • Put yourself in your agents’ shoes. They are alone without a support network physically nearby. Make sure your trainer is quickly accessible via phone, instant messenger, e-mail, or a contact button embedded in your training application.

  • Use interactive tools like screen sharing so agents can easily visualize concepts. Moreover, the trainer should make touches with each trainee, such as posing questions and using individual names, to keep them attentive throughout the session. — JS