Benefits of work at home call center agents
There are pros and cons to the hiring of home-based agents. Remote call center agents allow companies to tap into a broad, under-utilized pool of high-quality agents with a low turnover rate. The primary business drivers behind remote call center agents are:
1. Trouble hiring high-quality call center agents.
2. High call center staff turnover (e.g., an annual turnover rate of 25%).
3. A need for part-timers to staff peak or off-hour periods.
4. A desire to attract call center agents from a broader geographical area.
5. Agent commuting costs.
6. A need for call center agents with flexible schedules who are not tied to specific shifts.
7. A need to quickly and easily scale staff up and down to meet changing call patterns or seasonal demands.
8. A requirement for agents with specialized expertise. 9. Cost savings, depending on how the program is implemented.
Managing at home agents
For managers in call centers throughout the U.S., the most significant concern related to remote call center agents is how to manage them without personal contact, particularly for single-site operating environments that have never had agents based in multiple or satellite locations. The most important practice is to invest time in hiring qualified agents – individuals who are highly motivated, satisfy all competency and skill requirements, have the right working environment and technology already in place, and are technically savvy and able to troubleshoot at home. Call center expert Donna Fluss recommend the following tips for managing home-based call center agents:
1. Use a competency-based assessment tool as part of the hiring process to evaluate potential remote call center agent candidates.
2. As part of the interview process, ask agents whether they meet all of the criteria on a remote agent readiness checklist.
3. Establish a three-month trial period to determine whether a new hire or a premise-based agent who "transfers" to a remote location can properly perform the job.
4. Create an online training program for home-based call center agents that addresses your products, systems and general corporate information.
5. Give remote call center agents the same training opportunities as premise-based staff.
6. Establish and document job responsibilities, requirements, procedures and policies.
7. Establish a formal communication process between supervisors and remote agents.
8. Use chat for handling the majority of agent inquiries. Supervisors need to be available to respond immediately to chat inquiries from agents.
9. Ensure that remote agents have access to all product and service information, whether it's online or paper-based.
10. Establish a defined number and frequency of quality monitoring (QM) sessions for remote agent evaluations.
11. Reward remote call center agents for performance excellence, just as you would premise-based staff.
12. Ensure that remote call center agents have access to performance management reports and quality assurance (QA) evaluations for self-managing performance.
13. Include remote agents in all team meetings and up-training activities.
14. If your center is using both premise-based and remote agents, pair agents to ensure and reward cooperation.
According to call center expert Lori Bocklund, there are many cultural, HR, technical, and legal decisions that need to be considered when it comes to managing remote call center agents.
"Experts within your company need to participate in defining the program policies and procedures for things like the work space, equipment, visits (you to the agent site, or the agent to the center), pay levels (are they paid more or less than an on-site agent?), information security, etc. Once those policies are in place, the management practices that fit for your environment can be defined. The good news is that technology lets you monitor and manage the performance - productivity and quality - of the remote agent just like they were on site. But management of those agents will differ based on where they are relative to the center and the policies you put in place," she said.
Training at home agents
Some organizations find that providing standard training across all of their call centers creates a consistent level of call center agent expertise and service delivery, which can spur both higher customer satisfaction, and lower agent turnover. In fact, a recent in-depth survey of 22 contact center executives in charge of call centers, conducted by contact center technology provider Knowlagent, highlights the benefits of proper agent training. The survey, which examined the challenges managers face overseeing a global call center operation, found that consistency in the way agents are trained led to significant improvements in customer service.
While standardized training is important, so is treating a diversified contact center as a single operation. Many companies achieve this by formalizing information sharing between agents. Every contact center should have access to the same database of customer information, account history, and previous call history.
Penny Reynolds of The Call Center School recommended in a 2004 interview with SearchCRM.com that organizations take advantage of e-learning applications, as well as phone training and Web conferencing options to keep remote agents trained.
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.
Motivating work at home call center agents
Call center managers should strive to build an operating environment where all call center agents, including home-based agents, feel encouraged and supported and are recognized and rewarded for outstanding performance.
In a recent podcast on the secrets to motivating call center agents, Reynolds explained that the motivation tactics are slightly different for remote agents, and that managers need to carve out time to spend with those agents over the phone or via chat or email.
Call center technology for remote agents
According to Fluss, whether your call center agents are based on-site, in a satellite facility, or at home, there are dozens of applications and systems that are required to support them. Chapter 3 of the book The Real-Time Contact Center discusses call center technology in detail.
The two primary call center technology applications that are essential for call center agents to do their job are an automatic call distributor (ACD), used to route and queue calls, and a servicing application, which agents use to address customer inquiries. This servicing solution may be called a CRM application or a customer service tracking system. For sales-oriented centers, it may be called a telesales system or a sales system, Fluss said.
Fluss published a white paper called At-home Agent Business Case and Best Practices that addresses both the technical and business challenges of setting up home-based agents.
Call center management should also make sure that remote agents are comfortable with call center technology. 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.
Incentives for home-based agents
Pay-for-performance is a call center best practice and a very strong motivator for improving and maintaining high performance levels ,according to Fluss. To maximize effectiveness, the reward (pay increases), or the consequence (pay decreases) should occur as close to call center agent performance results as possible. For this reason, three months seems to be an appropriate and fair time frame. Monthly coaching sessions, combined with pay or compensation that is tied directly to performance, communicates to call center agents that their contributions are integral to the call center and the company.
When getting started with an incentive program for the call center, Bocklund advises that managers start with service level for the team, and quality for individuals as well as the team.
"Look at ranges for things like handle time and wrap up time. And use adherence to make sure staff are spending time as intended. The only common metrics which level the playing field across shifts with varying number of calls, handle times and complexity are metrics tied to the quality of contact handling. Depending on the nature of your "scheduling" contacts, you may also be able to tie employee incentives to outcomes such as first call resolution and accuracy," she said.