Contact Center Without Walls:

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1 Contact Center Without Walls: Harnessing the Power of the Remote Agent Model Presented by

2 Introduction A growing number of companies are kicking their agents out of the contact center and both agents and management couldn t be happier. Once considered alternative and unconventional, even risky, the remote agent model has rapidly evolved into a highly viable staffing solution for customer care organizations. According to IT consulting giant IDC, nearly 310,000 home-based agents will be working in the U.S. by 2013 up from 112,000 in Such findings are in line with those from another recent study, conducted by Off Center, which found that four in five contact centers with home agent programs currently in place plan to continue steadily adding virtual staff over the next two years. Nearly 310,000 homebased agents will be working in the U.S. by The expected growth of remote workers shouldn t come as a big surprise, not when you consider the potential benefits of the home agent model. The vast majority of contact centers that have already gone the remote route report notable improvements in agent recruiting, retention and performance, as well as enhanced staffing flexibility and decreased facility expenses. (We ll take a closer look at these and other key benefits in the next section of this white paper). Many centers with extensive home agent initiatives in place have found that having so many happy and high-performing people in place has had a measurable positive impact on customer satisfaction and loyalty. Helping to push the home agent model beyond the experimental and into the mainstream are major technological advances that have quelled management s concerns about reliability, scalability, affordability and security in the work-at-home realm. Of particular note in this area is the relatively recent emergence of cloud computing, which, as we ll discuss later, is ideally suited to supporting the virtual contact center. With powerful technology ready for prime time, a talent-packed workforce itching for remote opportunities, and customer care organizations under pressure to continually increase performance while keeping costs in check, the home agent model is poised to be a veritable game-changer in the contact center arena. Page 2 of 18

3 Table of Contents Key Benefits of the Remote Agent Model... 4 Technological: Home Agent Growth Powered by the Cloud... 8 Contact Center Cloud Provider Checklist Best Practices in Home Agent Management Summary Page 3 of 18

4 Key Benefits of the Remote Agent Model As a contact center leader, it s difficult not to drool a little when you hear or read what a wellimplemented home agent initiative can do for your department and for the enterprise as a whole. We ve already alluded to the key benefits realized by most organizations that have a remote workforce in place. Let s take a closer look at what your contact center stands to gain by going virtual. Higher agent engagement and retention Research study after research study and case study after case study has revealed that giving agents the opportunity to work from home is one of the best ways to raise employee engagement and reduce attrition. In the aforementioned Off Center study on contact center home agent staffing, nearly 93% of participants reported that their work-at-home initiative had a very positive or positive impact on employee retention (with most of them citing very positive ). The few remaining study participants reported neutral results. The Telework Research Network (TRN) reports similar findings. According to TRN research, 72% of employers say virtual work has a high impact on employee retention. A whopping 61% of employees who do not currently work from home say they would be willing to give up some pay in exchange for a remote work opportunity. When asked about the allure of working from home, contact center agents often cite the following: Better work/life balance (e.g., no commute means more quality time with family and friends, and less stress/frustration dealing with traffic) Increased sense of autonomy and empowerment Cost savings (due to less gasoline usage, reduced wear and tear on vehicle, decreased wardrobe expenses, et. al.) Reduced carbon footprint (the green factor) This is not to suggest that everybody wants to work from home; the truth is many agents prefer the social interaction and camaraderie present in the physical contact center, and thus do better work in such an environment. That said, research and experience shows there are a lot of agents (and potential agents) out there who covet the prospect of home-based work. Catering to this large demographic can do wonders for organizations struggling with high levels of agent burnout and churn. Page 4 of 18

