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Posted: August 12, 2009

The virtual contact center

Smart companies are making it work

Jill LaVigne

Colorado companies continue to seek smart ways to manage costs, often as a way to maintain margins, or to enable smart growth. Either way, two categories of expense savings often end up at the top of the reduction list: overhead costs, such as office space, and human resource costs, including salaries and benefits. For operations with sales or service contact centers, the savings factors and impacts on your business can be significant. 

Some companies have uncovered a solution that enables cost management and growth by taking advantage of the benefits of a virtual work force. In fact, there are already more than 100,000 home-based employees in the U.S. today, a number expected to grow to over 300,000 in the U.S. and one million worldwide by 2010 according to IDC’s U.S. Home-Based Agent 2008-2012 Forecast. But still many companies are hesitant to pursue this option, due to significant misperceptions about the realities and the potential of a virtual work force.

After delivering our solutions for more than two years, we’ve learned exactly what works and what doesn’t. Our recent review of feedback from top sales and services executives at various Fortune 500 companies revealed that, while many were eager to realize the benefits of a virtual work force, most had also seen their share of challenges, including trouble with technology, resources and performance management. 

While these concerns come up time and again, there is one common factor that leads to such unsuccessful programs. Companies create, launch and manage the program in the same manner that they manage in-house programs, and then find themselves disappointed with the results. There is a general lack of understanding of the unique requirements for running successful home-based programs.
 
Myths drive bad decisions
In addition to the improper set-up of most virtual contact centers, managers often build common misperceptions into their operating plans, and these perceptions become self-fulfilling prophesy:

  • At-home employees are not as productive
  • The at-home hiring process limits scale
  • At-home associates cannot be trusted or effectively monitored and engaged
  • There is little measurable productivity lift over a traditional model

But all of these misperceptions and the associated problems can be overcome to run an effective virtual model by applying four key operating principles:

Rule 1: A fundamentally different operation than a traditional call center, the program must be crafted to take advantage of the differences. This includes the ability to selectively target and hire top quality employees with particular skill sets and demographics from across the country – or even the globe – as your needs dictate. 
 
Rule 2: Incorporate innovation and continuous Improvement in everything you do. Leverage your best solutions from traditional and virtual environments, especially when it comes to seamless integration of technology, service, security and voice platforms.
 
Rule 3: Performance optimization should drive your processes and technology. One of the biggest benefits of a virtual work force is the ability to respond to changing customer needs in a matter of minutes, matching staffing levels to call patterns seamlessly. Processes and systems that enable continuous touch points and promote employee engagement are crucial. Such requirements support effective learning and training; ensure streamlined, instant communications; and drive consistent performance.

Rule 4: When recruiting and selecting your team, never lose site of the difference between those who can merely “survive” remotely versus those who can “thrive.” Again, the flexibility of a virtual model allows you to be more selective during the hiring process. We’ve evaluated thousands of candidates over the years, and we often recommend hiring part-time employees rather than independent contractors to support a high-performance culture.  
 
Cost and resource savings results
Companies often begin considering a virtual work force option to address the expense-management needs outlined earlier, but those who follow these key tips for implementation gain far more.

In one example, a major retailer asked TeleTech@Home to quickly add staff for the holiday season. The company reduced their operations costs, and our customer satisfaction scores exceeded their internal corporate call center scores and those of another traditional external service provider. This is not unusual, and in fact, we typically see employee retention improve as much as 50 percent when comparing at home associates to those in a traditional center. The at-home employees we select have an average work experience of 11 years, and, because these associates stay with the company longer, they have better on-the-job experience and generate customer satisfaction scores that are 5 percent to 10 percent higher.

Virtual associate programs also generate significant environmental resource savings, beginning with the elimination of energy costs to maintain a physical location, which often has 24-hour power requirements that far exceed those of the average home work force. Virtual work forces don’t commute, which reduces traffic and emissions, as well as the need for and cost of fuel.

Successful at-home programs will thrive and grow
As more companies explore the keys to success for managing a virtual work force, we expect deployment of such programs to grow exponentially. The ability to implement effective programs that demonstrate measureable results, including environmentally-friendly practices is a “win-win-win” for employers, employees and clients.

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Jill LaVigne is vice president of operations for TeleTech and is responsible for the company’s home-based representative business, known as TeleTech@home. Ms. LaVigne has more than 20 years experience creating exemplary end-to-end call center service solutions.

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