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Going green with at-home call center agents

Call center infrastructure vendors are boasting of the environmental benefits of at-home agents, but the price of gas is proving a more compelling argument.

The case for work-at-home (remote) call center agents has historically been based on such factors as improving employee satisfaction and helping prevent agent turnover. But in recent years, call center infrastructure vendors have been promoting another advantage -- environmental conservation.

Of course, saving gasoline and electricity is a much more convincing argument when gas reaches $4 a gallon.

"You hear a lot about the environment from the vendors, but when I talk to actual contact center people, the net result is it's being driven bottom up from agents themselves," said Ken Landoline, program manager with Boston-based Yankee Group. "When I did some research about a year and a half ago, we saw $4 a gallon being the breaking point for changing the way people act."

If any organization should understand the impact of commuting costs it's the American Automobile Association. AAA Mid Atlantic -- which serves more than three million members in Delaware, Maryland, D.C. and parts of Pennsylvania, Virginia and New Jersey -- recently created a "green team" in the organization. For the past five years, it's been using at-home agents with technology from Basking Ridge, N.J.-based Avaya Inc.

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Yet, for AAA Mid Atlantic, it's the savings and efficiencies that made work-at-home agents a compelling initiative. It initiated the at-home agent program as a way to consolidate five member-service centers into one virtual center in two centralized locations. It was also done to retain employees and improve performance.

A member calling for a tow truck in the middle of the night wants someone to answer the call immediately, which meant that the organization had some difficult shifts to cover to improve its time to answer.

"Our goals were to get to member calls faster, quicker," said Vicki Kenney, director of telecommunications technology.

Now, 95% of calls are answered in 30 seconds or less. That -- not any hard ROI -- was the compelling case for AAA Mid Atlantic.

"We did measure our ROI, and it wasn't a great one for a $10 million purchase, but we were pleased with it," Kenney said.

Currently, there are about 100 at-home agents, but the organization will be expanding its program this fall. AAA Mid Atlantic plans to offer its associates the option of telecommuting one day a week or working from one of its locations closer to home. That was not necessarily driven by environmental concerns, however.

"Mainly, it's to give our associates relief with the gas," Kenney said. "A by-product of what we're trying to do is [improve] the work/life balance."

Work-at-home agents do provide benefits to the environment, of course. VIPDesk, a concierge service that uses work-at-home agents in a practice it calls "homeshoring," recently issued a paper outlining the commuting costs (see sidebar).

In addition, Michael Desalles, strategic analyst with San Antonio-based Frost & Sullivan, said that while green initiatives are all over the map, he has seen some environmental considerations on the part of outsourcers and companies with huge call centers.

A formula for savings with work-at-home agents
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average round-trip commute is 24 miles per day.

A call center with 100 customer service representatives would account for 2,400 miles per day or 12,000 miles in a five-day work week and 600,000 miles in a 50-week year.

With an average fuel efficiency of 24 miles per gallon, that would require 25,000 gallons of gas a year.

Add in the 26 gallons of gas per year each person uses while sitting in traffic -- according to the Texas Transportation Institute's 2007 Annual Mobility Report -- and that leaves a total of 27,600 gallons of gas per year for 100 call center agents.
At $3 per gallon, that amounts to $82,800 per year in commuting costs alone.

Source: "How Bringing Customer Service Jobs Home Results in Greener Pastures" VIPDesk

"Overwhelmingly, when asked what is motivating the change, the feedback we get is that going green is simply the right thing to do," Desalles wrote in a research note. "Companies that operate call centers have included 'environmental responsibility' as part of their overall Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) commitment, based on the assumption that businesses have an environmental duty to shareholders, employees, clients and partners."

For example, Convergys, a global contact center outsourcer, intends to double the number of concurrent home agents by the end of the year, as a result of a green directive from the CEO.

Framingham, Mass.-based IDC predicts that the number of home-based contact center agents will reach 330,000 by 2010.

Nevertheless, many organizations still need convincing, and getting started means starting small.

"There's always a distrust of letting people work remotely, at least initially," Landoline said. "For established contact centers, I always recommend that you take your best agents and give them incentives. One incentive may be to allow them to work at home once or twice a week."

There is often a trade-off for agents as well. Contract agents may give up 5% to 10% of their pay in return for not commuting, while for fully staffed centers, working at home is generally used as a way to prevent churn.

Once you've begun offering the work-at-home option, however, don't expect agents to come back into the physical contact center.

"Once people get to work at home, [you're] not going to bring people back [to the office] when the price of gas drops," Landoline said. "This is a very positive thing for workers in that they're going to have this economic force, but once you build this level of trust, there will be no getting back to the way it was."

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