5 Enhanced agent recruiting Having a home agent program in place can improve recruiting in several ways. First, because home-based work is in such high demand, contact centers with work-at-home opportunities are often able to attract a larger number of agent candidates and can be more selective than can centers that haven t embraced remote work. Many virtual contact centers land highly skilled applicants who later confess they would not have considered a contact center position were it not for the opportunity to work from home. Even centers that don t allow new-hires to work from home immediately are able to attract scores of high-caliber applicants who are thrilled about the opportunity to earn a place on the home agent team six months or a year down the road. The home agent model also helps contact centers expand the geological reach of their recruiting program. Where managers of pure brick and mortar centers have only the local labor pool to wade through, those who ve gone virtual can find talent two or three states over or clear across the country. (With today s advanced technology, an agent 1,000 miles away is viewed the same and can be managed the same as an agent seated right next to the supervisor station.) In its 2010 survey of call center operations, Forrester cited how recruiting nationally rather than locally for home agent positions enables client to attract higher educated and more experienced workers. Supporting this is recent research by Gartner Inc., which revealed that 80% of home agents have completed some level of college, compared to 34% of on-premise agents. Finally, embracing the work-at-home model enables companies to tap alternative yet very viable labor pools: groups of qualified workers for whom contact center work would be very difficult or impossible without the aid of the home agent model. Individuals with physical disabilities are a prime example. These individuals are grossly underemployed in the U.S. despite many having everything it takes to meet performance objectives in a variety of jobs, particularly that of virtual customer service rep. Higher productivity and quality Most contact centers report an increase in both the efficiency and the effectiveness of agents once they begin working from home. In the Off Center study, three in four participants reported that the use of remote agents has had a very positive or positive impact on agent productivity, and two in three said their remote agent program has helped to elevate the quality of service provided to customers. Page 5 of 18

6 Such findings are particularly notable since, in most companies, agents who earn a virtual position typically are already among the center s top performers and thus have less room for improvement. So how does working remotely enable the best agents to become even better? For one, there are usually fewer distractions and less noise in a home office than in a crowded contact center. Secondly, since they do not have to wake up as early as brick and mortar agents or contend with long morning commutes, home agents generally have more energy and focus than their onsite colleagues do. Further driving productivity and quality up is the aforementioned fact that most home agents love working remotely, so: a) they will work very hard to not lose the privilege to work from home; and b) the quality of service they provide tends to reflect the high level of job satisfaction they have (i.e., happier agents make for friendlier service). Related to productivity, tardiness and absenteeism tends to be lower among home agents. This stands to reason, since work-at-home staff aren t affected by things like severe traffic jams or icy/snowy roads that can cause major delays and no-shows. In addition, home agents are less likely to call in sick when they re feeling a little under the weather. After all, handling calls with a bit of a head cold isn t so daunting when you can do so in your pajamas from the comfort of your home without fear of infecting your coworkers each time you cough or sneeze. More flexible staffing Even with strong workforce management processes (i.e., forecasting/scheduling) in place, matching resources to workload in a dynamic contact center environment can be a real challenge. Having a flexible workforce in place can do wonders and is a big reason why so many centers have implemented a remote agent initiative. It s easy for virtual staff to work odd or split shifts to cover peak periods. And since they have such immediate access to a workstation nearly round-the-clock, it s also easy for remote agents to help out during unexpected spikes in contact volume. As one participant in the Off Center study commented: The use of home agents has allowed us to quickly flex and adapt to outages and unplanned emergency situations. Their ability to immediately react to customer needs has had a positive impact on KPIs and customer satisfaction. Page 6 of 18

7 Lower facility costs Tack on things like decreased costs and improved scalability to all the other benefits we ve mentioned, and you ll surely capture the attention of those with the power to greenlight remote agents in your organization. Establishing a remote workforce enables companies to expand without having to invest in larger brick and mortar facilities, parking lots, etc. Running out of room in your contact center but don t have the time and/or funds for a new building or expansion? Many a company in that boat has found the remote agent model to be a virtual savior. And in case you re thinking the cost of getting remote agents set up at home and connecting them to the center will override the aforementioned facility cost savings, the following finding from the Off Center study on home agent staffing might quell your concerns: More than two in three study participants indicated that their use of virtual staff had a positive impact on the contact center s overall operations costs, with the remainder of participants reporting a neutral impact on such costs. Over 66% of those surveyed indicated virtual agents had a positive impact on overall contact center costs Page 7 of 18

