Virtual contact center agents¡ªwhether they are distributed throughout an enterprise of work remotely, from home offices or other locations¡ªoffer benefits for companies. Using the flexibility of Internet Protocol networks, both inbound and outbound calls can be routed over the network to agents, wherever they are located. In many cases, home-based agents enjoy increased productivity and can avoid becoming infected with sicknesses that may spread throughout large contact centers. Michael Amigoni, chief operating officer for Kansas City, Missouri¨Cbased call-center outsourcer , remembers the flu season of 1998 well. The illness spread quickly through his company's call-center facility, eventually knocking 40 of 60 agents out of their seats and into bed. "We had supervisors and managers answering phones and putting in overtime," Amigoni recalls. "Other people were working while they were sick."|
One small group of agents wasn't affected. A month before, ARO had hired seven customer-service agents to work from their homes. All seven stayed healthy and productive. Soon after, ARO¡ªwhich offers services to financial-services firms¡ªmade the transition from traditional call center to virtual call center. Amigoni cites broad illness as just one reason for companies to consider using home-based agents to handle inbound and outbound customer-service calls.
There are other benefits as well, both business and technical. People who manage virtual call centers, either for their own companies or as an outsourcing business, cite enhanced productivity, increased employee retention, and decreased absenteeism. In addition, technology¡ªincluding new monitoring tools, residential broadband Internet connections, and Internet Protocol (IP) telephony¡ªincreases the viability of virtual call centers.
When companies use virtual contact centers, their agent productivity increases by 15%, their annual agent turnover decreases to 5% from 60%, and they save an estimated $1 million per 100 call-center agents, according to market analysis by.
"With virtual call centers, companies see reduced overhead costs because they have to rent less space," says Laura Preslan, research director for customer-management strategies at AMR. Absentee levels go down, she adds, because the more flexible work arrangement enables people to better manage their time and achieve a better work/life balance.
Technology plays a significant role in virtual call-center success. Preslan cites universal queuing, a system that consolidates and prioritizes incoming calls, faxes, and e-mails for service agents, as particularly beneficial. Web-based scheduling tools, from vendors such as , and online-training software help the distributed workforce, just as tools for remote monitoring¡ªnot only the duration of calls but also the dispensation of calls¡ªaid the company in quality control.
Many companies are now also making the transition from legacy systems to IP-based contact centers, according to Robin Goad, managing analyst for customer-relationship management at research firm . "Instead of the call going over traditional telephone lines, it uses [IP telephony]," he says. "That makes it much easier to link call centers together."
Such a system also makes it easier to serve more customers, especially starting from a smaller scale. Picture a U.S.-based company that wants to offer its Canadian customers more personalized and accurate service¡ªbased on differences in currency and measurements, for instance¡ªwithout establishing a physical call center in Canada.
"You could have ten agents at home in Canada and, using the same routing rules as the call center in the United States, pass the agents calls over the network from Canadian customers," Goad says.
One of the biggest challenges in operating a call center is handling employee turnover. Spending eight hours a day addressing customer-service queries can be both stressful and repetitive. Giving agents more control over their working environment helps to keep them happier, according to executives at companies that offer outsourced virtual call centers, including , , and .
Home-based agents can frequently choose their own hours based on metrics such as seniority and productivity, and avoid the hassles of commuting. For work-at-home parents, students, or retirees, this type of job is an easy way to interweave work and family. All they need¡ªafter up to six weeks of training at a central facility¡ªis a PC, a broadband connection, and a phone line. Customer-service agents who work for companies using IP telephony, which routes voice communications over their computer networks, do not even need a conventional phone line.
Of course, management issues still exist. Agents have to be extremely self-motivated and able to work independently to telework successfully. They also must fight feelings of isolation. Ensuring that they are included in frequent communications, meetings, and other forums for encouraging team interaction helps remote agents feel involved and included, as do occasional in-person meetings with peers.
The Future on the Line
Companies that offer outsourced virtual call-center services are starting to migrate to IP telephony. And while most are currently limited to a particular region, due to training and traditional telephony costs, the ability to scale and expand cost-effectively into other regions is important to drive growth or to create mirrored facilities for back-up and overflow.
IP-based networks, with their ability to transfer calls almost anywhere on a network, will be a boon to virtual call centers and customer service. According to Goad, these networks are most effective when a customer-service or technical-support query escalates in importance. The ability to route calls to the most appropriate person within the company, regardless of the person's location, allows companies to serve customers more quickly and efficiently.
iQ Magazine, November/December 2003 About the Author
Silicon Valley¨Cbased writer Howard Baldwin is a regular columnist and feature writer for iQ Magazine. Further Reading From Cisco
From Cisco: Customer Interaction Networks and Virtual Agents
One of the technologies stimulating the concept of the virtual call center is Cisco AVVID (Architecture for Voice, Video and Integrated Data), an Internet Protocol (IP) network infrastructure that, together with applications such as customer-relationship management and computer-telephony integration, helps create a customer interaction network for serving customers both on the Web and on the phone.
For virtual contact centers of remote agents who work at home, in satellite offices, or in other remote locations, a crucial piece of the customer interaction network is the Internet service node (ISN). A collection of applications, ISN incorporates many of the traditional capabilities found in interactive-voice-response and automatic call-distribution systems.
In addition, the node intelligently monitors the system's queuing, routing, and handling of customer-service queries. The system can transfer calls among customer-service agents regardless of their locations, escalate them based on increased priority or technical need, or route them to a particular geographical area based on time of day or the call's origin.
More important, ISN can understand spoken commands and offer spoken responses through speech recognition and text-to-speech capabilities. Thus, companies can serve their customers efficiently whenever customers contact them¡ªwhether they do so on the Web, via e-mail, or by phone.