4 Keys to Success with Your Home Agent Initiatives
What used to be viewed as an “edgy” staffing approach for the contact center is fast becoming a preferred one.
The use of work-at-home agents (a.k.a. remote agents, virtual agents, “lucky stiffs”) has grown rapidly in recent years. According to IT consulting giant IDC, there were over 300,000 home-based agents working in the U.S. in 2013 – up from 112,000 in 2007.
And such growth is expected to continue into the foreseeable future. Research firms Frost & Sullivan and Ovum each estimate that the home agent model is growing by close to 40% annually.
That’s a whole lot of contact center staff handling customer contacts in just their pajamas – or less.
The Huge Potential of Work-at-Home
The home agent boom really shouldn’t come as any big surprise. Advances in virtual technology have mitigated the major security risks and operational concerns of using remote staff. And when you take a look at the huge potential benefits the home agent model affords, it’s hard to imagine why a contact center wouldn’t want to use work-at-homers, at least to some extent. According to Customer Contact Strategies, a home agent initiative often results in:
- a 200-400% increase in the number of agent applicants from which the center can select;
- a 35-50% decrease in agent turnover;
- a 20-25% decrease in agent absenteeism;
- a 15-25% increase in staffing efficiency;
- a 15-20% increase in employee satisfaction;
- a 7-15% increase in agent productivity.
Better recruiting, retention, attendance and performance? Pretty alluring stuff. And lest we forget that happier and more productive agents mean happier customers and more profitable relationships. I know, you just got all tingly, right?
Ensuring Success with Your Home Agent Initiative
Now, before you get too excited, notice how I earlier used the word “potential” to describe the huge benefits of using home agents. Contact centers that quickly throw together a work-at-home program in hopes of experiencing the aforementioned boons will most likely end up crying in a corner. To avoid such sobbing fits and failure, you’d be wise to embrace the following best practices in implementation and management of home agent initiatives:
Don’t skimp on the home agent selection process. Once your contact center decides to launch a home agent initiative, your existing agents – and new candidates – will line up (and climb on top of each other) to beg for a coveted virtual position. Some managers try to simplify the selection process by basing their home agent decisions on seniority, only to learn that not all experienced agents who rock the job in the contact center can do so outside the center. While seniority should be considered when assessing home agent candidates, it shouldn’t overshadow other key criteria and traits, such as…
- Proven ability to work independently
- Excellent attendance
- Strong time-management skills
- Highly self-motivated
- Consistent ability to meet/exceed key performance objectives
- Flexibility and adaptability
It’s also important to consider the home office space and overall home environment of each candidate. An agent may meet all the aforementioned requirements, but if he/she has three roommates in a punk rock band and/or lives next to the train station, he/she likely isn’t the best person to seamlessly handle customer contacts from home.
Develop a formal home agent work agreement. Having a clearly written work-at-home agreement in place (and, of course, having your home agents carefully read and sign said agreement) protects your organization from possible legal issues arising from your virtual work initiative. Not only that, it is a valuable resource for existing and wannabe home agents – highlighting important requirements, policies and procedures that they need to know in order to thrive at work in their underpants.
A good home agent work agreement should include, among other things, the following:
- Home office/workspace specifications.
- Home agent equipment/technology requirements (with clear indication of what will be provided by the company and what must be supplied/paid for by the agent).
- Scheduling policies, including on-call requirements and overtime policies.
- Administrative procedures (e.g., how to order supplies, file expense reports, report technological issues, etc.)
- Customer privacy/security policies (e.g., how to protect customer data, emails, documents, etc.).
- Quality monitoring/coaching policies, including how often home agents should expect to be evaluated per month.
- Training practices, including how much training will be provided virtually and how much (if any) will be conducted onsite.
Embrace chat and video to keep home agents up to snuff and in the loop. Frequent communication with support staff and peers is critical for home agents to succeed and stay engaged. The best virtual contact center use chat/IM and video substantially for: training and coaching (as well as for real-time support during customer interactions); providing work-related news/updates; fostering camaraderie and connectedness; and making sure agents haven’t paid their neighbor to fill in for them while they nap. (While email can also be an effective home agent communication tool, it lacks the real-time and “connected” nature of chat/IM and video interactions.)
Don’t leave home agents out in the cold when it comes to rewards & recognition. Just like onsite agents, home agents should be rewarded and recognized whenever their performance warrants it. Too many contact centers overlook remote staff when it comes to rewards & recognition initiatives, feeling that the opportunity to work from home is reward enough. If you want to keep home agents fully engaged and achieving peak performance, be sure to include them in all the incentives, contests, career path opportunities, and recognition efforts that are carried out onsite.
In addition, invite home agents in to the center for any big team-building exercises and celebrations, and to any fun social activities outside the center.
Just make sure you provide them each with a security guard to protect them from attacks by agents still furious over not being selected for work-at-home.