8 Technological: Home Agent Growth Powered by the Cloud Knowing the benefits of the home agent model isn t the same as experiencing them for yourself, and the latter won t occur without a solid technological foundation. Historically, even companies highly intrigued by the idea of a virtual workforce still had serious concerns about system connectivity, reliability and security. Technological advances over the years significantly helped to lessen the risks in a virtual environment, but some issues and concerns remained. Because of these perceived risks, many organizations, as excited as they were about the prospect of home agents, weren t willing to invest heavily in the tools needed to virtualize the contact center. They wanted to know for sure that remote agents would be as solidly attached to the contact center s systems, customers and supervisory staff as traditional brick and mortar agents were. Then along came the cloud. Cloud computing is essentially a model for delivering information technology services in which resources are retrieved online via web-based tools and applications rather than a direct connection to a server. These on-demand services are generally leased from a third-party provider who manages all systems and software, thus providing contact centers with access to powerful applications without the high costs and headaches associated with owning and maintaining them. And since users can access these applications from wherever they are (as long as they have an Internet connection), the cloud provides the perfect platform for a home agent initiative. Further, the cloud provides unparalleled scalability and enables contact centers to upgrade software easily and quickly. The cloud provides unparalleled scalability and enables contact centers to upgrade software easily and quickly. Such flexibility and scalability is attractive to organizations just looking to test the remote agent waters with a small pilot program before deciding whether or not to take their virtual initiative to the next level. Some companies end up converting their entire contact center operation remote and brick and brick and mortar components to the cloud; others use cloud services only to drive the remote agent program while continuing to rely on traditional legacy systems they ve invested in to run the show onsite. In other words, companies needn t make an all-or-nothing decision when it comes to the cloud; reputable solutions providers understand this and don t pressure prospective contact center clients to virtualize across the board in one fell swoop. The best providers, in fact, have developed a highly flexible, modular approach with just Page 8 of 18

9 such clients in mind. One such provider is, which prides itself on its ability to help any contact center operation experience the cloud advantage, regardless of size or existing infrastructure. We understand the inherent value of a call center's existing architecture," says Spoken CEO Howard Lee, and the Spoken team is well versed in the art of seamless architecture integration. Our philosophy is to help you get the most out of your existing systems while still reaping the cost and productivity benefits of the cloud by using an 'integrate, extend or replace' approach. Following are additional key attributes and features that companies looking to implement a remote agent initiative (or enhance/expand an existing one) should look for in a cloud solution provider: Virtual contact center expertise and experience Not all cloud solution providers have a lot of actual experience working with contact center clients and thus don t fully understand the unique nature of the inbound customer contact environment. Make sure any cloud vendor you re considering has a solid grasp of contact center management essentials and then some, and be sure to ask for a list of existing clients you can check with to make sure the vendor in question can truly deliver. Alliances with industry leaders to provide the most diverse, dynamic services No single cloud solutions provider can be all things to all clients not without a little outside help and collaboration. The best cloud vendors not only have an impressive array of tools of their own, they have partnered with a host of tech providers in various areas to help expand the scope of their cloud offering. Are the vendors offerings all homegrown solutions, or do they offer access to name brand providers such as Avaya, Cisco, Nuance and Citrix as well as their own technology? The most reliable solutions are technology-agnostic and offer proven, name-brand solutions regardless of provider. Hold out for a provider whose cloud package includes a switch from a trusted technology provider such as Avaya or Cisco. A powerful VoIP-based ACD Look for providers offering an IP-based switch that can handle thousands of concurrent users and has built in disaster recovery capabilities. Using such a heavy duty yet flexible hosted ACD solution, one where you pay as you go and only for what you actually use (opex instead of capex), not only helps to keep costs in check while keeping the contact center rock solid, it also frees up existing internal IT staff to focus on other core business issues. Of course, size and Page 9 of 18

