Telework boosted by virtual call centers, Part 1

* Lots of excitement at this year’s Call Center Demo/Western Telework Conference

What a difference a year makes. At last week’s Call Center Demo Show and Western Telework Conference in Dallas, the telework/virtual call center sessions were packed, and the CEOs of the companies that launched this niche, misunderstood market eight years ago - Willow CSN, Alpine Access, Working Solutions, ARO Outsourcing - walked around like rock stars.

Last year, the show was dead. Budget constraints hurt attendance, and businesses that did make the trip wanted to hear how they could pay Indian agents $2 an hour. But now most have since realized (with help from Lou Dobbs) that it’s a bad idea to have foreign agents care for U.S. customers, and they’re circling back to the states, and to home-based agents.    

It was like watching a light bulb go off in everybody’s head. Most organizations have a customer-care element of one kind or another, a bunch of employees who spend all or most of the day answering calls. On a good day the work is stressful and tedious. On a bad day, irate customers and long queues of on-hold calls can bring you to tears.

Bookend a phone-based job with a long commute and you’ve got some pretty miserable workers; workers who nearly always quit.  The typical turnover rate for brick-and-mortar call centers, (or “contact centers” that include e-mail and instant messaging), is around 60% or 70% - many report much higher, 100% or more.

And that’s not just with entry-level call center jobs, either. There’s this misperception that call centers by definition are powered by twenty-somethings with bad attitudes set to jump when something better comes along. In big traditional call center operations that’s true. But there are vast and growing segments of phone-based workers who are well-educated professionals - HR professionals, nurses and insurance agents. People you don’t want to lose over a miserable work environment or a long commute. 

Take the Society for Human Resource Managers. SHRM has a dedicated call center staffed by 14 HR professionals with master's degrees and between 5 and 15 years' experience - who answer questions from SHRM’s 190,000 HR manager members.

Deborah Keary, director of SHRM’s Knowledge Center, says it takes at least six months to train one of these workers, and she was losing too many of them to job stress (350 calls per day on average), irate callers, and the rotten commute to SHRM’s downtown Washington, D.C. office. Five years ago Keary started a 4-day work-at-home program. 

That was the end of Keary’s turnover. As important, Keary’s virtual call center team is key to SHRM’s continuity of business operations strategy. When big problems hit businesses, SHRM in turn gets hit with hundreds of questions from HR managers. Moreover, that SHRM’s headquarters sits near a rail line that carries hazardous waste means Keary reviews her continuity of operations plan frequently.

I came away from the show packed down with good stories and fresh insight. More next time. 


Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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