The changing call center

Technologies tailor-made for virtual call center settings

More and more call center jobs are headed for foreign shores these days, analysts say. But could an emerging staffing alternative - and technologies to match - keep a percentage of those around here?

According to new research from Datamonitor, U.S. call center outsourcers are losing their share of the global market. Last year 37% of the world's outsourced contact center positions were in the U.S. By 2008, Datamonitor expects that number to shrink to 25%. Nine out of ten jobs lost in the U.S. contact center outsourcing industry will be outbound telemarketing jobs, the research firm says.

But there is an alternative that could stem the tide. Well, maybe not stem the tide, exactly, but potentially reverse a trickle or so of it.

The alternative is the virtual call center, which forgoes the traditional call center facility in favor of agents working from home. It's not a new concept, but one that is gaining more attention lately.

Research firm IDC reports there are 100,000 home-based agents in the U.S. today. Granted, that's still just a fraction of the 4 million agents working in brick-and-mortar call centers. But some well-known companies have adopted the virtual model, either whole-hog or in part. Those include JetBlue Airlines, Office Depot and 1-800 FLOWERS.

Pioneering virtual call center outsourcers include Alpine Access, Willow CSN and Working Solutions. In addition, some traditional call center outsourcers, such as Aspect and West, have been supplementing their ranks with more and more at-home agent staff.

One reason is economics: IDC's research says an employee in a traditional call center costs a company $31 per hour in expenses, compared to $21 per employee, per hour, for virtual agents.

For companies that might be considering migrating to a virtual call center model, there are plenty of technologies available to help with the transition. Two recent announcements caught my eye - the new products seem tailor-made for a virtual setting.

One is from Nortel, which recently unveiled a software bundle designed to let companies use employees who aren't sitting in a physical contact center to take calls.

Even the name of the new Nortel initiative - Expert Anywhere - screams home workers. But it's not limited to home workers, of course. Expert Anywhere lets companies direct customer calls to employees whether they're sitting in a call center, branch office, retail store or home office. The idea is that employees located outside the call center facility can help handle calls when volume is heavy or step in when their expertise is needed for a specific customer inquiry.

"It's about being able to tap into certain individuals of high skill sets without making that person physically sit in a contact center," says Roxann Swanson, vice president and general manager of multimedia applications at Nortel. "There are people who want to be able to participate - they have experience in a certain area - aiding customers but don't necessarily want to be strapped to a phone all day."

The second new product with home-agent potential is from Witness Systems. The vendor specializes in call recording and quality monitoring. Early this year Witness Systems finalized its acquisition of Blue Pumpkin - a move that added workforce management features to its portfolio.

Since the acquisition, Witness Systems has been working to produce a single, integrated suite of workforce optimization technologies. Called Impact 360, the new suite is due to start shipping by year-end.

Impact 360 combines software for recording agent calls and analyzing their content with tools for employee scheduling, training and performance monitoring. Putting all these functions together in a single suite can help managers streamline operations, Witness Systems says. For example, if the quality monitoring piece detects a potential problem with an agent, the software could automatically assign a training session for that agent and reserve time on his or her schedule.

For a job like a call center agent, in which productivity can be measured in a quantitative way - the number of customer inquiries resolved, for example - working from home seems a good fit. Tools such as Expert Anywhere and Impact 360 can make it easier for companies to set up home-based agents and see exactly how the work is being done.

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Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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