Talk of work at home customer service conjures up images of bunny slippers, inexperienced workers and a relaxed home atmosphere. But nothing could be further from reality, say experts in the growing Work-at-Home (or WAHA) agent industry. While early WAH agents were generalists with just a headset and an internet connection, today’s at-home workers are specialists backed by many layers of training and support.
“Companies have developed and incorporated staff recruiting, training, on-boarding, team collaboration, scheduling, management, QA, IT support, browser based application access (often hosted), and security methods and tools to enable productive working from home,” Frost & Sullivan contact center industry analyst Brendan Read tells Customer Experience Report.
As such, “there is no difference between both work at home and bricks and mortar environments from the customer and employer perspectives,” Read said. One noticeable difference in remote contact center agents is the move to specialization.
“We are seeing more contact centers recruit work at home agents who have advanced skill sets, such as multichannel abilities, specialized expertise like insurance and securities sales, tech support, and tele-health,” according to the analyst.
“We are seeing more contact centers recruit work at home agents who have advanced skill sets, such as multichannel abilities, specialized expertise like insurance and securities sales, tech support, and tele-health” -Read
With specialization comes a wider range of WAHA opportunities, including medical support. “Work at home agents are being used for a wide variety of contact center work, from customer service to specialized tasks, such as medical information from registered nurses,” he said.
Jim Ryan, CEO of Talk2Rep, a company that hires work-at-home representatives to fill customer support needs, agrees that the WAH field is becoming specialized, as well as more professional.
“Early WAH adopters took advantage of the vast talent pool of candidates sourcing basic skills resulting in mediocre service however meeting the distributed workforce model. In more recent years, there has been a great deal of focus placed on quality indicators such as Net Promoter Scores measuring customer satisfaction and willingness to recommend. As a result, WAHA deployments have placed greater emphasis on funneling WAHAs through a battery of skills based testing filtering the highest quality agents. Many big box retailers, financial institutions and even healthcare organizations have found the WAHA model can exceed their key performance metrics for customer service,” Ryan told Customer Experience Report.
Although work-at-home agents have historically been used to handle overflow calls, such as when a cable provider announces sign-up for fall football coverage, the home agents are also filling empty seats at some call centers.
“As the economy grows, there will be increased contact center staff churn as agents seek higher paying opportunities elsewhere. Commuting and congestion will also increase. Both factors shrink the available labor markets. Staff churn is typically lower for work at home than in bricks-and-mortar centers,” Read says. Many people with specialized knowledge “would never consider working in a contact center and/or they live outside of commuting distance of one,” adds the analyst.
Adding work-at-home employees to the contact center is a win-win opportunity, according to the Frost & Sullivan expert. Ryan calls specialized work-at-home agents “motivated” to stay on the job. “Attrition for the work at home labor force is lower by as much as 60% annualized resulting in greater skills and better service passed onto our clients customers,” he says.
Along with changes in the agents, customer contact centers are also adapting to a new environment which encourages work-at-home, according to the experts. The first change is a move away from a so-called ‘hub-and-spoke’ system.
Attrition for the work at home labor force is lower by as much as 60% – Ryan
“We are also seeing contact centers migrate from a hub-and-spoke model, where the agents live within commuting or easy travel distance of a center for training and meetings, or taking calls, to a virtual model where work at home agents live anywhere where there is excellent broadband access. The virtual model reduces facilities costs (no need to accommodate visiting workers) and it greatly enlarges the labor pool,” according to Read.
The most common reason for companies to use work-at-home agents is to ensure there is always an agent available, according to Ryan.
“Most clients turn to a work at home (WAH) solution for a variety of reasons including the ability to have a on demand distributed workforce available to take calls, chats etc. in a 24/7/365 environment. The ability to distribute these customer interactions across the cloud also provides redundancy for disaster should a situation occur that impacts a facility in a local geographic area. Lastly, and I think more importantly, clients tap into a larger talent pool of skilled representatives that are motivated to retain these work from home jobs,” Ryan explained.
There remain what Read terms “stumbling blocks” to greater adoption of work at home. “Admittedly, work at home adoption has been slower than many thought would happen. One stumbling block is that managers (and in some cases, outsourcer clients) have had to be weaned away from having to ‘see’ workers in order to ensure their productivity.”