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Keeping remote agents connected

Remote contact center agents can help retain good employees and reduce real estate costs. But solving remote technical problems and maintaining clear connections are another matter.

A call center agent working from home is often a happy call center agent, but they can also be a difficult agent to train, monitor and keep online.

Tower Travel Management Inc., a Chicago-based travel agency, is one company that has eagerly joined the ranks of organizations letting their agents work off site. While most of the company's roughly 45 call center agents work in the Chicago area, there are a handful working as far away as California and Tennessee. It has helped Tower retain quality employees after relocation, and hang on to experienced agents from travel companies Tower has acquired. What's not so easy is keeping them up to date on new technology and company processes.

"Poor Bruce doesn't come in much," Mike Foster, Tower's IT project manager, said about the company's lone California agent.

Yet the benefits of hiring remote agents still outweigh the troubles of keeping them trained, Foster insisted. It's a challenge that contact centers will increasingly be facing as remote agents working from their homes become more commonplace.

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"The technology is there to make it happen pretty easily," said Penny Reynolds, co-founder and senior partner at the Call Center School in Lebanon, Tenn. "Organizations have been pushed to do it because of some sort of problem. Either there are not enough people in the area or they're losing staff to competition. To attract and maintain qualified agents, they may offer work-from-home as an option."

Organizations must take advantage of e-learning applications, as well as phone training and Web conferencing options to keep remote agents trained, Reynolds explained.

For example, Avaya Inc., a communications technology company in Basking Ridge, N.J., offers a Web conference tool based on a classroom model, which allows participants to stop a presenter and ask questions, said Dan Gorsky, director of global learning for Avaya.

For its work-from-home agents who live in the Chicago area, Tower simply has them come into the office for new training initiatives and maintains several empty work stations for them. In fact, Tower prefers that agents make occasional trips into the office so they "stay connected," Foster said.

For the more distant remote workers, Tower uses newsletters, Web conferencing and conference calls. An application from Citrix Systems Inc., in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., allows trainers to run a "shadow session" in which they can show remote agents specific actions, such as where to click a mouse or where to open a new window, Foster said.

However, a greater challenge for the company is technical issues. Just last week, Foster spent an hour on the phone with a remote agent helping them straighten out Internet connection issues.

"Tech-wise the agents have to be pretty savvy," Foster said. "We have to be patient and pretty specific about the instructions. Being three hours away, it's not an option to go down there and visit when the line goes down."

For a round-the-clock call center using remote agents, organizations need to be prepared to offer tech support 24 hours a day, seven days a week as well, Foster warned.

Comfort with technology is actually a requirement for remote agents at Tower. The position is a privilege and agents aren't allowed to work from home until they've been with the company for at least a year, Foster said. Additionally, they need to be able to work independently.

Monitoring agents also becomes a challenge when they work remotely. Supervisors can see which agents are on calls and how many calls are in queue but enforcement is another matter. Supervisors lack the ability to walk over and tell an agent to pick up a call.

"When they're in Tennessee and there's a call we think they should be answering, there's not a whole lot we can do," Foster said.

The biggest challenge, however, is keeping remote call center agents feeling connected to their employer, Foster said. Agents do communicate with one another when looking for advice or expertise in certain areas, but nothing proves quite as valuable as the celebration in September, which brought everyone from the company together for the company's 25th anniversary, he added.

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