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For contact centers, going virtual is a reality

Looking for a way to cut back on those notoriously high turnover rates for customer service reps? The answer may be keeping your agents at home.

It used to take Will Burkhamer nearly two hours to get from his home in Baltimore to the Laurel, Md., contact center where he worked as a customer service rep. First, there was the hour-long bus ride, then another 45 minutes in a carpool.

Now, he rolls out of bed and is on the job a half-hour later -- in his home office. Forget the commute; prep time is minimal.

"I always have to be sure that I brush my teeth before I start working," Burkhamer joked.

While there are no statistics on just how many customer service reps are now working from home, industry experts said Burkhamer is part of a trend. Increasingly, contact centers seem to be going "virtual" in an effort to keep agents from jumping ship and real-estate costs from jumping through the roof. Some businesses are also looking for a low-cost staffing alternative without angering customers by hiring offshore agents.

Technology also gets credit for the uptick in telecommuting agents, said Penny Reynolds, co-founder and senior partner at The Call Center School, a contact center consultancy in Nashville, Tenn. Most contact center infrastructure providers offer "work-at-home" packages based on voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) and switching tools that let reps field calls from anywhere.

Telecommuting tips

If you're interested in letting your customer service reps work from home, The Call Center School's Penny Reynolds recommends that you:

-- Build a business case that outlines what it would take from a technology and staffing persepctive.

-- Start small by extending the work-at-home benefit to a handful of your top reps.

-- Set policies that make it clear how reps will be measured and if they're responsible for expenses, such as a high-speed Internet connection at home.

-- Visit the reps' houses to ensure that they have a viable workspace.

"The technology is a no-brainer now," Reynolds said.

Last summer, Burkhamer's employer, Xact TeleSolutions, consolidated 12 physical contact centers into two primary locations. That's when it rolled out Five9 Inc.'s VoIP-based Virtual Contact Center and let some agents telecommute.

Five9's hosted product includes an ATA box that attaches to the agent's Internet connection at home and converts analog signals into digital packets that travel across the Internet. This eliminates the need for several circuits and reduces telephone charges. The technology costs Xact about $150 per month for each of its agents.

Seventy-five percent of Xact's 110 agents now work from home, and each agent is responsible for installing high-speed Internet access.

Deeper talent pool

While Xact agents work scheduled hours, the extra flexibility has helped the company attract working mothers, college students and others who may dread a long commute to work.

Since enabling many agents to work from home, Xact's employee turnover rates have improved dramatically -- from a 1.41 churn rate in 2002 to 0.5 after it initiated the telecommuting program in August 2003.

"We work 24 hours a day, 365 days a year," said Xact president Sharon Grossman. "It was tough to keep those people who work the Saturday nights."

Xact is also able to pull from a deeper talent pool than it might find near its Unity, Maine, headquarters. For instance, it has an easier time hiring multilingual agents now that it can hire them from across the country. It can also retain its more nomadic reps, like the agent who loved to travel and kept his job when he moved out West.

Some contact centers let star service performers work from home as a perk. Others use the telecommuting model as a way to find agents who can be available during off-hours. Regardless of the telecommuting model, some say that reps miss out on interacting with other employees and tapping their corporate expertise.

Bob Furniss, president of Touchpoint Associates Inc., a Memphis, Tenn.-based contact center consultancy, said reps working from home are best suited to handle simple information-driven interactions, such as directory assistance inquiries.

"The more complex the call, the harder it is to telecommute," Furniss said. That's because remote reps can't lean over their cubicles to ask a colleague a question. Also, some don't receive the in-person training that many centers conduct before an agent starts fielding calls.

To offset that problem, Xact, which fields some complicated service calls for colleges and universities, has created a "chat lounge" where remote agents communicate with one another. There, reps read tips, tap into an e-bulletin board containing account information and access an internal knowledge base.

"They'll fire questions in there as if they were sitting side by side," said Kathy Gray, Xact's director of sales and marketing.

For more information

Learn how to carve out a career path for your customer service reps

See how expensive staffing is for the call center

Find out more about the importance of workforce management tools in the contact center

Doing due diligence

Still, managers should interview potential telecommuters carefully and periodically visit their homes to make sure they have a defined workspace. Experts also suggest monitoring calls to listen for background noise that may distract a rep from the customer.

"It's a certain kind of person who can work on their own without a lot of interaction, communicate by e-mail and gather information on their own," Furniss cautioned.

Reynolds said in the conversations she's had with more than a half dozen contact center managers that supervise virtual agents, she discovered that reps generally do a better job if they're allowed to work remotely.

"Even with good performers, their performance scores improved," she said.

Burkhamer, who now supervises about 30 virtual agents from his home, said it's easy to go the extra mile for the company when the company has gone the extra mile for you.

"I end up working more hours because I'm more inclined to jump on than if I had to drive to work," Burkhamer said. "I've gotten so used to it, that this is my office."

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