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At-home call center agent recounts joy, pain of virtual workplace

A stay-at-home call center agent talks about the job’s freedom and occasional disconnectedness.

As a stay-at-home call center agent, Carole Weiner can avoid the drama of office politics.

But she also laments seeing emails about birthday parties held at the company office, knowing she can’t extend well wishes in person.

Weiner works from her Huntington Beach, Calif., home -- three time zones away from her employer, CooperVision, a contact lens manufacturer in Fairpoint, N.Y.

For nearly seven years, Weiner has provided contact lens specifications to optometrists in much the same manner as she had when her company had an office on the West Coast. She still reviews customer history and other information, and she still taps her deep knowledge of optical refraction so that doctors can provide properly fitted contact lenses.

But Weiner has the option of taking customer calls while walking around her home and looking outside at her neighborhood, thanks to a long headset cord. She could also work in her bathrobe but prefers to dress as if she spent her days in an office building.

“There’s no place I’d rather be,” Weiner said of her home office, which is situated in a combined kitchen and dining area. There, she is afforded a wide perspective of her home and the outdoors.

Home call center agents enjoy flexibility
Hers is a routine likely followed by many other contact center agents who have the freedom to work from where they eat, sleep and raise families. (One analyst’s rough estimate had the number of such workers in the U.S. nearing 300,000 by 2010.)

The employment of stay-at-home call center agents was once an emerging trend. But with more companies willing to allow some or all of their agents to work from home, it can no longer be considered a fledgling phenomenon.

“It has taken hold. You go back a decade, very little technology was available to push out desktop programs. But now it’s there,” said Bruce Belfiore, the CEO of BenchmarkPortal LLC, a Santa Barbara, Calif., call center training and consulting firm.

Many employees prefer the flexibility of an at-home work environment, said Belfiore, who has partnered with Purdue University’s Center for Customer Driven Quality.

“It enables people to have more control over their lives,” he said. “Working mothers can have more time with their children, people with disabilities can work from home and it enables people to live anywhere.”

Not to mention employees can save on gas with no work commute, and employers can reduce energy usage at their brick-and-mortar headquarters, Belfiore added.

Weiner works a morning-to-late-afternoon schedule, with hours varying slightly so she can fill in shifts for other colleagues. She enjoys performing chores around the house in the morning before powering on her computer and starting work.

It takes a special breed of person to work from home, Weiner said. The agent has to separate the duties of the job from the duties of home, which are within arm’s reach.

“You really have to be dedicated,” said Weiner, who worked as a manager of a call center before CooperVision closed its California office. She remembers at-home agents who weren’t dedicated. “It was just a job. They didn’t care about learning about the lenses.”

Weiner talks to optometrists and their technicians “all day long,” she said. Calculations beyond a doctor’s normal prescription are often needed to fit contact lenses for patients using them for the first time, or if they have astigmatism, are nearsighted or farsighted or have recently had surgery.

She makes these calculations by using a program that factors a patient’s spectral refraction and the power of the lenses.

Aside from consultations, Weiner also handles customer service orders.

Evaluating CRM software options 
All a stay-at-home agent needs nowadays is the Internet, Belfiore said. For telephone calls, an agent can use call center Voice over IP (VoIP) while accessing company-monitored CRM programs through a minimal amount of software, he said.

CooperVision provides Weiner with the necessary computer software and telephone platforms, and she is just as connected as she would be at company headquarters. Her calls, made via VoIP, and her actions on the computer are monitored by the company with workforce optimization (WFO) software.

“They have equipment to watch our screens and let us know if we’re getting it right or wrong,” she said. “We’re actually graded on that. The head of our customer service department goes through our monitors, marks our scores. You just have to pay attention.”

The company also sends her around the country for training and mails her the latest industry journals.

Preparation and experience allow Weiner to have the freedom to speak freely with customers. She says she has never had to read from a script prepared by her employer.

The job indeed does call for improvisation, especially during times of sickness. Last month, Weiner had laryngitis. Still, she worked.

“Everything was a big secret at that point,” she said of her voice being reduced to a whisper.

And that may be one of the drawbacks of earning a paycheck from home: It’s a bit tougher to call out sick if you’re already at work. Several years ago, Weiner broke five ribs in a car accident. After missing only one day, she was back on the job. “There was nothing else to do,” she said.

That dedication may be one of the reasons CooperVision named Weiner its employee of the year for 2011.

Weiner does feel a lack of cohesion working alone, especially during those birthday parties in the CooperVision office and the annual company Christmas ball.

But she enjoys the freedom of not having to commute and being able to roll into work, and can separate the two lives.

She follows a simple practice. “I answer the phone with a smile,” she said. “I treat everyone with respect, repeat information … make sure you got the order right. It’s just being nice.”

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I can definitely imagine this working well for an experienced call center employee. In training though, and even with experience, I'd miss being able to tap a coworker on the shoulder for help answering a specific question, or being available to help others.