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Making the virtual call center a reality

Technology has advanced to make a contact center of home-based agents possible. However, companies need to prepare carefully for the transition.

The contact center as it is has long been envisioned, with long rows of agents seated at their desks, tethered to their headsets and computers, and watched over by managers walking up and down the aisles, is undergoing a transformation.

Now, thanks to rapid technological advancements in Internet Protocol telephony and hosted software, a contact center can look more like a group of people working from their home office or kitchen, being monitored via technology. These emerging centers without a physical location, or virtual contact centers, are providing an alternative to the outsourcing craze. Companies forced to cut expenses, but concerned with falling customer satisfaction numbers, are increasingly turning to home-based agents.

Yet moving to a virtual contact center requires careful planning and investment.

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"The technology is doable," said Donna Fluss, principal at West Orange, N.J.-based DMG Consulting. "It's quite simple to set up alternative sites. All you need is a browser, a PC and a phone. The challenge is on the management side. Once you can't see what you're managing, it becomes more complex."

Companies that have tried virtual contact centers only to bring them back in-house have generally done so because of management challenges, Fluss said.

Organizations need to adjust agents and best practices when going virtual. For multichannel contact centers, organizations need to determine if they want home agents handling multiple channels or specializing in just one. Multichannel organizations need a universal queue to get the right contacts to the right agent at the right time, Fluss warned.

The benefits of a virtual contact center are compelling. Organizations that allow agents to work from home generally can attract more experienced, better qualified agents and see lower employee turnover. Additionally, high performing agents tend to perform even better when they're working from home. There is greater flexibility in accommodating split shifts and expansion of the call center, and companies can pull from a wider geography when hiring. There are also cost savings. A virtual contact center saves on facility costs and the pay scale is generally 5% to 15% lower than in-house agents, according to a recent report from Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc.

The report also points to potential risks. Virtual contact centers increase security risks by exposing the center to external breaches and requires strong policies for the handling of information. Technical support and training become more difficult. There is also a lack of control over home-based agents, which can be mitigated by regularly scheduled employee calls and policies that promote communication with supervisors, the report said.

While a hosted application, a PC and a phone provide the basics for a virtual contact center, a successful initiative requires a greater technological investment, according to Fluss.

Quality monitoring is a must, but with home-based agents, performance monitoring becomes just as important, Fluss said. Without regular meetings and a physical presence, it becomes more difficult for supervisors to keep control.

"You need performance management," Fluss said. "Most people know it as scorecards and dashboards, but the purpose is to align the goals of a contact center with corporate goals. Performance management gives a 360-degree view of what agents are doing and that becomes essential if agents are offsite."

E-learning technology also becomes vital. Without discussions in the snack room or a friend sitting in a nearby cubicle to ask for help, agents need a way to exchange hints, tips or examples. The rise of speech analytics also helps contact centers spot trends early, like a product defect that could trigger a flood of incoming calls. In a virtual contact center, those problems can take longer to identify.

Companies with existing contact center operations need to begin with a pilot operation. Internal support desks or non-critical functions are a good place for initial phases, according to Forrester. Fluss suggests starting with around five agents and working out problems with those people before expanding in groups of 25. Those initial agents need to be people who will communicate and provide good feedback.

Home-based agents should generally begin work in an internal center to allow the company to screen for knowledge and skills, said Penny Reynolds, co-founder and senior partner at the Call Center School in Lebanon, Tenn.

"Typically, they need to be a proven employee before they're sent them home to work," Reynolds said. "They need the ability to work independently and follow through. It needs to be people that don't need a high degree of social interaction."

Virtual contact centers do offer a sound business model for customer support operations, provided there is support for agents and careful screening, according to the Forrester report.

"These new multi-tenant hosted solutions basically democratize the world," Fluss said. "What these vendors do is allow you to buy one or two full-fledged contact center seats and get up and running."

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