10 flexibility alone aren t enough to base your decision on; you ll want to make sure your prospective cloud solutions provider uses a name-brand ACD, one with a solid reputation and a proven track record. Be wary of providers that use homegrown switches, or that don t allow you to look under the hood and see exactly what switch will be routing your calls. Instead, hold out for a provider whose cloud package includes a switch from an established ACD giant, such as Avaya or Cisco. A virtual agent desktop solution featuring remote application delivery No home agent initiative is complete without a virtualized desktop solution, which enables the contact center to centrally manage and secure every app (and the overall operating system) for all agents. But not all virtual desktop solutions are created equal. Look for ones equipped with a powerful remote application delivery feature that enables IT to manage and update the OS and all desktop apps as well as key links, folders and databases from a single centralized datacenter, regardless of where in the country the agent is located. Remote application delivery can reduce the cost of application management by up to 50% and greatly improves application and data security in a virtual (as well as a traditional) contact center environment. So when comparing cloud solutions providers, be sure to ask if their desktop solution is of the remote application delivery variety, and check the maker. If the latter turns out to be a company like Citrix a leading provider of state-of-the-art virtual desktops you know you re dealing with a viable candidate. Virtual quality monitoring and reporting capabilities Just as important as having an ACD that treats remote agents as if they were all working in the same room is having a quality assurance (QA) solution that does the same. Such monitoring technology helps lay waste to the all-too-common concern of How can I manage an agent if I can t see them? Look for a QA suite that enables contact centers to capture the audio portion, keystrokes and screen shots of every call for both onsite and remote agents. Also essential in a virtual QA solution are robust reporting and performance management tools, such as agent and team scorecards that providing actionable data on key performance metrics, and that can be managed via a user-friendly interface. Some of today s most advanced QA applications take performance management to a more dynamic level. For example, Avaya offers contact centers managers and supervisors the ability to listen to live calls and whisper advice or key information to agents to help enhance the customer experience and reduce handle times. In instances where agents lose control of a call, a manager or supervisor can barge in and take over for the agent to ensure better resolution, then later provide direct coaching to the agent on how to handle such difficult calls going forward. Such timely, hands-on assistance can prove invaluable in a virtual environment. Page 10 of 18

11 Reliability and security A cloud contact center is more than the sum of its parts. If an organization is to rely on a cloud provider for its infrastructure and quality of service, it is essential that the solution be highly reliable and secure. Many providers use a disaster recovery model in which one co-location facility processes 100% of operations and call traffic with a separate facility that only becomes active in the event of a disaster at the primary facility. This model is fraught with risk: If the disaster recover site is never or rarely used, there is little guarantee that it will be capable of accepting emergency traffic without a hitch. Failure to update software, hardware and/or procedures is common and greatly increases the chances of disaster recover failure when the backup site called into emergency use. A more reliable model is the live-live system, in which two fully redundant, geographically diverse sites each house the same updated stacks. Each site processes approximately 50% of operations and call traffic on a daily basis. In the event that one site fails, the second site acts as the failover and receives a bump in call traffic from 50% to 100%. Since both sites are taking live calls, it's assured that both sites are up to date. A secondary consideration is the security of the data centers. If PCI compliance or certification is an issue for your call center operations, be sure to verify that all data sites are in compliance. Page 11 of 18

12 Contact Center Cloud Provider Checklist The provider offers an ACD solution from a known, trusted brand. The provider is a technology company rather than an outsourcer. The cloud infrastructure is reliable with a live-live model available. The provider is technology-agnostic and not tied to a single vendor. The provider has experience both with SIP and TDM-to-SIP conversion. The cloud solution easily integrates with existing architecture. Page 12 of 18

13 Best Practices in Home Agent Management As important as the technology piece is, people are what form the core of any home agent initiative. Knowing how best to select, stay connected to and continuously develop and engage remote staff is paramount. The remote model has evolved and matured over the years, and in that time several best practices for managing home agents have emerged. Whether you are just starting out with your virtual initiative or have had one in place for years, adopting the following proven practices and tactics will help to ensure lasting success with your remote staff going forward. Set home agents up for success via a comprehensive selection and assessment process With work-at-home opportunities being so popular, contact centers that go virtual must have an effective way to sift through the stacks of candidates and select the best. Some centers try to simplify the selection process by basing their decisions on seniority, only to learn the hard way that not all agents who have thrived for months or years handling calls in the contact center will thrive while doing so remotely. In the best centers, seniority is but one factor that is considered when assessing home agent candidates. Other criteria and traits managers seek include: Proven ability to work independently Excellent attendance Strong time-management skills Highly self-motivated A history of consistently meeting/exceeding key performance objectives Flexibility and adaptability. Some centers, in addition to evaluating candidates past performance, use formal behavioral-based assessments designed specifically for predicting candidates success in a work-at-home role. Such tests can help to identify and weed out the agents who are most prone to shortening call time by lengthening after call work. Another factor that successful centers consider when evaluating home agent hopefuls is the home environment where each will be working if selected. An agent may meet all the other key requirements, but if they have four roommates in a heavy metal band or live next to the train station, they likely aren t the best candidates for seamlessly handling customer contacts from home. Page 13 of 18

