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Work-from-home: solutions are transforming call center operations: at-home agents can be as productive, if not more so, as those in the contact center.

Like many companies, COLA, a nonprofit firm that offers accreditation, consulting, and education services to clinical labs, was initially apprehensive about positioning its entire contact center staff to work from home, even if it was temporary. Larry Senior, COLA's director of network services, was concerned that the 80 employees who normally worked out of the company's Columbia, MD, headquarters would not be able to do the same work at home as they do in the office during a four-month renovation, but of equal concern was the data security issue.

As is the case with so many at-home agent deployments, recent technology advancements ameliorated his concerns.

"There are so many solutions available today that lock down equipment, applications, and data, and even monitor employee navigation during the course of the day," observes Michele Rowan, president of Customer Contact Strategies, a consulting, training, and research firm. "Security is no longer a barrier to entry in the work-at-home [area] for contact centers. It's purely a matter of choosing the strategies and technologies that meet individual business objectives."

For COLA, the right technology was Interactive Intelligence's Customer Interaction Center (CIC), an Internet-based communications suite that includes remote support capabilities so that home-based employees can access the same communications applications as their on-site colleagues. CIC, which offers automatic call distribution, unified messaging, voicemail, desktop faxing, conferencing, and more, also lets managers monitor home-based employees with real-time presence dashboards.

"Because of the technology," Senior says, "people didn't feel like they missed anything by not being in the office."

The company didn't miss anything either. "It didn't matter where the employee was. We were able to monitor everyone. The system could see every employee just as well as if they were sitting side by side in the office," Senior says.

To COLA's surprise, key business metrics actually held steady or increased while agents worked from home during the renovations, from October 2013 to February of this year. Sales hit record levels, and customer satisfaction held steady in some areas and improved in others.

The company's contact center handles about 7,000 incoming calls per month, and "customers didn't even know the staff was virtual when they called," Senior says.

The work-from-home model worked so well that COLA has kept the option for some of its employees, even now that the renovations have been completed.

"Being virtual has not taken anything away from the organization," Senior says.

A GROWING TREND

COLA is certainly not alone in allowing employees to work from home. Currently in the United States, 26.2 million workers (almost 20 percent) telecommute at least part of the time, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

In the contact center space, roughly 80 percent of U.S. businesses now employ some work-at-home agents, who number about 100,000 nationwide. These agents answer inbound customer calls for companies such as J.Crew, 1-800-Flowers.com, Virgin Atlantic, JetBlue, Walgreens, and many others.

Forrester Research earlier this year predicted that 34 percent of businesses with contact centers would expand their work-at-home agent pools in 2014. Looking even further ahead, Ovum expects the work-at-home agent pool to reach 160,000 by the end of 2017, growing at a rate of 17.5 percent annually, which analyst Peter Ryan says is approximately twice the rate of growth expected for the brick-and-mortar contact center outsourcing market.

"The American workplace is changing. Technology has extended our ability to work from home or remotely during the hours we choose, giving us the opportunity to balance our lives and ultimately be more productive, healthier, and happier," observes Sara Sutton Fell, founder and CEO of FlexJobs, a provider of services to help workers find flexible employment opportunities.

But a work-at-home strategy doesn't come without some effort and sacrifice. When moving to a remote working environment, "the channels, methods, and tools we utilize to convey values will change," Rowan says. "Managers need to be thoroughly prepared to effectively lead remote teams, with soft skills, modified business processes, and technologies to support them."

WORKING ON THE WEB

For call centers, the Internet is key to the entire work-at-home model. Employees, first and foremost, can't do anything at home without a strong and reliable broadband Internet connection.

"Everything is browser-based now, so it can be accessed from anywhere," says Ann Ruckstuhl, senior vice president and chief marketing officer at LiveOps, a provider of cloud-based virtual call center software. "Everything can be provisioned through servers in the cloud."

The result, she says, can be "a zero-footprint contact center from end to end."

Having contact center systems and software positioned in the cloud "is the way to go if you're going to allow people to work at home," adds Jennifer Waite, product marketing manager at inContact. "The cloud gives you the ability to have technology with you wherever you are. You don't have to set anything up. [The system] just needs to know where to route the work."

Research firm MarketsandMarkets expects huge growth in the cloud-based contact center market, predicting growth from $4.15 billion today to $10.9 billion in 2019, representing a compound annual growth rate of 21.3 percent.

As the figures show, the cloud has seen strong demand and growth in the contact center market for the past few years, particularly in the areas of automatic call distribution, interactive voice response (IVR), dialers, agent performance optimization, computer telephony integration software, analytics and reporting, and workforce optimization (WFO), according to the firm's research.

