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Home-based call center agents aid staffing woes at The Shopping Channel

Home-based call center agents were the ideal staffing remedy for unpredictable call volume at The Shopping Channel and helped the Canadian-based retailer improve the customer experience.

TORONTO -- A chart depicting call volume for a 24-hour period in The Shopping Channel's call center shows that the call peaks and lows are all over the place.

For a company that takes 3 million calls a year and has an unpredictable daily call pattern, it's important to be flexible, Graham Kingma told attendees at the recent International Call Centre Management (ICCM) conference. According to Kingma, vice president of customer experience at the Canada-based retailer, half the products the company offers every day are new, so staffing to meet hourly fluctuations while keeping costs low is a significant challenge. Also, weather and world events can affect how many people are watching TV or shopping online. The Shopping Channel found the hourly flexibility it needed with home-based call center agents.

"Home-based agents help us make up for all the mistakes we [might] make," Kingma said.

The company originally started looking at home-based agents four-and-a-half years ago to meet scheduling challenges. They partnered with Newmarket, Ont.-based outsourcer LiveXchange Corporation to set up a "home-sourced" model. Under this model, agents are individual contractors hired to answer calls for The Shopping Channel as well as other partners on the LiveXchange network.

For many attendees at the ICCM show, it seems that at-home agents are still just a peak on the horizon. A quick survey of Kingma's session showed that few people there were using home-based agents, but far more were evaluating them.

The Shopping Channel had some concerns about going to the at-home agent model, according to Kingma. At the top of the list was security, but once the IT team saw LiveXchange's Linux-based system, their fears subsided. Agents access the system from a DVD on their desktop computer, making the hard drive for the home computer inaccessible while they are working. The Shopping Channel also deployed a secure VPN whereby agents connect to a Hub that connects to the live network.

Getting over the training hurdle with home-based call center agents

Despite concerns, training at-home agents was not a significant issue for The Shopping Channel. The at-home agents are hired to take order calls only, so the training is less extensive than training for agents taking customer service calls. However, the company extended training an extra day to get new agents up to speed before they started taking calls at home.

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"A top concern is training," said Brian Pritchard, CEO of LiveXchange . "But today there are packages [training software] to buy off the shelf. It's not hard to do."

The Shopping Channel requires all of its at-home agents to have a separate room as a workspace for taking calls, and taking calls must be their only responsibility during the time they are on the phones. These stipulations are part of the contract, so there is no negotiation. The company also uses a finger-scan tool from LiveXchange to determine whether the trained agent is actually the one logging on to take calls.

The organization does monitor at-home agent work, Kingma said, but there have been no problems with agents not completing their assigned workload.

"These agents have a stake in the game," he said. "They are running their own business. So this has been a non-issue."

Handling tension between home-based and in-house call center agents

The switch to a mixed at-home and in-house environment was not without its challenges, however. Hiring at-home agents initially caused a stir with the in-house agents, who feared for their jobs.

"I didn't expect this level of concern [from the in-house team]," Kingma said. "It caused a rift between in-house and at-home agents. The in-house agents were the first to point out [when someone at home] made a mistake."

Over time, he said, the tension dissipated as the in-house team realized how the at-home agents helped alleviate staffing problems and decrease occupancy requirements for the on-site call center.

"Today, they realize the at-home agents are a huge complement to the business," Kingma said.

Staffing with at-home agents wasn't quite as breezy as the company hoped. With the center open 24 hours, the hours between 12 a.m. and 7 a.m. can be hard to staff. When they deployed the at-home model, Kingma said, managers hoped they would have no problem staffing difficult hours.

"We were dreaming in Technicolor," he said. "It turns out at-home agents want to work 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. just as much as anyone else."

To solve this problem, the company began hiring agents for specific time blocks. The agents can still choose their hours, but they have to work a certain number of hours every weekend, for example.

Chat brings home-based agents together

To facilitate communication between at-home agents, The Shopping Channel uses LiveXchange's chat software, which allows agents to answer one another's questions without waiting for a supervisor.

Though supervisors moderate chat, "[they] haven't answered a chat in two years," Kingma said. "The seasoned agents are answering questions."

Because chat has been so successful off-site, The Shopping Channel plans to deploy chat within the physical call center to help on-site agents get faster answers to their questions.

"This has helped change our internal processes for the better," Kingma said.

Some agents have retired from the physical call center to the at-home model, he said, and 20 agents are currently in the process of making that switch. He keeps in touch with those agents who used to work in the center and have now embraced the freedom of the at-home agent lifestyle. "They're the happiest group of people … they're onto something," he said.

Four years after deploying at-home agents, The Shopping Channel now has remote agents handling 100,000 calls a month. The agents are responsible for 50% of order sales and also have better quality scores for orders than the agents working in-house. The Shopping Channel also won ICCM Canada's Medium Call Centre Award, honoring best practices in a call center of 51 to 200 representatives.

Kingma has also received positive comments from customers, who noticed the attitude shift of his new crop of agents.

"The at-home agents raised the bar for the in-house agents," he said, "because we were getting that feedback."

More of The Shopping Channel's tips for building a successful home-based call center agent model:

• Don't rush to hire -- and include background checks in the call center agent interview process.

• Hire agents under contract to work a specified number of hours per week.

• Put a manager in charge and relieve him from other responsibilities to oversee the project full-time.

"We didn't have a book, being LiveXchange's second customer," Kingma said. "We had to have someone to think on their feet."

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