• United States
Executive Editor

Call centers are heading for home

Jan 30, 20066 mins
IT LeadershipVoIP

A number of companies offer support to call centers based in employees’ homes.

When they’re not on the road for a service call, but they are on the clock, field technicians for Aspect Software pitch in handling customer calls that require technical expertise. They can take calls from their homes or satellite offices. Either way, adding to the pool of agents is no big deal, says Gary Barnett, CTO at Aspect.

Routing calls to employees working from home “is just about as simple as it is to set up agents in a building,” Barnett says.

Aspect, which makes call-center software, has been routing customer calls to employee homes for years. As a technology provider in the call-center market, Aspect is a natural fit for the leading edge of a trend to extend call centers beyond the confines of brick-and-mortar facilities.

Others are catching on to the idea. Over the last few years, more companies have built virtual call centers by outfitting agents to work from their homes. IDC calls the trend “homeshoring” and says it will continue to gain momentum.

Home-based agents represent a small fraction of the 4 million-plus people who work in call centers in the United States. Some companies, such as JetBlue Airways, use their own home-based agents. Others hire outsourcers that use home workers.

There are about 112,000 outsourced home-based agents in the country, according to research from IDC. By 2010 IDC expects that population will surpass 300,000. No figures are available for home-based agents who are employed by businesses running their own call centers.

Alpine Access, LiveOps, West Corp., Willow CSN and Working Solutions are among outsourcing firms that hire or contract with agents working from home. Some of their customers that have bought into the idea of home-based agents include 1-800-Flowers, the Internal Revenue Service, J.Crew, McKesson Health Solutions and Office Depot.

Driving the demand for home-based agents is the desire to streamline costly call-center operations. Call centers typically are challenged to find more-productive agents, achieve higher retention rates, and find ways to deal with spikes and lulls in voice traffic. Using agents who work from home provides a way to deal with some of these challenges.

Because at-home jobs are in demand, companies that hire home-based agents have a larger pool of more-qualified candidates to choose from, experts say. In addition, companies can lower facility costs by shifting staff to home-based workstations.

A big draw for companies and agents is the flexibility for home-based agents to take calls for short periods of time, during call peaks. In a traditional call center, it wouldn’t make sense to have an agent drive to work just to take calls for 20 minutes. Round-the-clock scheduling also is easier with a geographically distributed workforce.

Economic trends are helping to drive growth of home-based agents, says Stephen Loynd, a senior analyst at IDC. High gas prices and costly living expenses in urban areas combine to make home-based work attractive, which adds to the high retention rates companies achieve with virtual call-center employees.

Traditional call centers report huge turnovers, in some cases approaching 80% to 100% annually. Conversely, Willow, a virtual call-center outsourcer, has a 15% annual attrition rate.

Willow, which was acquired last year by Accretive Technology, ended 2005 with 35 clients and 3,000 at-home agents, all of whom are independent contractors. The company expects to add 4,000 home-based agents to its ranks this year, culled from five times as many applicants, says new CEO Angela Selden.

About 15% to 20% of applicants make it through the company’s rigorous screening process, Selden says. The average agent age at Willow is 38. About 65% have college degrees, 75% have sales experience and 50% have management experience. “The quality of these folks far surpasses the average quality that you can attract to a physical, geographic location,” Selden says.

Technology advances also are helping to propel adoption of the home-based agent model, Loynd says. For example, VoIP technology makes it easier for people to work out of homes, he says.

But VoIP is by no means a prerequisite. Willow, for example, doesn’t route calls over IP networks. The technology isn’t dependable enough, Selden says. “Right now, what we’ve discovered is that voice over IP still has enough instability that it doesn’t provide us with the level of service our clients expect. As voice over IP stabilizes and becomes more reliable, it could become an alternative for the future.”

Broadband is a prerequisite for Willow, however. Agents need broadband to access call-center applications containing customer information and scheduling features, for example.

The availability of Web-based applications is driving use of home-based agents, Aspect’s Barnett adds. Being able to get data to home users reliably and in a secure fashion makes using home-based agents feasible, he says. “It didn’t do much good to have a call center agent who was able to talk from home but didn’t have access to the data that he needed, such as who a customer is and order-status information,”he says.

In addition, previous billing practices would have meant that telephone calls routed from a call center to a home office would incur a metered charge for traveling over the public network, Barnett says. “Now with many different fixed-cost options and voice over IP, it’s no more expensive to get that voice out to a home than it is to get it to a desk in the office.”

In the big picture, experts view homeshoring as a complement to offshore outsourcing. Judicious use of both options lets companies distribute call-center work where it makes the most sense. For example, offshore agents may be best suited for calls that don’t depend on cultural knowledge, while at-home agents in the United States may be appropriate for calls that require local or geographic expertise, such as roadside assistance.

The price of a home-based agent falls somewhere between in-house and offshore options, Loynd says. “It’s going to be cheaper, on average, to have a home-based agent than to have them working in a U.S. call center, but not as cheap as going to a place like India,” he says.