Also continuing to gain in popularity is the Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) softphone. Though traditionally used with desktop and laptop computers, new capabilities are making it possible for agents to turn their mobile phones into VoIP extensions that can be used anywhere.

Lon Baker, chief operating officer at VirtualPBX, a provider of hosted VoIP phone services to small and midsized businesses, says updated softphone technology means that high-quality calls can now be made over 3G, 4G, and Wi-Fi networks. He says the softphone is a "breakthrough" technology that is often offered at little to no cost and provides all the functionality of traditional desk phones, including business caller ID.

Phone systems like these are on a sharp climb, while sales of premises-based phone systems have been stagnant to declining for the past few years, according to Infonetics Research.

That's not expected to change any time soon, particularly as Web RealTime Communications (WebRTC), an open-source gateway that allows for video and voice communications between multiple computers over the Internet, takes hold.

WebRTC has already expanded the possibilities for the work-at-home contact center agent. "In the past, you needed a phone and Internet connection," Ruckstuhl says. "Now, with WebRTC, you can even get rid of the phone. You can take phone, email, chat, and social interactions right from a browser. You don't need hardware or installed software. Everything is very seamless and frictionless," she adds.

Agents require little more than a browser and Wi-Fi access, according to Ruckstuhl, who notes that WebRTC transforms a browser into a full-featured agent desktop with a phone. Calls, she explains, are routed directly through the Web browser.

Turning to LiveOps' WebRTC Solution, Intuitive Solutions, a managed contact center services provider for pizza franchisees, was able to employ work-at-home agents as needed, eliminating the need to build additional contact centers to handle call spikes. In addition to handling inbound and outbound calls, LiveOps WebRTC offers skills-based multichannel routing, advanced business insight with real-time and historical reporting, and seamless integration with the company's workforce management software.

Intuitive Solutions has reported a 50 percent savings in total cost of ownership for its contact center as a result of the WebRTC technology, while also improving agent productivity and workforce utilization.

"With WebRTC, you can see what's happening in real time and do something about it," Ruckstuhl maintains. "You do not have to look at it in the rearview mirror, when it's too late."

Among the other benefits, WebRTC has yielded better speech quality for call center, analytics, biometrics, and call recording applications, according to Val Matula, senior director and head of emerging technologies at Avaya.

But, for all its promise, WebRTC has not taken complete hold of the industry, because some of the bigger names in computing have yet to get on board. So far, Google and Mozilla support the WebRTC platform, but Apple and Microsoft do not.

It's just a matter of time before they, too, adopt WebRTC, Matula says, noting that the world is moving "toward working on the Web and communicating right within the [browser]."

Another technology development that has further empowered the work-at-home workforce is the online social community, built using products such as Microsoft's Yammer, Salesforce.com's Chatter, Jive, Lithium, and Google Hangouts. Through social communities, remote employees can communicate with their colleagues, engage in two-way virtual meetings, share information, give and receive training, and acknowledge the efforts of their peers.

Meeting platforms such as Cisco's WebEx, Citrix's GoToMeeting, and Adobe Connect serve the same purpose. "The use of video is expanding, as it should," Rowan says. "In-person interactions are extremely valuable and can't be duplicated in the work-at-home model, but we can get close with the use of video."

Waite says building a sense of community is important because "it's easy to feel isolated when you're working at home.

"Sometimes you may need an extra lifeline," she says. "It makes [at-home agents] feel more bonded to the company ... that they have a team of people around them as a resource."

Webcams can help provide home agents with face-to-face contact with their supervisors, coaches, and colleagues, and give supervisors a sneak peek into the agent's work environment.

As a backup, some companies are also requiring work-at-home agents to have a dedicated cell phone with email and instant messaging access so they can maintain constant contact during local power outages or Internet service interruptions.

WFO PROVIDES VISIBILITY

While managing agents away from the office can be a challenge, there are a number of management tools that can function just as effectively in the virtual environment as in the brick-and-mortar environment. Workforce optimization solutions are chief among them.

"You want to let [agents] manage their own schedules...but you need to be able to see the status of the people where you're routing the work," Waite says. "[WFO] allows you to have total insight and oversight."

WFO solutions today can bring together quality monitoring, call recording, workforce management, analytics, performance management, e-learning, coaching, and other capabilities and blend them with reporting capabilities that can alert supervisors about call volume, average handle time, and other factors so they can ensure that service levels do not slide when agents are not in the office.

Supervisors will also need quality monitoring scorecards that are updated at least daily to show how each team member is performing against the relevant key performance indicators.