14 Develop a clear and concise Home Agent Work Agreement Though you would never select remote agents you cannot trust, it s still essential to get everything in writing. Having your remote staffers carefully read and sign a formal work-at-home agreement not only protects the organization from possible (though unlikely) legal issues arising from your home agent initiative, the agreement also serves as a valuable resource for existing and wannabe virtual workers, highlighting important requirements, policies and procedures. Important information commonly covered in a work-at-home agreement includes: Home agent workspace specifications. Equipment required in the home agent office, with clear indication of what items will be provided by the company and what items must be supplied/paid for by the agent. Scheduling policies, including clear description of on-call requirements and overtime policies. Administrative procedures, such as how to order supplies, file expense reports, report technological issues, etc. Customer privacy/security policies (e.g., how to protect customer data, s, documents, etc.). Quality monitoring/coaching policies, including how often home agents should expect to be evaluated per month. Continuous training policies, including how much training will be provided virtually and how much (if any) will be conducted onsite. Bridge the distance via chat and video Just because an agent is ideally suited for remote work doesn t mean they don t require regular communication with support staff and peers. The best virtual contact centers rely heavily on chat, IM and video to do everything from coaching and delivering feedback to fostering camaraderie and helping staff fend off feelings of isolation. is another common home agent communication tool, but it lacks the real-time and connected nature of chat/im and video interactions. Provide instant access to experts Home agents in need of assistance during customer interactions (or just after) can t just flag down a supervisor or team lead the way an onsite agent can. Providing remote staff with easy access to such experts as well as to the center s helpdesk and/or individual subject matter experts is essential, whether it be via chat/im, video or phone. Doing so not only increases first-contact resolution rates and customer satisfaction, it gives home agents a feeling of connectedness and confidence. Page 14 of 18

15 Include home agents in all rewards & recognition programs Just as important as continually monitoring and managing home agents is remembering to reward and recognize them whenever their performance warrants it. The best contact centers make sure to include virtual staff in all the incentives, contests, games, career path opportunities, and recognition efforts carried out onsite. In addition, these organizations often invite home agents (who live in the near vicinity) in to the center for team-building exercises, special meetings and social activities to help keep them in the loop and the culture strong. While being given the opportunity to work from home is rewarding in its own right, remote agents still need to feel a strong sense of inclusion and appreciation if lasting engagement is to occur. Out of sight cannot be out of mind. Page 15 of 18

16 Summary It s easy to see why so many contact centers have been embracing the home agent model in recent years. No other staffing approach or contact center practice in general, for that matter has the potential to drive improvements in as many critical areas as the strategic use of home agents can. And with the continued evolution of cloud computing, the home agent model promises to become even more alluring and effective. Customer care organizations that take the time to adopt existing home agent best practices and technologies put themselves in position to dramatically raise agent engagement and customer satisfaction, as well as the level of support and respect the contact center receives from executive leadership and the rest of the enterprise. If you ve been dreaming about implementing a remote agent initiative, now may be the time to get your head out of the clouds and get your contact center into one. Page 16 of 18

17 Contact Spoken is the provider of a leading enterprise cloud platform for contact centers that enables the remote agent model. The Spoken cloud platform supports cost productivity, enables big data streams and extends a flexible integration model to replace, extend or integrate with any legacy infrastructure and software. Currently supporting over 14 million contact center minutes per month on the platform, Spoken can deliver operational efficiency to any contact center and is a proven leader for a superior customer experience. The platform offers access to a customized Avaya virtual ACD and Citrix farm as well as custom CTI and IVR integration, and all are big-data enabled with access to Spoken Observer for live call listening and coaching, the Performance Management Console for performance metrics and ACD Operations Dashboard for real-time call statistics. Contact Us NE 8 th St., Suite 1101 Bellevue, WA Phone: Web: Blog: Twitter: Page 17 of 18

18 Contact Center Without Walls: Harnessing the Power of the Remote Agent Model Harnessing the Power of the Remote Agent Model Presented by Page 18 of 18

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