The idea of having customer service representatives work from home rather than in the brick-and-mortar contact center is not a new idea, but it is one that is beginning to gain traction in the U.S. contact center industry. The idea of the at-home agent first went mainstream back in 1999 when JetBlue Airways established one of the first high-profile virtual customer service centers. At the time, having an at-home agent workforce required a great deal of expensive support equipment supported by a strong business case for the expenditure. Remember, JetBlue was an innovative company with an eye on the long-term return on investment (ROI). Most contact centers didn’t have this luxury.
Over the last decade or so we’ve seen a slow but steady building of momentum in the industry’s interest in the at-home agent concept. In support of this we’ve witnessed the emergence of consultants who specialize in the establishment of an at-home agent workforce and the appearance of several how-to seminars. In light of all the qualitative chatter regarding at-home agents, the thought struck me that we have no idea how successful the at-home agent movement is. There was no quantitative data that detailed the extent of at-home agent adoption in the industry.
We set about to address that information void by launching a survey with members of the National Association of Call Centers (NACC), a 503(c)(6) not-for-profit industry membership organization and research function based at The University of Southern Mississippi (http://www.nationalcallcenters.org/). The survey results provided a factual reality check in terms of the contact center’s industry acceptance of at-home agents.
I recently participated in a webinar with Aspect’s Kathleen Schroeder that details the survey results and discusses wider implications of supporting an at-home agent population. In a nutshell, we discovered that more than half of the contact centers in the U.S. today, 52.9 percent, have some percentage of their agent population functioning from a home office. While this indicates a significant success in terms of the industry’s acceptance of the at-home agent concept, there is a caveat. Most of these contact centers have only a small percentage of their workforce, less than ten percent, working from home. So while a big pool of at-home agent potential exists, most contact center managers are only dipping their toes in the water.
On the other hand, the success of these at-home agent programs is encouraging. More than 70 percent of those contact centers currently supporting at-home agents indicated that they will increase the number of their at-home agents in 2013.
With the proliferation of broadband to the home, the technological barriers to supporting at-home agents have all but disappeared. The next challenge will be managing the at-home agent workforce in the same manner as their brick-and-mortar counterparts. We believe three technology solutions will be critical in the successful management of a growing at-home agent population:
- Real-time speech analytics
- Real-time performance analytics
- Self-service web portals
The key to successful management of an at-home agent workforce will be real-time solutions. While the past industry definition of real-time has been “shortly after something happens,” that is not acceptable when managing remote agents. Managers and supervisors must be able to intervene in customer communications with remote agents in the same manner that they are able to intervene in captive contact center communications.
The at-home agent movement is expected to see considerable growth over the next two years. The tools to manage this growing remote workforce are here today and are discussed in the at-home agent webinar. While there will always be brick-and-mortar contact centers, having an at-home agent workforce opens new opportunities for the contact center industry and for those who choose customer service as a career.
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