Call recording becomes even more important because training is not as easy to organize with teams of agents scattered across many locations. But with the right recording software, supervisors can find examples of best-practice interactions and share them with agents regardless of their locations.

Some organizations also use presence technology that automatically signals supervisors whenever agents log on, log off, go on break, take a call, and more.

Of course, it is much easier to monitor employee behavior when the company provides the agent with the computer needed for the work. Furthermore, with company-provided equipment, a business can better control which software is installed and what the employee can do with it, Waite says. "If [a computer is] employee-owned, the company does not have as much of an ability to lock out what the employee does with it."

But regardless of who owns the equipment, the company can run regular scans "to see what the employee does during her work hours," she adds.

APPROPRIATE WORKSPACES

Though some organizations permit the home-based agent's workspace to be in a shared area, ideally, a home-based agent should have a dedicated workspace that can be closed off from the rest of the home to minimize distractions and security lapses.

Working with London-based vPod Solutions, Xerox can help in that regard. The two companies have been testing the vPod Cube prefabricated enclosure concept since mid-2012, and were hoping to have 50 vPods in production by now.

The vPod Cube, which is comparable in size to a closet, uses telephony and videoconferencing services from Cisco Systems. Other features include louvered double doors; integrated LED ceiling lighting; power and data sockets; docks for laptops, tablets, and phones; desk lamp; cup holder; vase; wastepaper bin; pen tray; air purifier; and ergonomic, adjustable-height work desk.

The vPod is insulated to be soundproof and can even be equipped with sensors that actively monitor and make sure the doors are shut tight when the agent is handling calls that could involve sensitive customer information.

A few vPods have been tested at Xerox call centers. R.G. Conlee, senior vice president and chief innovation officer of Xerox Service, said in a statement that Xerox has already received a lot of input that it will use to improve the interiors.

On a much smaller scale, LiveOps, Twilio, and Google have partnered to offer a contact center in a box that sells for $90 per month per agent. When businesses subscribe to the service, a fully equipped box arrives at agents' doors, and they can have a contact center up and running in a matter of minutes. The package includes either an Acer C270 Chromebook or Asus Chromebox computer, a Plantronics headset, 7,500

Twilio VoIP minutes per month, and a Chrome management console and support plan from Google.

LiveOps pairs the package with its LiveOps Engage and LiveOps Voice Advantage for Salesforce products for call centers. In addition to voice, LiveOps enables its customers to mix and match five other channels, including chat, email, text message, Facebook, and Twitter. With Twilio CX for Chromebooks and LiveOps contact center applications, agents can provide service on all six channels starting at $280 per month or $3,360 per year. Licensing fees for similar on-premises products would cost about $12,000 per year, per agent, according to Ruckstuhl.

For all the technology available--and there certainly is plenty of it today--experts are quick to point out that technology alone does not guarantee the success of a work-at-home program. "You need to trust the people you have working for you," Waite says. "You need to have people who are mature enough to handle that type of work environment." Cfc

Ready for Disaster

Catastrophic events and natural disasters can happen at any time. Fortunately, they don't have to shut down a business entirely. With the right technology, home-based agents can continue to serve customers, regardless of the situation.

Just ask Pam Bellino, director of customer service operations at Unitil, a utility providing electricity to 100,000 customers in Maine, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire and gas to 75,000 customers in those three states. Bellino's team of 65 agents--some of whom work from home full-time--handle roughly 350,000 customer calls per year.

New England is frequently hit with bad storms that could cripple companies for days, but Bellino hasn't had to worry all that much.

The company encourages all of its agents to take calls from home when severe storms would make it difficult for them to come into the Concord, NH, office. "During bad weather, they can take calls from home and not leave customers stranded waiting for service," Bellino says.

The company uses Siemens VoIP softphones in its contact center and home-based operations. It also relies on Milsoft Call Center, a hosted IVR system that enables utilities to communicate with their customers and employees, rain or shine. With it, customers can take care of a variety of needs, from reporting outages to paying their bills, and no customer is turned away because agents couldn't get into the contact center. And, according to Unitil, this is accomplished more economically and reliably than on-site telecom facilities and additional employee shifts.

Because everything is Web-based, Unitil is able to monitor everything the agents do from home and get reports every day on their productivity.

"The purpose of our work-at-home program is to escalate quickly in an emergency so we can have people on the line faster," says Alec O'Meara, Unitil's media relations manager. "The Internet has allowed us to do so much more than we could have done a few years ago."

News Editor Leonard Klie can be reached at lklie@infotoday.com.
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Author:Klie, Leonard
Publication:CRM Magazine
Date:Nov 1, 2014
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