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The secret to cheaper - and better - customer service


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Holiday sales account for 25 to 40 percent of a retailer's annual sales according to estimates by the National Retail Foundation (NRF). However, this "most wonderful time of the year" always comes with challenges, and 2011 is no different. In its 2011 holiday forecast, the NRF reports that while sales in November and December will increase 2.8 percent this year; consumers will be more price-conscious than ever before.

As comparative shopping becomes standard, retailers are facing lower profit margins and increased competition. As a result, more and more companies have started looking for ways to operate faster and leaner, while still providing consumers with high-quality service. Many innovative retailers have found the solution they need through the use of home-based customer service agents.

Retailers Save Money with High Quality, Home-Based Agents

Low price is not the only factor tech-savvy shoppers consider when deciding where to purchase products. Consumers also are looking for high-quality products and personalized service. Experience has shown that outstanding service, in particular, can be an important differentiator for companies, sometimes making the difference between securing lifelong customers and losing them.

Fortunately, providing the highest level of service to customers doesn't have to cost a lot. In fact, retailers may be surprised to learn that home-based agents are proven to deliver top-quality service at a lower overall price than agents working in traditional call centers. Whether retailers use their own work-from-home agents or partner with a virtual @home provider, they can save money through higher quality service, operational efficiencies and higher revenues. Here's why:

• Hire Agents Who Know You. Hiring agents who work from home removes the traditional geographic constraints that force companies to stick to a typical hiring radius of just 30 miles from a physical facility. This means that employers can hire the best people, wherever they may be located. For example, it is possible for retailers to easily find professionals with retail experience who have purchased their products online or shopped at their retail locations. Agents who already have experience with a retailer have a deeper knowledge base and an intimate understanding of customer needs, which leads to a higher level of customer satisfaction.

• Experienced Agents Deliver Results. The demographics of home-based agents are vastly different from those working in a traditional center. With an average age of 40, 80 percent+ college-educated and 15-20 years of work/ life experience, at-home workers often have greater empathy for callers. Connecting on a personal level with consumers can result in more efficient calls, higher first call resolution rates and improved up-selling or cross-selling capabilities.

• Save on Operating Costs. Operating a traditional call center can be expensive. Facility costs, furniture and fixtures, property taxes, utilities, and physical security expenses can exceed $10 million annually for many large call centers. When agents work from home, however, most of these expenses are eliminated. Using the latest technology and networks, customer calls can be routed to agents based in their approved home-offices. Using a secure desktop, phone and Internet connection, the agent answers the call and has instant online access to all the necessary support resources without retailers having to pay for the physical office space.

• Avoid Over or Under Staffing. Home-based agents provide retailers with the flexibility and scalability they need to ramp-up aggressively for the holidays or adjust staffing levels in real-time to ensure calls are answered quickly. When call volumes are higher than anticipated, additional agents can simply pick-up their phones and begin taking calls. Conversely, when call volume is lower than forecasted, agents can be asked to log-off in order to avoid unnecessary staffing costs. This workforce flexibility saves retailers money while keeping service levels high.

Studies have shown that businesses can lose up to 10 customers for every one that complains of poor service during the holidays. Why expose customers to inexperienced, hastily trained temporary workers when you don't have to? Or risk sending them to off-shore call centers to face potentially frustrating language and culture barriers that could lose the sale? By using highly qualified, home-based agents, customers will receive optimum care and retailers can enjoy the full financial benefits of the frenzied shopping season.
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Rob Duncan

Rob Duncan is Chief Operating Officer for Alpine Access, Inc., the leading provider of employee-based virtual contact center solutions and services. Recently named the best contact center and CRM outsourcer for client satisfaction by Datamonitor's Black Book of Outsourcing, Alpine Access' clients include 10 of the Fortune 100 companies in the financial services, communications, technology, healthcare, retail, travel and hospitality sectors.

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